Movies to See Before You Die: “Goldfinger”
The positively shocking teaser; the bold vocal performance by Shirley Bassey; the elaborate gadgets; “the most famous car in the world”, the Aston Martin DB5; the Bond Girl with the risque name; the imposing henchman…Goldfinger established the template for not only every James Bond movie to follow, but the entirety of 60’s Spymania right down to parody imitators as recent as the Austin Powers trilogy. It was the first movie a young Irish boy named Pierce Brosnan ever saw in a theater, making such an impression that he later literally became James Bond for seven years. In short, Goldfinger is a Movie to See Before You Die.
From Book to Screen
In his 1984 book, The James Bond Bedside Companion, Raymond Benson declared, “I feel it’s the only film in the series to improve on Fleming’s original story” (page 179). Just as Brosnan would later take over the movie role of 007, Benson later became custodian of the literary Bond as novelist from 1997-2003. In Bedside Companion, he smartly argues that Fleming’s novel is built on a series of implausible (and often unbelievable) actions and choices, whereas the film’s screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn reorganizes events into a more coherent narrative. Even the climax of the story – the raid on Fort Knox – was revised from being an absurd, real attempt to loot all the gold there to instead contaminating it for 58 years in an effort to destabilize the economic power of the United States. Can detonating an atomic bomb inside the vault “merely” contaminate the gold? Who knows? The point is, it sounds more credible than Novel Goldfinger’s plan of loading a series of trucks to abscond with all the gold – the logistics of which Movie Bond works out and debunks.
There’s another area in which Maibaum and Dehn improve on Fleming: they omit Bond’s bigotry – presumably, Fleming’s by proxy. Bond doesn’t just needle Oddjob in the novel; Fleming makes a point to tell us that
“…Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms. Those terms included putting Oddjob and any other Korean firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.” (Goldfinger, Chapter 16: “The Last and the Biggest”; page number varies by edition)
Fleming wrote two characters (Tilly Masterton and Pussy Galore) as lesbians; the former dies because she hesitates to leave the latter just long enough for Oddjob to kill her. Even worse, the novel ends with Pussy telling Bond of having been raped by her uncle in her youth. Bond dismisses her and tells her all she needs is some “T.L.C.” That’s right; not only does Fleming’s Bond “cure” her of her sexual orientation, he can even apparently resolve her decades-old trauma. Thankfully, the film only goes so far as to have Pussy tell Bond at one point he “can turn off the charm; I’m immune”. There’s subtext to be read, certainly, but it’s ambiguous enough that it can be taken as merely her telling Bond she’s not interested in him and doesn’t expect to be.
If Goldfinger is the definitive James Bond movie – and by most accounts, it is – then not only does this one entry, but the entire series, owes a great debt to the sensibilities of Maibaum and Dehn. Had Fleming’s vulgar views been written into the film, it would have become outright unwatchable. There is, of course, still pervasive chauvinism to endure, but by blunting Fleming’s uglier side, Maibaum and Dehn helped to protect the movie series from being unforgivably tainted by those prejudices. It isn’t often that we can definitively declare that a movie is better than the novel, but Goldfinger is one of those uncommon occurrences.
Posters of Prominence
Any list of truly iconic imagery in film must include Shirley Eaton lying face down on top of a bed, painted entirely in gold. Eaton at least features in all of the film’s official poster variations, and entirely dominates one of the U.K. quad posters. That Eaton’s character, Jill, is only a minor character is irrelevant. Her appearance is so visually arresting that she eclipses Gert Frobe’s titular villain, Honor Blackman as the leading Bond Girl, and really, even Sean Connery as James Bond when you get down to it.
In 2007, the Alamo Drafthouse brought their Rolling Roadshow tour to Fort Knox for a once-in-a-lifetime screening of Goldfinger there. For the occasion, Mondo Tees and artist Todd Slater created a lithograph limited to only 300 prints. Slater recreated the publicity photo of Connery using gold bricks, placing the image over a collage of stills. It quickly became a highly-sought piece of Bond memorabilia. (A red print variant of the poster was even more limited; only ten of those were printed!)
Soundtracks of Significance
Composer John Barry, who had doctored Monty Norman’s Dr. No score without credit and had scored the intervening second Bond movie, From Russia with Love, was granted complete artistic control over the music for the film. His background in Jazz is obvious on cues such as “Into Miami” and “Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus”. This score is bold and kinetic, like the young kid who sings over everyone else in their group recital and doesn’t care about being conspicuous.
In his 2002 essay for Capitol’s reissue of the soundtrack, Jeff Bond observed that “Barry’s highly unorthodox approach was perfectly suited to the 007 films, always emphasizing style and excitement over the darker emotions that only bubbled beneath the surface.” Indeed, Barry outright rescues the scene in which Bond and Pussy take turns knocking down one another in a barn. Barry’s breezy, even comical music imbues the scene with much-needed levity; without it, our hero comes off as a sexual predator instead of a brash, overgrown adolescent.
The Goldfinger soundtrack LP was released in October, 1964 and entered the Billboard 200 charts two months before the movie even opened! In all, the album was on the chart for 70 weeks, peaking at #1 for the March 20, March 27, and April 3 charts in 1965.
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss Goldfinger without addressing its main title song, written by Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley, and performed by Shirley Bassey. This was the first time that a Bond film’s main titles played against a vocal performance, cementing another key element to the mythical “Bond formula”. Yes, she sustained the final note for an eternity, but there’s much more to the recording than its conclusion. Bassey’s reading of the lyrics is alternately sultry and cautionary, much like a moth warning others about the dangers of flames it can’t fully resist, either. The single peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The soundtrack album in the United States featured one piece (an instrumental arrangement of the title song) not found on its United Kingdom counterpart, which in turn featured four cues omitted from the American album. Those U.K. tracks first appeared in the U.S. on Disc 2 of 1992’s The Best of James Bond: 30th Anniversary Limited Edition. All fifteen tracks were consolidated for the first time when Capitol remastered and reissued most of the Bond catalog soundtrack albums in 2003.
Also appearing in the aforementioned Best of James Bond set is a demo recording of the title song with a lounge arrangement by its co-writer, Anthony Newley. Compiler Scott Shea wrote in his liner notes that this is one of two versions recorded by Newley; the other, “an orchestrated version much closer to Bassey’s.” That version still has not been released.
Believe it or not, but Goldfinger – along with its predecessors Dr. No and From Russia with Love – was selected for inclusion in The Criterion Collection during its original LaserDisc incarnation. Goldfinger was released as Spine #132, and included a commentary track featuring director Guy Hamilton; writer Richard Maibaum; editor Peter Hunt; and production designer Ken Adam. Allegedly, Bond series producer Albert R. Broccoli took umbrage at some of the remarks shared in those three LaserDisc commentaries and had the films pulled from Criterion.
That LaserDisc also included “The Goldfinger Vault” (a stills and poster gallery); TV commercials for toys and bread (yes, bread); the original theatrical trailer; and an optional audio track consisting exclusively of the music and sound effects. Norman Wanstall won an Academy Award for Sound Effects for his work on the film, so that audio track option holds some historical relevance.
Steven Jay Rubin, who “narrated” the controversial commentary track, penned remarks that appeared on the back of the LaserDisc jacket and can be read on the Criterion website here. It reads more like advertising copy than an actual essay, but it’s worth mentioning if only because Rubin affirms the importance of the film’s screenwriters (though he makes no mention of Dehn). Aside from “soften[ing] the lesbian character Pussy Galore” and turning Fleming’s Aston Martin DB3 into a tricked out DB5, Rubin praised, “But most of all, Maibaum honed the popular elements of the first two films that had worked so well—particularly the funny lines, the sexy Bond playmates and the increasingly outrageous situations in which Bond finds himself.”
Goldfinger is the highest-ranked James Bond film on Flickchart. It set box office records, prompting theaters to operate 24 hours to accommodate demand. Its imagery and music have both become entrenched in pop culture. Goldfinger is truly a Movie to See Before You Die.
If you live near a participating Cinemark theater, you’ll soon have three chances to see it there on the big screen! Goldfinger will kick off that chain’s Cinemark Classic Series Summer 2015 lineup on Sunday, June 7th, at 2:00; and on Wednesday, June 10th, at 2:00 and again at 7:00. Better commit to one of those screenings now, because Goldfinger doesn’t expect you to talk. He expects you to die!