James Bond 007 and the legacy of Goldfinger

Sean Connery as Bond. Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore. Auric Goldfinger. Oddjob too. Our 007 lookbacks arrive at the iconic Goldfinger...

For many this is the Bond film. The quintessential Bond facing the ultimate villain who utters the greatest line midway through the most iconic scene. Plus you have the coolest henchman, the best car, the most memorable death, the loudest song, and the Bond girl with the silliest name. Plus Honor Blackman could easily lay a claim to being the premier leading lady. While Goldfinger can’t claim all the aforementioned categories, there’s little doubt that the film is a peak, a marrying of critical acclaim and popular appeal rarely achieved since.

The Villain: Monumental. A hugely charismatic figure and the most jovial of baddies, the Big Man utterly dominates the film. He interacts with Bond perhaps more than any other antagonist: over golf, cocktails and, immortally, beneath a laser. Utters the best comeback of the franchise. Also employs the best manservant this side of Jeeves. He casts a huge shadow few of his successors can escape from.

The Girl: Legendary. Judo expert, gun-toting, “damn good pilot”: Pussy Galore is the first kick-ass Bond girl. Actually ‘girl’ is horribly misleading – Pussy is a woman and by far the better for it. Appears relatively late yet slots into the mix seamlessly. She plays a vital role in foiling Goldfinger: indeed without her Bond fails. Makes most of her counterparts look wet by comparison. Laugh at her name and she’ll break your nose.

Let’s start with the duck – essentially the opening shot of the film. The duck quite possibly takes the highly competitive title of ‘most significant duck in cinematic history.’ Certainly it easily wins the less vaunted, but nonetheless esteemed, crown of ‘most significant fake duck in cinematic history.’ For the duck is attached to James Bond’s head as he swims underwater. Ostensibly it provides cover – but the real point of the duck is to make clear to the audience that the film – and indeed the franchise – has placed tongue firmly in cheek. It won’t be coming out for a while.

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Goldfinger is a one-film Greatest Hits collection, a parade of moments that have entered into cinematic folklore. Get somebody who has never seen Goldfinger to watch the film and their viewing will be marked by murmurs of recognition. “Oh – that’s in it!” Goldfinger’s influence on the franchise, and what exactly you think of when you think of James Bond, is hard to overstate. Therefore this particular retrospective is a little different. I’ve broken the film down to a handful of linear elements in which the soul of the franchise can be glimpsed. I hope this approach proves fruitful. If not, serves me right for trying something new.

The Song

A big bad song about a big bad man sung by a woman with a big bad voice.

Confession: I’m not a great fan. I find the song bombastic, overbearing and the lyrics are pretty terrible. Rhyming Goldfinger with cold-finger. Really? The two other Bassey numbers – Diamonds are Forever and Moonraker – are far superior. But there’s no denying Goldfinger’s legacy as the first Bond title song, which is why it warrants a very brief mention. And I admit the tune was stuck in my head for a couple of days after writing this. But how often will you walk into a bar and hear Goldfinger playing? Exactly.

After the song we see Bond at his most embarrassing. Twice. This breaks the structure somewhat but I can’t resist. So we’re outside a Miami hotel. Felix Leiter finds Bond enjoying a poolside massage from a young lady named Dink. Perfunctory introductions follow. So far so civil. Bond then dismisses Dink with the words “man talk” and slaps her arse as she leaves. I present this without comment because really, what is there to say? Worse is to follow. Within minutes Bond spouts the least cool line of the entire series. He’s addressing Jill Masterson, and I quote in full: “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.”

It’s quite an achievement to be sexist, snobbish and terribly out of touch all at once. Truly what women want and men want to be. Fortunately our attention is quickly grabbed by…

The Golden Girl

Or: that awkward moment when you reawaken from a momentary Bollinger blackout to discover your one night stand has turned into one of those living statues. Only dead. Unsurprisingly the most decorative corpse in cinematic history became the image of the film and surfaced everywhere, including the cover of Life magazine. Shirley Eaton received more publicity for under five minutes of screen time than Honor Blackman did as Pussy Galore. 

But, as with the duck, the gilded body of Jill Masterson carries a larger significance. Hers is the first truly OTT death of the Bond franchise. Granted, Dr. No contained a couple of honourable mentions – Quarell barbecued by the “dragon,” Doctor No drowning in radioactive water – but these still felt coherent in the narrative of the film (if you haven’t seen Dr. No you’ll have to take my word on the dragon).

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Jill’s demise is a triumph of spectacle over sense; a moment that draws a gasp from the audience but crumbles under scrutiny. Not least because skin suffocation isn’t possible as you don’t ‘breathe’ through your skin (although enough people believed otherwise to spark an enduring rumour that Eaton died filming this scene – and a team of doctors were on standby just in case).

The moment where someone is painted to death is usually a bad one for plausibility. Ludicrous demises are now so much a part of the Bond mythology that the writers probably hold weekly brainstorming sessions: 1) Eaten by wolves. 2) Run over by a steam train. 3) Falls into Hadron Collider (need scene in Brussels?) But no death can ever match the impact of Jill Masterson’s. A macabre legacy but a significant one.

The Aston Martin DB5

After the duck, and the corpse, we now meet The Most Famous Car in Cinema. Introduced by Q in the first version of a much-played scene, most of which include a variation of the line: “Now pay attention 007.” The Bond-Q dynamic is established instantly: I love Connery’s pained expression when Q begins elaborating on the features. Now isn’t the time to elaborate on the brilliance of Desmond Llewelyn; although that time shall come, I promise. 

Back to the Aston. The real star isn’t the car itself but the gadgets concealed within. Machine guns, oil slicks, an ejector seat! – it’s a dangerous vehicle for those who suffer road rage. Plot-wise, the chase in which Bond shows off this arsenal is utterly self-indulgent; after driving around a bit he loses a game of chicken with Oddjob and is recaptured (this sequence ends with one of my favourite moments: Oddjob beaming at his reflection in a road mirror as he poses by the wrecked car).

Set against future films the car chase actually breaks two established Bond rules: that Bond’s escape is final, and that the gadgets of Q prove vital in this escape/Bond’s survival. Here Bond doesn’t escape and thus the gadgets are ultimately redundant. Indeed the Aston’s most useful feature is also its most prosaic: the GPS that Bond uses to track Goldfinger across Europe, less bang bang! than beep beep. And even that gets crushed in poor Mr Solo’s pressing engagement.

Amusingly, the celebrated Aston embodies two major evils of the series: brand advertisement and gadget-reliance. From Goldfinger onwards the franchise is trapped in a continuous battle between credibility and camp. Is Bond a lone agent armed with wits and a gun, or is he a superspy tricked out with an endless supply of gadgets, gizmos and tacky one-liners?

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The Aston marked the first major victory for the latter camp. You can draw a straight line from the universally loved DB5 to the much derided ‘invisible car’ of Die Another Day. The only surprise is it took them so long.  

Oddjob (and his hat)

Oddjob is the first henchman and by far the most famous. Indeed he is behind only Bond and Blofeld as the most iconic, most parodied (the two go hand-in-hand) character of the series. 

He certainly ticks the henchman boxes. He’s mute. He’s foreign. He’s immensely strong. He’s fanatically loyal. He has a weird name. He kills people. So far, so par for the course. But atypically, Oddjob possesses a rather sunny disposition; his broad smile is frequently on display, most evidently during the climatic fight with Bond. Nor does he look particularly threatening: a stocky little man dressed in a butler’s outfit and bowler hat.

Yet Oddjob is a nasty piece of work, murdering the Masterson sisters without a second thought. Of course the bowler hat is a crucial part of Oddjob’s legend; he rivals John Stead as its most famous wearer, only with Oddjob you get worried when the hat comes off. The bowler only sees action thrice – vandalising a statue, killing Tilly Masterson, electrocuting its owner – but has entered into cultural folklore. Such is the power of a good idea. 

The Laser

This scene is regularly voted the Greatest Ever Bond Moment or some such variation. And realistically it won’t ever be topped. It is poetic in its simplicity. Just Bond, Goldfinger, and a laser moving toward a place no laser should go. Of all the agonising deaths Bond faces this remains the most squirm-inducing.

But the true tension of the scene comes from Bond’s helplessness. He has nothing. No gadgets, no back-up, no escape route. This is rare – with Bond there is always an out. Usually Q has provided a handy little gizmo that conveniently suits the perilous situation. Often the situation isn’t quite as perilous as it appears. The plane will still fly; the cords can be cut. Perhaps a forgotten ally appears at the last moment to dispatch the threat. Goldfinger’s genius is the absence of any such possibility. Ironic that Bond’s survival when facing death usually requires the villain to abandon him; but if Goldfinger leaves the room all hope is lost.

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Within the Greatest Scene is the Greatest Line: “No Mr Bond, I expect you to die!” It tells Bond this isn’t an interrogation but a horribly protracted execution.

The music is brilliantly effective, the violin ostinato building in pitch and intensity as the laser beam draws closer. The mark of a truly great set-piece is one where, even knowing the outcome, you still half doubt it. Watching again you find yourself wondering: this time will Goldfinger walk out/ Oberyn stab down/ Mufasa climb out of the ravine?

Incidentally, the smouldering table was produced by a man with a blowtorch hiding underneath. No wonder Connery looks petrified. 

Fort Knox

Fort Knox. Not exactly iconic but an early incarnation of the classic Bond climax. The key component is a major dust up between goodies and baddies: in this case the US military and Goldfinger’s private army. Also the battle-within-a-battle taking place between Bond and the villain/henchman. (Bye Oddjob.) And a bomb/missile ticking towards detonation/launch.

Many Bond films follow this formula exactly and most, bar the Craig era, contain a close variation on it. The Goldfinger offering isn’t particularly tense but contains some nice touches. I love Bond’s panicked expression when confronted with the bomb mechanism. And kudos for the 007 joke – a neat final flourish. 

I can’t finish this article without discussing two very special people.

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Auric Goldfinger is one of the great characters of the franchise. He remains irrepressibly cheerful throughout the film. Indeed apart from his unfortunate habit of cheating at stuff – bridge, golf – Goldfinger is actually rather a good sport. He writes Bond a cheque for golf despite knowing Bond has bested him twice already. He shows no strong animosity towards Bond over his numerous escape attempts.

Interplay between the two is generally civil, frequently rather playful – their discussion of Operation Grand Slam, over Mint Julips, is a particular delight. Whereas Bond normally reacts with contempt to the villain’s master-plan, here he appears genuinely impressed. I’d happily share a Mint Julip with the Big Man; we could discuss Jack Nicklaus, San Francisco bridges and Wolverhampton Wanderers, all subjects that should take his interest. The only blight is the ridiculously amateur mistake aboard the plane. Basic rule: if you are holding Bond at gunpoint, don’t gesture with the gun: he will grab it. Goodbye major advantage. Hello atmosphere. 

Then there is the great Pussy Galore. It is very unfair that Pussy is famed as the apotheosis of the silly female moniker. Tough, hard-bitten and smart, she is one of the most capable of Bond’s leading ladies. Pussy receives far less screen time than Bond and Goldfinger so credit to Honor Blackman for such a memorable character. (I suppose the name might help.) 

However, I can’t be the only person who finds Bond’s seduction of Pussy a little troubling. I’m talking the bit in the barn when he essentially forces himself on her (after some judo foreplay). Okay, she eventually reciprocates, because he’s James Bond; but initially she really doesn’t look into it and Bond only gets his way by being, well, stronger. If Spectre contains a similar scene expect an outcry.

Normally I conclude these retrospectives by examining the film’s broader significance. (Assuming it has any.) How does this particular film interact with the franchise? What influences are there? What stands out? Has the perception of what a Bond film is evolved or solidified? Yet such is the legacy of Goldfinger this entire piece has tackled these questions. I’ve been writing the conclusion since the very first sentence and I’m miles away from satisfactorily concluding.

Goldfinger is the landmark film; it is the compass that points in every direction the series has and will take. The only James Bond film that will prove more significant is the one that finishes him for good.

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Best Bit: A certain line regarding death and expectations. It’s obvious for a reason.

Worst Bit: Toss-up between “man talk” and Bond dissing the one aspect of the 1960s that proved as durable as him.

Final Thought: Why does Goldfinger explain his plan to the mafia when he’s planning to gas them all immediately afterwards?