The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part IV

With the aid of M and Tanner, Bond learns that Dominic Greene is moving to Bregenz, Austria. The narrative mechanics by which M determines that the CIA have been working with Greene make for one of the better connect-the-dots moments in the Craig films, and it also features the film’s niftiest graphical interface, a large glass display-screen that doubles as a wall of M’s office.

The CIA has significantly more knowledge of Quantum than their British counterparts–Felix Leiter, who makes his first appearance in this film in this scene, will later note that they “know who Greene is” and express his reservations about cooperating with him–but the CIA also knows less than they think they do; they’re being duped by Greene, having been purposefully misled into believing that they might be able to get oil rights out of the Bolivian revolution Quantum is manufacturing.

The Americans come off looking very predatory in Quantum of Solace, with Felix Leiter serving as the the “Not All Americans” ally who lends Bond a hand later in the picture, but even Leiter’s turn only happens reluctantly, after Bond twists his arm. The film laces more than a few barbs at the USA’s foreign policy throughout the picture, but this scene fixates on it. Greene’s remark–“You don’t need another Marxist giving resources to the people, do you?”–is perhaps the most brazenly political moment in the entire Bond franchise.

Wright’s Leiter remains relegated to a largely passive role throughout Quantum of Solace. He sulks his way through the film, following the lead of his superior, the very greasy Gregory Beam (played with wonderful hamminess by David Harbour). In this scene, Beam tests Leiter by pushing him to identify Bond to Greene; Leiter tries to avoid it, only for Beam to call him out in front of Greene. Beam defends this uneasy partnership with Greene on the grounds of realpolitik–“You’re right, we should just deal with nice people,” he sneers to Leiter when Leiter expresses his reservations–and then bullies Leiter into submission by hinting that the success of Leiter’s career depends on his cooperation.

The Craig era continually underlines the notion that spies–and even their masters, like M–are just employees who are subservient to a larger bureaucracy that isn’t particularly concerned with their best interest and will gladly discard them whenever they become too inconvenient. There’s no longer an assumption that Britain and America are necessarily the “good guys” on the international stage.

The architecture of the Bregenz Opera House blends neatly into Dennis Gassner’s more stark, sleek approach to production design, and its watery stage makes for one of the most richly atmospheric locations in the Craig era. In the early drafts of Quantum of Solace, the opera house was to be the locale for the film’s climax, but rewrites shifted this setpiece to the film’s midsection. The notion of a criminal organization using an opera performance for their business meeting is blatantly absurd due to its transparent impracticality–it’s amazing that the crowd doesn’t shush all the members of Quantum who are talking about water rights and piping–it’s also the kind of brilliantly surreal conceit that Bond movies thrive on, transforming something as dull as an executive board room meeting into vibrant spectacle.

Bond isn’t dressed for the occasion, so he steals a dinner jacket from the opera’s cast and crew lockers (naturally, it is conveniently tailored to his physique). The theft of his black tie ensemble unfolds in a confusing string of cuts that marks the one “off” editing beat in an otherwise well-constructed montage depicting the build-up to a gala performance of Puccini’s Tosca.

David Arnold’s eerie cue for this sequence, arguably the highlight of the score, pays homage to John Barry’s “Space March” from You Only Live Twice, reworking Arnold’s sinister motif for the Quantum organization into an electronic-accented march that builds into the “Te Deum” from Puccini’s opera.

Bond identifies a Quantum member by noticing that only a few members of the crowd receive specialty gift bags. The bags contain ear pieces and a “Q” pin. The pin seems a bit too cutesy and seemingly conflicts with later dialogue from Greene that indicates that none of the Quantum members are supposed to actually see one another face-to-face.

As Greene and his entourage take their positions in his private box, Elvis becomes the focus for an odd moment–he gives another of Greene’s henchmen a kind of imbecilic, friendly look, only to be met with a dead stare. It’s yet another of the film’s many curious “gags” related to this character, and one occurs just a few minutes earlier, during the CIA meeting with Greene, when Elvis tries to start up conversation with Leiter and is completely ignored. The nature of Elvis’ relationship with Greene is never addressed directly, but is certainly affectionate (when leaving the box later, Greene will escort Elvis out of the room with his hand on Elvis’ lower back). Certainly, Greene has an unusual tolerance for his bodyguard’s incompetence. Taken with Greene’s desperately performative displays of heterosexuality when it comes to Camille, it is all too easy to read Green and Elvis’ relationship as coding Greene as being homosexual (or perhaps bisexual, given Greene’s desperately performative declarations of heterosexuality throughout the film). That said, both Amalric and Taubman (who plays Elvis) concocted their own backstory for the characters: Elvis is Greene’s cousin, and he had previously been destitute before Greene rescued him by bringing him into the Quantum organization.

The Bond production team originally hoped to utilize the Bregenz production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera as the setting for this sequence. The set for Un Ballo in Maschera featured a giant skeleton flipping through the pages of a book, an image very suited to a series as dominated by death-imagery as the Bond series is, but they were quickly informed that this would not be possible, and so the Bond team agreed to utilize Tosca instead.

The extravagant floating set for the Bregenz production of Tosca centers around a giant eye. Bond perches at the top of this ever-watchful eye as he observes the crowd, identifying himself (and the profession he embodies) with it. Quantum’s business meeting unfolds as of Tosca‘s first act reaches its climax, the “Te Deum.” During this spectacular moment, Tosca‘s villain, Scarpia, declares his love for the diva Tosca and his plans to coerce her into becoming his lover. The bold fanfare that accompanies Bond and Greene’s face-to-face encounter in the opera lobby marks the musical conclusion of the act. The subsequent montage of scenes from Tosca that are interspersed with Bond’s firefight with the Quantum assassins breaks with the opera’s chronology and mingles different moments from the opera, but will most directly fixate on Tosca’s murder of Scarpia at the end of Act II, foreshadowing Camille’s struggle with the predatory General Medrano during the climax of Quantum of Solace.

If you listen carefully, you can hear that this is the first time the organization refers to themselves as “Quantum”; this only happens one more time, towards the end of the film, when Greene mentions the name to Bond. The organization’s name was apparently chosen very late into production; scribe Paul Haggis stated that he was unaware of the name or the reasons for its selection.

Bond decides to interrupt the meeting, hoping to force Quantum out of the anonymity of the crowd, and does so with dialogue that is more blandly functional than clever (“Can I offer an opinion? I really think you people should find a better place to meet”). To identify the members of Quantum, he uses a nifty phone app that captures and reconstructs their faces from blurry photographs by assembling various angles into a composite face.

Mr. White has come to the Quantum meeting, too, but he’s sharper than the rest of his organization, and, accordingly, he gets the best line of the scene. Noting the departures of his colleagues, he turns to his companion: “Well, Tosca isn’t for everyone.” This turns out to be Mr. White’s last scene in the film, leaving a loose end which Spectre later picks up on. The original ending of Quantum of Solace actually featured Bond killing Mr. White, but the Bond producers deemed it to be too much of a cliffhanger and was ultimately left on the cutting room floor.

The impressionistic montage that depicts Bond’s tangle with Greene’s henchmen is self-consciously arty in way the series has rarely been, eschewing the thrills of well-documented action choreography for the thrills of montage. It resolves itself in one of the film’s more self-referential moments; Bond cornering one of the henchmen on the opera house’s rooftop recreates a similar moment from The Spy Who Loved Me. Unlike the baddie in Spy, this henchman does not cooperate with Bond, and Bond promptly drops him off the roof without a word.

The henchman actually survives, landing on the hood of Greene’s car. In keeping with this film’s penchant for overcomplicated plotting, the henchman isn’t one of Greene’s, but is actually the bodyguard of Guy Haines, a powerful advisor of the Prime Minister. When M learns, via Tanner, that the henchman was found shot, she naturally blames Bond (which isn’t entirely inappropriate, given that Bond did drop him off a roof and presumably intended for him to meet his demise).

M, recoiling from the news that the Quantum organization may have significant influence on the British government, tries to pull Bond back to Britain to debrief him. Bond refuses to let the trail go cold, and, when M attempts to restrict his movements, he effectively goes “rogue,” a choice that Craig’s Bond makes quite regularly throughout these films.

Bond learns that MI6 has shut him down when his company credit card is declined at the airport. Bond, ever courteous to service representatives, charmingly asks the attendant to tell anyone who calls about him that he’s headed to Cairo. We’ll very quickly find out he has other plans.

The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part III

David Arnold’s score gives way to reverberating guitar riffs as Quantum of Solace shifts its locale from Siena to rainy London. Director Marc Forster worked closely with Arnold on Quantum of Solace, providing Arnold with samples of sounds and musical styles that he wanted Arnold to embed into the film’s score. The result of their collaboration is, far and away, Arnold’s strongest work on the Bond films. Arnold’s affection for senseless bombast is in evidence now and again during the film’s setpieces, but, for the most part, this is a texturally varied score that applies its effects with precision.

Bond and M’s meeting in Mitchell’s apartment unfolds with Quantum of Solace‘s typical impatience with any exchanges that could be considered expository, but there are some nice touches here as M expresses her horror and exasperation in being caught up in a conspiracy about which she knows practically nothing. Throughout the Craig era, governments and their institutions consistently prove to be too myopic to identify the true threats, allowing the villains (who are, Skyfall‘s Silva aside, sinister venture capitalists out to manipulate world events to their own gain) to move about in plain sight and infiltrate the corridors of power. The throwaway joke here about M not knowing her traitorous bodyguard all that well–she notes that she gifted Mitchell an ashtray, and Bond deadpans his reply: “I don’t think he smoked”–is a clever way of reinforcing M’s own tendency towards this short-sightedness.

MI6 headquarters has moved locations since Casino Royale and is now housed in Frobisher Crescent. No reason is ever given for this transition, and we might reconcile the films together by speculating that the Vauxhall Cross offices from Casino Royale were being remodeled (after all, they look a bit different when Skyfall rolls around). Really, though, this is simply inconsistency extending from a general indifference toward aesthetic continuity. Dennis Gassner’s design for the MI6 offices is sleek and highly technological, all sterile glass and steel, dispensing with any hint of traditional British elegance and placing MI6 on the cutting edge of technological innovation.

Quantum of Solace employs technology much better than any of the other Craig films, abandoning a sense of verisimilitude for advanced computer systems with complex interfaces that may be somewhat nonsensical but have a beauty in their design (they were conceived by MK12, the same group that designed the film’s title sequence). The touchscreen table used in the briefing scene here nicely embeds a great deal of visual information into an otherwise fairly dry exchange.

Tanner’s strange non-sequitur that occurs just before they enter the briefing room (“Not in the mood”) might suggest that some connective tissue was cut out of the scene. If so, it’s not hard to believe. Quantum of Solace‘s production was notoriously frantic, and anecdotes shared by those present during parts of Quantum of Solace‘s scattershot shoot have indicated that a substantial amount of footage was left on the cutting room floor. Still, once you’ve seen the film enough times to keep up with the information being presented in this briefing scene, the scene depicts a clever–if sensationalized–riff on actual investigative techniques, allowing MI6 to trace money back to another Quantum agent.

The trail leads to Port-au-Prince, and here are the broad strokes of what unfolds in this, the film’s most preposterously overcomplicated section: Bond kills a Quantum assassin and takes over his identity, and then stumbles into a meeting with Camille, who turns out to have been the original assassin’s target, having been lured into a trap after trying to investigate the actions of Dominic Greene, with whom she’s been having a relationship, and who wanted her dead after he discovered her betrayal. After Bond and Camille’s meeting turns sour, Bond discovers that the assassin he killed had a partner, takes him out, and then pulls some smartphone gymnastics to get a line on Dominic Greene after following Camille to him. The film furthermore introduces us to secondary villain General Medrano, a focal point in Greene’s plans to start a coup in Bolivia in order to get rights to some seemingly empty land in the desert, and who also was responsible for the death of Camille’s entire family. Some of this connects in this whirlwind of exposition, much of it doesn’t. Structural clarity is not this film’s gift.

It all begins well enough, though; Bond’s fight with Slate in the Hotel Desalines might very well be the film’s highlight. The frantic editing actually works here, maintaining enough clarity to maintain tension. In fact, it’s better composed than any of the hand-to-hand combat in the Greengrass Bourne films to which it owes a significant stylistic debt. The sound design accentuates the frantic choreography, ensuring that every inelegant blow registers with wince-inducing force.

Bond impatiently waiting for Slate to pass on greatly exceeds any of Casino Royale‘s numerous attempts to demonstrate just how dehumanizing Bond’s duties can be. There isn’t another death scene in the entire Bond series that has the same existential sting. Quantum of Solace sadly does not showcase Craig’s performance with the same attentiveness that Casino Royale did (whatever else you could say about Campbell’s direction on the film, he knew when to hold on Craig’s face), but this is one moment where the film indulges Craig’s gift for internalized acting.

The ensuing conversation with the hotel desk clerk is not particularly notable, but it does serve as a nice showcase for how odd Quantum of Solace‘s impatient editing can be. This simple exchange leaps from shot to shot with no discernible purpose.

I’m very fond of Olga Kurylenko’s Camille, even though she is, on occasion, ill-served by the film. Camille has a narrative and psychology that exists outside of Bond’s own storyline, which can’t quite be said of Casino Royale‘s Vesper Lynd. Starting with Camille’s impatient “Get in” and Bond’s somewhat befuddled response, Bond and Camille have a very blunt, direct relationship. This first meeting is far too disorienting for its own good–the plotting is just too intricate here to let the characters become the focal point of the scene–but there’s still something appealing about having their first meeting end with Camille attempting to put a bullet in Bond’s head.

When Camille pulls some fast car maneuvers to obstruct her pursuer’s path, a truck ends up spilling its load of coffins all over the street, a casual, implementation of the death imagery that has naturally recurred throughout the franchise. When Bond meets up with the same henchman a few moments later, he flips the henchman’s bike, a moment executed with great visual flair. Alas, Bond’s verbal comeback (“You were supposed to shoot her!” / “Well, I missed!”) isn’t exactly a model of wit, though this script will have far clunkier attempts at humor.

Throughout Quantum of Solace, M continually scolds Bond for killing potential sources of information, picking up on her “big picture” rant from Casino Royale, but it’s unclear whether or not we’re actually meant to agree with her. Yes, the film will hint that Bond has become something of a loose canon, but it also exonerates his actions by putting him in situations where it’s either his life or his opponent’s.

Dominic Greene and Camille meeting by the docks ranks among the worst-written scenes in any Bond movie. At the very least, it’s the most bizarrely elliptical; reading the scene in transcript form is even more baffling than watching it play out on-screen.

Unlike Mr. White (there’s a weird, unremarked upon feature of the Quantum organization having many members with color-based surnames: White, Greene, Slate), Greene never seems particularly threatening–he’s always shielding himself behind the organization he represents–though he clearly has a sadist’s temperament and loves to pontificate. Amalric plays him as a man always caught up in his own mental calculations, as though he’s sizing everyone up around him to see where he stands. (One nice little touch is that when Camille first bursts in to confront him, Greene has been goofing off, toying with paper and stamps like a child.)

Greene’s primary henchman, Elvis, seemingly functions as little more than an odd running gag. Every moment that showcases him has been designed to emphasize just how ineffectual he is, climaxing with his cartoonish demise during the film’s climactic battle. I’m not certain any of these moments properly land–they always feel like strangely edited non-sequiturs–but it’s very consistent, starting with his ineffectual scolding of the guard.

General Medrano arrives on the scene, and he has a level of menace Greene and Elvis don’t. That said, he’s also much less interesting than the Quantum cabal, a more flatly literal kind of villain distinguished only by his predatory instincts. He’s one of the more repulsive characters in the franchise, but all he has to define him is his own appetite for abuse, which the film pushes to exploitative extremes.

Quantum of Solace has a much stronger political consciousness than the other Craig Bond pictures, and it’s in evidence as Medrano and Greene discuss the economics of these struggling South American countries. Quantum of Solace depicts the inhabitants of these countries as the victims of predatory political and economic powers, and we’ll come to find that Bond’s own government will prove to be complicit in Quantum’s planned destabilization of Bolivia. Throughout the film, Forster takes a break from story-driven sequences to simply showcase the victims of these sinister machinations; one of these stretches occurs immediately after the boat chase, as Bond drives to the airport. These people are anonymous, part of the background, but simply showing the squalor of their lives is something of a radical moment for a Bond picture.

Little good can be said about the boat chase. Many Bond action sequences have been lackluster, but no others are this staggeringly ineffectual. The suspenseful build-up to the chase itself works pretty well (and features a very fine motorcycle stunt, to boot), but once Bond grabs Camille off of Medrano’s boat, the chase achieves the strange distinction of being utterly lethargic and overly frantic at the same time as boats roar around a space with little sense of geography. The inscrutably edited climactic beat, involving the use of anchor to destabilize the last remaining boat pursuing Bond and Camille, squanders what otherwise might be a decent concluding stunt.

After rescuing Camille, who inadvertently confirm Bond’s suspicion during the boat chase that Greene is the next link in the chain, Bond callously abandons the now-unconscious Camille with an attempt at a throwaway Connery-esque one-liner (“She’s seasick”). As always, Craig’s Bond cares more passionately about the thrill of the hunt than he does anything else.

The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part II

Quantum of Solace‘s title sequence opens on the Palio di Siena. The Palio, a quick and brutal horse race with roots all the way back in the sixteenth century, takes place twice a year (once in July and once in August). The footage of the Palio used in Quantum of Solace was captured months before the rest of shooting began, when the film was still in the midst of development. Matching footage was shot roughly half a year later.

The Palio’s utilization as a setting for a big Bond setpiece is a welcome nod to the travelogue elements of the original Bond novels and films. While the brisk pacing leaves little room to enjoy the ambiance of the race, touches such as this nevertheless grants Quantum of Solace a sense of place that escapes the other Craig Bond films.

Bond drops Mr. White into a chair. MI6 staff subsequently stabilize Mr. White’s condition while preparing him for interrogation. Moments later, M will threaten Mr. White with torture, indicating that the room’s equipment is meant for that purpose. M never gets an opportunity to deliver on her threat.

As we saw in Casino Royale, Dench’s M seems to enjoy travelling around the world to deal personally with critical situations. This character trait almost certainly has more to do with the filmmakers wanting to put M and Bond in the same room than any narrative justification. Certainly, such travel seems risky for such an important government official. M will nearly die during the course of her time with Mr. White. (Early versions of the story for Quantum of Solace actually included M’s death partway through the film, a narrative element was removed and then later used in Skyfall.) Given Mr. White’s importance as an asset, though, it’s not especially difficult to imagine why M would choose to personally attend his interrogation.

When Bond and M meet, they launch into a flurry of exposition that bridges the events of Casino Royale and establishes the trajectory of Quantum of Solace. Quantum of Solace makes no real attempt to explain the events of Casino Royale, casually referencing its characters with the expectation that the audience is already fully aware of the details.

M notes that the CIA will be unhappy with MI6 now that MI6 is pursuing the investigation without their involvement. Bond is unconcerned. Bond reminds her that his deal with them was only for the now-deceased Le Chiffre: “If they wanted his soul, they should have made a deal with a priest.” Bond once again draws a comparison between himself and the priesthood.

M notes that Bond looks “like hell” and asks when he last slept. Quantum of Solace will play up the notion that Bond has been having trouble sleeping since Vesper’s death, and this dialogue is the first gesture toward that idea. Still, it’s an odd remark. Bond looked like he was in good shape at the end of Casino Royale, and it seems more likely that his haggard appearance at this moment has less to do with how well he’s sleeping and more to do with the fact that he was just minutes ago engaged in an intense car pursuit.

During the course of this briefing, M provides us with our first glimpse of Vesper’s boyfriend. Here and elsewhere throughout the film, Forster and his editors seem to work to move past exposition as quickly as possible, which, coupled with the film’s hazy sense of narrative progression, tends to make the film a little murky. As important as Vesper’s boyfriend will be for Bond’s arc in this film, he won’t be mentioned again until a good while later. Still, the narrative confusion is intentional, at least to some degree; Quantum of Solace will routinely suggest that Bond, reeling from grief, isn’t sure what he’s pursuing or why.

As always, Bond and M’s relationship hinges on issues of trust, and M voices her doubts that Bond will be able to separate his duties from his personal feelings. “It’d be a pretty cold bastard who didn’t want revenge for the death of someone he loved” is extraordinarily awkward phrasing, though this is hardly the first or last time that M’s dialogue is overripe and overstated. Her doubts prove to be well-founded, given the way Bond deceives her in this scene.

Jesper Christiansen’s Mr. White remains one of the highlights of Quantum of Solace. It’s a shame that the film does not give him a greater role, given that Mr. White is certainly a much more compelling villain than Quantum‘s “proper” villain, Dominic Greene. (It’s worth nothing that the original cut of Quantum of Solace did grant Mr. White a brief final scene just before the end credits.)

Christiansen has a lot of fun lacing White’s dialogue with arrogance and venom. Mr. White needles Bond about Vesper, telling him that his organization intended to blackmail him in the same way that they had blackmailed Vesper: “I think you would have done anything for her.” Given that the film will go on to hint that this is standard operating procedure for the Quantum organization, Mr. White’s suggestion is actually fairly plausible.

After telling M that his organization has people everywhere, Mr. White illustrates his point by directing Mitchell, M’s bodyguard, to spring into action. The ensuing scuffle is some of the most inept filmmaking in the Bond series; thanks to the editing and shot construction, the chain of events is almost entirely obfuscated. Thanks to the muddled editing, it actually appears that M has been shot, but what we’re meant to be seeing is that she’s actually been thrown out of danger. After the scuffle–during which Mr. White takes a bullet–Bond pauses to make sure M departs the room safely, but the shot is so unclear that it’s hard to tell that the person leaving the room is M and not Mitchell.

Bond pursues Mitchell down into the tunnels of Siena, a chase that is intercut with the horse race taking place above them. Forster seems fond of this sort of intercutting (the Tosca sequence in the film will similarly juxtapose Bond’s action against events occurring nearby).

The Siena chase, which moves from the underground to the rooftops and then back down again, offers some of the same propulsive physicality that distinguished Casino Royale‘s Madagascar chase, and the stuntwork is really quite good. Such a shame, though, that it rarely receives the attention or space it deserves. The editing has been done in such a percussive style that most all of the connective tissue has been removed, with characters teleporting from position to position over the course of an edit (an especially clear example occurs when Bond leaps on to the bus and then somehow gets back onto the rooftop in a flurry of a few brief shots that don’t seem to follow one another).

The Siena chase does have one feature that distinguishes from other Bond setpieces: a genuine interest in its collateral damage. While racing through the crowd, Mitchell fires at Bond, but misses him and hits an innocent bystander instead. The film does not forget this innocent victim, but actually interrupts the progression of the chase to cut back to her body and the confusion of the crowd around her. No other Bond film pays such attention to the ways in which the violence of Bond’s world intrudes on the life of everyday people.

This attention does sit somewhat awkwardly with the Moore-era gag where Mitchell disturbs an old lady attempting to transport groceries up to her apartment, who subsequently mourns the loss of her tomatoes. Such is Quantum of Solace schizophrenia: it wants to push the hard edge of Casino Royale even further, all the while contorting to still evoke classic Bond escapism.

The Siena chase climaxes with a sequence that takes Craig’s Bond’s indestructability to a new extreme. Bond and Mitchell tumble down from a belfry, crashing through a glass window into gallery in the midst of renovation. They tussle in mid-air, dangling from ropes and scaffolding, slamming into each other and their hazardous surroundings. Alas, even though the editing is more intelligible here than it is elsewhere throughout the Siena sequence, the editing still fails to render the action with sufficient clarity and showmanship.

At least the sequence ends well. Bond hangs precariously from a rope, trying to reach the Walther PPK that lies just out of reach, as Mitchell recovers his weapon and takes aim. Bond gets his weapon in the nick of time and swings himself around, firing a single, fatal shot. The film lingers on Craig’s cold gaze just long enough.

Bond heads back to the interrogation room, passing by the destruction and chaos left in the wake of his pursuit of Mitchell. A sense of futility seeps in. After all that violence, Bond has achieved nothing at all. Mr. White has vanished, leaving nothing but an overturned chair and a pool of blood.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XIV

Thus we arrive at the closing moments of Casino Royale, in which Craig’s Bond fully embalms himself in the armor of his constructed persona, and steps out into the world to confront sinister villainy as a state-employed thug in elegant attire.

Even though the ending of Casino Royale was always intended to function as a gateway to the sequel (the initial versions of which were being written by Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade as Casino Royale was filming), Casino Royale‘s ending feels less like a cliffhanger than it does the completion of the film’s arc. This is certainly how director Martin Campbell felt, who declined to return for its successor due to a feeling that a sequel would not add much to his work on Casino Royale. Still, Quantum of SolaceSkyfall, and Spectre will each, in their own way, see this finale as a kind of pause rather than a full statement. The Craig era exists in a constant push-and-pull wherein Bond’s identity is asserted and subsequently challenged.

The conversation with M consists of an embarrassing amount of exposition, most of which serves to clear up the mystery surrounding Vesper’s motivations. These motivations have been relatively obscure and clumsily dramatized, and will still remain a bit hazy after this conversation (this murkiness surrounding Vesper’s motivations, and her boyfriend, provides Quantum of Solace with its foundation). M’s comments to Bond contain much supposition along with the few facts she provides. If this conversation achieves anything dramatically, it is to refocus the film around Bond’s relationship to M, who chastises Bond for being coldhearted while also knowing that she needs him to be exactly who he is in order for him to be useful to her and the state she serves.

The conversation does not serve Craig’s Bond especially well, reducing him to a grim-faced listener. The film tosses away the iconic, nasty closing line of Fleming’s novel, suggesting that it is included more out of obligation to the source novel rather than out of clear dramatic purpose. In Fleming’s novel, it was a searing final exclamation mark in the hardboiled tradition, a blast of misogyny that extended from Bond’s wounded masculinity. Here, it is stated and then subsequently challenged, overwhelmed by M’s musings.

Vesper’s cell phone enables Bond to track down Mr. White. It’s suggested this was her intention all along. Mr. White is clearly somewhat negligent when it comes to the use of cell phone tech. Giving Vesper his personal number and retains the same phone after this affair is concluded. You’d think he would at least have the same sense as a low-class criminal and use a burner.

The finale, staged at Mr. White’s beautiful lakeside villa, concludes Bond’s character arc by showing that he has been absorbed by the character’s iconography. The sequence serves as a purpose statement for Bond: he’s the killer who brings violence wherever he goes, hunting down the criminal elements that cloak themselves in luxury and wealth.

Bond sports an atypically rakish outfit. Given that the dinner jacket was already presented mid-picture, costume designer Lindy Hemming was tasked with effectively created a Bond outfit that could out-Bond the dinner jacket, and she settled on the three-piece suit, which nods back to Connery’s attire in Goldfinger. Where Connery’s gray suit was tasteful, Craig’s is ostentatious. This pinstriped suit is not the suit of a gentleman educated in “Oxford or wherever,” to borrow Vesper’s words, but the suit of a hoodlum. The gangster-ish effect of the outfit is further magnified by Bond’s choice of weapon, which might as well be a Tommy gun.

His smug delivery of the “Bond, James Bond” line rings out both loud and hollow. This is, as Fleming once described him, the man who is only a silhouette. Death will follow in his wake. Cue, for the first time, the James Bond theme.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XIII

“The big picture.”

These words, lifted from Bond’s chastisement at M’s hands earlier in the film, reverberate with a darker significance as Bond murmurs them to Le Chiffre.

The “big picture” involves more than the details of the organization that employs Le Chiffre. The “big picture” suggests the entirety of the complex web of political power in which these individuals find themselves. With greater understanding of context also comes greater understanding of self, and thus the Craig films’ trajectory pairs its investigations into the shadowy corners of the “big picture” with ever deeper dives into the shadowy corners of Bond himself.

Craig’s Bond never comes to terms with his place as a pawn of state power, even if he craves the sense of purpose that comes with it. Bond often chooses to exceed or contradict the orders of his superiors to pursue his own impulses (this trait has always been part of the Bond character from his inception, but remains more prominent for Craig’s Bond, a man perpetually revolting against himself and the world around him). At this moment, having faced near-death at the hands of Le Chiffre, Bond will reject the role of a hired assassin to pursue an uncertain future with Vesper.

Bond recovers from his ordeal at Le Chiffre’s hands in scenic Lake Como (this being a Bond film, a standard hospital simply would not do), and the film takes the lull to fix its gaze on Bond and Vesper. The scenes that unfold here are, on a writing level, some of the weakest in the film, failing to properly showcase the complexities of these characters and their doomed romance.

Nevertheless, I remain entranced by Eva Green, who, even as she has to suffer the indignity of uttering incomprehensibly strange dialogue about Bond’s little finger, remains incandescent and enigmatic. Vesper has clearly begun to fray, though Casino Royale frustratingly fails to offer moments that truly allow for Vesper’s psychological state to take center stage. Vesper may be a less complex character in Fleming’s novel, but the equivalent material there does put Vesper’s emotional disintegration front-and-center. Still, Green makes the most of these little moments she’s given, underlining the way her guilt complex plays into Vesper’s idealization of Bond. 

M will suggest later to Bond that Vesper had made a deal with Mr. White for Bond’s life, and that Vesper likely knew through these days with Bond that her death was imminent. Thus, Vesper’s escape with Bond remains, for her, an excursion into fantasy before the end of her world, and we can observe moments where the fantasy is punctured by awareness of her own mortality.

I noted before that the plotting regarding Mathis fails to satisfy. This section certainly needs some notes of anxiety and menace, but the “Is he or isn’t he a traitor?” ambiguity leads nowhere. The film flirts with Hitchcockian suspense as Mathis provides Bond with a drink that may or may not be poisoned, but the scene never draws out the suspense enough to make it register.

The visible uncertainty that Craig brings to Bond’s admission to Vesper that he doesn’t know what a real job underlines the fragility of their romance. They have constructed fantasy versions of each other, each seeking an escape from their situation, one that the real world would likely shatter even if Vesper wasn’t carrying a secret burden. Vesper fully knows that it is a fantasy, but Bond does not.

When Bond and Vesper bid goodbye in the hotel lobby in Venice, you can see that Vesper knows she’s seeing Bond for the last time, that this is the last happy moment of her life and she wants it to sustain her through whatever follows. Vesper then becomes a prop, a cipher whose motivations are left to be explained by another character in the aftermath of her demise. 

The Venice section of the film had a different structure in earlier drafts of Casino Royale, allowing her the chance to speak for herself. Originally, Vesper’s suicide preceded the action climax. Bond found Vesper dead in their hotel room, along with a video created by Vesper in which she explained her actions, and then pointed him toward Gettler and the money. 

This structure was changed by Paul Haggis, who felt that that structure squandered the emotional momentum of Vesper’s betrayal. The final version does allow Bond’s emotional state to propel the action, but the gunfire and spectacle also has the effect of overwhelming the relationship between Bond and Vesper.

The overcomplicated mechanics by which Bond learns of Vesper’s betrayal are confusing and inelegant. Bond checks Vesper’s phone as he gets a call from M about missing money, then quickly calls the banker, Mendel, who is able to see that the funds are being withdrawn from a branch nearby. After this flurry of clunky exposition and coincidence, Bond leaps into action.

I very much like the sequence as Bond trails Vesper (she wears a red dress, a nod to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now). Bond, stung by the betrayal, instinctually returns to the role of a killer as he moves with purpose through the shadowy corridors of Venice (nicely lit by Meheux).

Earlier versions of the sinking house sequence were more subdued and might have been more dramatically balanced (early drafts had Bond facing off against only Gettler, not a group of thugs, thus making it a brutal brawl more akin to the stairway fight), but, likely in order to provide a stronger action climax, it became more complicated and grand.

The sinking house in Venice reinforces classic Bond formula (a climax in a imploding space, typically a villain’s lair, is a Bond staple, and one that all of the Craig films follow). The collapse of the Venician house serves as a metaphor for the collapse of Bond’s hopes for domesticity with Vesper, hopes which were always as vulnerable as a house suspended on the water.

The unfortunate effect of placing Vesper in the midst of this action climax is that, contrary to Haggis’ intent, Vesper becomes a prop, rather than its centerpiece. Confined to an elevator, she gets little else to do but scream as the house begins to disintegrate.

Gettler, the miniboss of the Venice setpiece, has an appealing retro look. He would have perhaps benefitted from some additional setup to make his appearance here more of an event, rather than justt serving as another unestablished character like Carlos from the Miami chase, appearing only to justify the existence of an action setpiece.

The geography and number of players remains murky throughout, so what gives this sequence definition and propulsion is the spectacle of Bond cutting his way through his surroundings with unflinching viciousness. He seems more Terminator-like than ever, yanking out a nail that has been buried in his shoulder with little concern. (One touch, visible if you break the sequence down shot-by-shot, is that Bond uses his Omega as a knuckle-duster, a nod back to Ian Fleming.)

Vesper defies Bond’s attempt to save her, choosing death rather than confrontation. The horrifying sight of her drowning is much more vivid and harrowing than Fleming’s version (suicide by overdose) could possibly have been if translated faithfully to the screen, further heightening the drama by making Bond an active participant, struggling but failing to save her.

Bond pulls Vesper from the water and begins administering CPR, only to recoil when he becomes aware of his actions. Bond’s identity crisis, emblazoned on Craig’s contorted, red-eyed face, has come to a head. Bond belongs neither to the service nor to Vesper. He gives in to his grief and moves to Vesper, cradling her lifeless form.

Thus Casino Royale offers an image that will become one of the recurrent motifs of the Craig era, appearing in Casino RoyaleQuantum of Solace, and Skyfall: Bond holding the body of someone he failed to save, while a solitary witness looks on.

Here, the onlooker is Mr. White.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XII

Dinner scenes have traditionally been a staple of the Bond formula, though they have dissipated with time as the series has come to privilege the spectacle of action over the spectacle of sensuality. Even during extended dinner scenes, films, for both practical and aesthetic considerations, tend to deny viewers the spectacles of stars chewing. Not so here. While enjoying caviar on a cracker, Craig’s Bond chews and talks with his mouth full. The Pierce Brosnan Bond films, as we have noted, presented Bond as a manicured image, and the Craig films have carried on a similar preoccupation with posture and presentation. The difference lies in the way that the Craig films sustain and frequently highlight the tension between the image and the man.

This moment of Bond consuming food, in all of its human awkwardness, coincides with a nice bit of banter between Bond and Vesper in which Bond’s constructed image briefly slips away. Bond attempts to charm Vesper through a manufactured line only to provoke her laughter. Bond, deflated, becomes sheepish and awkward: “I thought it was a good line.” Vesper clarifies that she wasn’t laughing in derision, but pleasure: “It was a very good line.” How easily, though, Craig’s Bond returns to his performance just a few moments later. Vesper asks him, “It doesn’t bother you, killing those people?” He responds, with typical deflection, “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did.”

Bond takes notice of Vesper’s Algerian love knot necklace, which will become an object of greater scrutiny in Quantum of Solace. This necklace was given slightly more attention in earlier drafts of Casino Royale as a clear set-up for the sequel, in which Bond was always intended to find Vesper’s Algerian boyfriend (Casino Royale was conceived and approached as a two-film enterprise, though the planned narrative emphasis for Quantum of Solace evolved during that film’s production). The necklace is a beautiful, expressive prop, a kind of leash for Vesper, but, also, in its spiral motif, a kind of callback to Vertigo.

The awkward, vague mechanics by which Bond suspects that Mathis is working for Le Chiffre set up a hazy, unfulfilling narrative trajectory in which Mathis’ ultimate allegiance remains ambiguous (though M hints that he’s innocent, and Quantum of Solace carries that thread and fully exonerates him). The moment where Le Chiffre suggests that Mathis is on his side stands out as some especially clunky signposting, as though the filmmakers were aware that Bond’s exclamation of Mathis’ name at the dinner table was a moment of profoundly weak dramatization and desperately needed some reinforcement.

Bond’s pursuit of Vesper, which builds momentum and then jarringly cuts things short with an astonishing, disruptive stunt, makes a spectacle of Bond’s failure. The destruction of Bond’s car, a glittering, expensive Aston Martin, serves as a keen visual introduction to the torture sequence that follows. Bond’s fleeting victory at the casino now gives way to emasculation and near-castration.

Casino Royale does not wholly commit to the wanton sadism of the sequence from Fleming’s novel, but it nevertheless feels like an astonishing break from anything that preceded it in the film franchise (even the savagery of Licence to Kill feels somewhat tame when compared to Casino Royale‘s torture scene). Looking back, there’s something astonishing about the way in which Casino Royale skated by with a PG-13 rating. The filmmakers did try to stack the deck in their favor by leavening the scene with some humor, even if it is of a very dark, nasty stripe, and were seemingly successful (when I saw Casino Royale in theaters back in 2006, this scene got the biggest laughs of any scene in the movie).

The sequence remains stark, fixated on the human body and the mechanics of torture (here, Le Chiffre’s implement for inflicting pain is a thick piece of rope, which allows for the camera to capture its horrifying sway; Fleming’s novel had Le Chiffre using a carpet beater, undoubtedly a less cinematic implement). Phil Meheux’s cinematography casts everything in shadows, the orange tones of sweaty, shiny flesh standing out against the dark background. Craig’s imposing physique has been the subject of the camera’s attention before, but where he seemed imposing before, his form now seems fragile and impotent.

The undercurrent of homoeroticism in Le Chiffre’s attention to Bond here (“You’ve taken good care of your body,” as well as his final vulgar threat to Bond) establishes a kind of precedent for Craig Bond villains, who are consistently presented with a kind of ambivalent sexuality. That Bond has been typically positioned as the embodiment of heterosexual fantasy juxtaposed against villains who are coded as homosexual or somewhat deficiently masculine is hardly a novel observation. Indeed, that dynamic hardly originates with Bond. Pulp storytelling, as a default position, often reinforces masculine fantasy. But the dynamics of desire are always somewhat slippery, and therefore pulp storytelling is also the arena in which cultural notions begin to fracture and self-implode. With Craig’s tenure as Bond, Bond’s default position in this schematic feels less fixed than ever before.

Craig’s Bond does his best to maintain his sense of masculine ego, egging Le Chiffre on and then attempting to humiliate him with a scatalogical put-down when Le Chiffre tries to confirm his position of power and control. The scene, as written, leaves a lot to be desired (Mikkelsen and Craig are both to be credited with cutting through some of the exposition here), but Craig invests it all with such ferocity and haunting despair that it achieves greatness. The moment that leaves the greatest impression are those seconds where Bond’s strained laughter gives way to shudders and sobs, his bravado crumbling before our eyes.

Le Chiffre tells him that he and Vesper are expendable, and Bond registers Le Chiffre’s words as truth. Bond’s only possible victory over his opponent lies in willful resignation, in his refusal to yield even in the face of brutal death. This is the path Bond takes. But Bond and Le Chiffre are not the only people playing the game.

 

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XI

The Craig era’s extraordinary ambivalence about the James Bond character manifests itself in the way it routinely denies Bond the clear victories that his predecessors often enjoyed. The Craig era predominantly offers narratives of loss and failure. Consider how Craig’s Bond does not earn the traditional “Bond and a girl” finale until he quits the secret service at the end of Spectre. His only true victory can be escaping himself.

In this section of Casino Royale, Bond meets with his first unqualified failure and responds with suicidal petulance. Bond’s underlying pathology is such that failure is unbearable to him; it shatters his constructed self and forces him to confront the void within. We’ll see similar kinds of death-wish responses in Quantum of Solace, wherein Bond’s loss of Vesper sends Bond careering out of control, as well as in Skyfall, where a failed mission sends Bond on a bad bender.

Bond masks his profound psychological instability with calm reserve and impeccable attire, and the morning after his fight with Obanno, Bond seems to be his typically collected self as he and Mathis converse on the hotel balcony. Mathis impishly prods Bond about Vesper. Bond gives no quarter.

Giancarlo Giannini again proves that he’s one of the film’s most welcome presences. Here, Giannini’s Mathis once again proves to be a keen improviser. He’s used the bodies Bond hid in the stairwell to strip away some of Le Chiffre’s resources by framing one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen.

It’s a shame that this essential intelligence is nowhere in evidence when Mathis is reduced to a spectator during the card game, dumbly narrating the beats of the game for the audience. Bond’s loss at Le Chiffre’s hands would be so much better if it wasn’t accompanied by heavy signposting about Le Chiffre’s “tell.”

First time viewers don’t know this yet, but it’s clear by the end that Vesper sets Bond up for failure, enabling Le Chiffre to provoke Bond into an overconfident maneuver that strips him of all of his assets. This lends her confrontation with Bond some complexity, and it’s a strong scene for Green. It’s a weaker scene for Craig. The “bloody idiot” line feels much too scripted for its own good and Craig is forced to stumble over it.

He’s much better in the moment that follows, where Bond snaps “Do I look like I give a damn?” to a bartender who asks him whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred. It’s a gag about Bond history, but also a significant character statement. Previous Bonds were defined by their unwavering sense of taste, but Craig’s Bond wears all the accoutrements of luxury as an adopted persona that he quickly discards when caught in the grip of an identity crisis (see also his extended bender at the beginning of Skyfall). When this Bond is humiliated and confused, he just wants to get trashed.

Blinded by rage, Bond grabs a steak knife off of a table and rushes to kill Le Chiffre. If he can’t win the poker game, he’ll assuage his ego by defeating Le Chiffre with brute force, even if it costs him his life.

Irresistibly cool CIA agent Felix Leiter stops Bond and offers him a less dangerous road to victory. Jeffrey Wright’s Leiter gets such a promising introduction in Casino Royale, an ally whose cooler head balances out Bond’s hotter temperament. Alas, that potential is never quite fulfilled in these movies, but Wright still makes the most of his material.

Bond returns to the game with renewed confidence, much to Vesper’s surprise and Le Chiffre’s dismay. In a last-ditch move to dispatch Bond, Valenka poisons Bond’s martini, forcing Bond to stumble out of the game.

The poisoning serves as a loose analogue to a suspenseful section of Fleming’s novel involving a gun disguised as a cane. Even if some of the sequence’s grace notes (like Bond inducing vomiting by swallowing a lot of salt) are clever, it’s all a bit ridiculous.

Bond has a convenient medical pack in his car, including a self-defibrillator, and establishes a link to MI6’s medical team. M and the MI6 crew watch on via computer monitors as Bond hovers near death, issuing instructions to Bond about how to prevent death. Bond is ultimately saved via Vesper-ex-machina; he falls unconscious before he can activate the defibrillator, only for Vesper to stumble upon him. She (improbably) knows exactly what to do to save his life.

It’s clearly meant to balance the Bond/Vesper relationship, but as a result of the sequence’s awkwardness, it doesn’t connect on a dramatic level. Bond’s unflabbable resolve to return for the game is good for a chuckle, though, as is Vesper’s flabbergasted response.

Bond’s return to the game gives us a classic Bond one-liner (“That last hand nearly killed me”), a Connery-style line that Craig delivers with Dalton-style intensity. Craig’s Bond so often feels distinct from the previous Bonds, but in this moment he does seems to exist on a continuum with his predecessors.

As soon as the line has been delivered, Bond’s victory in the card game is assured. For anyone who knows poker, the final hand seems absurdly overdramatized. That said, the climactic poker hand allegedly replicates an actual poker hand that occurred while the film’s creative team was playing poker to learn the rules, so perhaps my complaint is baseless.

Having won the day, Bond’s first thought is of a celebratory dinner. “You were almost dead an hour ago,” Vesper reminds him. Bond doesn’t acknowledge her remark. Bond’s enduring appeal as a fantasy figure lies in his flippant attitude toward death. Even here, where Bond’s bravado is so directly rooted in a kind of madness, it’s impossible to deny its allure.