October 4, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions, Film
Goldfinger: A Convergence at MoMA

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

The 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger is not only an exhilarating classic of the spy genre, but also a recurring influence in art and popular culture. During the month of October, visitors to MoMA can experience the Goldfinger phenomenon in a variety of distinct configurations.

On October 6 and 19, audiences can discover or revisit Goldfinger in our Titus 1 Theater as part of the film retrospective 50 Years of James Bond. The film is presented in a beautiful 35mm print donated—along with 21 other Bond films—by producer Albert R. Broccoli. Upon arrival at the posh Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Bond is led poolside, where a rigged game of gin rummy is underway; Auric Goldfinger is about to fleece his opponent out of nearly $15,000. How does Goldfinger do it? Has he been on an unparalleled winning streak or has he had some help? Of course it is the latter! Goldfinger is the bad guy, one of 007’s most formidable foes. His accomplice is Jill Masterson, a leggy young woman attracted to the excitement and luxury Goldfinger’s riches provide. Lounging on her hotel terrace with a high-powered scope, Jill is able to read the other players’ cards and swiftly report them back through an earpiece. With this scheme in place, Goldfinger never loses. Bond quickly uncovers the ruse and enters Jill’s room. He swiftly disconnects Jill from Goldfinger and in a matter of minutes, she is swooning for Bond. Sadly, Jill pays the ultimate price for the brief affair: she suffocates after being painted head to toe in gold.

Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), and James Bond (Sean Connery) get acquainted in Goldfinger. 1964. Great Britain. Directed by Guy Hamilton. Image courtesy Photofest

Accompanied by the seductive sway of curvy, gold-bikini-clad hips, the velvety, sensuous voice of singer Shirley Bassey kicks off the Goldfinger title sequence with the enigmatic lyrics of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

Goldfinger, he’s the man
The man with the Midas touch
A spider’s touch
Such a cold finger
Beckons you to enter his web of sin
But don’t go in

The lyrics warn the seduced away from the seducer, but the lure of gold is impossible to resist. Get too close and the kiss of death is Mr. Goldfinger’s gift. I was much too young to have seen Goldfinger in its original theatrical release, but I do recall seeing the film several times on television. The title song was pretty much lost on me until I was an adult and saw the film for the first time on a big screen. That is also when I really noticed Robert Brownjohn’s fascinating title design.

In brief, Brownjohn was a pioneering American designer who studied with Lászlό Moholy-Nagy and in 1960 moved to London, where he created the signature title sequences for From Russia with Love (1963) and Goldfinger. In order to illustrate his concept to the producers of From Russia with Love, Brownjohn lifted his shirt and, with a projector flashing images on his stomach, began to dance. Once Brownjohn assured the producers that a pretty girl would be used instead, he was given free rein to explore. The success of the From Russia with Love title sequence earned him the largesse to be even more radical in designing the Goldfinger titles. Celebrating the way the titles were visually distorted when projected on the human body, Brownjohn hired a model named Margaret Nolan and dressed her in a gold leather bikini, effectively using her as a three-dimensional screen. Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli were enthralled with Brownjohn’s fresh, sexy concept, and even offered to build a studio for him to work on subsequent Bond projects, but Brownjohn, capricious as ever, declined, and the producers returned to Maurice Binder, who had previously designed the titles for Dr. No (1962).

Two views of Robert Brownjohn’s preparatory studies for the Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

MoMA visitors can view the Brownjohn titles in Goldfinger: The Design of an Iconic Film Title, on display in the Architecture and Design Galleries October 5 through March 18. The installation features the first film title sequence to enter MoMA’s collection as a discreet design work, along with related preparatory materials. Exhibition organizers Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor note, “As memorable as the film itself, the title sequence of Goldfinger captures the sexual suggestiveness and wry humor of the James Bond mythos.” They also refer to Brownjohn’s work as “one of the best examples of title design used to produce a salient film component, rather than a necessary afterthought.”

Admittedly, the Goldfinger influence extends to many realms of popular culture and aesthetic expression. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers covered the title song, as did the British post-punk band Magazine, Celine Dion, and Blondie’s Deborah Harry. The box office success of Goldfinger gave rise to copycat films like Our Man Flint (1966) and The Silencers (1966) (with Dean Martin as Matt Helm). Even the 2008 Bond film Quantum of Solace reprises the concept of the dead golden girl—only this time instead of gold paint, she has been covered in crude oil.

Alina Szapocznikow. Goldfinger. 1965. Gold-patinated cement and car part, 72 1/16 x 29 15/16 x 22 7/16″ (183 x 76 x 57 cm). Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź Photo by Piotr Tomczyk, courtesy Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź. © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/Piotr Stanisławski/ADAGP, Paris

Another Goldfinger/MoMA connection emerges in the exhibition Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972, on view October 7 through January 28 in the third-floor Special Exhibition Gallery. Szapocznikow’s sculptures reference popular culture, memory, politics, and her own body. Employing visual associations with movements such as Surrealism, Nouveau Réalisme, and Pop art, Szapocznikow transforms readymade objects and casts of body parts into her three-dimensional work. Most prominent is her sculpture Goldfinger, made of machine parts and cement covered in gold patination, transforming the ordinary into a sensuous object to be observed and venerated—much like the girl who is painted gold in the film. The sculpture is both phallic and female; the verticality of the sculpture is balanced by the cement rendering of the spread legs of a woman, whose crotch is affixed to the structure by a fragment of automotive machinery. Like the dead woman in the film, this Goldfinger casualty is also lifeless, rigor-mortis-inflexible and covered in gold paint.

Finally, after engaging with the various permutations of Goldfinger, make a point to stop in at The Modern restaurant to enjoy a liquid-gold Vesper Royale cocktail in the Bar Room. The Vesper Royale was created by The Modern’s Wine Director, Ehren Ashkenazi, with head bartender Anthony Merlino, on the occasion of the 50 Years of James Bond retrospective. Influenced by the classic cocktail the Vesper (introduced in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale), this unique mixture incorporates gin, vodka, and the French aperitif Suze, which turns the drink a golden color. The Vesper Royale is topped with champagne to provide a touch of luxury and a bit of effervescence and excitement on the tongue.