Notes on the passing of Walter Becker

My father’s two favorite bands were the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. He listened to their records with obsessive devotion, so growing up I was inundated with their tunes. I didn’t share my father’s passion for the Doobie Brothers, but I was quickly hooked on Steely Dan. As early as age five, I was laughing along to “Monkey In Your Soul,” the final track from 1974’s Pretzel Logic.

That same album served as my gateway into Steely Dan fandom and Steely Dan became one of the few things my father and I shared. My father took me to see them in Camden just after the release of Two Against Nature. It was my first concert. I would see them six more times after that.

Walter Becker was the less visible half of the Steely Dan equation. Lead singer Donald Fagen had the spotlight and the more prolific solo career, but Becker was every bit Fagen’s partner. Their songwriting career was really just a series of in-jokes between two weirdo soulmates who saw the world through with same skewed humor.

Love or hate Steely Dan, they were utterly and defiantly unique. Their funky, literate, hilarious lyrics and rigorous musical perfectionism resulted in textures that belong only to Becker and Fagen. Their prophetic vision of American life bridged Watergate to the rise of the digital era, a black comedy nightmare with an irresistible groove.

The last time I saw Steely Dan was during a miserably wet and chilly evening at the Mann Center. My wife and I wore ponchos and froze to death as the band rocked on. During “Hey Nineteen,” Becker delivered a rambling monologue that had become a kind of Steely Dan tradition. Bootleg recordings of it exist, but they fail to capture its good-hearted feeling, the way it existed in a feedback loop with the audience’s own enthusiasm. You just had to be there.

Walter Becker will never be there again. As with the death of any beloved artist, his passing carries an awful finality. That’s all there is, folks. I still hoped that we might get another Steely Dan album. But a good run is a good run, and it was a very good run indeed.

Here’s to you, Walter.

Inherent Vice

There’s nothing novel or clever in noting that Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film, Inherent Vice, owes a great deal to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, but you also can’t ignore their relationship. They’re variations on the same theme, fragmented detective stories that see the noir trailing off into the ill-defined haze of 1970s America. They share visual motifs, too, such as their fascination with the inscrutable, overwhelming ocean, filmed in wide shots where human beings appear extraordinarily fragile.

Anderson’s attentiveness to that fragility has been his great strength as a filmmaker, but his films have struggled to build discrete moments of human observation into works of dramatic and thematic momentum. In Pynchon’s novel, Anderson finds a structure that makes sense of his appetite for controlled chaos, allowing him to chase the emotional and psychological undercurrents that have always been his primary fascination within a functional narrative structure. 

Inherent Vice offers an epic portrait of political and personal confusion, a story powered by the energies of human irrationality. Its vision of American history is all too recognizable: a random collision of desires and agendas that forms a comprehensible chain of events but denies us the comfortable coherence of unified conspiracy.

In the midst of the madness, desperate people try to survive and maybe even find peace of mind. That Inherent Vice suggests that there might be a way to get past the darkness stands in contrast with Altman’s bitter Long Goodbye. This also has the effect of making Inherent Vice the more melancholy, moving film; tragedy hurts more when it doesn’t feel inevitable.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part X

The high-stakes poker game has only just begun, but now Casino Royale takes a break from the card table. Somewhat burdened by blockbuster expectations–the days in which Bond could deliver a low-key, relaxed thriller like From Russia with Love now firmly in the series’ rear-view mirror–Casino Royale never lingers too long on the card game itself. Accordingly, this film adaptation of Casino Royale fails to capture sonething of the atmosphere that Fleming’s novel conjured up with its memorable opening lines:

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling–a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension–becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

Of course, Fleming knew he couldn’t sustain his thriller on atmosphere alone, and threw in some narrative devices to heighten the suspense (including a failed bomb attempt, and a tense moment involving a gun disguised as a cane). Fleming’s devices are more subdued and better-integrated into the game itself than the film’s equivalent sequences, though, to the film’s credit, this next action beat serves as an indispensable component of the film’s structure, and proves to be one of the defining sequences of the entire Daniel Craig era.

With the help of Mathis, Bond bugs Le Chiffre’s inhaler, grabs Vesper, and collects his gun from the front desk. Bond’s intent here remains somewhat vague, but Bond clearly intends to use Vesper to maintain a viable alibi for whatever follows.

Surprising both Le Chiffre and Bond, Obanno has arrived to threaten Le Chiffre and recover his money. Never before has a Bond film so thoroughly humiliated its primary antagonist as Casino Royale humiliates Le Chiffre here, and it’s a credit to Mikkelsen that Le Chiffre can both seem utterly out of his league against Obanno while still retaining an air of menace. Indeed, this just accentuates Le Chiffre’s sense of purpose by pushing him closer to the brink.

Le Chiffre’s relationship with his henchwoman/lover Valenka has a chilly air; they interact as though they’re robots. Le Chiffre certainly doesn’t care enough about her to stop Obanno from nearly mutilating her, and while Valenka seems loyal (even after Le Chiffre shows that he’s willing to sacrifice her to save his own skin), she doesn’t display any sign of affection.

When Bond and Vesper are discovered (their cover is blown when Bond’s earpiece is spotted), they become entangled vicious close-quarters brawl in a stairwell. Just how vicious the brawl feels depends a bit on which cut of the film you’re seeing, due to minor edits that were made for the film’s theatrical release in major markets.

Casino Royale is not the first Bond film to allow a Bond girl to be distressed by the violence of Bond’s world (GoldenEye has Natalya confront Bond about it), but it is the first to suggest that this violence can result in legitimate psychological trauma. Vesper emerges from this encounter with Obanno somewhat broken by the experience. Bond doesn’t emerge unscathed, either, but he’s also a professional killer; he buries the memory with a glass of whiskey and re-emerges at the card table, exchanging barbs with Le Chiffre as though little happened. But Vesper isn’t part of Bond’s world. He finds Vesper, in a sequence seemingly inspired by Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, alone, sitting in the shower with her clothes on.

The scene was originally scripted (following after Alfredo Garcia) to feature Vesper in the nude. Eva Green smartly objected, and her argument with director Martin Campbell over the moment was settled when Craig also took her side. We’re lucky that Green won the debate, since the alternative possibility feels rather icky, particularly given the structures of masculine fantasy that undergird the Bond character and his world.

Bond joins Vesper in the shower, cleaning the imagined blood off her fingers with his mouth. It’s an awkward gesture that Craig plays awkwardly, and in its sheer strangeness and clumsy physicality it gives some weird humanity to Craig’s man-child Bond, as though he’s fumbling for a way to relate to Vesper in this moment of grief.

So Bond turns the water temperature up and together they sit beneath the spray, neither one knowing how to process the moment or its implications.

Thoughts of the Week

A more substantial post is forthcoming (yes, it’ll be the next “Facts of Death” installment), but I wanted to share some miscellaneous thoughts I’ve had this week (you can always keep up with my more spontaneous ramblings over on Twitter).

 

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967, Charles Chaplin)

It may be the case that late-period Chaplin is, in fact, the best Chaplin.

I watched the stunning region-free Italian Blu-ray release of Chaplin’s final film, A Countess from Hong Kong. Peculiar, but profoundly great, A Countess from Hong Kong feels utterly unburdened by any sense of obligation. Indeed, Chaplin, at the end of his career, had nothing left to prove, and A Countess from Hong Kong mingles the sheer pleasure of cinematic invention with an old man’s sense of regret and longing. There’s something of Tati in its comic antics (in fact, Tati’s Playtime arrived the same year), but the emotional momentum behind this tale of desperate people finding solace in one another remains uniquely Chaplin.

 

 

The Theatrical Experience

The arrival of Dunkirk and its limited 70mm IMAX film presentation has ignited a new heated chapter in the unending debate over the future of theatrical exhibition.

Watching Eyes Wide Shut and A.I.: Artifical Intelligence in theaters earlier this year served as a keen reminder of how much more vibrant a film can be when viewed on the big screen, when the image fills up your entire field of vision and the sound penetrates to the core of your being. But those films were by Kubrick and Spielberg, masters of their craft.

Few contemporary films benefit from theatrical exhibition in the same way because few mainstream filmmakers seem to care about building films for the big screen. Even films that are ostensibly spectacle-driven feel increasingly designed for the television.

Of course, the difference between a movie theater and a home theater is no longer quite so stark. In even just the past ten years, home theaters have substantially improved in picture and sound quality. By the same token, movie theater quality has diminished, with rampant indifference to picture and sound quality throughout the industry. Theater ticket prices have also risen relative to personal income, while the cost of owning films has generally dropped; films are often cheaper to own than they are to see in a theater. When it comes to contemporary theatrical exhibition, we often end up paying more for less.

If theatrical exhibition will survive as a popular, widespread mode of engaging with cinema, it will be because theaters offer films people want to see in a way they want to see them at prices they find reasonable.

 

 

Cinema and Sound

Circling back to Dunkirk, the topic of the week, everyone is once again discussing and debating the merits of Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker.

I find Nolan to be as fascinating and inventive as he is frustrating and clumsy; he chases intriguing thematic and structural preoccupations while remaining utterly indifferent to aspects of filmmaking about which I care a great deal.

Richard Brody (our wonderfully-mad prophet-critic) tweeted:

If Nolan really believed in images—in his images—he wouldn’t use such overwhelming music or seat-rumbling bass like a high-budget Wm Castle.

This accurately captures something of Nolan’s priorities, but I’m reluctant to embrace the implicit “image > sound” valuation here. Cinema’s aural qualities are woefully under-appreciated by the critical community in general. We lack a robust language for describing and evaluating how sound and music informs the cinematic experience.

At any rate, any time when Nolan’s merits are a topic of conversation is a great time to consider this David Bordwell piece.

Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye

You can easily lose yourself in the labyrinthine corridors that lie just beneath the facade of the American dream. Philip Marlowe, private investigator, has been there and back. He’ll guide you through the maze, if you’ll let him. All you have to pay is the price of a paperback novel.

But what if the the labyrinth changed? What if familiar landmarks Marlowe recognized had worn away by the ravages of history? What if the old tunnels collapsed in on themselves, while new passageways appeared amidst the rubble? In such a strange landscape, maybe even the great Philip Marlowe could lose his way. This is the scenario of Robert Altman’s 1973 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

In the Raymond Chandler novels, Philip Marlowe serves as a counterpoint to a withering world dominated by the hunger for money, power, and sex. He’s a clear-eyed lone wolf with an incomparable wit. He’s perpetually indifferent to money, has nothing but distaste for power, and will take sex when offered but will not be mastered by it. For all the world’s violence, Marlowe remains genuinely sentimental, an idealist-turned-cynic. In choosing a life of near-poverty, he has also chosen to be insignificant. As a lowly bum investigator, he has more power than the police detectives he encounters in his journeys. He doesn’t have to play politics, he doesn’t have to make peace with the system. He can choose his own road.

But being your own man doesn’t buy you happiness. Marlowe ends nearly all of his tales melancholy and alone. The Marlowe stories are an ongoing chronicle of tragic desire. The cases Marlowe solves inevitably reveal the sad and petty motivations behind the desperate actions of troubled people–even the most savage people have their passions. In this regard, Chandler’s novels never spill over from cynicism to actual misanthropy.

Of Marlowe’s many misadventures, The Long Goodbye stands tall as the true masterpiece. Of course, Chandler’s Marlowe stories are so united in voice, tone, and theme that they are very much of a piece, and therefore any stated preferences regarding Chandler’s work likely says more about the individual reader than the works themselves. But while The Long Goodbye does not spin the most exciting or impressively-constructed yarn of Chandler’s career, this intimate portrait of relational decay nevertheless marks the apex of the existential melancholy that anchors all of Marlowe’s odysseys.

The focus in The Long Goodbye—despite detours with the police and the elite rich and a gangster or two—remains on failed romance, the subject of the novel’s two major intersecting plot threads. Story A deals with Philip Marlowe’s interaction with rich playboy Terry Lennox, a friend of Marlowe’s who escapes to Mexico (with Marlowe’s help) after the murder of his wife, Sylvia Lennox, for which he is a prime suspect. Once in Mexico, Lennox commits suicide. Story B involves Philip Marlowe’s interaction with bestselling writer Roger Wade, whose brutal alcoholism threatens to get in the way of his next bestseller. At the behest of Roger Wade’s editor, he agrees to help keep Wade functional, stepping into the midst of Roger Wade’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife, Eileen. Marlowe’s motivation is therefore twofold: Marlowe seeks to defend the reputation of Terry Lennox, whose innocence Marlowe seeks to prove (despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary), and to find what dark secret has driven Roger Wade mad.

Lennox, the story reveals, did not kill his wife, but has faked his death to start a new life (a move he made once before); like Mad Men’s Don Draper, he prefers reinvention to confrontation. Roger Wade is a sadder case. He was having an affair with Sylvia Lennox, prior to her murder, and in his most drunken moments, he believes he may have murdered her. Moving from lucidity to near-madness, Wade disintegrates until he is murdered by his wife Eileen, who, it turns out, was also responsible for the murder of Sylvia. Eileen, the third piece of the triangle, is more elusive than the other two major figures, a beautiful phantom whose motives only come into focus at the very end, when it is revealed that she was romantically betrayed at the hands of both Terry Lennox and Roger Wade.

Throughout all his interactions with these pathetic people, Marlowe keeps to his unwavering belief that Lennox was innocent, partly because he’s got a “reasonable amount of sentiment invested in him,” and partly because he has a gut-level feeling that Lennox could never commit the savage act of murder that resulted in Sylvia’s death. The novel rewards Marlowe’s belief: Lennox is innocent. But it’s far from a full vindication. Lennox is not, the novel reveals, simply a fool with a heart of gold. He’s also a runaway that has left a string of collateral damage. When Marlowe writes at the end of the novel that “he never saw any of them again,” there’s a sense of relief beneath the words.

This undercurrent of disillusionment made The Long Goodbye a good fit for the despairing American cinema of the 1970s. While Altman’s The Long Goodbye may be the best (or at least, the most interesting) riff on Chandler to emerge in the 70s, it was scarcely alone. Following in the years thereafter was Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (not a Chandler adaptation, but certainly fashioned after the Marlowe stories in shape, form, and tone, with an emphasis on political conspiracy that suited the era of Watergate), Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely (which played like a Marlowe mystery as written by Nathanael West: a ghostly world of decaying Hollywood glamor), and then, the worst of them all, Michael Winner’s The Big Sleep (which strangely changed the setting from Los Angeles to London, but nevertheless got some mileage out of Chandler’s dark undercurrents).

Robert Altman’s film adaptation remains, in its broadest strokes, faithful to Chandler’s text: it, too, features a Philip Marlowe who helps rich guy Terry Lennox escape after the murder of his wife, only to then get wrapped up in the domestic drama between Roger and Eileen Wade. But Leigh Brackett’s script dramatically rewrites the finale, giving it an even more cynical reveal: Marlowe was a patsy all along. Lennox did kill his wife, and, on top of it, was having an affair with Eileen Wade, which subsequently drove Roger to suicide. Lennox used and abandoned Marlowe without a second thought. This change simplifies and radically alters the thrust of Chandler’s text, subverting Marlowe as a hero. Marlowe’s violent response to these revelations resituates the character in the decade of Dirty Harry.

Altman’s The Long Goodbye opens and closes with renditions of “Hooray for Hollywood,” which self-consciously situates the film in the cinematic tradition of hardboiled detective stories (the most famous Chandler adaptation remains Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep). But Altman has little interest in recreating the period of studio Hollywood: the world of Altman’s The Long Goodbye is the Los Angeles of the early seventies, lost in the haze of pot smoke.

Altman’s cinema commits to a kind of naturalism and realism, insofar as it pursues grounded production design and naturalistic performances. But it revels in strange, found moments, and purposefully obscures or omits key narrative details. In Altman’s films, narrative breaks down and collapses (for examples, look no further than Short Cuts, where life seems little more than a string of strange coincidences and unmotivated changes, or at 3 Women, where identity is fluid and motivation is stubbornly unclear). For Altman, life is too random and overwhelming to be tidy or explicable. The Long Goodbye does not tip over into the narrative beffudlement that characterizes Altman at his extremes, but it nevertheless thrives on a sense of disorientation and dislocation.

The bravura opening introduces Philip Marlowe (played by Elliot Gould) waking up in a dreary apartment, stirred by the cries of his cat. What follows is Marlowe’s humorous midnight odyssey to the store to get cat food, intercut with footage of Terry Lennox driving to Marlowe’s place after the murder of his wife. What makes this modest sequence memorable, aside from Vilmos Zsigmond’s diffuse cinematography, is the brilliant soundtrack. The entire film is haunted by a single song played in endless variations, an imitation jazz standard entitled “The Long Goodbye” (written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer). This tune reappears again and again in endless variations, from muzak in the food store to a doorbell chime to a Mexican funeral march. Altman and editor Lou Lombardo construct this opening sequence in such a way that each of the various versions segues into the other as the location changes: the version on Marlowe’s radio segues into the version playing in the food store. It’s as if this has all happened before and will all happen again, with the lyrics almost goading Marlowe’s investigation onward, continually posing the question “Can you recognize the theme?”

Of course, Gould’s Marlowe doesn’t recognize the theme, because he can’t square the truth with his intuition and beliefs. As the ending of the film makes clear, he’s a sentimental leftover from an earlier era. If Chandler’s Marlowe was an insider, a verifiable expert on the tragedies of human life who nevertheless clung to the virtues of decency, then Altman’s Marlowe is an utterly lost man. His masculine appeal has dried up (a grocery store clerk mocks him for having a cat instead of a girl), his wisecracks seem more desperate and goofy than cool, and he turns out to be a terrible judge of character. He reacts to the pot-saturated world around him with amusement and befuddlement. He doesn’t even know how to handle the Wades’ guard dog.

Accordingly, The Long Goodbye avoids any of the immediacy and urgency that typically defines the detective story. It’s willfully, delightfully breezy, a vision of a sun-baked Los Angeles lost in the throes of drug-use and occasional brutality. To the extent that the story comes together, it comes together only in impressionistic bursts: an interaction with a greedy gangster or a brief argument between Roger and Eileen Wade. When the reveals finally stack up, it’s clear that the only reason that there has been any mystery at all is because Marlowe failed to see the obvious and ugly truth, that his friend was a murderer and a traitor, and has therefore been asking all the wrong questions.

Society, too, has turned ugly. The police are cynical and flout the details of the law to get their way, doctors are predatory monsters seeking to profit from rather than help their troubled patients, and hoodlums are out to shake down anyone they can for their money (in a deviation from Chandler, we don’t meet the elite upper class; in the 1970s, the rich family dynasties no longer had the presence that they once did). The youth are rendered completely powerless and indifferent by their constant consumption of pot, more interested in yoga than in anything going on around them. Everyone stumbles from one moment to the next, and in the midst of that confusion, there can be great brutality.

The film’s most savage moment occurs when a hoodlum shaking down Marlowe for cash—cash owed by Terry Lennox—demonstrates the depths of his depravity by smashing a coke bottle into the face of his mistress. The hoodlum claims to love her, and suggests that if he’ll do this to someone he loves, Marlowe can imagine what he’d do to someone he doesn’t even like. Love doesn’t mean much in The Long Goodbye, and the Coke bottle–an icon of commercialization, and its promises of “the real thing”–becomes a tool of vicious, shocking violence.

One man in The Long Goodbye knows and recognizes the truth about America, but it isn’t Gould’s Marlowe. The Long Goodbye actually belongs to Sterling Hayden’s Roger Wade. Of all the characters in the film, Roger Wade seems to be the one most directly lifted from the Chandler original. His enormous voice, his drunken rants, his existential despair: all of this goes straight back to Chandler. But with all the supporting characters withered or minimized (including his wife, Eileen, who was the master schemer in Chandler’s original, but becomes a more timid, fragile accessory to a crime rather than  a voracious femme fatale in Altman’s film), he stands even that much taller, more a force of nature than a mere man. Sterling Hayden’s ferocious performance ensures that he dominates the frame in every scene he appears, particularly when he’s dealing with the comparatively feeble Marlowe.

One of the film’s most memorable images depicts the gulf between them: a lonely Marlowe standing on the Wades’ beach, looking out on the incomprehensible ocean. But the drifting camera adds another layer: this is simply a reflected image in the glass doors of the Wades’ home. Behind the glass, the Wades argue. As seems to perpetually be the case in Altman’s film, Marlowe misses the significant moments, but Wade remains in the middle of it all, a miserable participant. He’s the insider, not Marlowe, and he acutely recognizing and feeling the pain of betrayal.

In the film’s bleakest moment, Wade commits suicide (another deviation from Chandler’s original, in which Eileen murders him). Wade throws himself out to that same overwhelming sea, and despite Eileen and Marlowe’s attempts to save him, he is swept out into the darkness. All that remains is his cane, which the ocean deposits back onto the shore. Marlowe cannot comprehend Wade’s motivations, and only moments later, Marlowe foolishly pleads with the police to reopen the Lennox case, believing he’s cracked it. They quickly shut him down.

Marlowe returns to the Wades’ home to find that Eileen has moved. His requests for her address are denied. He later sees her driving down the street with a strange, serene smile on her face, an inappropriate look for a distressed widow to wear. He chases after her, but is hit by a car. Again, he’s left in the dust by those who know the real story. To the extent that he survives The Long Goodbye, he does so by blind luck. When nearly killed by the money-hungry hoodlum, he’s saved by chance: the money is returned to the hoodlum by another source at the very moment when he is about to be killed.

In the world of Chandler’s America, which had been bent under the weight of two world wars, a hero could at least have a hint of sentimentality and survive. America might be decaying, but its ghost was still there. In Altman’s America, the America of Vietnam and Watergate, sentimentality makes you a fool.

How can a hero survive in such a world? Marlowe eventually does realize that Terry Lennox’s suicide was faked and that he’s alive and well. What Marlowe does in response to this discovery is his first bold, decisive act of the film: the cold-blooded murder of Terry Lennox. It would have been an unthinkable action for Chandler’s Marlowe, but Altman’s Marlowe has tired of being a patsy, a victim of predatory people. The only way to make sense of a brutal world might be an act of violence, whether against others or, as in the case of Roger Wade, against the self.

Having passed through the world of the 70s and re-emerged as a vigilante killer, Marlowe is celebratory, playing on a harmonic after his revenge-murder of Terry Lennox. He pays Eileen Wade no mind as she drives by and “Hooray for Hollywood” takes over the soundtrack. Marlowe walks down the road, having conquered the modern America. Perhaps he’ll return to the past; he’s more at home there.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part IX

Following Casino Royale‘s narrative reset, the film settles into a relaxed groove where narrative urgency doesn’t overwhelm these sequences of beautiful people talking and eating in beautiful locations. This rhythm hearkens back to the Fleming novels, which are largely structured around meals in exotic locations and the conversation that accompanies them. Casino Royale‘s “Montenegro”–actually the Czech Republic–is generally attractive, but lacks any true distinguishing features. If we can’t have the exotic, at least we get the luxurious. Following Casino Royale, the Craig films will unfortunately never again return to this pleasurable tempo, opting instead for the more propulsive feel that came to mark the Brosnan films (and, to an extent, the Dalton films before them).

Bond and Vesper’s primary mode of interaction, extending from their first meeting, remains feisty banter that contrasts their personalities and agendas. In this case of “opposites attract,” both characters somewhat represents the other’s idea of an enemy; for Vesper, Bond embodies the sexist, egotistical, reckless sort of masculinity she’s spent her career struggling against, and, for Bond, Vesper models the bureaucratic control Bond loathes coupled with controlled, powerful femininity.

Bond and Vesper’s “religion” exchange in the cab strikes the right balance of clever and playful, but Bond teasing Vesper about her codename being “Stephanie Broadchest” plays less well. This nod/send-up of the franchise’s penchant for outrageous female character names feels a bit too crass and blunt for this Bond, even taking his impish streak into account. This exchange does, however, reinforce Craig’s Bond’s abhorrence for codenames.

So when Bond and Vesper check into the hotel, he defiantly chucks aside all pretense of cover story. Craig’s Bond prefers to play the spy game as a clearly-defined match between himself and his foe, having little time for what he perceives to be half-hearted subterfuge that amounts to mere pageantry. We’ll see Craig’s Bond do this again and again in the ensuing films, even as a seasoned agent.

Bond’s car gets another upgrade: now MI6 gifts him with a gadget-equipped Aston Martin DBS V12. The in-story justification is that he requires an expensive car to reinforce his backstory as a high-stakes poker player, and the DBS also serves as a vessel for smuggling in his firearm across national borders (which Bond subsequently stores with the hotel desk clerk for easy access later, a clever touch showcasing Bond’s resourcefulness).

Bond and Vesper take the Aston for a spin to rendezvous with René Mathis, a charming character who is somewhat ill-used by this film and is downright abused by its follow-up, Quantum of Solace. Mathis recalls those seasoned, world-weary allies like From Russia with Love‘s Kerim Bey, allies who are largely exposition-machines given a bit of local color and the demeanor of a energetic uncle. Mathis’ first scene, in which he demonstrates his resourcefulness by having the local chief of police (Bond producer Michael G. Wilson, in his traditional cameo appearance) framed and arrested during an afternoon lunch with Vesper, may be his best; for the bulk of the film, he’ll be reduced to over-describing the events of the poker game for the audience’s benefit. But here, he has a sparkle in his eye as he gets to show off his own expertise.

In preparation for the big game, Bond surprises Vesper with a dress, stating that he wants to use her as a visual distraction for the other players in the game. But Bond becomes somewhat indignant when he finds that Vesper has pulled the same move on him, providing him with a chic dinner jacket, noting that his own dinner jacket simply isn’t fine enough to make him look like a millionaire. (The film leaves how Vesper was able to have the jacket tailored something of a mystery. I have always imagined that Vesper requested Bond’s measurements from MI6.)

This plays into a few major strands of the Craig-era’s interpretation of the character: the “working class” streak that we’ve seen the film toy with in the preceding scenes, as well as his place as the films’ primary aesthetic object. The film lingers on Bond as he models the Brioni dinner jacket for the first time, finally clad in the character’s iconic attire. Vesper affably laughs at him, a declaration of her triumph. Bond accepts the light rebuke. He knows he’s been bested. Indeed, Bond looks terrific as he strides into the casino with a panther-like gait that recalls Connery’s own unique movement.

He’s utterly unfazed by his first meeting with Le Chiffre, who greets him with the uneasy warmth of a gladiator greeting another before a tournament. Craig and Mikkelsen anchor all of the card-playing drama that follows, and director Martin Campbell and editor Stuart Baird do a truly wonderful job of simply building moments and exchanges just out of their expressions and gestures, constructing a rivalry that peaks during the film’s memorably nasty and intimate torture scene.

Vesper’s entrance interrupts the game. She wears the dress Bond purchased for her, but she’s unwilling to enter on his terms, choosing instead to be a distraction to Bond rather than the players at the table. Having reveled in the pleasure of seeing Bond’s physique framed by black-tie attire, the film allows us and Bond to observe Vesper in her striking dress. Bond’s open-mouth gape as she enters serves as yet another example of Craig’s under-celebrated ability to create comedy out of facial expression, something he plays with in all of these scenes where he is repeatedly challenged, frustrated, and enchanted by Vesper.

Shortly after Vesper’s entrance, Bond effectively halts the game to order his martini, a recipe taken straight from the Fleming novel (an unforgivingly hard blend of vodka and gin only slightly softened by Lillet Blanc). It’s yet another bit of distraction, as well as a declaration of Bond’s own personal affectations. As much as the moment showcases Bond’s character, the bit I always remember most belongs to Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter, whose “keep the fruit” achieves a sublime mixture of preposterousness and coolness (more about Wright’s wonderful Leiter later).

So far, Casino Royale has largely let Vesper have the last word in her prickly interactions with Bond so far. As Bond collects his martini, Vesper chides him for losing so much money so quickly. Bond reveals that he’s been playing strategically; he lost big on the latest hand to identify Le Chiffre’s “tell,” an eye-twitch that shows that Le Chiffre’s bluffing. He walks away and she samples Bond’s martini, entertaining the possibility that Bond might actually know a thing or two.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part VIII

James Bond, released from the custody of the Miami police, exits a helicopter at Dimitrios’ villa and stumbles upon an unexpected, gruesome sight: the body of Solange, tangled in a hammock.

M takes the opportunity to twist the knife:

“Quite the body count you’re stacking up. She was tortured first.”

Whether M is scolding him or testing him remains unclear. This same ambiguity will trickle over into Skyfall.

At any rate, Bond does not take this well. The camera slowly moves in on Bond’s face, allowing us to scrutinize Bond’s discomfort. He looks away as he nakedly lies to M about how much he had told Solange. Bond exposed himself, and, in his hunt for the villains, has now become indirectly responsible for an innocent’s death.

The Craig Bond films are uniquely preoccupied with the death of women. In Casino RoyaleQuantum of Solace, and Skyfall, a grand total of five women die through their association with Bond. This trope becomes something of a crutch for the film cycle–indeed, Quantum of Solace will essentially rehash Casino Royale‘s narrative beat with Solange, with similar chastisement for M–but it also creates this sense that Craig’s Bond, insofar as he remains 007, remains trapped in a repetitive cycle. He’s a variation on Scottie Ferguson from Vertigo: a man perpetually losing women who are really all the same woman. Spectre will release Bond from this cycle.

So it is fitting that this midpoint of Casino Royale, in which the film focuses on the character’s central dilemma, takes the form of two back-to-back conversations with the two most significant and strong women of the Craig era, Judi Dench’s M and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Each, in turn, puts Bond under the microscope, confirming just who this Bond is, and beginning to ask just who he might become. Both of these women will pull him in different directions.

The Craig era does not indulge the classic structure of Bond films insofar as the standard-issue “mission briefing” trope is concerned. This standard-issue Bond formula component still appears, but it is always repositioned or reworked. This sequence at Dimitrios’ villa, excluding the Solange bookends, may be the closest the Craig films come to giving us the standard-issue exposition dumps that characterize the traditional M/Bond briefing scenes.

M portrays Le Chiffre as a schemer who made a fortune on 9/11, painting him as a War on Terror profiteer (there was additional dialogue cut from the scene that took this to even further lengths). Bond’s thinks that M merely wants Le Chiffre dead (“Do you want a clean kill, or do you want to send a message?”), again underlining his short-sightedness. Bond thinks of himself only as a killer. M wants information.

When Bond suggests that M knew that Bond wouldn’t let the case go, M replies:

“I knew you were you.”

This ambiguous statement qualifies, on one level, as “trailer dialogue” (as previously noted, dialogue designed more to sound “cool” rather than have any real meaning), and M certainly has already delivered her share of it in Casino Royale. Nevertheless, this serves as a fitting expression of M’s caginess. She refuses to let Bond see what she genuinely thinks about him. It’s a power play and a kind of self-preservation; she needs to always be able to see Bond as a pawn, not as a friend.

The primary cinematic reference point for Bond and Vesper’s meeting on the train is Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and if Casino Royale‘s dialogue doesn’t achieve that same elegance, the chemistry between its leads is tremendously strong and elevates the sequence. Eva Green was a tremendously keen casting call. On the page, Vesper’s part is rather thin; Casino Royale reduces her relationship with Bond to a series of clear bullet point scenes rather than anything more organic. Green, who is often among the best aspects of any film in which she stars, gives Vesper an enigmatic allure beyond the script’s meager characterization.

Bond and Vesper’s initial banter serves well enough (“I’m the money” up to “What looks good?”); the Bond dialogue never gets too preposterously over-stylized, and Craig and Green play off of each other well. In Fleming’s novel, Vesper is little more than a glorified secretary, but in the film, she is smartly made an official of the Treasury who has the power to deny Bond additional funds. Thus the film’s Bond/Vesper relationship unfolds as an ongoing power struggle. Bond films gesture at this sort of give/take relationship all the time, but very rarely do they give the relationship the time and attention to let that dynamic play out with any sort of narrative weight. In this regard, Casino Royale sets the high-water mark for a Bond/Bond girl relationship.

When the scene takes a leap forward in time, we find that Bond has been explaining the rules of poker to Vesper (one of many such moments in the film; the filmmakers clearly did not trust the audience to be able to track with the twists and turns of the card game). This serves as a lead-in to an absurd-but-memorable scene as Bond and Vesper both analyze and dress-down the other using nothing but the few details they’ve observed in their brief meeting together.

Bond’s observations about Vesper are much more plausible than her observations about him. He lightly touches on her childhood (she’s an orphan, he surmises), but focuses most on how she presents herself professionally, an attractive woman trying to prove herself in a world of men. In order to give her the upper-hand, the film has Vesper making some deductive leaps that, outside of the world of Bond fantasy, seem fairly absurd; she deduces just from the way he wears his clothes some fairly detailed notions of his biography.

Vesper notes that Bond wears his suits with “disdain,” which again reinforces the “working class” streak that defines Craig’s Bond. Vesper speculates that this stems from Bond’s school career (at “Oxford or wherever,” she states; per Fleming, Bond attended Eton and Fettes), where he was acutely aware that he wasn’t one of the rich kids surrounding him.

That said, whatever disdain Craig has for the trappings of wealth has not prevented him from pursuing fashion. His trendy look separates him from the more subdued, classically British attire that defined Connery or Dalton, who were the embodiment of Hardy Amies’ maxim that “a man should look as if he has bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forgotten all about them.” Craig’s Bond, with his gelled hair and snazzy designer looks (in Casino Royale, he wears Brioni, and in the following films, he wears Tom Ford), could have stepped out of a photo spread from Esquire.

The scene would be considerably better if it didn’t pause to inject gratuitous product placement in regards to Bond’s Omega Seamaster, which may be the most egregious and offensive moment of product placement in the entire Bond canon. In terms of checking-off the elements of the Bond persona (Vesper talks about his suits, his watches, his work), mentioning expensive wristwatches would have been quite enough.

In summing up Bond’s attitude to authority–he’s an orphan, and thus inclined to seek for surrogate parents in the form of “Queen and Country”–Vesper effectively summarizes what will become the fundamental cornerstone of the Craig Bond character. The Craig era concerns itself primarily with “Bond the orphan,” repeatedly turning to the question of Bond’s origins and familial drama. The dominant question of the Craig era is whether or not this damaged Bond can break away from the surrogate family structure he has found in MI6 and create a new, genuine family.

Bond’s smirk after Vesper exits never fails to make me smile. The element that best sells Bond’s attraction to Vesper is that Bond just seems to be having so much damn fun when they’re together. We’re having fun, too.