A planned heist against Fort Knox, a person named after genitalia, a mute man with a killer hat, a British spy with enough charm to turn a gay woman straight, and a villain obsessed with gold. Here’s the fourth best Bond movie ever made, 1964’s Goldfinger!
(With four weeks until the U.S. premiere of Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, Jalopnik’s resident 007 scholar Justin Westbrook is counting down the 10 best entries in the series, with Goldfinger at number 4.)
The third film in the Bond franchise, and the third in three consecutive years (they used to churn these suckers out!), Goldfinger is considered the first “blockbuster” in America. The popularity of the franchise exploded following Dr. No and From Russia With Love, and the masses showed up in force to see 007’s most extravagant story yet.
When the great Ian Fleming decided to write a book about a plot to steal the U.S. Treasury’s gold bullion from Fort Knox, he had the perfect man in mind to inspire his wealth-crazed villain: a very real architect named Ernő Goldfinger whom he absolutely despised.
Goldfinger’s architectural work is known to be a key part of the Modern Movement starting back in the 1930’s, which viewed traditional values as obsolete. Fleming, being a traditional-minded person, hated the very fundamentals of the movement, and in particular Goldfinger due to a set of buildings he designed in London.
The buildings of Goldfinger were large and bland, with bold, straight lines and large, flat surfaces. Many tower blocks in and around London were designed by him during the Modernist Movement, and the architect just happened to build his home right on top of a row of cottages Fleming favored, demolishing them.
When it was revealed that Fleming would be naming the villain of his seventh Bond novel after the architect—albeit now with the first name Auric in the classic Bondian fashion of ironic names—Ernő threatened to sue. Fleming responded by saying he would rename him Goldprick if he did, and the architect agreed instead to a payment for use of his name. He lived to see his name go on to become one of the most notable villains in the history of film, much to his displeasure.
The decision to divert away from the expanding background of the secret S.P.E.C.T.R.E. organization in the first two films seems curious in hindsight, but the producers had a very unfortunate reason to opt for an unrelated villain and story.
As we covered in our Thunderball, For Your Eyes Only, and The Spy Who Loved Me reviews, the Bond franchise dealt with a string of legal disputes that all began over the introduction of the character Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Ian Fleming’s novel, Thunderball. That considered for a film adaptation before Goldfinger was made, but the script was dropped. Ian Fleming went on to turn the dropped screenplay into a novel, introducing the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. organization and it’s head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. One of the co-writers on the script Kevin McClory sued Fleming, claiming the Bond writer used characters and story features not of his own creation.
The first suit wasn’t settled by the time the film producers were ready to continue on from From Russia With Love, so they moved on with something less legally toxic. Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. would continue to come-and-go as McClory kept causing trouble.
Goldfinger’s plot to knock-off Ft. Knox was entirely Ian Fleming’s creation, as at the time of writing it was famed for it’s impenetrable qualities. Even today, it puts the “fort” in “fortress.”
For the film, the United States Army was very cooperative with the Bond filmmakers, even allowing an actual regiment of soldiers play the parts of soldiers at the base in the film. However, nobody from the film’s production was ever allowed to actually enter the depository, so what you see on screen is entirely of the imagination of set designer Ken Adam.
Ken Adam’s amazingly intricate and active sets and the effects work done on the film also earned the Bond franchise its first Academy Award for special effects. Nowadays the back-projection at the hotel in Miami, the model plan hung by strings falling from the sky, and the obviously sped up car chases look cheesy, but back then it was viewed as the cutting edge of film-making.
The film opens with Britain’s greatest, spare-no-expense, license to kill secret agent swimming in an all-black wetsuit in the dead of night using a duck stapled to the top of his head as camouflage. He’s in some Latin American country—Mexico if it’s based off of the book—to blow up something and hook up with his local chick. I wonder if Bond has at least one sidepiece for every country on the planet?
Anywho, the opening of the film is the first time the Pre-Titles Sequence didn’t have any relevance to the plot other than introducing us to James Bond for this film. As the rest of the film is all about gold, for the dancing naked ladies title sequence, they’re all painted gold.
It should be noted that “Goldfinger” is the first of three Dame Shirley Bassey Bond songs, with her returning for “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Moonraker.” Composer John Barry’s work on Goldfinger was also the first time he was really allowed to create the Bond sound, and nobody does it better.
Bond comes across Auric Goldfinger for the first time at a hotel in Miami, on assignment by M. to undermine the suspected gold-smuggling operation the millionaire oversees.
Bond catches Goldfinger, a millionaire with a fortune in gold, cheating at cards by the pool after breaking into his hotel room and discovering the beautiful Jill Masterston overlooking his opponent’s hand and radioing in the calls.
Bond spoils Goldfinger’s cheat and takes Jill back to his room for a lovely dinner before he is knocked unconscious. Upon waking he discovers one of the most iconic images in all of film history, the lovely miss Masterson laying dead in bed, her body completely painted in gold.
With their suspicions all but confirmed, MI6 outfit Bond with his gadgetry from Q-Branch and a 1940 bar of gold which was, um, confiscated from the Nazis. He uses it in an attempt to open Goldfinger up, betting it to him in a game of golf. Bond is assigned to keep the gold, so he ends up swapping Goldfinger’s golf ball and convincing him he lost.
Goldfinger calls Bond’s bluff and informs him he is aware of his shenanigans and won’t be having it. To prove he won’t have it, he has his mute henchman Oddjob decapitate a statue with a razor boomerang hidden in the brim of his had, and putters off in his 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom III in black and yellow - with suspiciously stylish accents - that Bond has planted a tracking beacon in.
Bond follows the Phantom through the countryside in his Aston Martin DB5 before nearly being shot by a mysterious woman in a 1964 Ford Mustang convertible. The two chase down the hillside before Bond using a destructive spinning-knockoff gadget on his DB5 to run the woman in the Mustang off the road. He plays dumb and uses his usual charm to no avail.
The two cross paths again after Bond catches her snooping around Goldfinger’s factory, just as he is, when he discovers she is Tilly Masterson, sister of the Golden Girl. The two are spotted and resort to the DB5 for escape, where they are cornered and Tilly is killed by Oddjob’s hat trying to run away. Bond is put back in his car (for some goddamn reason) with a nobody, where he gets to use some of the cars more extravagant extras thanks to Q. He ends up wrecking and falling into the hands of Goldfinger nonetheless.
He wakes up on a slab of metal with a large laser aimed precariously where his trousers split. Bond manages to bullshit his way out by bringing up Operation Grand Slam, the millionaire’s mysterious plot, claiming MI6 is on to him and he’s better left alive.
He get’s knocked out again, that’s the third time now, and wakes up on a jet where he meets the fantastic and spritely Pussy Galore. “I must be dreaming.” She, like Tilly, is also mysteriously immune to his usual charm, and he is forced to just go along with whatever Goldfinger has planned for him.
He ends up in the great state of Kentucky, home of famed General Patton’s tank regiment and the United States gold depository at Fort Knox. Practically helpless, though being shadowed by the CIA who are unknowing of his predicament, Bond escapes his holding cell in the basement and manages to listen in on Goldfinger’s monologue detailing Operation Grand Slam.
The plan is to break into Fort Knox, with financial investment of the major criminal organizations in the country. After taking the time to show off the ridiculously detailed moving models of Fort Knox to go over the plan of attack, Goldfinger has all his cohorts killed by toxic nerve gas. I guess he just wanted to show off.
The same nerve gas is to be used by Pussy Galore’s aerobatic flight squadron of beautiful blonde women, who will fly and release the gas over the depository to knock out the guards.
In his time on the farm, Bond manages to “turn” Pussy Galore to his side, convincing her to switch out the deadly nerve gas, inevitably foiling Goldfinger’s plot - but only after he has managed to activate a nuclear bomb inside the gold vault and trap Bond inside.
It is important to note that the film’s plot has Goldfinger irradiating the United States gold supply, thus increasing the value of his private holdings of the element. This is one of the rare cases in which a Bond film improved upon its novel of the same name (or even bothered to use any of it, for that matter).
In Fleming’s story, Goldfinger has a train loaded with the gold from Fort Knox, but as elaborated upon in the film by Bond, the amount of time it would take and the manpower required to load the gold would make it an operation of days, not minutes, and thus impossible to pull off.
Desperate to defuse the bomb, Bond is seemingly incapable, and a man from the CIA storms in just in time to flip the “off” switch with only “007” seconds left on the countdown. Bond is seemingly sent off to Washington D.C. to meet with the President for a congratulatory dinner and boards a plane.
On his flight, he is greeted by Goldfinger in a final stand, who managed to escape the CIA’s retaliation at Fort Knox. Goldfinger’s golden gun goes off, depressurizing the cabin and sending the millionaire super-villain plummeting back to Earth. Bond discovers Pussy in the pilot’s chair, and the two parachute out, happily ever after. Or at least until the next film.
Goldfinger is one of the most notable Bond films thanks to the uptick in style, and some of the most notable moments in the entire Bond franchise. Much of this is thanks to director Guy Hamilton’s desire to feature more gadgets.
In the second film of the franchise From Russia With Love, Q. - who was referred to in that film simply as Major Boothroyd, the Q.-like character of the novels - outfits Bond with merely an attache case with a few hidden compartments. Goldfinger really took things to a new level.
In the film, Major Boothroyd is now called Q., and he is given an entire set piece and division in MI6 called Q-Branch. We’re introduced to a large laboratory of men in lab coats working on all sorts of wacky gadgets, including bullet-proof vests, smoke-bomb parking meters, canned grenades, etc.
Bond, charmingly reluctant to sit through Q.’s condescending instructions, is equipped with the iconic Aston Martin DB5 - so iconic, it has managed to feature in seven of the 23 Bond films, with more appearances undoubtedly to come.
“Now this one I’m particularly keen about.”
The DB5 features a wide assortment of gadgets, including revolving license plates to match most European countries, smoke screen, oil slick, rear bulletproof shielding, a GPS-like tracking device that utilizes the beacon also proved by Q., and of course the ejecting passenger seat activated by the little red button in the shift knob.
Keep in mind that a GPS-like map that actively tracks a location on a screen in a car didn’t actually appear until almost forty years later.
The first thing I really love about this film is its “quotability.” That makes or breaks a franchise these days, and this film is just a string of big moments you have memorized. You watch, patiently waiting to get point to point, and it’s so entertaining and so classically Bond.
Goldfinger’s monologue about Operation Grand Slam is one of my favorite parts of the film, because it forms the basic rationale for all maniacal super villains in the franchise. In essence, the fact that man has excelled in every major endeavor —climbed Mount Everest, reached the bottom of the ocean, etc—except in crime. He has a point! The closest we get are art heists, and those are kinda boring.
Ironically though, almost a decade later Karl Stromberg would claim man has done everything but gone to the bottom of the ocean in The Spy Who Loved Me. That’s at no fault of Goldfinger.
The monologue as well as the other dialogue given to Goldfinger places him in a solid running for best-ever Bond villain. It’s also relatively difficult to tell, but actor Gert Frobe was re-dubbed by a different actor for all of his scenes in the film. No matter, as Frobe nails his on screen demeanor and performance and the lines are delivered almost seamlessly.
Another little detail I love is one of Goldfinger’s goons in the monologue scene. It’s made a point that this guy’s name is Solo, and he is given the biggest part of all the expendable American mobsters. I love it because using a character named Solo is a direct nod to Napoleon Solo of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fame - which was a Cold War spy television series started in 1963.
Ian Fleming was originally attached to U.N.C.L.E. before being asked to stop by the Bond producers for conflicts of interest. They didn’t want Bond’s creator actively developing a rival spy franchise if they could help it.
Before departing the TV series, Fleming was credited with creating the American criminal-turned spy Napoleon Solo. I love how the filmmakers threw him into the Goldfinger plot, and even go out of their way to show his death by having him crushed in a car. Another quick fact about the man who played Solo in Goldfinger - he returns in Diamonds Are Forever and The Man With The Golden Gun in different, but similar gangster-like roles.
Bond movies also always fantastic female characters, but the string of films made in the 1960s are truly special in this regard.
Jill and Tilly Masterson are both strong, if short-lived expendable characters. Tilly denies Bond’s advances and is devoted to avenging her lost sister. It’s troubling that the fact that a Bond girl isn’t interested in sleeping with Bond is sometimes regarded as the mark of a strong character, but it’s good to see it isn’t required of all Bond women.
Pussy Galore is also one of the most iconic female characters in the franchise. I mention how Bond managed to “turn” her to his side earlier, and I mean that in two ways. Yes, he convinces her to foil Goldfinger’s plot, but he does it by very forcefully “charming” her into sleeping with him. It’s more than a little weird when you watch it today.
“What would it take for you to see things my way?”
In the novel she is very clearly defined as a lesbian, and while it’s not said aloud in the film, it is heavily implied. On the plane when the two first meet, she claims to be “immune” to his charm. She also hints when Goldfinger makes a slight advance that she has zero interest in men. The crew of gorgeous blonde pilots in her flying circus is not damning evidence, but one can imagine the intentions of the filmmakers when trying to skirt around the censors of the time.
Finally, and this comes up a lot in James Bond reviews, but the set design for the film is absolutely impeccable. They just don’t make movies like this any more. Set designer Ken Adam, who was also behind the design for last week’s The Spy Who Loved Me, planted an idea of the appearance and structure of the gold in Fort Knox in millions - if not billions - of people’s minds with this film.
Every memorable image from this film, from the halls of MI6 Bond and M. dine in, the first appearance of Q-Branch’s laboratory, Goldfinger’s complex evolving set when explaining Operation Grand Slam, and the big finale set in Fort Knox - all of it is thanks to Ken Adam.
As I mentioned in my review of You Only Live Twice, the fight inside the Fort Knox depository between Bond and Oddjob is easily the best fight in the entire series. The ominous ticking of the atomic bomb in the background with Bond and Oddjob shuffling around is all fantastically tense.
The biggest gripe most people have with this film is the helplessness of Bond throughout almost the entire length of the film. He is just sort of along for the ride, getting to sit in on Goldfinger’s actions without being able to do anything about it. He basically sucks at his job through most of this romp.
Even in the final showdown of the film, the CIA comes in to deactivate the bomb and save the day. Bond quite literally does nothing but get Pussy Galore to turn against her boss. But it’s James Bond, and if all he has to do is charm a girl to win, he’s the man for the job.
I don’t mind the tag-along storyline, and new director Guy Hamilton actively tried to prevent Bond from being too much of a “Superman.” I think Goldfinger and his plot to attack Fort Knox is handled in such an entertaining fashion, the audience is just along for the ride like Bond.
Goldfinger is commonly viewed as the benchmark film for the James Bond franchise thanks to the entertaining and outlandish scheme from a suitably enjoyable villain, the ridiculous gadgets that could only be taken seriously in Bond’s world, the armies of men at the villains disposable, the iconic women, and the development of the iconic Bond sound by John Barry - all of it just works effortlessly to bring the class and charm of James Bond to life on the screen.
The third James Bond film is a difficult fourth on our list, but if you try really really hard I’m sure you can come up with three better Bond films.
Stay tuned for next week, and until then, check out the rest of the list.