“The scent and smoke of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” With that sentence, the legend of James Bond was born 53 years ago in Casino Royale. Kingsley Amis–himself the author of a not-bad-at-all Bond book, Colonel Sun–might be one of the few to consider Ian Fleming a great writer, but it can safely be said that Fleming did more with 007 than the filmmakers who made James Bond an iconic character across the planet, before doing their best to turn him into an international laughing stock worthy only of parody.
The appointment, or anointment, of the English actor Daniel Craig as the new 007 offers hope that Bond might return to his roots. Pierce Brosnan was always a little too smooth for the job (not helped by the producers’ feeble insistence that he give up smoking and drastically cut back his liquor consumption). Craig has a pleasing hint of menace in his face that augurs well. Being relatively unknown helps too; audiences can come to him as Bond and buy into the character immediately.
The most interesting moment of Brosnan’s tenure was the sequence in North Korea at the opening of Die Another Day in which Bond is taken prisoner and subsequently tortured by his captors. That hinted at a darker, more interesting Bond–a promise that remained frustratingly unfulfilled as the movie degenerated into silliness, even by the franchise’s lofty standards, earning Die Another Day a prominent place on the too-long-by-far list of worst Bond movies ever made.
That should serve as a warning: The new Bond film’s producers’ talk of more character and fewer gadgets will not necessarily count for anything. The sad truth is that, with a couple of exceptions, the Bond movies have flattered their fans as a prelude to letting them down, slipping too quickly from mindless entertainment into moronic pandering to the lowest imaginable common denominator. A charitable estimate might be that only half a dozen of the 21 movies are really worth watching.
The formula desperately needs to return to the spirit of Fleming’s books, not so that Bond can be “relevant” (a dreadful word and concept in itself) but simply so he is at least somewhat plausible. I’m not sure if it is reassuring or not that Paul Haggis, writer of the shockingly overrated Milion Dollar Baby, has been brought in to doctor the script for Casino Royale. But his hiring at least demonstrates that the movie’s producers are taking their responsibilities more seriously than they have in the past.
Give Us Cruelty and Sadomasochism
Although the memorable villains–Rosa Kleb, Goldfinger, Dr. No, and Blofeld–are vital to Fleming’s success, there is material to work with in terms of Bond too. Fleming relished his descriptions of Bond as “cruel,” and the character’s sadistic streak has only fleetingly been glimpsed on screen. In most of the movies you could be forgiven for forgetting that he’s a killer.
Bond is a certain type of conservative hero. Not because he enjoys fine things (the problem with caviar and toast is making sure there is a sufficient supply, not of caviar, but of toast), nor on account of his private-school education and double first in Oriental Languages at Cambridge, but because he would have been repelled by today’s emotion-fuelled confessional culture. Histrionics are for villains and foreigners of dubious provenance. Though he chafes at bureaucracy and suffers few fools gladly, and is frequently on the brink of resigning from the service, duty always brings him back to the fray. He is, after all, a lapsed Presbyterian (courtesy of his Scottish ancestors).
He is a loner, easily bored when not working (like Fleming too). His one true love, Tracy, is murdered at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, never to be replaced, and alongside the ice in his heart rests a thick streak of melancholy. In Diamonds Are Forever he muses that “Before a man’s 40, girls cost nothing. After that you have to pay money, or tell a story. Of the two, it’s the story that hurts most.” Decline weighs heavily upon him.
There is, then, plenty of room for character to replace cardboard. That’s just as well because very little actually happens in Casino Royale. Bond plays a lot of Baccarat, is double-crossed by his assistant Vesper Lynd, gets tortured and does not even execute the villain, Le Chiffre. There’s not too much glamor in Casino Royale, merely the messy, often squalid business of Her Majesty’s secret service.
We will know if the Bond reinvention is for real if the producers include Bond’s cold judgment on Miss Lynd: “The bitch is dead now.”
Casino Royale also offers the chance for a fresh start because it features the most famous example of Fleming’s sadomasochism as Bond’s genitals are soundly thrashed by a carpet beater. Featuring that realistically will be another declaration of intent that we are in a new, more interesting Bond era.
Refreshing Bond should not be an impossible undertaking. Fleming referred to the books as “fairy tales for grown-ups,” but in one significant respect they are prescient visions of a dystopic world plagued by the menace of rogue lunatics and organized crime syndicates.
As Christopher Hitchens argues in his introduction to the Penguin classics edition of From Russia With Love, ”By some latent intuition, Fleming was able to peer beyond the Cold War limitations of mere spy fiction and to anticipate the emerging milieu of the Colombian cartels, Osama bin Laden and, indeed, the Russian mafia, as well as the nightmarish idea that some fanatical freelance megalomaniac would eventually collar some weapons-grade plutonium.”
Spies are in vogue again too. Human intelligence is back; relying solely on technology is out. Toughening up Bond will let the films explore the uncertainties of a world that seems much more complicated and dangerous than it did a decade ago.
Fleming got something else right too. Bond is comfortable with American power–in stark contrast to the sneering attitude towards “the cousins” affected by John Le Carre’s characters, many of whom resent Britain’s eclipse. Bond, by contrast, offered the appearance of independence and emerged as a reassuring figure of British relevance in the years of imperial decline. He perpetuated Harold MacMillan’s romantic, patronizing and deluded idea that Britain could play Greece to America’s Rome. (JFK didn’t buy this, but he did list From Russia With Love in his list of ten favorite novels.)
Even so, it is no coincidence that the stark realities of the new world order were spelt out in Casino Royale, in which Bond, not for the last time, needs to be baled out by the CIA as Felix Leiter provides the funds 007 requires to continue the mission just when disaster and ignominious failure seem to be his fate.
And the reason a casino is nauseating at 3 A.M.? It’s then, Fleming writes, that “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.” For some aficionados the wait for a new Bond has had a little of the same nervous tension, heightened by the realization that it’s too absurd to care much about which actor gets to play the part of the world’s most famous secret agent. But then diamonds aren’t the only things that are forever: So is James Bond.
–Alex Massie is the Washington correspondent for the Scotsman (Edinburgh).