While Dr. No and From Russia With Love put certain elements of the Bond mythology in place, Goldfinger was the first fully-formed template for what we now think of as the classic Bond film – the template directors would seek to revise or reinvent whenever they tried to freshen up Bond too. Whereas the first two films were directed by Terence Young, Guy Hamilton brings a real deftness, dexterity and lightness of touch to this particular story, resulting in a Bond film that feels surprisingly modern, on a pair with the Daniel Craig films it influenced. The story revolves around Bond’s attempts to outwit Goldfinger, a German criminal played by Gert Frobe, who is planning something suspicious with an enormous amount of gold he has amassed. We meet Goldfinger in the very first scene, meaning he’s much more present than previous Bond villains, which gives the narrative a much more propulsive pace as well.
Of course, because this is the prototypical Bond film, Bond’s misogyny is very foregrounded in these early scenes, which take place in a Miami resort. Bond spends most of his time manhandling women, dismissing one paramore because it’s time for “man talk,” and leaning into another woman while she’s watching the pool through binoculars, before pushing her face-first into the hotel bed when he’s had his way with her. He’s perpetually handsy, always crowding his way into women’s personal space, in a kind of fantasy of continuous sex – a cruisey prescience that sex can occur anytime, anywhere. In that sense, Bond plays as a balm to sexual liberation, offering a safe promiscuity under the guise of old-world gentlemanliness.
You’d think nobody could objectify women more than Bond in these opening scenes, but he meets his match in Goldfinger, who murders his latest lover by covering her with gold paint, and leaving her to die of skin suffocation. The spectacle of this woman, covered in paint, displayed on his bed – woman literally reduced to an ornament – stops Bond in his tracks and abruptly halts the film’s own misogynist invective as well. Bond has met his libidinal match in Goldfinger – a man who can objectify women more than him – meaning that he has to reassert his phallic potency again. The most important stage in Bond’s revenge is not disposing of Goldfinger, but raping his assistant, Pussy Galore, thereby asserting his greater sex appeal. Even Goldfinger’s name, with its dual connotations of perverse tactility and financial capital, evokes this threat to the sexual capital that Bond always claims as his own.
While that underlying misogyny means the whole film has a misogynistic arc, the overt misogynistic moments tend to be clustered at the beginning and end, giving the middle part ample room to breathe and expand into one of the most accomplished Bond films to date.You sense that Hamilton has quite different priorities from Young, focusing more on suspense, space and set pieces, while remaining largely uninterested in Bond as a modern Casanova. The story has the most propulsive hook so far, and a better balance between sprawl and focus, while there’s more of a campy sense of humour, starting with the one-liner – “shocker!” – before the credits. This is also the first Bond film to really revel in technology, and a stark counterpoint from To Russia With Love, which is still the least tech-centric Bond.
Not only do we see Q’s laboratory for the first time, but we’re introduced to Bond’s now-iconic Aston Martin – not just as a stylish signature, but as a critical weapon in his arsenal. This paves the way for a film that is obsessed with cars, car chases and the mobility of the open road. There’s a spectacular car chase in the Alps, while Goldfinger greets Bond at his Kentucky plantation with a quip about American motorists. Bond’s mission is (in part) to find out how Goldfinger is smuggling gold across Europe, and cars play a role here too, since it turns out that Goldfinger is creating car parts out of solid gold that can then be melted down.
This focus on driving means that, while the narrative is tighter, the set pieces are given much more room to breathe. While Dr. No and From Russia With Love both featured amazing décor and design, there’s a new degree of camera mobility in Goldfinger. The first shot after the credits is a cavernous helicopter sequence which eventually hones in on a hotel, the pool, and a diver cannonballing into the way. From there, we shift to an underwater viewing platform, and then to an underground roller rink, foreshadowing a film that moves fluidly and insatiably from one spectacular space to the next, and from one exotic and lurid set piece to another.
Whereas the first two films were certainly flamboyant, that flamboyance is now fully translated into the spatial scheme of the Bond universe. In one of the most spectacular sequences, Goldfinger invites some of his associates into his pool room, only to reveal that they are in a major spatial hub. With a few flicked switches, his pool table turns into a control deck, a giant map appears on the wall, and a scale model emerges from the floor. This spatial ingenuity is proportionate to the space Goldfinger plans to breach – the gold reserve at Fort Knox. In order to defeat him, Bond has to reassert his own control of space, so it’s a beautiful touch when we see his eyes peering out from within the scale model of Fort Knox that has risen up from the floor. It turns out that Bond has escaped from imprisonment in the cellar of this house, and has used the bottom side of this scale model to begin resuming his mission.
At the same time, Hamilton has a real taste for pulling back from sublime sightlines or sniper lines to reveal even more expansive vistas. In one of the scenes set in the Alps, we look down from one hairpin bend to the next, only for the camera to pull back to another hairpin bend, revealing a sniper taking in the whole scene. Later, Bond climbs a vertiginous mountain to peer down at a factory, only to realise that someone has already scaled higher than him, already conquered the sightline. At other times, Hamilton doesn’t pull back to a specific wider sightline, but simply evokes the sheer number of broader sightlines that might exist, starting with a close-up and then tracking back through plane after plane of space. This tendency to pull back, and create mise-en-abymes, converges quite beautifully with the car imagery in one of the final scenes. While being followed by Bond, Odd Job, Goldfinger’s assistant, played by Harold Sakata, gets out of his car, compresses it to a metre square cube in a trash dump, then uses a magnet crane to place it in the back of a second car, and calmly drives off with it.
This sense of mise-en-abyme gives Goldfinger a wonderful sense of the absurd – and a taste for how the absurd can be used to elasticise and expand mise-en-scenes, culminating with Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus, which sets the third act in play. We learn that Goldfinger and Pussy are planning to fly over Fort Knox and release an invisible, odorless nerve gas that will kill everyone on impact. This is indeed what appears to happen, as crowd after crowd faint to the ground in Pussy’s wake. Since the gas can’t be seen, or even smelled, it is as if the volatile spaces around Fort Knox have operated directly on the soldiers and civilians – as if physical space itself has a cinematic potency and volatility that’s only glimpsed in the first two Bonds.
This sense of play doesn’t exempt the film from its misogyny, but it does create space to play around with Bond himself as a sex object. In one of the most surprising scenes, Bond finds himself on a plane piloted by Pussy, and served by a maid named Mei-Lei, played by Mai Ling. At first, this feels like a throwback to the Orientalist tropes and women of Dr. No, but instead of Bond having his way with Mei-Lei, she watches and objectifies him, peering through a series of peepholes as he performs his toilette in the airplane bathroom. While Bond seems aware of her presence, and even carries it in his stride, there’s an inchoate sense of him as a campy sex object that distantly anticipates the way women relate to Bond in the Roger Moore films. For that reason, the infamous rape scene with Pussy, in the barn, doesn’t just feel noxious, but totally dated, forcing Hamilton to shoot it cursorily, like a mid-century Gene Kelly musical.
This spectacle and play culminates with the final attack on Fort Knox, which takes the beautiful production design, all centred on the motif of gold, to its aesthetic conclusion. Hamilton revels in gold objects, golden light and shiny surfaces, meaning that few Bond films have ever looked so beautiful. Every fixture exudes a tactile brilliance, and at times the film seems beaten out of gold sheet, especially in the scenes in and around Goldfinger’s planes and house, which tend to be largely appointed in gold. The film ends at the junction of Bullion Boulevard and Gold Vault Road in Fort Knox, and climaxes in a sea of ingots that Bond and Odd Job repurpose as weapons in delightfully eccentric ways. We learn that Goldfinger doesn’t want to steal this gold, but perform a kind of reverse hoarding, dropping a bomb that will turn it radioactive for the next 58 years, causing “economic chaos in the West” for China.
Goldfinger’s gesture both challenges, and apotheosises, the aesthetic of the film, since he’s destroying the golden surfaces of the film only to give them a new kind of inviolability. Perhaps that’s why he feels more identified with the textures of the film than most other Bond villains – as identified as Bond is himself – and why Goldfinger feels so different in tone and character from Dr. No and From Russia With Love. Like so many of the best Bond films, it’s often strongest when it transcends the Bond formula altogether. At times, it’s almost Hitchcockian, especially in the Alps scene, and in a terrific set piece on a golf course, both of which recall the wide open spaces of The 39 Steps in particular. Like in a Hitchcock film every single shot here seems preordained, mapped out in precise detail before it was filmed, coming together with a preternatural synergy that every Bond film since has tried to emulate.