1964’s Goldfinger was turned around relatively quickly after the first two James Bond films, but its enormous popularity solidified the 007 formula.

This feature contains spoilers for Goldfinger (Wah-WAH wahhhhh) and Quantum Of Solace.

“Ejector seat? You’re joking!”

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There can be absolutely no question about when the James Bond movies turned from spy thrillers to bonafide blockbuster adventures. Instantly iconic and massively popular from the very first day it was unleashed upon the world, 1964’s Goldfinger is the film that made 007 a global film phenomenon.

Following the financial success of the first two films, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli set a September 1964 release date for the third Bond picture before filming even began. Ian Fleming’s seventh novel Goldfinger leapfrogged the intended adaptations of Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (due to legal disputes and location-scouting difficulties respectively) in time for it to be teased in the closing “James Bond Will Return” of From Russia With Love.

Like the novel, the film finds Sean Connery’s 007 tracking bullion dealer and utter bastard Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) after messing up a routine surveillance assignment in Miami. Tasked with finding evidence of his smuggling by the Bank of England, Bond discovers the villain has a far more audacious plot to boost his wealth and flummox the West’s economy.

United Artists agreed to a $3 million budget, the cost of the first two films combined, but incoming director Guy Hamilton curbed the over-run and over-spending that characterised the previous productions, directed by Terence Young. Even so, it proved to be a tight deadline, but the quick turnaround between films was a big part of building the series’ momentum.

Filming began in January 1964 – with Connery joining the shoot in March after wrapping on Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie – and ended in July, just nine weeks before that release date. Goldfinger was completed on time though, and upon its UK release, it smashed all box-office records. What’s more, the third time was the charm for the series’ commercial appeal in America, and all told, the film grossed a colossal $125m worldwide.

There’s simply no overstating the film’s influence on the rest of the series, with its memorable characters, quotable exchanges, and more tongue-in-cheek tone. The added humour works in tandem with another touch Hamilton was keen to bring in, of making Bond more vulnerable to heighten the suspense around his interactions with the villains.

Some of the tropes minted by Goldfinger turned into bad habits in subsequent instalments and, with all the affection this absolute milestone deserves, some of them are even a bit dubious here. This is the film where the Bond franchise opened up a world of gadgets, started seeing a whole bunch of girls, and most importantly, found its groove.

 

“Now, pay attention, 007…”

For all of the changes that Goldfinger introduces, Bond’s bad attitude to Q Branch in these early films is fairly constant.

In Dr No, Bond sulks at swapping his Beretta for a standard-issue Walther PPK and has to send off for a Geiger counter while investigating radioactive experiments. Upon receiving a tricked-out attaché briefcase from Desmond Llewelyn’s equipment officer in From Russia With Love, he’s initially dismissive of the “nasty little Christmas present” but takes it on M’s insistence and winds up using it loads.

Here, there’s no love lost between him and Llewelyn’s Q as he makes another M-ordered equipment swap – his Bentley for a new Aston Martin DB5 with loads of optional extras. These include a smoke screen, an oil slick, a rear bullet-proof screen, front-wing machine guns, revolving number plates, and – yep – an ejector seat on the passenger side.

As mentioned, Hamilton wanted more humour and more suspense. On the former, he suggested the light-hearted antagonism between Bond and Q that has characterised most of their interactions throughout the series, building on 007’s obvious disregard for the hard work that’s gone into the gadgets. As for the latter, he makes sure the villains are well-equipped too.

The series’ regular screenwriter Richard Maibaum pitched the film, in contrast to the first two, as a pitched duel between the hero and the villain – Bond vs Goldfinger. The script, credited to Maibaum and Paul Dehn, gives Bond lots more face-time with his nemesis and sets Goldfinger up as a psychopath who puts winning above all else, and has the wealth and resources to get his way.

One cinematic flourish comes from a scene in Fleming’s text where Goldfinger captures Bond and threatens to cut him in half with a circular saw. Using an industrial laser to the same end sets the scene among the very best of the entire series to date – as written and performed by Connery and Fröbe, (TV actor Michael Collins dubbed his lines, including the classic “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!”) it’s still unbeaten in the ranks of movie death-traps. It’s not an idle threat, nor an easily escapable predicament, and it’s only some urgent dialogue that gets Bond out of being untimely cleft from bollocks to scalp.

Would it be as good with a saw? Maybe, but all these years later, the uniqueness of it still stands out, even if we’re more accustomed to (big Dr Evil finger quotes) “lasers”. It’s no gimmick – heck, the other big villain in the film generates huge malice out of having a sharp hat – but together with the gadget-laden car, it’s the start of the movies making the most of technology in their stories, taking place, as Broccoli once said, “five minutes into the future”.

Over time, it’s spelled some great merchandising opportunities too. Over the years, Goldfinger tie-in products have ranged from the Corgi toy of Bond’s Aston Martin, which became the biggest selling toy of 1964, to Lock & Co’s replica of Oddjob’s bowler hat, which went on sale this week for a whopping $795.

We can’t speak to the popularity of kids chucking hats about and playing at being Harold Sakata in the playground, but the toy line is a sign of how gadgets really helped to open up these adventures of a hard-smoking, hard-drinking, murdering shagger for a younger audience too.

Girls and Galore

Speaking of shagging, this is the first film in the series to really pile the love interests in for 007. Frankly, the median representation of women in Bond films is indefensible and that starts in earnest here. I can tell some of you are already straight in the comments arguing that James Bond isn’t a murderer if the state says it’s alright, so let’s look at how Goldfinger’s female characters fare.

The first 10 minutes of the film doesn’t start well on this score, with Bonita (Nadja Regin) getting coshed in the pre-title sequence, or Dink (Margaret Nolan, also seen in the title sequence) being dismissed with a slapped bottom, but we’re picking our battles. After all, it’s not long before Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) forsakes Goldfinger for a tumble with Bond and gets one of the most memorable deaths in cinema history for her trouble.

It’s a funny old franchise that makes a naked corpse so central in its marketing, but there’s no denying the power of the scene in the story. It’s the first time one of Bond’s sexual partners has been killed off in the movies and it’s not taken lightly. And the bizarre method of gold paint suffocation (giving rise to an urban legend that Eaton really died during filming) is what makes it.

Like the titular villain and the Bond movies themselves, it’s a shiny but seedy touch, less lustrous than lurid – you can imagine Goldfinger making a big impression on a younger Donald Trump for all the wrong reasons. For better or worse, it’s the most iconic kill in the entire series, for many of the same reasons as a laser is so much more cinematic than a saw.

But in the same way as Quantum Of Solace’s homage with Gemma Arterton’s character proves stickily problematic later on in the series, it’s throwaway in the scheme of things. The following scene feints towards Bond being angry about Jill’s murder when he starts pursuing Goldfinger in earnest, but the film changes gears a lot from there. It’s just as easily forgotten when Jill’s more vengeful sister Tilly (Tania Mallet) takes a quite expensive and even more deadly hat in the chops a few scenes later. The film, like its title character, moves on from these shocking moments ruthlessly.

It’s directly after this that the first of Fleming’s ludicrously named Bond women makes it on screen. As we’ve discussed in a previous article, the producers had a battle to convince American censors to give the name “Pussy Galore” a pass when the film received its US release.

Read more: James Bond, Goldfinger, and how Pussy Galore got past the censors

Fresh off a stint on The Avengers (not that one), Honor Blackman was looking for a high-profile film role when she was cast as Goldfinger’s personal pilot. Along with Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Monica Bellucci in Spectre, she’s the rare leading lady who’s older than the actor playing Bond, (three years older than Connery) and she plays a comparatively stronger role than her co-stars.

Frankly, there was infinite room for improvement from the source material’s backstory for Pussy, in which Fleming makes the kind of horrific off-hand assumptions about homosexuality and abuse survivors that he usually reserves for foreign people, mixed in with his usual rank misogyny. There’s a low, low bar for the adaptation, but it’s almost entirely down to Blackman’s no-nonsense performance that the film clears it.

Pussy’s sexual preferences are implicit at most in the film version, but in a separate improvement on the novel, Bond winning her over with his sexual prowess (to the good guys, not guys in general) has an actual purpose in the plot. After our hero spends much of this part of the film in captivity, it’s Pussy who foils Goldfinger’s assault on Fort Knox by alerting the American authorities.

Yes, Bond fettles Oddjob and avenges the Masterson sisters, but it’s only the timely arrival of a bomb specialist that stops the bomb with either three or seven seconds to spare (there’s a dodgy edit there between Bond’s dialogue and the insert shot of the “007” timer) and saves the day.

However, it’s no great victory for women so much as it’s a by-product of a film where Bond is relatively passive, always following the villains or being captured by them and taken somewhere. Like Honey Ryder before her and so many women after, Pussy Galore is last seen demurring to Bond and delaying rescue in favour of another lay with this bloody liability.

 

The Midas touch

In the end, the one woman who Goldfinger covers in glory is Shirley Bassey, whose belting-out of the classic theme song sets the tone for this right from the start. With music by composer John Barry and lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, “Goldfinger” the song is as big a part of defining the Bond formula as anything else in Goldfinger the film.

This marked the first time Barry had complete creative control over the music, and though he wound up scoring unfinished cuts and reportedly joked that the September 1964 premiere date was so soon that he’d have to do the music himself live from the orchestra pit, he played a blinder. Putting Bassey’s theme alongside Maurice Binder’s titles sets the gold standard for all subsequent openings. Heck, they even asked Bassey back a couple of times.

From this point up to the very end, Goldfinger operates at peak blockbuster capacity in the time that it was made – it’s one of the shortest of all the Bond films, but it moves apace through various locations and pioneers some of cinema’s most enduring iconography while it’s at it.

As mentioned, it has its shortcomings. For all that it propelled the film to new heights of popularity, this is the film where Connery first started to have misgivings about the franchise – mostly about his salary, but also about the character.

Notes from his conferences between Maibaum and the filmmakers during production show that the star felt Bond was overshadowed by the other characters in the script, not to mention the gadgets and the action setpieces. Some of these comments were addressed, others weren’t, and in any case, things were still moving a bit too quickly for reflection. Thunderball would be in cinemas just 15 months after Goldfinger, raising the stakes higher than ever, and Connery’s unwanted star profile with it.

You can still see why he was concerned – this is not Bond at his most proactive and for a change, he’s not even in the top three larger-than-life characters. Knowing what transpired, you might argue this was the beginning of the end (well, one of them anyway) for Connery, but handily, it also lays down the groundwork for a formula that’s returnable even with a different lead actor. Before long, James Bond is no longer just a spy franchise, it’s a genre of its own.

In retrospect, maybe all the best bits of Goldfinger don’t necessarily cohere into the very best Bond movie, but its powerful pop-cultural alchemy makes it an undeniable favourite.

Goldfinger is now streaming on Prime Video and will also screen in select VUE and Odeon cinemas nationwide from Friday 29th April.

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