We have two iconic '60s anniversaries this week. Ironically, it's the least known by far of the two that continues to resonate most in the culture. On July 20th, 1969, a human being first walked on the Moon. On July 21st, 1964, Goldfinger wrapped principal photography.
We haven't gone to the Moon for 37 years, nor can we go to Mars, as the Apollo 11 astronauts are urging, anytime soon, but we sure go to blockbuster action movies. And Goldfinger is the ur-action blockbuster.
Some say that 1975's Jaws marked the start of blockbuster movies. But if you look at the big action blockbusters of today, such as the Transformers pictures, the real lineage traces back to Goldfinger.
What, say, Transformers director Michael Bay has done is take the essentials of action moviemaking -- fast pace, violent action, fascination with tech, car chases, humor, elevated macho factor, elevated babe factor, wisecracks -- pare them down to bare essentials, pour it into a petri dish, and then inject the concoction with steroids. All those elements were put together in Goldfinger, with one difference.
The director of Goldfinger, Guy Hamilton, didn't have to inject his blockbuster with steroids, because he had Sean Connery as his star.
He and producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman added fast-paced action, violence, technology, gadgets, cars, babes, exotic locales, memorable one-liners, music, and merchandising.
Though Goldfinger looks almost sedate compared to today's jittery, mashed-up action pictures, editor Peter Hunt's work 45 years ago, emphasizing fast hard cuts, was an innovation. And you can actually grasp what's happening in the film, which is not always the case with today's action pictures.
The violence, especially for the time, mostly courtesy of Connery, was hard-edged and decisive. The opening vignette in Goldfinger, unrelated to the main plot, is a classic, given an homage in the opening of Arnold Schwarzenegger's True Lies.
Bond infiltrates a Latin American town with his scuba gear disguised by a fake seagull. After he comes out of the water, he takes off his wet suit only to reveal a white tuxedo beneath. After planting his bomb to blow up a heroin plant funding terrorists, he saunters over to the cantina to see his treacherous playmate of the month. Catching an attacker coming up behind in her eye's reflection, he ruthlessly turns her into the blow, engages in a brutal fight which he is about to lose until he tosses an electric fan into the bathtub into which he's knocked his assailant. After the man is electrocuted to death, Bond sardonically quips: "Shocking, positively shocking."
The first two Bonds had had gadgets and tech (the island of Dr. No), but this was the first Bond film which emphasized technology and gadgets to such a memorable degree.
Much of it centered around perhaps the most iconic car in movie history, the gadget-laden Aston Martin DB5. In addition to being a fast and stylish sports car, it ha an array of tech tricks, including the famous ejector seat.
Along with the Aston Martin, Goldfinger also introduced another iconic car to the movies, the then brand-new Ford Mustang, which looks much the same today as it did 45 years ago. Engaged in a car chase in the Swiss Alps, it ultimately fared badly when Bond's Aston, using a retracting side rotor, slashed its tires.
There was also Goldfinger's private jet, new then to the movies, and the action aboard it, not to mention the nuclear bomb inside Fort Knox, barely stopped with 007 seconds remaining. And, of course, that menacing industrial laser, never seen before by the public, slicing slowly through steel toward Bond's groin, with the famous exchange: "Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger? No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die."
Bond films were already famous for the babe factor, with Ursula Andress's oft-copied arising from the sea like Aphrodite in Dr. No, not to mention Miss Italy playing a Russian cipher clerk in From Russia With Love, but in Goldfinger it was even more heightened.
There was the famous Golden Girl, Goldfinger's girlfriend punished for her assignation with Bond, murdered by being painted all over, nude, in gold. Her ill-fated sister, tracking Goldfinger's majestic Rolls Royce (itself a massive gadget, secretly lined with gold, the better for smuggling it) through Switzerland, trying to kill him only to be dispatched by Goldfinger's most memorable henchman, the Korean manservant "Oddjob" and his lethal metal-brimmed bowler hat.
And there was Pussy Galore, the most extravagantly named of all the Bond girls. Played by the formidable Honor Blackman, already a star in for her high-kicking secret agent turn in the classic British TV series The Avengers, she was a strong match for Bond.
There was music, too, with John Barry's jazzy, vibrant score and Shirley Easton's soaring title song. Soundtracks are big today, but Goldfinger led the way. In fact, the Goldfinger soundtrack album even outsold the Beatles in 1965. Barry's score, which he considers his best Bond, and there were many memorable ones, is swanky, swaggering spy jazz, capturing the vibrant materialism and emerging sensuality of the era.
And then there was the merchandising, beyond the soundtrack. We take it for granted now, but Goldfinger pioneered it with a raft of movie-related products, from toy cars (the Aston is still the best-seller) to action figures, toy guns and radios, clothes and toiletries and luggage and drinks and tie-in books and watches, both knock-offs and luxury watches.
Goldfinger, incidentally, really triggered the phenomenon of "the Bond watch," with Bond iconically posed early in the film lighting a cigarette in a cantina waiting for his bomb to go off. There are actually two Bond watches in Goldfinger, as there were two in the beginning of the series in Dr. No. The constantly identified Rolex Submariner dive watch, and a seldom mentioned, unidentified ultra-thin gold watch with a white face on a black leather strap, which looks like an Omega or Rolex dress watch of the period. The Rolex Submariner was the one that was emphasized, and so the one that caught on as the rugged action man's watch, though it was finally supplanted in the '90s in Bond films by the equally promoted Omega Seamaster.
One thing that is very different today from 1964 is the release pattern of a film. Today, it's almost all front-loaded, geared for a gigantic opening weekend in the US and, increasingly, around the world.
Then the release pattern was more sedate. It was a world in which Bonnie and Clyde, which was to become a defining classic of "the New Hollywood," could open and disappear, promoted by the studio as nothing more than a B-movie. And then open again when producer/star Warren Beatty insisted, be reviewed and in some cases re-reviewed, and become a big hit.
Goldfinger opened in the UK in September 1964, where it was an immediate smash hit, and didn't arrive in America until Christmas. Its release in other countries was similarly staggered. But wherever it opened, it broke box office records. By 1965, it was a global sensation.
In today's terms, around the world, Goldfinger was bigger than The Dark Knight. And as a result of the breakthrough, the next Bond film, Thunderball, made more money. Not unlike Transformers and Transformers 2, without comparing the lasting appeal of the movies.
Bond was already big prior to Goldfinger, with Dr. No a surprise hit and From Russia With Love a bigger hit. None other than President John F. Kennedy had given the series a big boost in America when he named Ian Fleming's "From Russia With Love" one of his favorite books. But Goldfinger took the series into the stratosphere.
Ironically, Goldfinger is based on one of Ian Fleming's worst novels. Fleming, a former journalist and intelligence officer, was an excellent writer, and his novels are an intriguing window on the period, as is the collection of his travel journalism, "Thrilling Cities." Famously described by then left-wing critic Paul Johnson -- who ironically became an arch-conservative booster of George W. Bush (who gave him the Medal of Freedom), Oliver North, and Margaret Thatcher, and apologist for the Watergate scandal -- as founded upon "sex, sadism, and snobbery," the Bond novels come with their own generally un-PC bent. Although Fleming's Bond was an admirer of the Cuban Revolution and notably under-impressed by the rich themselves.
In writing "Goldfinger," Fleming seems to have been going through a depression of some sort which dulled his powers of thought. He actually writes that society is in sharp decline because women had won the right to vote, one of his most dully reactionary bits of commentary. And much of the action takes place away from the page, described only later, such as Goldfinger's murder of his mistress by swathing her in gold paint. As for the central action set-piece of the novel, the big heist at Fort Knox, it's simply daft.
In the novel, the master criminal Auric Goldfinger, England's richest man, enlists the leaders of the American mafia to help him steal the gold from the depository at Fort Knox, Kentucky. As Fleming was no stranger to research, this is surprising, as it would days to actually move the gold.
But in the novel, with the gold swiftly removed, which is mind you utterly impossible, the mobsters would split off with their share while Goldfinger took the lion's share to make his getaway. On a cruiser of the Soviet Navy, making a courtesy call at an American port! Not that anyone would notice that, of course. Because Goldfinger actually works for the KGB. Which neglects to inform him that Bond is a British agent when Bond goes to work for him helping plan the caper!
Needless to say, the novel is a complete mess, down to Pussy Galore being the head of a New York crime gang of fellow lesbians, yet falling in love with Bond based on nothing more than a few searching looks on her part, barely returned by him.
At least in the movie her sexuality is more indeterminate, her motivation to shift to Bond's side arguably more clear -- in a male fantasy sense, of course -- after she loses more falls of judo with Bond than she wins and ends up in a famous roll in the hay.
And the film's plot against America's depository of gold at Fort Knox -- to irradiate it with a nuclear weapon, thus pleasing Goldfinger's Communist Chinese patrons by impoverishing America and further enriching Goldfinger -- is a far better solution. Especially with Goldfinger so memorably portrayed by German actor Gert Frobe, who it turned out could barely speak a word of English, ending up dubbed throughout by English actor Michael Collins.
Fleming, ironically, died in August 1964, after the film was in the can but before it was released. So he never saw his creation become the sensation of the '60s and one of the biggest and most enduring movie franchises.
What came after was the whole of the Bond film series, which now numbers 23 feature films, and a raft of spy TV series.
All of which inspired, not only the action blockbuster phenomenon, but also a number of more direct homages in a variety of feature films.
James Cameron and Bond aficionado Arnold Schwarzenegger did their own version of a Bond film with 1994's True Lies, complete with the homage opening and a nuke that does go off.
Steven Spielberg made it plain he wanted to direct a Bond film after he did Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But George Lucas told him he had something better, something American. Something called Indiana Jones in a little movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark. When it came to cast Indy's father, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they both wanted James Bond, in the form of Sean Connery.
Tom Cruise hankered after a Bond turn, but, being American, wasn't quite right. So he revived the Mission Impossible TV series as a feature film series, this time focused on one particular super-agent.
Another Bond fanatic not quite right for the literal role, comedy star Mike Myers, created the Austin Powers series. The spoof was so big and well-done it nearly overshadowed the original for a time. And many felt he'd gotten the right iconic '60s sports car in the Jaguar E-Type, the "Shaguar" in Austin-ese, rather than the less gorgeous Aston.
And before Michael Bay condensed the action blockbuster formula in his Transformers pictures, he did his own version of a Bond film, 1996's The Rock. With Sean Connery himself playing Bond. A Bond, that is, with a slightly different name, who absconds with some of America's darkest secrets and is clandestinely imprisoned for 30 years after breaking out of Alcatraz, the famed old prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay known as "The Rock." Only to be brought out of supermax confinement to engage in various bouts of derring do.
But nothing quite matches the original. Which, ironically, is probably not even the best of the Bond films, even the '60s films starring Connery.
I think From Russia With Love is a better story than Goldfinger, with Bond a better secret agent. Some people like Thunderball, which followed Goldfinger and, using its new blockbuster template, made a little more money but puts me to sleep with its too long underwater sequences. On Her Majesty's Secret Service may be a better movie, though many can't accept George Lazenby in his only turn as Bond.
More recently, GoldenEye, with Pierce Brosnan, is a tighter take on the blockbuster template. Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig, the first actor to really challenge Connery for the best Bond crown, is a grittier take.
But nothing quite matches the moment of Goldfinger. Or its size and confidence. It came along as the social trends explored in the great Mad Men TV series, which is set just before the film, were coming to a head.
America and much of the world had finally emerged from the post-World War II period. With a burgeoning middle class and a strong material base to the culture, rebellion against social conformity and sexual strictures was in the air. So too was fear of a deadlier war. People wanted to spend money and people wanted to have fun.
Goldfinger reflected all that, and exploded in the midst of it. Movies changed after that.