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.

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. 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 very 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.

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 affection for Le Chiffre.

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.

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 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, 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 laughs, a declaration of her own 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 form of 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 now observes Vesper in her striking dress. Bond’s open-mouth gape as she enters serves as a sharp 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 V

Casino Royale takes a turn for the familiar as Bond travels to Nassau. As if to signal the film’s turn to classic Bond formula, the Bond theme vamp roars on the soundtrack as a sea plane lands near the Atlantis resort. Bond, looking quite fashionable in a gray linen suit, disembarks and looks out at the harbor to glimpse Le Chiffre’s yacht cutting through the waters. (In a subtle nod to the Fleming novels, Bond wears a short-sleeved white shirt with his suit, an alleged fashion “no-no,” but an affectation that both Fleming and his literary creation shared.)

The film then introduces us to Bond’s new automobile. A BMW? A Lotus? An Aston Martin? Nay, it is but a modest Ford Mondeo! As one of the features of the film’s “Bond begins” arc, Bond hasn’t yet earned his trademark “fancy car,” and will now have to slum it by using a commonplace rental car like the rest of us mere mortals. If Casino Royale must have overt product placement, this isn’t such a terrible way to integrate it into the film. At the very least, this has some payoff when Bond wins the DB5 a few scenes later. On the other hand, the attention this montage draws to the vehicle, like a later call-out to Bond’s watchmaker, passes beyond the boundaries of good taste.

Despite the character’s strong association with luxury, Bond regularly demonstrates contempt for extravagant wealth in the Ian Fleming novels. Bond’s dislike of the upper classes shines through in moments like his journey to the Blades Club in Fleming’s Moonraker, where Bond muses about how out of place he seems among the upper classes, or in Goldfinger, where Bond gets a taste of the high life thanks to a rich acquaintance and recoils from it in disgust. Yes, Bond’s taste for fine food, fine wines, fine cars,  and fine watches all finds its root in Fleming, but it might be more properly said that Fleming paints Bond as a man of particular tastes rather than a man of extravagant tastes. In fact, Fleming regularly expounds on Bond’s affection for scrambled eggs and notes Bond’s affection for spaghetti bolognese and cheap red wine, which are not exactly models of culinary decadence!

Consider this description of Bond’s car from Thunderball, which mingles a disdain for the elite with an appreciation for the fine automobile as fine machine, rather than status symbol:

“Bond had the most selfish car in England. It was a Mark II Continental Bentley that some rich idiot had married to a telegraph pole on the Great West Road. Bond had bought the bits for £1500 and Rolls had straightened the bend in the chassis and fitted new clockwork–the Mark IV engine with 9.5 compression. Then Bond had gone to Mulliners with £3000, which was half his total capital, and they had sawn off the old cramped sports saloon body and had fitted a trim, rather square convertible two-seater affair, power-operated, with only two large armed bucket seats in black leather. The rest of the blunt end was all knife-edged, rather ugly, trunk. The car was painted in rough, not glass, battleship gray and the upholstery was black morocco. She went like a bird and a bomb and Bond loved her more than all the women at present in his life rolled, if that were feasible, together.

But Bond refused to be owned by any car. A car, however splendid, was a means of locomotion (he called the Continental “the locomotive” . . . “I’ll pick you up in my locomotive”) and it must at all times be ready to locomote–no garage doors to break one’s nails on, no pampering with the mechanics except for the quick monthly service. The locomotive slept out of doors in front of his flat and was required to start immediately, in all weathers, and after that, stay on the road.”

So, in Fleming, Bond’s affection for fine automobiles stems not from a love of the status they carry, but in their quality and dependability, in their usefulness on his missions and to his pursuit of a thrilling lifestyle. Similarly, the Rolex Bond adopts in the Fleming novels was a demonstration that Bond had selected what was, in Fleming’s time, an extraordinarily well-made and durable tool, rather than a flashy sign of upper-crust decadence.

This hasn’t been exactly replicated in the Bond films, which have tilted ever more in the celebration of luxury. Whatever factors have contributed to this, the most essential is the desire to deliver the spectacle of beautiful people enjoying the best of everything. So in its current state, the Bond series gives us impossibly exclusive cars (the Aston Martin DB10 used in Spectre was created for the film, with a production run of ten automobiles total), exceedingly high-end watches, ostentatious clothes, which all give the sense that Bond–or his employers–have extraordinarily deep pockets. This has been compounded by Bond’s increasingly anachronistic status, which tends to position him as a reminder of a more elegant era. This was strongly signposted during the Brosnan years, where Bond became an explicit avatar for old imperialistic Britain, accosted for being a “dinosaur” and a “stiff-assed Brit” out of touch with the times (Craig’s Bond gets a bit of this, too, but not in his first two entries).

Even so, some of the Bonds preserve a bit of that original Fleming dynamic. Certainly Connery–who Fleming originally accused of looking like a “bricklayer”–has a roughness that distinguishes him from the more mannered upper crust (which especially shines through in the scenes where, as in Goldfinger‘s dinner with Colonel Smithers, he interacts with the British elite and seems both bored and somewhat out of place). This carries through into Lazenby’s relatively rugged air, too (Lazenby notably turns down a small fortune in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).

Well-poised, well-mannered Moore remains the most aristocratic of the Bonds, even if he retains an impish streak beneath his gentlemanly air. It’s during his era that Bond begins to feel more and more like a man out of step with the times (even if he does sport bell bottom trousers in his 70s films), a sense accentuated by the degree to which Moore visibly aged throughout his long tenure in the role.

Dalton’s Bond defies easy categorization. Dalton returned Bond, however briefly, to being a weary, working professional, and he generally avoids flashy displays of wealth. He seems very well-educated (in The Living Daylights, he has a knowledgeable appreciation for classical music, and Licence to Kill has Bond making puns based on Hemingway titles), but does not appear especially beholden to any old-fashioned notions of Britishness. Instead, the emphasis seems to have been on making him seem like a contemporary action hero; Licence to Kill even has Bond abandoning British tailoring for popular American styles.

Then there’s Brosnan, who embodies bits and pieces of all of his predecessors and becomes a man-outside-of-time, an embodiment less of an actual character than the very idea of Bond as it existed in the public consciousness at the time of his run. Brosnan may be accosted for being a figure of the past, but he never really feels like he belongs to it. He seems more like a timeless constant in a changing world. Brosnan’s Bond rarely finds himself in situations that would define his own class status, but he blends in seamlessly among the very wealthy, and is typically draped in the the sort of apparel that would appeal to a wealthy businessman with good taste.

Craig’s Bond, returning to the roots of the character, has a pronounced “working class” streak. Craig’s Bond doesn’t start out with a luxury automobile or a perfectly-tailored dinner jacket. He has to obtain these relics of Bond-dom as part of his journey from mere human being to cinematic icon. Nothing underlines this as much as Bond arriving at the exclusive Ocean Club, only to be mistaken for a valet by a demanding patron (somewhat modeled after Bond’s iconic foe, Auric Goldfinger). In return, Bond ruins the patron’s day by damaging his vehicle, and then later twists the knife when the patron realizes that Bond is actually one of the hotel guests.