Once again it is time for Fleming Revisited, the Last Movie Outpost quest to re-read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels in order of publication and discuss them here. You can read all of our previous entries here starting with Casino Royale, Live And Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia With Love, and finally Dr. No.
This movie is classed as important by movie historians and Bond fans alike. It is considered to be the movie where the Bond template, that would serve the franchise well for decades, was fully embedded.
This could well be true. However, I am almost unique among Bond fans in that I just don’t like the movie. It’s not a bad movie. For me, it just does not rank in the top five where most other Bond fans put it in their lists.
When Last Movie Outpost spent time early in the pandemic to rank and review all of the Bond movies in order of preference it was only placed 12th out of 24. Below Tomorrow Never Dies and Quantum Of Solace. This, of course, caused some debate.
I stand by it. It is over-rated. Miami and Kentucky are dull locations and the movie’s stand-out scene is a golf game. The character of Bond is just a passenger in his own movie who gets repeatedly bested and captured and actually achieves nothing in the end.
It’s Pussy Galore who alerts the authorities and thwarts the slaughter at Fort Knox, and it’s an engineer who disarms the bomb. Even Oddjob is technically defeated by his own hat, and Goldfinger is killed because he can’t shoot straight in a pressurized aircraft.
Does the book fare any better? Well, read on! But first, as is customary in these columns, some history, and background.
The Man With The Midas Touch
Fleming wrote Goldfinger in January and February 1958, and it was published the following year. Fleming was developing the character of Bond further now, after flirting with killing him off at the end of From Russia With Love.
This is evident in the more complex character we find in this novel.
At the start, a borderline melancholy Bond is, where else, at the bar. This time he is in Miami airport waiting for his connecting flight from Mexico. It was here that the events portrayed in the movie’s famous pre-title sequence occurred. They are just told as memories and reflections for Bond as he ruminates on the nature of his chosen profession.
A drug-smuggling operation in Mexico is the result of an interesting sign of the times. Opium has just been outlawed in 1950s Britain. This leads to the creation of smuggling operations.
Bond is uninterested as he believes that this prohibition has created the crime, as it always was. Indeed, the start of the investigation into the network centered on a British importer who was only involved because his addict sister was suffering.
Bond has gone a little off mission. Instead of gathering evidence to imprison the importer, he has scared him off as the importer was over his head with Mexican growers and cartels. He has, however, destroyed the opium stockpile with the thermite bomb and killed the capungo, the bandit paid to kill him.
He quickly pushes his regret at the mission from his mind, coldly assessing:
“It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it. As a secret agent who held the rare double-O prefix – the licence to kill in the Secret Service – it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional – worse, it was death-watch beetle in the soul.”
This adventure starts when his flight is canceled and he is recognized at the desk by Junius Du Pont, a rich American businessman who shared the table at the Casino Royale with Bond. He knows Bond is an expert in gambling. As they are stranded in Miami for 24 hours he makes Bond an offer. A suite at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, all expenses paid, to help him out with a problem.
He is losing badly at canasta to a fellow guest, a rare metals dealer named Auric Goldfinger. Knowing the averages in canasta would usually work out to an even split, he does not know how he keeps losing and suspects Goldfinger is cheating. Watch the game, tell Du Pont how he’s doing it, and he will pay him and fund his stay.
With nothing better to do Bond agrees. So begins something that is familiar to those who have seen the movie. Yet it is also very, very different. There are some key differences that make the experience interesting enough to the reader, no matter how many times they may have seen the movie
A Spider’s Touch
The deviations come thick and fast. First of all, Bond meets Goldfinger in the flesh before the canasta game. He tells Goldfinger down the radio that it’s him, and instructs Goldfinger what to do when he discovers Jill Masterson in Goldfinger’s suite feeding him cards.
There is no gold corpse at this stage, like in the movie, that happens later and Bond never sees it. The story is relayed to him as a third party.
In the book, there is no Red Chinese. Goldfinger is a SMERSH asset using his cover to pay operatives all over Europe. He is also working on something on the side.
The book remains very much a product of its time. Pussy Galore’s role is pivotal, she is not just a damsel in distress or incidental. However, her lesbianism is overt in the novel in a way not even hinted at in the movie.
One major purpose she serves is to be seduced by Bond, thus proving Bond’s total masculinity as he is able to seduce a lesbian. Fleming was known to have opinions on lesbianism very much of his time, the 1950s, and he claimed their:
“…sexual confusion is attributable to women’s suffrage…”
This opinion is shared by Bond who is detailed as having:
“…felt the sexual challenge all beautiful Lesbians have for men.”
Straight into the files marked “It would never be written today!” like many of Fleming’s attitudes that come across in a lot of his work.
Tilly Masterson, out for revenge for the death of her sister, is also a lesbian, but not as overt as Galore. She yearns for Galore and plays a much bigger role than in the movie. When the finale arrives, she believes Galore will protect her.
This novel is also notable as we witness Bond’s sense of humor developing that was adopted and adapted in the movies as one-liners and quips. He toys with Oddjob for fun, taking every opportunity to put him down.
This is where the accusations of racism sometimes leveled at Fleming become apparent. Bond makes reference to:
“…putting any other Korean firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.”
This is the only time in the series that Bond openly disparages an entire race so blatantly, so it is hard to argue against this being racism in this instance. Goldfinger’s decision to have a staff almost entirely of Koreans is also bordering on racism as he considers them as effective serfs.
Speaking of Goldfinger himself, he follows the villain pattern that has been developing ever since Moonraker and Hugo Drax, in that, enemies and villains have physical abnormalities. In Goldfinger’s case, it is his physical proportion that is the issue.
“…everything was out of proportion. Goldfinger was short, not more than five feet tall, and on top of the thick body and blunt, peasant legs, was set almost directly into the shoulders, a huge and it seemed almost exactly round head. It was as if Goldfinger had been put together with bits of other people’s bodies. Nothing seemed to belong.”
Goldfinger’s biggest crime though, in the eyes of Bond and therefore by extension Ian Fleming? Simply being short.
“Bond always mistrusted short men. They grew up from childhood with an inferiority complex. … Napoleon had been short, and Hitler. It was the short men that caused all the trouble in the world.”
Anthropologist Anthony Synnott studied the Bond novels and noted that villains are always foreign. So far they have been Russian, German, Jewish, Chinese-German or Slav. Fleming’s snobbery comes through, in Synott’s opinion, in all his works and especially in Goldfinger where:
“Ugliness, evil, and foreignness go together, complementing and reinforcing each other. Ugliness symbolizes evil and evil is symbolized by ugliness and foreignness.”
The writer Anthony Burgess covers Fleming’s villains at large in his works. He details them as being, without exception:
“…impossible villains, enemies of democracy, megalomaniac…”
Burgess considers Goldfinger the most extravagant villain of the series. Bond Author Raymond Benson concurs stating Goldfinger is Fleming’s most successful villain up to that point in the series.
Of course, Ernst Stavro Blofield is yet to enter the fray.
Interestingly, Goldfinger has a gold-colored cat. In the books, Blofield did not have his trademark cat at all. That cat is lifted from Goldfinger and turned into one of the enduring tropes of the James Bond canon, entirely attributed to a different villain.
Fleming portrays Goldfinger as a cheater at cards and golf, who does not smoke or drink. Therefore, to Fleming, he is an untrustworthy, inhuman lowlife. He does, however, pay prostitutes a lot of money to paint them gold, always leaving room for the skin to breathe, until he famously doesn’t.
Golden Words He Will Pour In Your Ear
We mentioned in the last Fleming Revisited that the last novel we covered, Dr. No, was where the villains and their plots became more fantastical. The trend the movie series seized upon and accelerated.
This trend is continued here as, even though a laser is replaced with a circular saw, the final aims of Goldfinger are extraordinary and the denouement is also in line with everything from the movie versions of You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker. You see where they lifted their Bond DNA from.
The book is structured into three sections, in line with a phrase used by Goldfinger in the movie and the novel – “Happenstance”, “Coincidence” and “Enemy action” – which is how Goldfinger considers his series of seemingly random meetings with 007.
The globetrotting is present and correct too, as Bond himself moves from Mexico to Miami, via New York to London, then through Kent and France to Switzerland. He then returns to New York, on to Kentucky, back to New York, Washington, and finally in a plane off the Atlantic coast of Canada.
The fate of the villains is changed somewhat from the movie, as is Pussy Galore’s final part in the outcome.
So, To A Review
As mentioned above, I am guilty of some kind of Bond Blasphemy by not rating Goldfinger, the movie, very highly. I stand by that. It’s almost a caricature of Bond, which of course it was as it’s the template for what Bond eventually became.
However, it is not as hauntingly beautiful as Thunderball, as exotic as You Only Live Twice, or as tense and lean as From Russia With Love.
I fear that I am doomed to repeat that pattern here. Everyone seems to love it, but I just don’t. It’s perfectly fine. It’s enjoyable and interesting and a breeze to read. However, I didn’t love it. Coming off From Russia With Love and Dr. No it all feels a bit familiar and lightweight to me.
Maybe my own life, split mostly between America, South East England, and Europe means I find those locations too mundane to excite. I did not have a problem with Moonraker though, set not too many miles away from where I type this right now.
Also I always consciously shy away from judging works from the past through the lens of today or trying to align my beliefs with those from days gone by.
That said, the description of the Koreans as being “…lower than apes…” generated an “Ooof!” from even detached, cynical me.
Same with the attitudes on display towards lesbianism as simply being something to be cured by the power of Bond’s sheer masculinity. Wish fulfillment from Fleming through his character? Had he once been rebuffed by a lesbian? Or lost a lover to one? An interesting historical investigation may be in order.
Maybe I am just miserable? I don’t know. I just don’t get it. I don’t dislike the novel. It just doesn’t excite me as it does many fans and Fleming scholars. Exactly the same as the movie.
Seeing Bond in a company-issued Aston Martin is great. Although it is the DBIII model and totally lacking in any special features besides the tracking system. No machine guns, oil slicks, or ejector seats are anywhere to be found. These are purely an invention of the movies.
I like this version of Bond though. Loosened up, somewhat fatalistic with a touch of melancholy. This gives way to a sense of gallows humor that reflects the movie humor, however, doesn’t veer into quip territory as the movies do.
All in all, I do feel it will be a while before I revisit this book, just like with Diamonds Are Forever. In the meantime there is a collection of Bond short stories to tackle next before, finally, the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. trilogy arrives with one hell of a bang.
Fleming Revisited Will Return In…
For Your Eyes Only.