First there was “Dr. No.” The 1962 big-screen introduction to the popular Ian Fleming character Bond, James Bond, cost $900,000, and pulled in $60 million at the box office. A year later, “From Russia With Love” had twice the budget and earned almost $80 million. These straightforward, action-packed spy films starring the relatively unknown Scottish actor Sean Connery and featuring lots of guns and gals were surprise hits. But no one was ready for the explosion that came with the late-1964 release of “Goldfinger,” which made household names of Connery, Aston Martin, the fictional characters Oddjob and Pussy Galore, and plucked the journeyman German actor Gert Frobe from obscurity when he landed the title role of Bond’s nemesis.
The film was made for $3 million and raked in $125 million — a true blockbuster. Yet now, with 24 Bond films produced, and an as-yet untitled 25th set for release in November 2015, “Goldfinger” still remains the gold standard for many aficionados. It gets a local screening at the Brattle Theatre on May 31 in honor of its 50th anniversary, though purists will remember that the film wasn’t released in the United States until December of ’64.
Why has the film remained so popular for five decades? Maybe because, along with those guns and gals, there was the addition of gadgets. Possibly also because a snarky sense of humor was added (after electrocuting a Mexican assassin in a bathtub, Bond utters his first one-liner, actually a one-worder: “Shocking”). And probably because everything about the film, from humor to action to exotic locales to sophisticated characters and an entertaining story line, happened to line up perfectly.
“The Connery films are considered the classic Bonds, but ‘Goldfinger’ is a prime example of that period,” said Ned Hinkle, creative director at the Brattle. “I think they really hit their stride with that film in terms of having all the elements together and knowing what the audience wanted. Goldfinger is such a compelling villain, Oddjob is such a great henchman, and there’s a great script with great one-liners. They’re part of what makes the film so much fun.”
Hinkle’s exactly right. The film is fun. It’s the first to feature what’s become a staple of the series, a pre-credits sequence that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. A sentence in the book’s first chapter: “Bond broke into [a] warehouse one night and left a thermite bomb,” has been stretched into Bond swimming ashore in a wetsuit, breaking into a warehouse, setting a bomb, stripping off the wetsuit to reveal a white tuxedo — with a red carnation — walking into a nightclub, touching a lighter to a cigarette just as the bomb blows, putting some moves on the naked beauty waiting in his bathtub, then going up against that Mexican thug.
Cut to the steamy golden-hued credits and Shirley Bassey’s brassy belting of the great theme song (“Goldfinger. He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch . . .”). At credits’ end, a small plane whisks across the sky pulling a sign that reads “Welcome to Miami Beach.” An aerial camera zooms in on a pool diver in mid-somersault. As the diver hits the water, the camera jumps underneath with him. From the get-go, this movie doesn’t take a breath.
The third film in the series, adapted from Ian Fleming’s seventh Bond novel, soon introduces us to its one-of-a-kind villain, Auric Goldfinger, a wealthy, brilliant, confident, jovial, dangerous man who cheats at gin rummy and golf. (For trivia buffs: Frobe, who beat out Theodore Bikel in the audition process, is never heard in the film. He didn’t speak English, so his film voice is dubbed by British actor Michael Collins.)
If the garrulous Goldfinger is a great villain, the mute Oddjob is an even better henchman. Played by Hawaiian pro wrestler Harold Sakata, there’s no wondering about what maliciousness he’s capable of. He karate chops Bond unconscious with his left hand, and later crushes a golf ball into dust with his right hand. There’s also his always well-aimed, steel-rimmed, flat-crowned bowler hat with which he causes harm to the necks of statues and people.
Of course, the film belongs to Connery, whether he’s wearing that white tux or a skimpy blue terrycloth poolside ensemble or a natty three-piece suit, whether he’s duking it out in a fistfight or making love to yet another conquest. In Fleming’s book, Bond purchases a Raymond Chandler book at an airport. In real life, Chandler once said that 007 is “what every man would like to be and what every woman would like to have between the sheets.”
Which brings us back to the film’s gals. Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) is a wonderful flirt. Bond might have considered settling down with the dazzling Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) had she not been asphyxiated by all of that shiny gold paint. Avowed lesbian Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) — “You can turn off the charm,” she says to Bond. “I’m immune” — finally succumbs to that charm.
Though the only gun of note is Bond’s Walther PPK, there are gadgets galore, ranging from Goldfinger’s electronics-filled rumpus room and his deadly laser beam to those that are tucked away all over Bond’s zippy Aston Martin DB5. You know, the one with, in the words of Q (Desmond Llewelyn), “some rather interesting modifications,” including front wing machine guns, tire slashers, and a passenger ejector seat.
There’s hardly anything about “Goldfinger” that hasn’t become iconic, from Oddjob to the Golden Girl, from the central plot of robbing Fort Knox to the Lincoln Continental being compacted in the Harris crusher. One thing that didn’t make it into the realms of pop culture, though, was Bond’s choice of a certain alcoholic beverage. Oh, he has a martini — shaken, not stirred. But late in the film he can be seen sipping — hard to believe — a mint julep.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.