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The Set with the Midas Touch

Ian Fleming, James Bond's dapper creator and chronicler, didn't live to see his novel, Goldfinger, brought to the screen. It's unfortunate because the adaptation probably sticks closer to the original novel than any other Bond movie—in some ways, it even improves Fleming's original plot. It's held up quite well against the passage of time, and it's arguably the best of the Bond series.

Best-movie considerations aside, Goldfinger (1964), the third in the James Bond series, certainly had the most influence on later films. It cemented the Bond formulas for a generation of moviegoers (Pierce Brosnan, the latest Bond, remembers it as the first Bond movie he ever saw). And its influence on the spy genre has been so great that few filmmakers in the last thirty-five years have been able to make a spy movie without referring to Goldfinger in subtle, even unconscious ways. Indeed, the movie's innovative, ultramodern sets and fantastic props have become so ingrained in the popular mind that it's hard to understand today how shocking and, at times, absurd they seemed to the film's original audience.


Ken Adam, who worked as Goldfinger's production designer, was familiar with the Bond genre. He had been the production designer for the first Bond movie, Dr. No (1962), and he would continue to fill that role on several Bond films until Moonraker(1979). Interestingly, Adam had just finished work on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) when he took on the Goldfinger assignment, and the two films make for an interesting contrast. Dr. Strangelove's black-and-white film shows an early-sixties-era Cold War: a comedy built on our paranoia and fear. Goldfinger, in contrast, is a comic-book-bright study of our hopes and at times misguided aspirations.

For Goldfinger, Adam developed a cunningly subtle design scheme based on the juxtaposition of two colors: blue and gold. Blue for Bond and—no surprises, here—gold for Goldfinger. One of the film's more telling examples of Adam's color work is the scene that culminates with the nude, gold-encased body of Bond's lover, Tilly Masterson.

But we'll get to that in a minute.


Goldfinger's opening scene—the signature piece that introduces Bond's character and firmly roots us in his world of espionage and danger—is one of the better openings in the Bond series. Sean Connery is at his peak as Bond—he's both suave and athletic, with an aura of cynical danger. But there's nothing special about the opening sets. Really, they seem to be the standard heroin smugglers' futuristic lair, swathed in black and gray shadows. Indeed, they could have come from either of the movie's predecessors (Dr. No and From Russia With Love (1963)). The only hint of the coming change in production values occurs when Bond destroys the hideout in a bright, full-screen fireball. From that moment, the movie will begin a slow, ominous rise of warm, gold tones that coincides with the lead villain's rise.

After the opening credits (showing a woman's body, entirely painted with gold and posed against a black backdrop—but again: more on that later), we are taken to Bond's hotel with a nicely done, sweeping sky shot of Miami. One color predominates the landscape: blue. Soothing sky blue, inviting pool blue and cool ocean green-blue.

The director then cuts to the hotel pool, where we find Bond's back being massaged by the standard Bond girl. Bond's happy respite is interrupted by his CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter. (Leiter's character is something of a running joke among Bond aficionados. Though he appears in nearly every Bond movie, almost no one in the public remembers him. Connery at one point deliberately had Leiter's race changed from white to black in one Bond movie with no one seeming to notice.) Grudgingly, Bond pulls on a light blue swimming robe and listens while Leiter debriefs him on his next case.


That next case, of course, is Goldfinger himself, and he happens to be playing cards against a local patsy beside the pool at Bond's own hotel. Blond, balding, corpulent and with an unpleasantly orange pallor, the megalomaniacal Auric Goldfinger (played by Gert Fröbe) is instantly dislikable—which is is good, because Bond movies usually don't have a lot of time for character development. (By the way, if you haven't gotten the Auric reference yet, you need to retake your high school chemistry class. It's the first in what will be a series of such references.)

As Bond quickly discovers, Goldfinger is being told his opponent's cards via radio transmitter by a penthouse-ensconced, binocular-wielding Jill Masterson. Rather too easily, Bond reveals him as a card cheat and forces him to return the money by going on an extended losing streak. This is accomplished largely by the nodding acquiescence of Ms. Masterson, who—much as in real life—sees the error in her ways immediately upon meeting Bond and goes on a romp with him in his suite.

The suite itself is pristinely laid out with clean whites and blues, and it's made lighter by Bond and his current conquest's banter. Everything, it would seem, is right as rain. But Bond, returning to the fridge for a freshly chilled bottle of Dom Perignon after the current one has petered out, is unexpectedly knocked unconscious.

When Bond staggers to his feet, we get our first clue that the seemingly laughable figure of Goldfinger is not as incapable as we had expected. First, we notice the hotel room now has an ominous golden glow to it, nicely indicating the passage of time to early evening and hinting at Goldfinger's presence. (Note that the suite's vertically barred kitchen partition foreshadows the set used in Bond's deadly confrontation with his attacker at the end of the movie.) Then we—and Bond—see Jill. She is lying on the bed, covered in gold paint and dead from skin asphyxiation.

The two men—and the two colors—have met, and for the moment, it would seem, the bad guy is winning.


Back home, after M's dressing-down, Bond dines formally with the director of the Bank of England, and they lay out a scheme to introduce Bond to Goldfinger.  In a well-executed pull-away shot, we are given a sweeping view of the dining room (which is implied to be the bank's, although it's never specified) and its large dining table, marble-inlaid floor and buffet. Crystal decanters and butler-proffered cigars complete the image of Old Empire and create a sense of Bond's high style—and tell the thicker moviegoer that they are in London. (It's a shorthand device common to almost all the Bond movies.)

Soon, Bond manages to meet Goldfinger for a golf outing at his club (Bond also meets Goldfinger's ominously mute Korean manservant and bodyguard, (Oddjob). In one of the film's more humorous sequences, Bond defeats Goldfinger at golf and collects $5,000—at the time, a substantial sum of money. And in this scene, Adam's color work gets some help from the costume designer again.

Bond is outfitted in dark flannel slacks, relaxed V-neck and Sea Island cotton shirt, emphasizing his casual yet old-moneyed pretensions. Goldfinger, on the other hand, is dressed in an unbecoming gold-and-brown pantaloons outfit. English aristocracy had at the time an intense dislike for brown leather cobbler shoes of the type worn by Goldfinger here (possibly because of the German connotation; it was, after all, only a couple of decades past that whole World War II thing), and he is clearly dressed to reflect his thick-fingered, boorish character. (Humorously, Goldfinger's shoes are now in fashion and can regularly be seen on the feet of the British royal family as they traipse around Balmoral. Hopefully, the pantaloons won't catch on.)


Bond trails Goldfinger to Geneva—where, it is worth noting, the lush, clean, sweepingly panoramic countryside has changed little in the past thirty-five years. (By contrast, a later location shot of a Kentucky roadside with its crammed thoroughfare, Esso gas stations, and obligatory Kentucky Fried Chicken thoroughly dates a 1960s America that was to be bulldozed over for more of the same.) Bond is driving a prop (or more accurately, a set, given its complexity) that would become an integral part of Bond's movies: his trick-laden Aston Martin DB5 (replacing Bond's beloved Bentley of the novels). In it, he is trails Goldfinger, chauffeured by Oddjob, in his Rolls Royce Phantom. They are, in turn, pursued by Tilly Masterson, Jill's sister bent on revenge, in a Mustang convertible.

The characters are neatly defined by their cars, here. Goldfinger's Rolls Royce was old-fashioned even for the time, while Tilly's Mustang, compared to the American muscle cars of the time, would have been considered a "girl's car." Bond's DB5, despite its high cost and custom-coach-built pedigree, would have been less the English gentleman's car and more his rakish, ne'er-do-well son's indulgence (the car would continue its association with 007 into the nineties).

At one point, Bond and Tilly race around the twisting Swiss hillside, and the difference between the two cars is easily visible. The Mustang, underpowered and designed for American highway driving, is clearly outmatched by the robust Aston Martin. Despite its Zagato-designed, revolutionary aluminum body, the DB5 was a heavy car, impacting its performance somewhat. Nonetheless, it would have easily outclassed the Mustang and probably only been outperformed by the equivalent Ferrari of that year.

Many consider the DB5 the ultimate expression of a Grand Touring car, and it has become indelibly linked with Bond, its appearance immediately conveying performance and elegance.


At Goldfinger's Swiss operations, Auric Enterprises A.G., we are given another hint of Goldfinger's immoral character when his car is disassembled—he has been using his Phantom to smuggle gold in and out of the country, replacing the car's elaborate bodywork with gold to slip past customs. At a time when a country's currencies were regulated by their stocks of gold and its price, it was a scheme of intense national disloyalty, and further cements our impression of him as a scoundrel.

In an elaborate chase with Goldfinger's guards, Bond demonstrates his Aston Martin's well-known toys: a smoke ejector, a raisable bulletproof shield and glass, an oil spray and the infamous passenger ejector seat. It's hard to understate the effect these gimmicks had on the audience at the time. They were considered outrageous but nonetheless appealed to an audience hungry for fantastical pleasures.

These days, tricked-out special agent cars are considered de rigeur. But in 1964, it must have been, to pun badly, over the top.


Bond is captured and strapped to a slab of gold in Goldfinger's expressionistic laser room. The industrial laser is turned on and moves ominously towards Bond's groin, slicing the gold agonizingly slowly with a high-intensity beam. In one of the more famous Bond exchanges, Bond bluffs a gold-lapel-jacket-clad Goldfinger into sparing his life, at least temporarily. 

Bond is knocked out and awakens to the gold-framed face of the infamous Pussy Galore (played by Honor Blackman, formerly best-known for her role as the chief sidekick in The Avengers). They are on Goldfinger's jet, and, to emphasize his foe's ascendancy, the whole set is gold-tinted—including the plane's ceilings, bathroom fixtures and even the flight attendant's clothing. Despite the luxuriousness of the interior, the small plane's inevitable claustrophobic feeling and its emphatic decor reiterate the fact that Bond is in Goldfinger's captivity and lives at his whim.

They arrive in America, and Oddjob drives Bond at gunpoint to Goldfinger's Kentucky estate.

Here's where location shots and easily recognized props get comical. To reinforce that we're in Kentucky, the director manages to show us—in the course of a few minutes—horse racing, mint juleps, Goldfinger's plantation-style home and the aforementioned Kentucky Fried Chicken, along with a brief banjo segue on the soundtrack. (Now I know what the English must feel every time they see a shot of Big Ben in a movie.)

While the interior of Goldfinger's home, with its warmly colored wood walls and pool table (which, of course, turns into an elaborate model of the nation's gold depository at Fort Knox), is interesting, it is the film's final set that is the showpiece.


Fort Knox is guarded by a battalion of soldiers stationed there for training exercises. For obvious security reasons, the public isn't allowed entry into the main vault, and little is know about its interior or its layout. Even though the original blueprints for the building are public record, there is little doubt the design has changed substantially since then. Thus, Adams was forced to create the set from his imagination, and the result is movie magic.

From the entrance's mechanized, massive, gold-hinged door to the interior stores of gold bullion (stacked behind gleaming, silver bars) the set glistens like a piece of jewelry and provides the perfect backdrop for a climatic fight scene between Oddjob and Bond—as well as the now-formulaic countdown of the mad villain's atomic device.

(In the first cut of Goldfinger, the clock on the bomb is stopped with 003 seconds to go. This was later changed to 007 for a slight, heavy-handed joke. Unfortunately, the scene immediately following where Bond says, "Three more ticks and Mr. Goldfinger would have hit the jackpot," wasn't changed, which must have left a few observant moviegoers a little baffled.)


You probably aren't betting against Bond at this point. But the movie still has a few twists left, which I'll let you discover on your own, just in case you haven't seen Goldfinger. If you're a Bond regular, maybe you'll see it again with a new eye. Its gold-tinted outlook on our future may not have come to pass exactly as we expected, but we can still enjoy the dream for a couple hours, at least.

—Review by Richard Harrington



Sample Bond Formula

1. Bond has three women and sleeps with all three.

2. The first is pro-Bond and is killed in the first reel, preferably in Bond's arms.

3. The second is anti-Bond, works for the enemy and stays around until about the middle-third of the picture. She captures Bond, but succumbs to his animal magnetism and is eventually killed in a highly original manner.

4. The third is violently pro-Bond but doesn't sleep with Bond until the end, at the movie's fadeout.

NOTE: When an enterprising fan pointed out the plot similarities between You only Live Twice (1967) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) (by his count, forty-six; you may see more yourself) to Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, Broccoli said he didn't see them at all and seemed confused. This may explain a lot.



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