I seriously doubt that “Goldfinger” was the first Bond movie I saw, but there’s no question it was the one that cemented my love for the franchise — the gold standard against which all subsequent installments would be judged. It’s a good thing I saw it when I was young, too, because in many ways, it’s the hokiest of the series, with self-parody already setting in by the third film — and the first directed by the late Guy Hamilton, who went on to helm three others (“Diamonds Are Forever,” “Live and Let Die” and “The Man with the Golden Gun”).
The film’s pre-credits episode features Bond scuba-diving in to plant a bomb. When he emerges from the water, he’s wearing a “camouflage” helmet featuring a stuffed seagull perched on top — the sort of gag one might expect in a Leslie Nielsen spy-movie send-up, not the real deal. Later, when introducing himself to Tilly Masterson (sister of the gal dipped in gold), she interrupts the old “Bond, James Bond” line, getting a laugh from audiences who’ve already been trained what elements to expect from the films.
At this point in the series, Bond is still a smoker, lighting his cigarette at precisely the moment his bomb explodes, destroying a stash of “banana-flavored heroin.” Between this micro-mission and Bond’s last two films, we’re starting to get an idea of the sort of errands MI6 uses its double-O agents for, with some of the missions sounding a lot like playing hatchet man to the Evil Empire, rather than staving off Communism, or whatever classy spies are supposed to do.
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In the case of “Goldfinger,” the plan initially seems foolhardy: The pic’s eponymous villain says he want to rob Fort Knox. But when Bond calls him on the implausibility of his scheme, he confesses that his real agenda is to detonate a dirty bomb inside the U.S. gold reserve, rendering the stock radioactive for 58 years. Were he to succeed, the value of his own gold would skyrocket, while Goldfinger’s terrorist backers — as Bond puts it, “They get what they want: economic chaos in the West.” (Where was Bond when the economy needed him a couple years ago?)
While I still believe that Goldfinger is the best of the Bond villains, the odd thing about him is that he’s not especially menacing unto himself. instead, he has Oddjob (with his boomerang bowler) and Pussy Galore (whose lesbian backstory has been all but removed in adapting the book) to do his dirty work. But the man is already legend long before we meet him, thanks to Shirley Bassey’s never-matched theme song. And when it comes to cruelty, nothing tops asphyxiating a double-crossing dame by body-painting her in gold paint, sending one heck of a message to Bond.
Of that iconic scene, director Hamilton said, “The censor was a big pain around this time in two completely different areas. The Americans said we had to get PG — or U for United Kingdom — because all the kids go to see Bond. The American censor, absolutely constipated about sex; the British censor couldn’t have cared less about that. The British censor, panic-stricken about violence; the American censor, totally indifferent about that. So one was doing a fairly fine balancing act.”
Of course, the sex and violence in Bond movies have only swelled since, but Goldfinger is a great example of how arbitrary/imposed limits can actually serve to boost creativity. But the movie strains in other ways, mostly because Goldfinger captures Bond relatively early, giving our hero little to do. That famous scene of Bond strapped to a table while a laser inches ever-closer to his crotch appears within the first couple reels, after which Goldfinger drags him along to witness — and ultimately thwart — his big plan.
Still, that torture scene is among the series’ most iconic moments, and its influence can be felt in a half-century of action movies since. It’s unquestionably the confrontation that Sam Mendes hoped to top (but failed) in last year’s “Spectre,” as Christoph Waltz, playing Blofeld as a parody of both past Bond villains and his own seductively sadistic “Inglourious Basterds” character, toyed with a captive Daniel Craig.
As much as I enjoy Mendes and Craig’s new brute-strength take on Bond, the character is at his best in this classic Hamilton and Connery collaboration, enjoying cocktails, cards and golf. Both Bond and Goldfinger insist on winning, and depending on how you look at it, they both cheat to get what they want: Q’s gadgets — including a tricked-out Aston Martin — hardly level the playing field, while Bond’s “seduction” of Pussy Galore borders on rape. So much for the gentleman spy, though in Hamilton’s hands, Bond found his legendary personality.
(A version of this essay originally appeared as part of Variety’s weekly “50 Years of James Bond” series in 2012.)