Below the Surface: James Bond and the Oedipus Complex
Good films have subtext, and James Bond films are no exception! This is the fourth part in a series of articles that take a look at the subtext of various James Bond films. To date, we've looked into From Russia With Love, You Only Live Twice and, most recently, GoldenEye.
In this fourth article, we'll take a look at 1964's Goldfinger.
James Bond and the Oedipus Complex
The Subext of Goldfinger
By John Cox
While I’ve made the case that YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, and GOLDENEYE demonstrate a conscious use of subtext, I do think ALL the Bond films operate on a similar basic subtextual level that may or may not be intentional on the part of the filmmakers. The fact that these movies are so ritualized and appear to be ageless tells us they are not simple spy movies. When you get right down to it, I think James Bond films are very much modern representations of what Freud called the Oedipal stage of development, namely, the unconscious anxiety male adolescents deal with when challenging their all powerful fathers in a struggle to find their own way in the world and, most importantly, emerge with their own woman—which is the reward for completing the Oedipal “mission.” (But it can’t be Daddy’s woman because to sleep with “mommy” is a cosmic mistake that results in destruction, i.e., the ritual sacrificial lamb.) That’s why I feel the best Bond villains must be older than Bond (something Eon seems loathe loath to do lately) and why Bond films first appeal to boys at around age 14. It’s in adolescence that we play out our own inner Oedipal/separation dramas, and Bond films help us deal with the exotic "outside" world. Like fairy tales, we repeat the basic story over and over without variation and until we “grow out” of them. That's why some older Bond fans feel the Bond films "stopped working” after some particular point/film in their past. It’s not that the films stopped working (that’s obvious from the new fans), it’s that they grew up and are no longer are able to connect emotionally with the films on their most powerful subtextual level.
So which film best displays this Oedipal subtext in its most archetypal form? That’s simple. It’s the film that’s frequently held up as the archetype of all Bond films — GOLDFINGER.
Incredibly, GOLDFINGER starts right off with Bond admitting to cabaret dancer Bonita, “I have a slight inferiority complex.” (!) Sure, he’s making a quip, but it’s strange quip for Bond to make. By having Bond say this, the filmmakers, whether they meant to do it or not, establish the very existence of psychological “complexes” in the world of James Bond. And guess what? At its root, an “inferiority complex” is an Oedipal complex. So one has to ask, "To whom does Bond feel inferior?" You only need to look at the film’s title to answer this question.
Auric Goldfinger is clearly a father figure and Bond clearly a "son" in this film. Just compare their cars. Both cars are British but clearly of a different era. Goldfinger drives a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, old world power derived from wealth. Bond drives a brand-new Aston Martin DB5, a symbol of “youthful” sexual power. In fact, Bond’s car is more than sexual; it’s turned into an object of fetish via amazing gadgets. The only extra on Goldfinger’s Rolls is Oddjob, and yes, Oddjob is the physical representative of Goldfinger’s sexual power. But more on this later.
The core of the Oedipal drama is the hero's/son’s relationship to women and the danger/anxiety he faces when stepping into this most sacred realm of Daddy’s sexual power — going after his “gold,” so to speak. GOLDFINGER goes out of its way to play every beat of this subtextual theme. In fact, the inciting incident of GOLDFINGER is not a massive crime or a compelling mystery but the massive Oedipal mistake Bond makes in sleeping with Goldfinger’s woman (metaphorical Mommy). Am I nuts, or does Bond seem to truly love Jill? There’s that lingering close-up of her in bed… and the love scene in Bond’s suite seems more domesticated than normal. I mean have we even seen Bond in a kitchen before? And Bond’s Beatle remark (“That’s like listening to The Beatles without earmuffs”) has always seemed out of character for him. Complaining about rock and roll music is something an old man does, not a young, modern man like Bond. But that’s because Bond is trying on Daddy’s role in this sequence; therefore, the line is perfect. It’s also the last thing Bond says. He’s suddenly knocked unconscious by a mysterious hand (the phantom hand of Daddy Wrath?), and when he awakes, we have the most famous image in all Bond history — Jill has been killed. More than killed, she has been reclaimed, smothered by Goldfinger’s power (his gold), and turned into his eternal object. Goldfinger is sending a powerful message to Bond here. Dead or alive, this woman is mine. It’s a bit creepy that the most famous and iconic image of this film (so iconic, it’s used on the poster) is of a dead woman. But this speaks to the power of this scene. Bond is truly shaken by this, and for the rest of film, he will tread very lightly around women.
Almost secondary to Bond’s own psychodrama is the plot of GOLDFINGER. “This isn’t a personal vendetta, 007,” warns M. But, of course, it is because Bond’s official mission is perfectly in line with his Oedipal mission. Find out where Daddy gets his power — his gold. Gold clearly symbolizes power in this film, a power that Bond DOESN’T have. “You’ll draw it from Q branch in the morning,” scolds M when Bond reaches for the bar of Nazi gold at the Bank of England (yet another symbol of old world power). Moneypenny even reminds us that wedding rings are made of gold. She does this, by the way, as she deftly tosses Bond’s hat onto the hat rack — a demonstration of power usually reserved for Bond. Powerful, in-control women abound in GOLDFINGER — it’s one of the reasons the film feels so contemporary.
One thing that has always amazed me about the Bond-Goldfinger relationship is that they KNOW what each is trying to do to the other yet they play a sort of bizarre civil dance. It’s not unlike a rebellious teen who sits at his father’s dinner table, secretly wishing to stab him with a steak knife, and the father who accepts his son’s murderous intent because he knows the son is not yet “man enough” to take him. So as in such social dynamics, Father and Son do “battle” via sports. In GOLDFINGER, they play golf. And what’s the prize? Gold. Power. But we know the gold bar is not Bond’s to gamble with. It’s a dangerous bluff on Bond’s part. It’s also correct subtextually because, if Bond really had such power, he’d have no need to be the “assassin” of his father (or fathers as is the ritual of the Bond films go).
After Bond wins, Goldfinger must reestablish the balance of power by demonstrating that he too possesses a measure of Bond’s sexual power, perfectly represented in his henchman Oddjob. Oddjob cuts off the head of a female statue, beautifully evoking what he did to Jill. And whether it be killing women or decapitating statues, it’s not a problem for the Goldfingers of the world because they “own the club.” Touché. Bond may have won the game, but he’s still a youngster in Goldfinger’s world. Here’s some pocket change, sonny. Now, go away.
Danger then arrives in the form of a woman. Tilly Masterson is a mystery to Bond, and Bond goes to great lengths to check her out. What’s your last name? Where are you from? In other words, do you belong to him? What Bond discovers is she does, indirectly, belong to him because she’s Jill’s sister. Once this fact is revealed, Tilly is killed, again by Goldfinger’s penis substitute (there, I said it), Oddjob. The boys all stop playing gunfight and rush to her side, where Bond seems truly traumatized. Again, his choice of the wrong woman has doomed her; and this time, he didn’t even get to sleep with her. Castration? Well…
Do I need to go on about how the laser table is a castration device? There’s nothing subtextual here — it’s literal! Goldfinger is going right for the source of Bond “power” as Bond has gone after his. And somehow this feels right. Had Alec Trevelyn done this to Bond, it would have felt thematically wrong (it’s why the best Bond villains have been father figures — something Fleming certainly understood). What’s surprising about this scene is Bond does not escape. Goldfinger spares him. Goldfinger holds control the whole time, and it’s Goldfinger who turns off the laser power. Bond’s sexual power is now a gift from Daddy — and a conditional gift at that.
Having made a deal with Daddy, the son awakens to find himself rewarded with a prostitute! “My name is Pussy Galore.” (I mean, if that’s not the name of a prostitute, what is?) Again, Bond is very careful about ascertaining Pussy’s sexual relationship with Goldfinger before he does anything. When Pussy tells him she’s “Mr. Goldfinger’s personal pilot,” Bond asks, “Just how personal is that?” I always thought this was strange thing to ask, and a little rude, until I understood the subtext at work here. After being made impotent by the laser table deal, Bond needs to know whether Pussy is the ultimate insult or possible salvation for his sexual ego? Indeed, the filmmakers go out of their way to show us that Pussy is NOT Goldfinger’s lover — just the opposite, in fact. Goldfinger wants her but can’t have her. “No trespassing,” is her motto. (In the book, Pussy is a lesbian; it’s up to interpretation whether she is or isn’t in the film. The “I’m immune” line is highly suggestive as is her “flying circus” of fellow female “pilots.”)
Once Bond establishes that Pussy isn’t Goldfinger’s sexual “employee,” he pursues her aggressively. What better way to establish yourself as a man than by conquering a woman Daddy can’t have? But Bond discovers getting your own woman is not as easy as stealing one that’s already been broken in by Daddy. Here’s where Goldfinger embraces its adolescence a little too closely. In the novel “The Spy Who Loved Me,” Fleming has the main character, Vivienne Michel, say, “All women secretly want to be raped.” Unfortunately, Goldfinger offers up this as the logical solution to Bond’s dilemma. Like it or not, Bond physically forces himself on Pussy in a way that he’s never done in any film. The barn “fight” feels weird to me. It’s oddly unBond and completely unsexy. But this act of violence does the trick, and Pussy is INSTANLY converted. Even for a Bond film, this feels ridiculous. It’s GOLDFINGER’s most uncomfortable and naïve moment.
Having restored his sexual potency, Bond is ready to complete his mission now. Tellingly, Bond’s “conquest” of Pussy occurs after he has discovered the ultimate source of Goldfinger’s power (an A-bomb). With Pussy as an ally, thwarting Daddy’s latest “cheat” is not as impossible as first imagined. But Bond’s final struggle is a physical one. He must battle the extension of Daddy’s sexuality, namely Oddjob. Bond does this by showing a superior understanding of the “source” of power as he literally overpowers Oddjob by electrocuting him. (It’s interesting that the movie opens and closes with Bond killing someone via electrocution.)
Having “killed” off Daddy’s potency, Bond does not seem to sweat his final encounter with Goldfinger. Appropriately Goldfinger is now costumed in a military uniform that isn’t “his,” a rather desperate attempt at masculine power, and is holding a gun made more feminine by its gold plating than powerful. It always tickles me when poor emasculated Goldfinger tells Bond that Miss Galore is "where she belongs — at the controls.” Damn right she’s at the controls! And those are Goldfinger’s last words before he’s sucked through the impossibly small space of the aircraft window in a sort of bizarre reverse birth death. Goldfinger is more than dead. He’s erased from existence.
“This is no time to be rescued,” says Bond at the end of the film. That’s right. Because having accomplishing his most important mission — liberating himself (albeit temporarily) from his own Oedipus Complex — Bond is free to enjoy the ultimate reward: pussy galore.