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.