Thursday, July 17, 2014

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

I'll save my full commentary about the movie Goldfinger until we get there, but Fleming's novel is a lot like it in more than just plot and characters. Both versions mark a significant shift in tone for their series. I'd forgotten that was true for the novel as well as the film.

Fleming introduces the idea right away. The book opens with Bond in Miami, waiting on a connecting flight after a particularly hairy and violent mission in Mexico. Most of the first chapter is Bond's sitting in an airport lounge, brooding about the assignment over his double bourbon. That's not at all unusual for the Bond we've come to know over the series so far, but Fleming throws in a twist at the end of the chapter and has Bond thinking to himself, "Cut it out. Stop being so damned morbid. All this is just a reaction from a dirty assignment. You're stale, tired of having to be tough. You want a change." And that's exactly what Bond - and his readers - get.

As if on cue, an American millionaire named Du Pont approaches Bond and recognizes him from their time together in Casino Royale. He and his wife sat next to Bond at the baccarat game against Le Chiffre and Du Pont wonders if Bond might be available to help him out with another situation involving cards. Du Pont is being swindled at Canasta by a man named Goldfinger and wants Bond to help him get back at the cheater. Bond's already facing an overnight layover anyway, so he accepts.

I don't want to recap the whole plot, but if you've seen the film you know that M has a case waiting for Bond involving Goldfinger when Bond returns to London. It's even more a coincidence in the novel than in the film, but Fleming makes it work by giving the book such a light tone that a big, opening coincidence isn't as jarring as it would have been in a more serious story.

Several things work to give Goldfinger a breezier feel than the previous novels. For one thing, like in the movie, the gadgets have been cranked up a couple of notches. When Bond tries to get closer to Goldfinger by posing as a bored playboy in search of direction, he requisitions a sporty Aston Martin DB III from Q-branch to drive instead of his own, classy Bentley. It comes tricked out too, though not with oil slicks and ejector seats. It's gadgets are more realistic: reinforced bumpers, secret compartments, a radio pick-up for his homing device, that kind of thing. Bond also makes good use of shoes with knives that come out when he detaches the heels.

And of course, the bad guys get some gadgets too, particularly Oddjob's famous, steel-rimmed bowler. For that matter, Oddjob himself livens up the book. He's an awesome henchman - the best in the series so far - with more personality than the film version, though he doesn't speak any more than the movie Oddjob does. The literary Oddjob isn't just a hulking brute, he's a martial artist and a master with the bow and arrow as well as his lethal hat.

Even so, Oddjob isn't as great a villain as his boss. Auric Goldfinger is Bond's best villain so far too, in part because Fleming gives him and Bond so much time together. As Bond keeps inserting himself into Goldfinger's business, they have many opportunities to talk and get on each other's nerves. The dialogue between the two of them is the best part of the novel. Goldfinger is an amazing criminal mind, but he's so delightfully arrogant about it that it's a blast watching Bond try to poke holes in his bluster.

My favorite line in the book is Bond's response when Goldfinger brags that if Oddjob used the appropriate blow on any one of seven spots on Bond's body, the spy would die instantly. "That's interesting," Bond deadpans. "I only know five ways of killing Oddjob with one blow." There are lots of lines like that and what we're seeing in Goldfinger is the introduction of the quipping James Bond that the films are so known for.

This easier attitude shows up in Bond's relationships with women too. He's been described as a womanizer in the series, but we've never actually seen him just hook up for its own sake without spending a lot of time with a woman. When he meets Goldfinger's secretary, Jill Masterton, Bond fixes it so that Goldfinger has to let Jill accompany Bond on his train ride from Miami to New York. He doesn't realize yet how deadly Goldfinger is, so he and Jill spend the trip having sex and it's obvious that the relationship isn't any more than that to either of them.

Pussy Galore is usually thought of as the "Bond girl" from Goldfinger, but the novel really doesn't have a single, romantic interest for the spy. He meets Jill's sister Tilly in France while she's pursuing Goldfinger (Bond doesn't find out until much later about Jill's death by gold paint) and she sticks around a lot longer than she does in the film, but she's a lesbian and not at all interested in Bond. For that matter, Pussy is too, which should have ended Bond's sexual activity in the book right there, but unfortunately, it doesn't.

The novel's huge weakness is Fleming's attitude towards lesbians, which is a product of its time, but still inaccurate and awful to modern readers. Bond leaves Tilly alone once he learns her preference, but Fleming can't let the book end without Bond having a reward for a job well done, so he has Pussy become heterosexual at the last minute. Pussy had been flirting with Bond for a while, so I hoped I'd be able to read her as bi and be done with it, but Fleming makes it very clear that this isn't the case. She explicitly tells Bond that she only liked women because she'd never met a real man before and that her lesbianism was the direct result of being molested as a child. She makes a complete personality change from being an awesome, wise-cracking scoundrel to being all fluttery and girlish with her new hero. I wish that was all of it, but there's also an earlier scene in which Bond thinks about Tilly and expresses his extremely dated thoughts on homosexuality and gender identity in general.

Back to more positive things though, when Bond learns about Jill's death, he's deeply hurt by it. One of the advantages that the books have over film is getting to spend so much time in Bond's head. In the movies, women Bond sleeps with often end up dead and it usually seems like he doesn't care that much. That's not the case in Goldfinger and it's a nice continuation of the less selfish Bond we started to see in Dr No. Even though Bond's hook up with Jill had no attachments, he still liked her and it devastates him that Goldfinger murdered her because of something Bond did. His relationship with Tilly is also surprisingly gentle and protective once he realizes that romance is off the menu.

Another example of Bond's developing attitude towards women is some delirious thoughts he has when waking up after thinking he and Tilly were about to be killed. This is before he knows Tilly's a lesbian, so he wonders about Heaven and whether Tilly is with him and how awkward it'll be if Vesper is there too. It's kind of a silly scene, but it's also important because it shows that - at least subconsciously - Bond is still concerned about what Vesper might think. He still feels some loyalty to her, which means that he appears to have forgiven her a little. It's been a gradual change, but this is a different Bond from the dark, extremely angry person at the end of Casino Royale and the beginning of Live and Let Die.

One last thing, because I'm still trying to track Fleming's mentions of Bond's childhood and where Bond's being an orphan was introduced. The famous scene in which Bond and Goldfinger play golf takes place at a club near Goldfinger's English home, which happens to be the club where Bond learned to play as a teenager. Fleming doesn't explicitly say that Bond grew up near there, but does state that Bond played there "two rounds a day every day of the week." Like with the childhood teas he remembered attending in Diamonds Are Forever, Bond appears to have had a privileged youth, which is hard to reconcile with the angry orphan of the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig films.

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