To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen, we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.
Golden words he will pour in your ear
But his lies can’t disguise what you fear
For a golden girl knows when he’s kissed her
It’s the kiss of death… from Mis-ter…
Pretty girl, beware of his heart of gold
This heart is cold…
He loves only gold!
The first film in the series, Dr. No, did an exceptional job establishing the template for a Bond villain. Dr. Julius No had an island fortress, a stylish layer, an army of henchmen, a few key soldiers with a gimmick, a sinister plan and a physical deformity, all of which would become fairly key ingredients for an archetypal Bond baddie. That said, Joseph Wiseman only appear on-screen in the role for about twenty minutes, so the audience actually got relatively little time to know him. The follow-up, From Russia With Love, also had a set of memorable bad guys, but the interaction with Bond was limited to the final few minutes of the film. (That isn’t to suggest those few minutes weren’t fantastic.)
On the other hand, we actually spend most of Goldfinger with Auric Goldfinger, and he’s the first villain in the series who has a number of extended interactions with our hero.
Of course, you could argue that Auric Goldfinger really established the habit of thematically-appropriate naming for Bond baddies. His obsession with gold is so fundamental to the character that it’s built into his name. “Gold”-finger is rather obvious, but “Auric” is an adjective that means “of, relating to, derived from, or containing gold.” The word is rooted in Latin, which gives the character’s name a third gold-related aspect. The first two letters of his name (“Au”) are also the symbol for gold on the periodic table, derived from the Latin “aurum”, which is also the root of “auric.” So, just in case you didn’t get it, Auric Goldfinger likes gold. He really likes gold.
The fetish seeps into every aspect of his life. His hair in Fleming’s novel was red, here it’s blonde. His dressing gown for his card game in Miami? Gold. The hair colour of all the Caucasian women he employs, from Jill Masterson to Pussy Galore and her flying circus? Golden blonde, of course. When he crushes a gangster in a car containing several gold blocks, that puts him out of action for the afternoon. He apologises, “Forgive me, Mr Bond, but I must arrange to separate my gold from the late Mr Solo.”
Like a lot of Goldfinger’s actions over the course of the film, one wonders why he didn’t just ask Oddjob to remove the gold from the car before he crushed it. After all, Solo was dead and unlikely to complain. Perhaps, like the rest of Goldfinger’s somewhat contradictory actions, it just allows the man to show off, feeding into his desire for attention and his demands for respect. Perhaps he just gets a giddy thrill at the idea that his gold blocks have mingled with a mushed-up gangster.
Fleming’s novel was more overt about the character’s sexual habits, but the films is somewhat coy about Goldfinger’s sexual proclivities. Bond asks both of Goldfinger’s primary golden girls about the “services” they provide for the villain. When Jill claims she’s paid to help him cheat, Bond counters, “Is that all?” She answers, “And for being seen with him.” When Bond pushes the point, she clarifies, “Just seen.” When Pussy explains that she’s Goldfinger’s “personal pilot”, Bond cheekily asks, “Oh? Just how personal is that?”
To be fair, it’s unlikely that Pussy is sleeping with him, given her fiercely independent nature. (In the novel, of course, she’s a lesbian, but that’s barely suggested here – avoiding some of the unfortunate implications of that scene where Bond seduces her.) Jill Masterson, on the other hand, could be lying. The novel suggests that Goldfinger’s fascination with gold extends to the bedroom, painting prostitutes gold. However, I actually have little trouble believing that the film version of Goldfinger is completely asexual. His motivation and urges are all driven completely by gold, so that sex itself seems less than important to the man.
Another aspect of Goldfinger that makes him fascinating as a character, and contrasts him with Julius No, is the fact that he’s presented as something of a spoilt child. Kingsley Amis made a very logical argument that the best villains of the novels represented stern father figures, cast Bond as a rebellious youth. Here, the dynamic is somewhat reversed. While Goldfinger very clearly holds power over Bond for most of the film, and his laser threatens to castrate Bond, he’s still presented as much less of a sophisticated and calculating presence than Doctor No was. He seems, at times, like a small child unable to control his own urges. Doctor No had moments of ego and pride, but he mostly masked them well. Goldfinger makes no such attempts to control himself. He boasts, he covets, he exposits at great length. When he wants something, he acquires it; when he has it, he wants the world to know.
Of course, Goldfinger is very much an Ian Fleming bad guy. Fleming’s books are preoccupied with class and distinction – to the point where the villain’s “stock” is as likely to identify him as a bad guy as his plan for mass murder. In From Russia With Love, Bond identified an enemy agent using the man’s wine selection, and at the start of Goldfinger he proves himself quite the brandy critic. Bond is very much a tasteful and classy gentleman, despite his occasional brutality. In contrast, Goldfinger is very much presented as nouveau riche, somebody who stumbled into a fortune and has little idea of how to use it “properly”, as Fleming would describe it.
He’s crass, vulgar and tasteless, believing that his fortune buys him social status. When he asks what Pussy plans to do with her cut of the robbery money, he answers his own question, “Move to England, I’d suppose.” It just seems logical that to Goldfinger that she’d try to buy status, like he does. He can’t fathom that Pussy would want to retire quietly away to privacy from the world. What’s the point in money if you can’t flaunt it? He even employed Jill Masterson “to be seen with him” as a means of improving his own social standing.
Note his conduct during the golf game. He skips Bond on one tee box. “But it’s your honour, sir,” Bond’s caddie protests as Goldfinger prepares his shot. It’s not clear if he’s flouting the rules, or simply oblivious to them, despite owning the club. He seems to have some difficulties with the basics of the game, including putting his ball on a tee. His outfit almost looks more like a parody of a golfer than something a player would actually wear.
When Bond is taken to the modestly-named “Auric Stud”, Goldfinger introduces him to a horse. “Lovely animal, isn’t she?” the villain asks, politely. “Certainly better bred than the owner,” Bond responds, bringing up the recurring notion of a villain’s “breeding” as an important trait for the film series and the title character. There’s a sense that Fleming is trying to convince us that there’s something inherently wrong with Goldfinger, something intrinsic in his background and character.
Of course, Fleming’s Bond sees right through him, and hones in on his vile nature, as reflected in the standard Fleming tropes. As with a lot of Fleming’s character introductions, it’s a bit on the nose, particularly with the comparisons to Napoleon and Hitler, but it’s fascinating:
Bond always mistrusted short men. They grew up from childhood with an inferiority complex. All their lives they would strive to be big – bigger than the others who had teased them as a child. Napoleon had been short, and Hitler. It was the short men that caused all the trouble in the world. And what about a misshapen short man with red hair and a bizarre face? That might add up to a really formidable misfit. One could certainly feel the repressions. There was a powerhouse of vitality humming in the man that suggested that if one stuck an electric bulb into Goldfinger’s mouth it would light up. Bond smiled at the thought. Into what channels did Goldfinger release his vital force? Into getting rich? Into sex? Into power? Probably into all three. What could his history be? Today he might be an Englishman. What had he been born? Not a Jew – though there might be Jewish blood in him. Not a Latin or anything farther south. Not a Slav. Perhaps a German – no, a Bait! That’s where he would have come from. One of the old Baltic provinces. Probably got away to escape the Russians. Goldfinger would have been warned – or his parents had smelled trouble and they had got him out in time. And what had happened then? How had he worked his way up to being one of the richest men in the world?
In a way, Goldfinger stands out as one of the definitive post-national bad guys for these early films. Dr. No and From Russia with Love were built around the Cold War. In the former, Julius No was shooting down American missiles and rockets; in the latter, Bond was handling a Russian defector. Goldfinger, on the other hand, seems like a movie that isn’t defined by those politics. The film establishes the globe-trotting element of the franchise, as Bond follows Goldfinger across Europe and America, rather than anchoring the action in one setting.
It’s telling that the key part of Goldfinger’s plan is a nuclear warhead, the device that emerged from the end of the Second World War and cast a shadow over the rest of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first. Gert Fröbe is superbly cast in the lead role, and the use of a distinctly German actor reflects Britain’s insecurity about post-War Europe. Although Goldfinger conspires with international powers, his motivations aren’t political. (Theirs, admittedly, are.) His reason for planning “Operation: Grand Slam” isn’t to cripple the United States, merely to increase the value of his own gold stockpile.
He self-centredly dismisses the potential casualties of his violence as unimportant. He doesn’t dismiss Bond’s repulsion over the cost his scheme in human lives, instead half-heartedly countering, “American motorists kill that many every two years.” It seems to reflect the character’s childish selfishness. That many people die anyway, they might as well die to help me. All over a plan to increase the value of something he already owns a huge amount of. When asked just how many times the strike will multiple his net worth, he answers, “I conservatively estimate ten times.”
Then again, Goldfinger is a character motivated by childish pride. Ten thousand dollars was a phenomenal amount of money in the sixties, but it pales in comparison to his net worth. And yet he’s so fixated on winning that he would readily cheat to do so. And, when he’s called on it, he’s so vindictive that he cold-bloodedly murders the woman he hired to help him cheat. When Bond raises the suggestion that the United States might try to stop his strike on Fort Knox, the character responds in an incredibly petty manner.
“If the authorities should attempt to locate it, who knows where it might be exploded?” he asks. “Perhaps the Polaris submarine pens at New London, Cape Kennedy, near the White House.” He’d sacrifice countless civilian lives and do massive damage to the nation because they dared to spoil his fun. In many respects, Goldfinger seems like an over-grown child accustomed to having everything go his way. When things don’t go as he plans, he lashes out with vindictive fury.
Even his politically-motivated allies note his lack of self-control. “It would be wiser to suspend your other activities,” his nuclear expert advises. Goldfinger doesn’t engage with the criticism, but instead tries to casually dismiss it. “Mr Ling, please assure your principals Operation Grand Slam will have my undivided attention…” And yet, he continues to indulge his desire to show off and brag about his possessions and prowess, as if flaunting his wealth validates his social status.
That is, after all, the only way to justify the briefing he gives to the mobsters explaining Operation: Grand Slam, save for the fact that the script needed to outline his plan to the audience. He kills all the gangsters anyway, but it seems a rather inefficient way of relaying information. However, it makes perfect sense for his character, who desperately wants to prove his own superiority, and to boast about all his fancy possessions. “I did enjoy your briefing,” Bond comments. Goldfinger responds. “So did I.”And, in the end, it seems that’s all that matters to Goldfinger.
It also explains why Goldfinger keeps Bond alive. Even if Bond knows about Operation: Grand Slam and has told his employers, it makes more sense to kill him and deal with the next secret agent who is sent along. However, Goldfinger spares him. One senses that it’s because Goldfinger gets giddy at the idea of owning Bond like a prized stud. He certainly thinks of his employees as possessions. The mute Korean handyman he employs doesn’t even get a proper name. Goldfinger calls him “Oddjob”, something you’d call a pet. “I’m still training him as a caddy,” Goldfinger boasts, as if speaking of a dog.
I think that Goldfinger really typifies a particular type of Bond villain, one with the overstated opulence and the scenery-chewing theatrics. For all that Julius No defined the template of a Bond baddie, he kept a relatively low-profile. Bond didn’t even know he was looking for Dr. No when he flew out from London. In contrast, many of the later Bond villains would have already established themselves as overtly theatrical, and owe a great deal to Auric Goldfinger’s stage presence.
I think it’s impossible to overstate the influence that Goldfinger had on the generations of baddies who followed, building on and enhancing the expectations for a big-screen Bond villain. I’d argue that he also created the “Bond villain as child acting out” archetype that would inform a lot of the portrayals that followed, perhaps reflecting that the films were products of a different time than most of Fleming’s earlier stories.
After all, Goldfinger would be released in cinemas in the same year that Fleming passed away, and the film series would continue through to the present day. In order to reflect a changing world, some shifts in emphasis were necessary, and I think that Goldfinger perhaps lays out the template for what a future Bond villain might look like. While the film portrayal of this villain is quite in line with Fleming’s take on the character, I think quite a few of the Bond villains that followed were more heavily influenced by the film version of Goldfinger than by their own portrayal in the source material.
You might be interested in our other Bond villain character studies:
- Doctor Julius No (Dr. No)
- Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
- Ernst Stavro Blofeld (You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever)
- Francisco Scaramanga (The Man With The Golden Gun)
- Aristotle “Aris” Kristatos (For Your Eyes Only)
- Max Zorin (A View to a Kill)
- Franz Sanchez (Licence to Kill)
- Alec Trevelyan (GoldenEye)
- Elektra King (The World Is Not Enough)
- Le Chiffre (Casino Royale)
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | Adolf Hitler, auric goldfinger, bond, China, Fort Knox, Goldfinger, ian fleming, james bond, James Bond in film, Joseph Wiseman, Julius No, List of James Bond henchmen in Goldfinger, napoleon, Nazi, Pussy Galore, world war ii