Re-Viewing James Bond: Goldfinger

I continue my regular series on re-watching all the James Bond films prior to the November release of the newest, SPECTRE. This week, I’ve hit the James Bond movie, the one to which nearly all others pay homage — Goldfinger. As usual, I discuss the film’s plot and themes, so be advised there are spoilers.

The Plot

GoldfingerMI6 believes Auric Goldfinger, an international jet-setter, is illegally smuggling gold out of the UK. Goldfinger has considerable holdings, but since the price of gold varies from country to country, where it is bought and sold has a huge impact on its value and how much one can make with it. MI6 believes he is illegally moving it out of the country, so he can take advantage of better prices abroad without paying any tariffs.

Despite Maud Adams’s claim 19 years later in Octopussy, international smuggling is very much the concern of the British Secret Service, so naturally, our hero, James Bond, is assigned to investigate. He is supposed to only observe, but when he catches Goldfinger cheating at gin, he can’t resist interfering.

That leads to a woman murdered and covered in gold paint, a golf match against Goldfinger in which Bond catches him cheating again, and a trip to the Swiss Alps where Bond is able not only to discover how Goldfinger is smuggling his gold but also that he is involved with a Chinese scientist in something called Operation: Grand Slam.

After he is captured and nearly emasculated with a laser beam, Bond is flown to Goldfinger’s Kentucky stud farm, where 007 learns that Goldfinger’s ultimate goal is to explode a nuclear device at Fort Knox, irradiating the gold deposits, so that the U.S. economy will crater (good for Red China) and Goldfinger’s own gold will increase in value.

The Feel

Goldfinger is absolutely over the top. It moves the James Bond franchise firmly out of the realm of serious espionage and fully into fantasy. Everything about this movie is about transforming Bond from deadly secret agent to confident superhero.

The opening, pre-title sequence has Bond emerging from the water with a fake seagull on his head to help provide cover. He wears a dinner jacket under his wetsuit. Shortly into the film’s main action, he beds Jill Masterson only to discover her lying dead in the nude, covered in gold paint.

Goldfinger’s plot is outrageous. Where Dr. No was attempting to topple U.S. rockets and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. was seeking to make money by playing the Brits and Soviets against each other, Goldfinger plans to explode a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil. And he doesn’t care about the politics. He’s just trying to increase the value of his gold.

Moreover, his employees are equally strange. His manservant, Oddjob, is mute and virtually unstoppable, becoming the prototypical privileged henchman. He kills with a razor-edged hat that he throws with deadly accuracy.

Then there is Goldfinger’s beautiful, personal pilot, Pussy Galore. Even Bond can’t resist pointing out how silly her name is by mugging for the camera and murmuring, “I must be dreaming,” when she introduces herself.

And then there are the gadgets. In From Russia with Love, he had the fantastic briefcase. In Goldfinger, in addition to homing devices that fit in his shoe heel, he gets the most famous car in the history of cinema — the Aston Martin DB5 with its machine guns under the headlights, oil slick and smokescreen in the back, and ejector seat.

Bond is no longer sneaking around, trying to find out who killed a colleague in Jamaica. He’s cutting a trail of destruction and outrageous heroism across the U.S. and Europe.

There are holes in it that detract. As amazing as Goldfinger’s plan is, it ignores certain important facts about nuclear bombs.

Goldfinger plans to irradiate the gold, so that it will be devalued. He obviously hasn’t read about the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or he’d have known that the gold wouldn’t have been irradiated; it would have been slagged, along with the rest of Fort Knox. Given how fast the timer on the bomb is counting down, it doesn’t seem he is familiar with the concept of “minimum safe distance” either.

Moreover, since he claims the bomb is “very dirty,” millions of people in the South and the Eastern Seaboard and Midwest would have suffered from radiation poisoning.

It’s also tough to swallow that, once Pussy alerts Felix Leiter to the impending attack and switches out the Delta-9 nerve gas Goldfinger was planning to use to kill everyone so he could break into the base, that they would fake an entire army base of personnel being killed instead of just raiding Goldfinger’s compound.

And civilian planes are not allowed to fly over U.S. military bases without authorization, so Goldfinger’s plan to gas everyone would never have gotten off the ground, so to speak.

But at least at the time, most of these problems were ignored by audiences, which flocked to Goldfinger in record numbers.

Goldfinger opened on Christmas Day, 1964, and it was an immediate sensation. Some theaters stayed open 24 hours to accommodate the demand to see the picture. No one had seen anything like it, and it transformed the Bond series from a solid performer to a mega-franchise.

Where It Fits

Flaws aside, Goldfinger is the most important film in the entire series. Every movie that came after it has used Goldfinger as the model for its formula. (Indeed, 1985’s A View to a Kill adopts the plot almost point for point.) The structure is well defined in Lee Pfeiffer and Phillip Lisa’s excellent The Incredible World of 007 (Carol Publishing, 1995), and includes elements like “a spectacular pre-credits sequence often unrelated to the main plot,” “007’s involvement with a woman of dubious loyalty,” “a civilized duel of sorts between Bond and the main villain, usually in the form of game,” “an elaborate, high-speed chase,” and more.

Every single Bond film that comes after attempts to recreate Goldfinger. It is the pinnacle to which all others aspire.

Many, many Bond aficionados refer to it as the greatest movie in the series, although I disagree. First, there are the aforementioned plot holes, although I admit on this latest viewing that, despite the fact that Fort Knox would have been destroyed, not just irradiated, Goldfinger’s objectives would still be accomplished. His gold would increase in value, and Red China would have its Western economic crisis.

But Goldfinger also features a certain level of misogyny that doesn’t look very well 50 years on. Bond introduces his masseuse to Leiter, before dismissing her with a smack on the butt. Pussy Galore’s name is, well, offensive.

And Bond effectively rapes her at Goldfinger’s stud farm, forcing himself on her, only to have her acquiesce, thereby promulgating the myth that what women really want is a man to dominate them. The message is more egregious in Goldfinger, because Pussy switches sides to Bond’s after he forces her to have sex with him.

Goldfinger is not a perfect film, and in my opinion, there are multiple entries in the series that are vastly superior in terms of plot and theme. But is unquestioningly the most important picture in the franchise — setting the mold for everything that comes after it.

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