Plot Quality: Taken at face value, Goldfinger probably has the best plot of any Bond film. The story begins with Bond resting at a hotel in Miami. As he gets a massage, Felix Leiter appears and points out a man named Auric Goldfinger. Goldfinger is an industrialist who is vacationing in Miami and likes to cheat at a friendly game of cards. He cheats by having an escort, Jill Masterson, spy on the game with binoculars and tell him what the other man is holding over a radio transmitter. Bond meddles with this and then takes Masterson to bed. She will be killed during the night by being painted gold... perhaps the most iconic moment in the entire series.
Bond then follows Goldfinger to Switzerland, where the sister of Jill Masterson, Tilly, makes an attempt on Goldfinger’s life. Bond spies on Goldfinger at his plant and learns that Goldfinger smuggles gold by having various parts of his car made of gold, which then get removed once the vehicle passes through customs and get melted back down into bars. Bond also learns about something called Operation Grand Slam, which Goldfinger will perform for a Chinese communist agent. Right after learning this, Bond is captured in a chase which will leave Tilly dead. Goldfinger plans to kill Bond by dissecting him with a laser. This produces the most memorable exchange in the series: “Do you expect me to talk?” asked Bond. “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” retorts Goldfinger. Bond, however, talks his way out of this and convinces Goldfinger to keep him around as insurance.
As plots go, this one is really strong. The story moves quickly and efficiently. The story is not dull. The stakes are high and there's plenty of action. And best of all, Bond and Goldfinger are constantly dueling with each other in one form or another, which really drives home the “worthy adversary” aspect of the film. The film also has an excellent travelogue feel, especially in Switzerland. The ending is exciting too as you watch Bond struggle to disarm an atomic bomb. Good stuff... great stuff.
Yep. But when you look beyond face value, there are problems, and the more you think about the film, the more obvious and glaring these problems become. For example, it makes sense that Goldfinger would not kill Bond in Switzerland and that Leiter would not come rushing in to save Bond in Kentucky. Those are actually explained well in the dialog. But why does Goldfinger give a lecture to the mafia about Operation Grand Slam? He clearly intends to kill them, so why go through the hoax of explaining the plan and offering them each a share of the outcome only to kill them moments later. Presumably, it’s just ego and he likes to hear himself speak, but it feels like he only does this to let Bond “discover” what is going on. Also, why would Pussy suddenly change sides merely because of one roll in the hay. That doesn’t fit her character at all. Perhaps if Bond told her something she didn’t know about the plan, e.g. the likely death toll, then it could be believable, but as it’s presented, it’s not.
Moreover, once the military plan starts, you right away realize that it’s a stupid plan. This plan meant they not only could not monitor Goldfinger, but they had no control over what he did. Basically, the planned called for Goldfinger to wait for the military to stop him. And Bond’s participation is irrelevant. Indeed, Bond doesn’t even know about the plan, and he doesn’t actually stop the bomb even though he’s there. He just fights with Oddjob until the experts arrive and stop the bomb. In effect, while the audience is told that Bond is the hero, he really does nothing except wait as Goldfinger’s prisoner until the military saves him and stops the bomb, and they only do that because Pussy told them about the plan.
As an aside, why did Goldfinger even bring Bond to the site of the bomb? Why not just shoot him and be done with him once the plan began? He doesn’t need him at that point.
Bond Quality: This is Connery’s third outing and I have to say that he’s taken a step back in this one. In Dr. No, Connery had the cold-blooded aspects down perfectly even as he projected the ultimate suave spy. He gave hints of being friendly and loyal to Felix, but was mainly deadly serious. In From Russia With Love, he maintained what he had in Dr. No while adding more loyalty and a sense of sexual playfulness which made him irresistible. In Goldfinger, Connery loses both his killer instinct and his sexual playfulness.
All that said though, Connery is still an excellent Bond and he's more relatable in this film than any other Bond film he made because he comes across as calm, charming and funny.
The Bond Girl: The Bond girl is a true weakness in this film. Shirley Eaton played Jill Masterson and had real chemistry with Connery. She ends up encased in gold, one of the most iconic moments in the entire series. Tania Mallet plays her sister Tilly Masterson, who seemed like she would have played well against Bond. Unfortunately, neither is in the film very long.
Villain Quality: If this film deserves to be ranked as the best Bond film, it is because of Goldfinger himself. Played by Gert Fröbe (and dubbed by Michael Collins), Goldfinger is one of the most richly drawn villains in the series. Goldfinger is an industrialist who is also a petty psychopath. He cheats at cards to win a few hundred dollars. He cheats at golf. He is a very insecure man who pretends to be an iron giant. His love of gold is almost fetishistic. And not only that, but each of these traits is used by the writers to drive the character. It is his desire to win, which makes him challenge Bond. It is his insecurity which lets Bond escape death. It is his arrogance which keeps him from succeeding. And all of this combines to create a character who is simultaneously the first truly larger-than-life villain in the series, but also such an insecure snippy little bastard that you loath the man. In effect, you want to see this man beaten because you hate him, not because you accept the goals over which the film is fought.
So what we have here is a film with a strong and interesting plot if taken at face value. You have a more relatable Bond. You have a scheme that is truly ingenious and makes the film stand out. You have a strong villain who elicits an emotional response from the audience. And you have a film that is routinely listed as the best Bond film ever and which comes in at number three at the box office. Against this, you have the nagging feeling that Bond doesn’t earn his victory, that the good guys win because of deus ex machina, and that Bond has read the script and knows he’s in no danger.
So where should this film rank? Is it worthy of the top spot? You tell me.