Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Goldfinger (James Bond #7)

Goldfinger, by Ian Fleming
No date stated (1965)  Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1959)

For some reason I never read this seventh James Bond novel as a preteen in the late ‘80s, even though Goldfinger was one of my favorite movies in the franchise. I had it on VHS and I recall watching the movie a lot in the summer of 1987. My assumption is I could never find the book back then, either in one of the new Charter editions or in an older edition at the local second-hand bookstore (the Paperback Exchange of Lavale, Maryland – I sure do have a lot of fond memories of that place!). Somehow I arrived at the idea that the book and film were pretty much alike, and now that I’ve actually read the novel all these years later I see that I was mostly accurate – while the film does appropriately hype up the action and the spectacle, it does at least follow the general setup of the novel. 

But one thing that’s changed over the years is my appreciation of the film. Today I’d judge Goldfinger as my least favorite of the original Connery films…yes, even lower than Diamonds Are Forever. I picked up all the movies on Blu Ray some years ago and watched them in succession, and Goldfinger I found to be a proto-Roger Moore spoofy romp. Also the finale really bugged me; as a kid I was somewhat able to suspend my disbelief at the climax, but as an “adult” I found it all ludicrous. And there was a lot of nonsensical stuff in the film, like Goldfinger patiently explaining his plot to rob Fort Knox to a bunch of hoods, and then killing them off. I guess if you were being lenient you could say he was getting rid of the competition, but it’s not like any of the hoods were planning to rob Fort Knox themselves. It was just a lazy way the producers doled out exposition for Bond and the audience. My favorite part – I think even when I was a kid – was actually the pre-credits sequence, of Bond in scuba suit (and then white tuxedo) raising some hell in South America. 

So going into the novel I had low expectations, which turned out to be fortunate. Goldfinger wasn’t as subpar as Casino Royale, and it wasn’t as boring as Moonraker, but still it just seemed like an “off” installment of the series. In fact it pretty much confirmed my suspicion that if you are a bestselling author, you can get away with anything: Goldfinger trades on coincidence (lazy coincidence at that), features a protagonist whose mood changes with the pages, takes forever to build up to anything, and climaxes in a finale that is preposterous at best. At least the movie included a little more sex and violence; Bond doesn’t even kill anyone in the novel until the very final pages. And once again he doesn’t even fire his Walther PPK, so heavily introduced in Doctor No; he didn’t fire it in that one, either. The pistol only appears early in the novel, when we learn that Bond conceals it in a “thick book” titled The Bible Designed To Be Read As Literature, a real-world book that was published in the 1930s. No mention is made if Bond’s actually reading this book; one would assume not, as it’s hollowed out to hide his gun. Which he doesn’t even use. Again. 

The novel opens with my favorite line in the series yet: “James Bond, with two double bourbons in him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.” This leads into a moody sequence in which Bond reflects on his just-completed assignment in Mexico, where he killed a heroin smuggler with his bare hands. Fleming effectively nails a depressive vibe as Bond, in flashback, muses over death after killing the man, how the man’s soul has so clearly left his body. The assignment has left Bond in a bit of a funk, and the character here is a far cry from the one who craved action in Doctor No. But then, Bond will go through several personality changes in Goldfinger, from a moody assassin in the opening to a bitchy boss at headquarters (where he snaps at a secretary for bringing him tea instead of coffee), before Fleming finally settles on making him, basically, the prefigure of Sean Connery’s take on the character, doling out sarcastic rejoinders to Goldfinger and his minions. 

In future Bond novelist Raymond Benson’s The James Bond Bedside Companion (1984), Benson too states that Goldfinger is a “weak” novel, but enthuses over its characterization. He also states that this book shows more of an inner view of Bond than the previous novels, in particular his tendency to daydream. This is certainly true; much of the narrative is comprised of Bond speculating how such and such things will occur, even stuff like how he might pick up a girl along the road. I guess this is one interesting element of the book, yet at the same time I would’ve preferred more pulpy action thrills along the lines of Doctor No. Benson also notes that in Goldfinger James Bond first begins “to take things less seriously,” and I guess he means mostly in regards to Bond’s sudden penchant for sarcasm and quips. I agree with him that this comedic element is “much needed” in the series, and I have a suspicion that much of this paved the way for the film take on the character as later devised by Sean Connery and director Terence Young. 

But man the plotting sure is lazy. After his two double bourbons Bond is approached by a Miami-based businessman who apparently sat beside Bond some years ago, during the big gambling match in Casino Royale. This is a guy named Du Pont, and he takes up a good portion of the first quarter, shuttling Bond around Miami and putting him up in a nice hotel, one Du Pont owns. Fleming was very much in an egalitarian mood when he wrote this one and thus it is filled with Bond wining and dining, with a host of French cuisine namedropped in the middle half. Here he feasts on crab with Du Pont, and Fleming’s culinary detail is enough to stir the reader’s appetite. But man you get the impression that Bond has to put on at least a few pounds in the course of Goldfinger, because it seems all he does is eat and drink booze, and smoke a ton of Chesterfields. And it’s not like he sees much in the way of physical action. 

While Du Pont was removed from the film, the producers captured the essence of this opening half. Only here in the novel it’s Du Pont who first alerts Bond to Auric Goldfinger, a man Du Pont suspects is cheating him at cards. Given Bond’s card-sharkery, Du Pont figures Bond will be able to help him out; he even mentions that he’s heard Bond is in the secret service! Gert Frobe was so memorable as Goldfinger in the film that I couldn’t imagine anyone but him as I read the novel. So far as Fleming is concerned, Goldfinger is big and round, with a moon-like face and red hair, using a sunburn to “camouflage” his ugliness. Despite being super rich he still finds the time to swindle Du Pont, all as in the film, with a lovely girl up in his room monitoring the action and telling Goldfinger Du Pont’s cards via a secret radio link in his ear. One thing different here is that when Bond barges into Goldfinger’s room and discovers the girl, Jill Masterton (Masterson in the film), she’s standing, so that she can see over the balcony. 

Jill is pretty much the typical Bond-girl, young and pretty with “firm breasts” that are clearly visible in her black lingerie; true to Bond-girl fashion, she makes her entrance mostly nude, which Kingsley Amis noted was required for most every Bond-girl in The James Bond Dossier. Fleming though has reigned in on his exploitation this time; “breasts” are only infrequently mentioned, and in fact for long stretches of Goldfinger there are no female characters at all. It’s as if Fleming realized he’d created such a vivid female character in Doctor No and didn’t even bother this time. For as it is Jill Masterton spends a few days on a deluxe train to New York, all courtesy Goldfinger as part of Bond’s “payment” for not turning him in to the cops, but Fleming gives no details – we flash forward a week and Bond’s back in London, only reflecting on the trip with the girl. Meanwhile he’s working the night duty, monitoring international Secret Service happenings…and, as mentioned, bossing around the staff. 

The novel is set up as three books: Happenstance, Coincidence, and Enemy Action. In this “literary” way Fleming attempts to gussy up what is just lazy plotting. For Bond is given his assigment by M – himself as bitchy as ever – and it is of course to track down Auric Goldfinger. The first section of the book has nothing to do with this; M is unaware Bond has already met Goldfinger. Instead it’s developed that Goldfinger hoards gold, and he’s got a lot of England’s gold, and the Bank wants it back. Bond is to track him down and bring him in. There follows a grueling part where Bond learns a lot about gold and Fleming is damned determined to let us know how much research he’s done on the topic. Bond gradually – and I do mean gradually – learns that Goldfinger’s vanity has undone him, as he’s put his own mark on his special bars. 

An interesting thing in the novel that’s not in the film is that Goldfinger is part of a larger plot. The film jettisoned the SPECTRE setup of the previous two movies, with Goldfinger just a random crook Bond went up against. But in the novel we learn that he might be the paymaster for SMERSH, the literary Bond’s archenemies in these early novels. I find it curious that the producers of the film didn’t stick to this and have Goldfinger act in a similar capacity for SPECTRE. As it is, Goldfinger is one of the more memorable characters yet. He doesn’t have the wild freakishness of Doctor No, but he’s more entertaining, a totally arrogant bastard who, despite cooking up the ultimate crime, still finds the time to swindle people at cards and cheat at golf. 

This was another part that bored me, though. I mean overlong card games, info-dumping about gold, and and overlong golf match…I have no interest in any of these things. But regardless Fleming’s very much into it as he writes a long match of golf between Goldfinger and Bond on the course that Bond frequented as a teenager. The egalitarian vibe is very thick in this section of the novel. While the match itself bored me, I enjoyed the presence of Oddjob, Goldfinger’s hulking Korean butler – more wonderful casting by the producers, as Harold Sakata was so memorable in the role that I could only imagine him in the novel. We learn that Oddjob is one of the “only three” people in the world to have a black belt in karate; as Benson said in The Bedside Bond, “surely there were more than three people in 1959.” Regardless, Oddjob’s karate skills, demonstrated for Bond at Goldfinger’s command, are presented as so superheroic that Bond offers his hand in congratulations. 

That is, when Bond isn’t making sarcastic comments as to the spectactle. In the latest personality overhaul, Bond here develops an acidic whit, very in line with the film version. My favorite part is after Oddjob does one of his karate masterstroke moves, devastating some piece of furniture or somesuch, and Bond quips, “Handy chap to have around.” If I’m not mistaken this line made it into the film. But a part that didn’t make it into the film follows, where Goldfinger caters to the Bond template and wines and dines Bond at his massive estate – this sequence has Bond at his most sarcastic, so it’s surprising it was left out of the film. There’s a part where Bond turns into a snoop, as Goldfinger and his Korean minions leave on some errand, and it’s clearly a setup to see how trustworthy Bond might be if left alone in Goldfinger’s house. This sequence features the unusual capoff of Oddjob being given a cat to eat! 

There’s a lot of what now would be termed “racial insensitivity” in Goldfinger; during the meal Goldfinger regales Bond with his thoughts on Koreans, speaking of them as less than human. This is expected of a villain, but more suprisingly Bond himself is revealed to share these sentiments: later in the novel Bond thinks to himself how he intends to put “Oddjob and any other Korean firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.” As Raymond Benson notes: “So Bond is revealed to be a bigot as well. This aspect of his character is not particularly evident elsewhere in the series, though one should notice that 95 percent of the villains in the novels are non-British. But this is the only instance in which Bond/Fleming actually derides a race.” For more insight into this particular aspect of the series, I once again suggest Ian Flemings Incredible Creation. But yes, there’s a lot here that might unsettle modern readers…but then I want to think overly-sensitive types wouldn’t be reading the Bond books in the first place. At any rate, I predict that someday soon these novels, if they’re still in print, will either be edited for content or, more likely, will come with warnings over “outdated racial and gender views.” 

And to be fair to Bond, perhaps by “Koreans” in the passage above he doesn’t mean Koreans in general, but these Goldfinger-servants in particular. Whatever, his suddenly-keen wit is on definite display in this sequence, especially his glib comments as Oddjob hops around smashing furniture and tossing his steel-rimmed hat. This was the first time in the literary series in which I could really see Sean Connery’s take on the character, mostly because there’s a macho bravado lurking behind Bond’s retorts. But the literary Bond lacks the physicality of Connery’s version, even if we learn that Bond’s working on a book about unarmed combat in his spare time. This from the guy whose chief move in Casino Royale was kicking people in the shins! None of the famous action scenes from the movie are in the book, however, nor is the tricked-out Aston-Martin with its machine guns and oil slicks. 

But again, this sequence does factor into the novel, just in less big-budget style. Bond gets his Aston Martin DB III from the shop – there’s no Q in the novels to show off fancy new gadgets – and “motors” through the French countryside as he tails Goldfinger. The car’s augmentations are a hidden compartment and a tracking device that allows him to stay within 100 miles of Goldfinger, a steady beep emitting from the dashboard. The egalitarian vibe is very thick here, with a plethora of French smattering the text as Bond thinks of this or that restaurant he wants to eat at as he drives along. There’s absolutely no suspense here and it’s as if Bond’s a decades-removed host of some Food Network show as he drives around the French countryside, thinking of places he’s eaten before. Things are spruced up by the appearance of a Triumph sportscar, driven by a beautiful young woman – which leads Bond into yet more daydreaming. 

All follows as in the film, though not as over the top; Bond realizes the girl is getting in his way, so manages to get her in a fender bender to stop her. This leads to her riding in the car with him, and there’s more humor here as the tracking device is still beeping in Bond’s car, and Bond comes up with some b.s. explanation for the sound. Everything is more subtle in the novel, and I had to give the producers credit because they delivered a better story in the film than Fleming did. Mostly because they wisely exploited the material that Fleming himself left vague. For example, the most memorable image of Goldfinger the film is the gold-painted body of Jill Masterson, which a horrified Bond discovers. In the novel, this never happens. The Triumph-driving babe turns out to be Tilly Masterton, Jill’s sister, and it is she who tells Bond that her sister was later murdered by Goldfinger, who totally painted her body gold. It’s all relayed via dialog, Fleming apparently never realizing that the moment would be so much more impactful if the reader were actually to see it. 

And the great action scene that occurs in the film isn’t in the novel, either; Bond discovers Tilly, who is about to kill Goldfinger, and in the movie version this leads to a big action sequence involving Bond’s tricked-out car. Tilly Masterson’s onscreen fate is also much different than Tilly Masterton’s in the novel. And the character is different, even in addition to the changing of her last name: the Tilly of the movie is another of Bond’s conquests, but in the book she’s a lesbian and has no interest in him. (And, once Bond’s learned Tilly’s proclivities, he displays no further sexual interest in her.) Again the novel plays out in more threadbare fashion; Bond and Tilly are merely captured, and next thing Bond knows he’s strapped to a table and Goldfinger is interrogating him. Here Goldfinger truly becomes a villain in the Bond mold, delivering some delightfully “evil” dialog, all while maintaining his pompous air. The novel’s more brutal in this respect: in the film, it’s a laser that threatens the bound Bond. In the novel, it’s a saw. 

But that’s another thing Fleming was constantly guilty of but which the filmmakers wisely fixed: the literary Bond is always being saved by someone else, whereas the film version more heroically saves himself. Bond in the film manages to bullshit Goldfinger and talks his way out of it; in the book, Bond tries to will himself to death and then passes out…only to wake up and find himself on an airplane. More daydreaming from Bond here, as he imagines he’s in heaven, with lots of ridiculous stuff about how he’ll need some time to set himself up in the afterworld! Goldfinger has decided to keep Bond and Tilly alive, for reasons that make no sense: he’s planning a big caper, and he needs to native English speakers (or somesuch) to handle the secretary work. Bond, who of course wants to live, takes the job. There follows super goofy stuff where Goldfinger, now in pure villain mode, assembles a host of American mobsters and tells them of his plan to rob Fort Knox. 

All this is very reminiscent of the hoods in Diamonds Are Forever, and in fact the new leader of that novel’s gang appears here, but Fleming does absolutely nothing to exploit it. Again, it’s another opportunity he misses to add more suspense and drama to the book. Instead much is given over to bald exposition as Goldfinger explains his plan, and meanwhile Bond obediently sits there and marks a list as to which of the mobsters he thinks Goldfinger shouldn’t trust! Here also we meet the most famously-named Bond-girl: Pussy Galore. She is much different than the film version: short black hair and “violet” eyes. It’s also established straightaway that she too is a lesbian, and in fact her all-girl gang, The Cement Mixers (of whom we see absolutely nothing of in the novel!), is also made up of lesbians. There’s no big “meet” between her and Bond in the book; she merely sees him when coming in for the meeting with the other mobsters, and there’s none of the Bond-girl template in effect for her, as there was for Jill Masterton. Indeed, Fleming hardly tells us anything about Pussy Galore, and her ample charms are not exploited at all; Bond clearly disregards her because he’s told she is a lesbian. 

However, Tilly Masterton does take a shine to Pussy Galore, and vice versa. What’s curious is that Pussy, in her very few dialog exchanges with Bond, refers to him as “Handsome.” This appears to be Fleming’s half-assed way of setting up the finale, but it rings hollow. So too does the playout of Goldfinger’s scheme. Bond, in Goldfinger’s plane, hides a message explaining the plot and begging that the note be taken to Felix Leiter at Pinkerton’s, offering a reward. He hides the note beneath the toilet seat in the restroom and then sits there as everyone in the plane goes back to use the can before landing, desperately hoping that none of them will raise the lid and discover the note(!!). I mean the idiot couldn’t even wait until closer to landing to hide it! From there to the same implausible finale as in the film, with the citizens of Fort Knox lying dead in the streets, thanks to the water Goldfinger has poisoned…only for it all to be revealed, so implausibly, as a massive city-wide sting on Goldfinger and the mobsters. 

Fleming goes all the way with his ludicrous concept, complete with Felix Leiter, a private investigator, dressed up in army fatigues and toting a bazooka, which he hands over to Bond...who takes a shot at Goldfinger’s departing train. Oh, it’s all so dumb. There follows some “bromance” between Bond and Leiter as they exchange manly put-downs on Leiter’s fast driving as Leiter takes Bond to the airport. But our hero is ensnared again, leading to the same post-climax as in the film; he’s Goldfinger’s prisoner, on Goldfinger’s plane. Here Fleming sees if he can pass off yet more implausibility, with Pussy Galore, who has had maybe a handful of dialog exchanges with Bond, suddenly announcing that she is “with him.” Here, at the very end of an overly-long novel, Bond finally kills: first he uses the blade hidden in his shoe heel to smash a window so one person is sucked out of the fuselage, and next he strangles someone with his bare hands – perhaps an allusion to the opening flashback in Mexico, in which Bond also killed with his bare hands. 

And here mercifully Goldfinger comes to a close; Pussy Galore snuggles up with Bond once they’re safely in a hotel. Bond says he thought Pussy didn’t like guys, to which she responds she’s never met a “real man.” This of course has truly bunched the panties of modern readers; even in Benson’s 1984 study the sequence is questioned, but not nearly as mockingly as it is today. And speaking of future Bond continuation novelists, Anthony Horowitz was so incensed by all this that in his 2015 novel Trigger Mortis, which was set immediately after Goldfinger, he went out of his way to correct this “deeply, deeply offensive” aspect of the novel. (Where would leftists be without their adverbs?) Indeed, in true “capri pants & soy latte” fashion Horowitz went even further in his novel, having Bond be chastised for his “homophobic” sentiments by an openly gay fellow secret agent (in 1959!!). I imagine reading Trigger Mortis immediately after Goldfinger would demonstrate how quickly society has changed in just a few decades, but I’ll never read it – this review tells me all I need to know. 

I guess in the end all I really liked about Goldfinger was the sudden gift for sarcasm Bond had, and also the big scenes from the movie that were here, only in somewhat muted form: the discovery of Jill Masterton in Goldfinger’s room, the Aston Martin, Oddjob and his deadly hat, the interrogation of Bond, and of course Pussy Galore. But I still feel the filmmakers took these elements and did so much more with them. And speaking of Pussy (couldn’t help myself), my issue isn’t so much her abrupt about-face on the whole gay situation, but that Fleming did so little to set it up. I mean she isn’t in the book enough to get worked up over; even in the assault on Fort Knox, when Pussy is dressed in an (apparently) form-fitting black leather outfit, Fleming does nothing to exploit her. She’s just another mobster in a final third that’s filled with mobsters. But then suddenly she’s not only willing to risk her life to aid Bond in the finale, but she’s also jumping into his bed. It isn’t so much insulting as it is half-assed. Raymond Benson also has insightful commentary on this, comparing and contrasting the fates of the two lesbians at the end of Goldfinger, how Tilly Masterton runs away from Bond and how Pussy Galore runs to him. 

Well anyway, I didn’t much like Goldfinger, but still it is a James Bond novel, so I recommend it – and, if you do decide to read it, be sure to listen to my Music To Read James Bond By compilation while doing so!

1 comment:

Johny Malone said...

I read it a long time ago, I don't remember it well. Goldfinger has a narcotic, dreamlike vibe (is Fleming under the influence of drugs these days?), which is broken when Tilly talks about Jill's "golden" death. I liked that horror moment, it breaks the dream of Bond and the reader (I differ with you, it is more suggestive to listen to it than to see it, at least in the reading). I think Fleming should have written a novel about Pussy Galore and her girls (was she inspired by his mistress back then?).