James Bond Goes Blockbuster in ‘Goldfinger’

007 embraces larger than life as Bond strikes Hollywood gold


It’s September 17, 1964. In the United States, President Lyndon Johnson is debating with his senior advisers about whether to send troops to South Vietnam in the growing battle to contain the spread of communism. At the University of California, Berkeley, the administration has banned unauthorized political activities on campus, and students are planning a response to this attack on free speech by threatening to shut down the university.

Around the world, the Cold War rages. In India, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev says that researchers have shared with him details of a devastating new nuclear weapon design with a high radioactive yield. In West Berlin, Michael Meyer, a 21-year-old jockey from East Germany, recuperates in a hospital after suffering five bullet wounds while scaling the Berlin Wall to escape the communist sector. A brief gun battle broke out between U.S. and East German forces during Meyer’s escape. 

In London, a massive crowd has gathered outside the Odeon Leicester Square for the world premiere of the latest adventure of James Bond 007, Goldfinger. It doesn’t matter that only a fraction of those in the crowd actually have passes to attend the gala event. This is an opportunity to see Goldfinger’s stars and be witness to an historic event. The glass doors to the theater are broken in the crush of the throng, pushing back the curtain time by several minutes. 

Goldfinger, the third film in the increasingly popular Bond franchise, was a gamechanger for producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and their company, EON Productions. The success of the previous installment, From Russia with Love, made it clear that James Bond was a hot film property. But in order to keep that success rolling, EON would need to outdo themselves.

There was plenty of source material to work with. By 1964, author Ian Fleming had published 11 Bond novels, plus one collection of short stories. The seventh James Bond novel, Goldfinger, published in 1959, caught the producers’ attention. With its central plot being the robbery of the American gold depository at Fort Knox by the megalomaniacal SMERSH agent Auric Goldfinger, it was definitely bigger than either of the two previous Bond films. Its American setting also appealed to Broccoli and Saltzman. 

Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He has fired rockets to the moon. Split the atom. Achieved miracles in every field of human endeavour… except crime!

Goldfinger

With the pressure on to produce a hit, EON had to deliver a film that would tap directly into the large and lucrative U.S. market, a market they had not yet conquered. Dr. No had a lukewarm U.S. reception in 1962. American audiences were softened by Bond’s charms the following year, embracing From Russia with Love along with the re-release of Dr. No, but they would be expecting something big for their box office buck in 1964. Really big. Blockbuster big. 

The $3 million production budget for Goldfinger was greater than the budgets for the first two films combined. And by this point, James Bond 007 was more than just an action movie hero, he was a cultural commodity. There were licensing tie-ins for toys, cologne, vodka, clothing, and more. Playboy magazine had published two of Fleming’s Bond stories by 1964, beginning a long and storied association between 007 and the culturally iconic Magazine for Men. A less-than-stellar James Bond film could mean doom for dozens of lucrative business deals. 

As with all Bond films, the key to success lay in the talent behind and in front of the camera. Broccoli and Saltzman went back to Terrence Young to direct the third movie. Young had put his imprimatur on 007, and his talent went a long way toward making the first two films a success. Young recognized the value of his work, and he wanted a slice of the profits from this third go-round. Broccoli and Saltzman balked, and Young walked. Replacing him as director was Guy Hamilton, who had been considered to helm Dr. No back in ’61. It was Hamilton’s idea to make the villain a more colorful character for the new film, someone who posed an insurmountable challenge to 007. 

Richard Maibaum returned to the Bond franchise to write the screenplay, and writer Paul Dehn was brought on board to help tighten up the work. The two writers raised the stakes significantly with the script, taking Fleming’s already outsized plot and giving it the blockbuster stamp that would be the hallmark of 007 films going forward. Maibaum reimagined the centerpiece that drives the story—the heist of Fort Knox. In Fleming’s book Goldfinger literally tries to rob the facility, which at the time was the single repository for the government-owned gold supply of the United States. Planning to physically steal $15 billion dollars’ worth of gold weighing ten thousand tons is not the work of a master criminal. It’s actually pretty idiotic and farfetched, and the concept was widely derided by critics of the book. So Maibuam came up with the idea of irradiating America’s gold supply with a smuggled nuclear device instead. A much more realistic option. 

Goldfinger’s affiliation with the Soviet spy agency SMERSH was dropped for the film as well. In the script he is portrayed as a fantastically wealthy megalomaniac in league with Communist China. It is the Chinese who give Goldfinger the bomb to carry out a plan that would prove mutually beneficial to both parties—China gets to sow economic chaos in the west and the value of Goldfinger’s personal gold supply would increase many times. This story change highlighted current affairs of the time. China had tested its first nuclear device in 1964, and the idea of another large communist country in possession of nuclear weapons kept many people up at night. It also took the focus off SPECTRE, the evil cabal of the first two films, demonstrating to James Bond fans that there were other threats to contend with in the world besides secret societies run by men who love fluffy cats.

The heavily punched up script raised the bar for every other element of the production. Goldfinger required a look that would be as big as its story. Prolific and talented production designer Ken Adam, who had worked on Dr. No, was brought back to work his magic. Adam gave the film a signature modernist style that included sleek lines, a bold color palette, and sprawling sets. Goldfinger’s Swiss lab, his Kentucky ranch, and the Fort Knox vault featured in the film’s climax are among the iconic set pieces that helped make Goldfinger a larger than life viewing experience.

Another fantastic design piece is Bond’s Aston Martin DB5. The sexy silver luxury racer became an iconic entry into the franchise and is quite possibly the coolest gadget 007 was ever issued by Q Branch. It contains a GPS system that allows Bond to track homing devices he deploys independently. It is also outfitted with bulletproof doors and windows, revolving license plates (valid in all countries), oil jets to slick the road for any pursuers, front and rear machine guns, retractable tire slashers, and a passenger ejector seat. Yes, an ejector seat. 

I never joke about my work, 007. 

 Q

The Goldfinger Aston Martin set the bar for all gadgets to follow, each successive film introducing clever vehicles and tools that Bond was able to whip out at just the right moment to save his ass. The original auto used in the film became a sought-after collectors’ item, fetching millions of dollars at auction. A significantly smaller, more affordable version for kids was one of the biggest selling toys of 1964. The DB5 made two return appearances in the Bond franchise, in the pre-credit sequence of Thunderball in 1965 and in Goldeneye in 1995.

The visual style of the film is punctuated by a nearly perfect musical score delivered by John Barry, the man behind 12 James Bond soundtracks. Barry considered Goldfinger among his finest work, infusing it with heavy brass and metallic chimes to underscore the gold motif that is replete throughout the film. The title song sung by Shirley Bassey became a major international hit single. It was the first title tune to be played over the opening credits and began a tradition of top pop performers belting out hits for 007 films. Bassey later recorded title tracks for Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker, and she is to date the only musical performer to appear on more than one Bond film soundtrack.

Goldfinger’s cast featured an iconic set of heroes, villains, and Bond women worthy of the franchise. Sean Connery’s third appearance as 007 proves he had the role down to a science, turning in a performance that balances tongue-in-cheek humor with the sophisticated, unflappable style audiences had come to expect from Bond. Connery even conveys a sense of vulnerability beneath Bond’s famously suave exterior after 007 falls into Goldfinger’s clutches and quietly realizes he’s in over his head. 

German actor Gert Fröbe plays Auric Goldfinger, a villain for the ages. Fröbe had appeared in several films in Germany and America before Goldfinger, among them the 1962 World War II epic The Longest Day, which also included Connery and Curd Jürgens, who would play the villainous Karl Stromberg in the 1977 Bond adventure The Spy Who Love Me. Fröbe didn’t speak much English, and learned to deliver his lines phonetically, which resulted in a lot of his dialogue being redubbed in post-production. Despite this, Fröbe’s performance is spot-on and devoid of cliché villain scenery chewing, instead conveying the demeanor of an otherwise serious man having a bit of fun being a megalomaniac.

Bond villains wouldn’t get far without their henchmen, and as far as henchmen go, Oddjob is as good as they get. Played flawlessly by Olympic weightlifter Harold Sakata, Goldfinger’s mute Korean manservant may not be a great golf caddy, but he can crush a golf ball to powder in his meaty paw and toss a British secret agent across a room like a rag doll. He also has a magnificent bowler hat with a steel brim that he wields like a deadly frisbee, and with deft aim he takes the head off a statue and breaks the neck of a woman on the run. Sakata doesn’t deliver a single line throughout the film, but his performance is one against which all future Bond henchmen would be measured. 

One woman who starts out as a Bond villain, but later helps him save the day is Pussy Galore. The personal pilot of Auric Goldfinger and captain of Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus, Galore figures largely in Goldfinger’s plan to conquer Fort Knox. A judo expert who is initially immune to Bond’s charms, Galore is one of the most memorable Bond women for her toughness and of course for her name. American censors wouldn’t allow the character’s full name to be spoken or printed in advertising promoting the film and tried to have it changed to Kitty Galore. Thankfully, EON held firm. Honor Blackman, the actress who played Pussy, was at age 38 the oldest to ever play a Bond girl and had been cast in large part due to her popularity on The Avengers television series in Great Britain. 

No, Mr. Bond! I expect you to die! There is nothing you can talk to me about that I don’t already know.

Goldfinger

The other Bond girl in Goldfinger, Jill Masterson, has a small part in the film, but the image of her naked dead body covered in gold paint is one of the most memorable in all of cinema. A servant of Goldfinger who slips off for a dalliance with 007, Masterson meets an ignominious end by skin suffocation after being painted from head to toe in gold. Shirley Eaton, the actress who played Masterson, also appeared in a few episodes of The Saint television series in the 1960s alongside future 007 Roger Moore. 

Another Saint alumni in the cast is prolific actor Cec Linder who plays Bond’s CIA contact Felix Leiter. Leiter was played in Dr. No by Jack Lord, but Lord wanted more money to reprise the role than Broccoli and Saltzman were willing to pay, so Leiter was recast for this film. Leiter would return in several Bond films over the years, but this was Linder’s only appearance in the role. 

While Dr. No and From Russia with Love are solid spy films that were great launch vehicles for the James Bond franchise, Goldfinger is the movie that made 007 a blockbuster phenomenon. The film was released in Europe and America to rave reviews and big box office, grossing $46 million worldwide. The elements that make up a James Bond film—the villain, the henchman, the Bond girls, the gadgets, the heist, and the locations—were all at their best, making for a movie that is essentially a series of iconic moments strung together and a memorable flick worth several viewings.

Goldfinger led to a major boost in book sales, with Fleming’s spy novels selling over six million copies in the UK alone in 1964. Sadly, Fleming would not live to see the film’s success. The bestselling author, unfortunately a notorious chain smoker, died of a heart attack on August 12 at the age of 56. He had written enough material to keep the Bond film franchise going for a long time, but Fleming would never know the enduring cultural impact his work would have in the years to come. 

Producers Broccoli and Saltzman would appreciate Fleming’s impact, however, promising audiences that James Bond will be back in Thunderball.

Director: Guy Hamilton
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum &
Paul Dehn
Music: John Barry
Cinematography: Ted Moore
Editing: Peter R. Hunt

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