Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
James Bond is a legend, and icon, and an institution. There really is nothing else like James Bond. He’s gone through multiple lead actors, weird phases, smarmy periods, returned to hip, and survived as a franchise for nearly 50 years. It didn’t surprise me that there would be a James Bond film in this list. In fact, I’m kind of surprised there’s only one. There are some pretty bad ones (Octopussy, Moonraker) and some underrated ones (Thunderball, You Only Live Twice), and while there are some disagreements, it’s generally considered fact that the sun rises and sets on the Sean Connery version of 007.
Bond has become such a staple of film history that his personal habits are known. Even casual fans can identify his pistol of choice (Walther PPK), his drink (vodka martini, shaken not stirred), and the line women all over the world seem to want to say to him (Oh, James!).
Is Goldfinger the best of the Bond films? I think so. It does have everything that a Bond film should have—hot babes with names that double as sexual innuendo, cool gadgets that all get used once, and a British secret agent saving the world. That’s the basis for most of 007’s work in film, and that’s what we get here.
This is classic Bond, so we get the classic characters in the important roles. In addition to Connery as 007, we have Desmond Llewelyn as Q (the first time he's called this, short for "quartermaster," in a Bond movie), Bernard Lee as M, and Lois Maxwell as M’s secretary Miss Moneypenny. This film also includes American CIA agent Felix Leiter, who’s actually had more actors play him than Bond has—there have been almost 10 different versions—even the race is inconsistent on Felix from film to film. Here, he’s played by Cec Linder.
Bond is ordered to investigate a man named Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), who has one of the largest private stockpiles of gold in the world. Goldfinger loves to win everything he attempts, and demonstrates this by cheating at gin rummy at a resort where Bond finds him. Bond also finds the woman helping him cheat, a young, attractive woman named Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton). Naturally, Bond lures her away, is attacked after confronting Goldfinger, and awakes to find Jill on his bed nude, dead, and covered in gold paint. (Also, contrary to rumor, Shirley Eaton didn’t die as a result of this makeup. She’s still alive as of this writing.)
Bond pursues and is eventually confronted by Goldfinger and his mute Asian sidekick, Oddjob (Harold Sakata), who uses his bowler hat as a weapon. This leads to perhaps the most famous James Bond scene ever filmed—Bond strapped to a table with a giant laser inching toward his groin. Bond talks his way out of this, and then plays cat and mouse with Goldfinger and his private pilot, the wonderfully named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman).
Ultimately, both we the audience and Bond the character learn of Goldfinger’s plot. His goal is to hit Fort Knox and the gold reserves there, but there’s no way possible for him to remove the gold. Instead, his plan is to detonate a very dirty nuclear device in the vault, making the gold untouchable for more than half a century, and thus increasing the value of his own gold supply exponentially. It’s actually a pretty cool plan.
There’s no surprises here in terms of how this will all turn out, of course. Bond never loses, and he certainly doesn’t lose here. In any James Bond film, the good guys win and the bad guys lose eventually, and usually get killed in interesting and inventive ways.
What makes this James Bond film so interesting and so worth watching is not the sexual innuendo. It’s not a villainess-turned-hero thanks to the magic of Bond’s sexual prowess, or even the fact that her name is Pussy Galore. It’s not the plot, although it’s a good’un. What makes this film so interesting is that Bond often seems so fallible in it. He barely bluffs his way out of the giant laser, makes wrong choices, is caught off guard at times (notably at the beginning when he is blindsided and Jill Masterson ends up as a statue), and nearly botches the job time and time again. He’s still the greatest secret agent in the world, but he’s not perfect, and this film shows us that in spades.
It doesn’t hurt that Goldfinger himself is a completely loathsome individual worthy of inspiring our hatred, or that Honor Blackman manages to live up to (and help create) the “Bond Girl” stereotype. And there are fun gadgets, like the car with the ejector seat and machine guns that James Bond is known for.
Sure, this film falls into stereotype. Every gadget placed in Bond’s Aston Martin, for instance, gets used once and only once, but we get to see them all. Everything he gets from Q gets its couple seconds of screen time. Every woman he meets ends up in his bed eventually as well—it’s the nature of the beast. It’s important to remember, though, that this film didn’t follow these trends in James Bond films; instead it helped start these tropes that have survived for 40+ years.
Goldfinger is campy and fun, the way classic James Bond should be. The more recent films have taken a darker turn, and it’s good to remember a time when James Bond meant scantily clad women, whiz-bang toys, and an agent with a Scots accent.
Why to watch Goldfinger: The best Bond, bar none.
Why not to watch: It is a little smarmy after all.