“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.”
So begins the very first chapter of the very first book about one of the most enduring icons in popular culture. Here at the Last Movie Outpost we love some James Bond and it turns out we have not one, but two massive 007 fans among us. So when Stark and Run For It Marty both started to re-read the original Ian Fleming novels at about the same time, it only seemed right that they do something to mark it here at the Last Movie Outpost.
Bond… James Bond
It’s simply an article of faith these days that every few years there will be a James Bond movie. That every decade and a half, or so, there will be a whirlwind of speculation and publicity as a new actor is revealed in the role. Then movie fans everywhere will go back to arguing about how they miss Roger Moore judo-chopping away in his safari suit and bemoaning the lack of submarine cars vs. people who believe Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever and should have made more movies.
Most casual fans know absolutely nothing about the character of James Bond beyond whatever they are presented on screen. The literary Bond is very different from what we have seen frequently on screen. The portrayal from the latter Connery movies, or those from Roger Moore, was frequently very wide of the mark.
Bond was influenced by a wide range of previous literary spies. Richard Hannay, the Edwardian spy created by John Buchan. Bulldog Drummond, the public schoolboy taking on communists. British agent Ashenden from Somerset Maugham. Also, a heavy influence was Fleming’s own life and his work at the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty.
However, before Bond it is no understatement to say that there was nothing else quite like him. When he arrived, nobody had ever seen anything like him before. For the 1950’s the mix of sex and violence was positively racy! So violent was Bond content judged at the time, that Live And Let Die was banned in Ireland. The famous torture scene in Casino Royale had Fleming’s own publisher, Jonathan Cape, very concerned. The Managing Director wrote:
“I thought its cynical brutality, unrelieved by humor, revealed a sadistic fantasy that was deeply shocking.”
Also, Casino Royale was written just one year after Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had defected, forever blowing a hole in the notion of gentleman spies. Instead, the Cold War was a war of intrigue, betrayal, and death for a spy.
Bond is the ultimate Cold War Warrior. In his long essay, The James Bond Dossier, Kingsley Amis defined him as a Byronic hero, the dark knight who is:
“…lonely, melancholy … dark and brooding in expression, of a cold cynical veneer, above all enigmatic…”
The literary Bond is not a perma-dinner jacketed quip-meister, surrounded by bikini-clad lovelies and festooned in gadgetry like exploding shoes and invisible jet-powered skis. He is a killer and he knows it. Frequently bored by his job, cynical about the politics and motivated by his sense of duty and his respect for his boss, head of the service known as M. He also does not always get the girl.
His love of the finer things is born from the knowledge that life in his profession is frequently very short, so he intends to sample luxury while he can. An orphan with very few close friends and no family.
He arrives in Casino Royale fully formed complete with Bentley, Morland cigarettes and martini cocktail shaken, not stirred. No origin story or reasons for personality ticks here. It mentions the two kills that made him qualify as a 00, but only briefly. A Japanese spy on the thirty-sixth floor of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center (then housing the headquarters of British Security Co-ordination – BSC) in New York City and a Norwegian double agent who had betrayed two British agents.
The story also starts with him already on the mission, with his briefing from M told in the form of a flashback in the following chapter. Fleming would use this mechanism several times in the season and it is where the movies take get their frequent cold open with Bond already close to completing another mission as part of a pre-titles sequence.
At the end of the first chapter, after smoking his seventieth cigarette of the day, he gets into bed:
“His last action was to slip his right hand under the pillow until it rested under the butt of the .38 Colt Police Positive with the sawn barrel. Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, cold.”
Bond is colder, darker than his predecessors in the genre. He is without question a creature of his time, and some of the characterizations would appear troublesome if viewed through the lens of today. Just wait until we get to Live And Let Die! One often-quoted passage occurs in the novel when Bond considers Vesper, who has just been kidnapped, as a distraction:
“These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why they hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men?”
In 1951 nobody would bat an eyelid at such a statement. However, it still gets used today to try and prove Fleming sexist, forgetting the fact that Fleming was writing strong women before they were even a thing and that Vesper, in this instance, has Bond completely fooled.
So let’s go back to where it all began. At the high stakes, baccarat tables of the casino at Royale-les-Eaux in northern France as James Bond attempts to bankrupt Le Chiffre, the paymaster for a SMERSH-controlled trade union, who has been using Soviet funds to cover shortfalls in his own businesses.
An Undertaker’s Wind
Stark: One thing that really stands out for me is how tight this novel is. It’s relatively short and as a result, there is no fat whatsoever. None. It moves so fast.
Run: Agree. There’s not much to this one as far as plot or action sequences go. You could probably write a good synopsis in three paragraphs of the entire story. The writing is very dry and reading about a series of card games is about as interesting as it sounds. Still, there are many things about it to enjoy such as the period-appropriate setting the story takes place in and Bond as a non-superhero that isn’t invincible.
Stark: I find a lot of the tension comes from the card game itself, but punctuated by action during the breaks in the game – such as the two Bulgarians with the bomb – and the plot building conversations with Leiter and Mathis. I agree it is in no way an action-packed book like others, but there is something in its tightness and narrow setting.
Run: I think part of the problem with the card game for me is that it’s not a game I am overly familiar with. I’m probably not alone, which is why they changed it for the movie.
Stark: The other thing I noticed was just how many of the main beats made it directly into the movie adaption from 2006. I didn’t read this around the time the movie came out. When I watched the movie I don’t think I had read Casino Royale for more than a decade. Reading it again now, with the movie etched in my mind, it really is a very faithful adaption in some respects.
Run: When I recently re-read it I took the movie mostly out of my mind and watched a “new” version in my mind’s eye. It’s the early 1960s/late 1950s in glorious Technicolor. I don’t think these books work in a modern setting. Sean Connery is Bond. Jack Lord is Leiter. I do keep Eva Green as Vesper with a more period-appropriate style about her. Bernard Lee is M of course. For everyone else, I see someone new in the roles.
Stark: Me too! I can’t help it. In ALL of the Fleming’s in my head, 007 is Sean Connery, it’s all period-appropriate. In the Christopher Wood novelization adaptions (The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) it’s Roger Moore. In the John Gardner books, it’s Dalton. In Raymond Benson’s novels, it’s Pierce Brosnan. The only one where I imagined Daniel Craig was William Boyd’s Solo. It’s kind of automatic, in my brain, to the period they are set.
Run: I’m reading the Folio Society editions with artwork by Fay Dalton so her artwork inspires some of the imagery for me (especially Le Chiffre) but I definitely am influenced by Ken Adam’s Art Direction in “my” version as well.
Stark: Those are amazing. I had never seen them before. They remind me of the Reader’s Digest illustrated editions of some books. I remember the Jaws and Jaws 2 ones vividly from my childhood.
Actually though, I take something back from what I said above. When re-reading Casino Royale this time I really did see Le Chiffre as Mads Mikkelson and Vesper as Eva Green in my head. Clearly I have no internal consistency!
Run: The Folio Society books are really nice, but a bit pricey. I plan on getting the whole series in that format. I’m currently working my way through their printing of Live and Let Die.
Stark: What’s “…a bit pricey?” (he asks, about to check Amazon to see if they are available!). I have really early paperbacks that my Dad gifted to me, first and second editions but they are getting very worn now, so I am using Kindle editions for this re-read through. Maybe I change up to the Folio Society? Love the look of those illustrations.
Run: They are like $63 for Americans. I love them. They are great. They are based out of London and ship from there so it takes me about 4 weeks for the book to show up after I order it. I think they ship to New Jersey first and then they ship it to my address. With you being based in the UK I would imagine you would get them a lot quicker.
Stark: What did you think of the famous torture scene as written? Very similar to the movie with just a couple of differences.
Run: Yeah. It was pretty well done in that respect. I really wish they would have let Quentin Tarantino write and direct the movie adaption though with it taking place in the early 60’s, shot in Technicolor, etc. What a missed opportunity.
Stark: I am in what feels like the minority sometimes in that I really, really don’t like the idea of making Bond a period piece. If you want a 60’s period piece then we’ll always have Connery’s early movies. Dr. No through to Thunderball, at least, before things started to go crazy.
Bond always moves, changes and adapts to the times, it’s why he has the longevity as a character and as a franchise. By going back I think it would box him in. Place him forever in the past.
Also, I have never thought Tarantino has the self-control to make a 007 movie. If you thought Die Another Day was over the top just imagine what Tarantino would do?
Run: I can only imagine what he’d do. One thing for is sure it would have the best cinematography in the history of the series. Hands down.
Stark: Really? Beating Deakins for Skyfall? I have a bit of a Tarantino problem, I admit it. It feels like he’s always saying “Hey, look at how cool this is!” rather than just doing something cool. Does that make sense? OK, if you like that sort of thing. Feels a bit edgy hipster barista with a camera.
Run: I think he makes the best looking movies consistently. If you look at Once Upon A Time In Hollywood for example he matched the new FBI tv-series footage to the original show so perfectly that it was seamless. The way the cinematography looks in his movies and the use of colors in his shots are just the best.
Stark: One of the beats I was surprised to rediscover was the clear three-act structure in the book matches the movie. Le Chiffre gets what is coming to him about two-thirds of the way through the book. The final third is Bond and Vesper falling in love, and the scale of her betrayal coming clear. Just like in the movie. There is also talk in the book about going after those behind the betrayal, which we actually get to see with Bond’s takedown of Mr. White at the Italian lakes in the movie.
Run: Right. I feel in a lot of cases with these books that Fleming’s ideas far exceed his abilities as a storyteller. He’s moves everything briskly, perhaps too briskly more often than not, glossing over things or dropping them completely.
Stark: I see a real curve for Fleming as you read through these books. You can tell with Casino Royale it was his first one, and he gets better with each book. By the time you get into Moonraker, one of the best for me, he’s really hit his stride. Until the very end of the series when he seems bored in some respects.
Run: As I mentioned I’m reading through Live and Let Die now and I think the narrative is a big improvement but boy does it have problems, which we’ll get into when discussing that book.
Stark: One thing from the movie that is a build on the book is the character of Mathis. No suspicion that he could be a turncoat. I am not sure why they put that in, only to undo it for Quantum Of Solace.
Run: Yeah. An odd choice. I will say that I miss Cubby Broccoli’s hand on the wheel for sure even though he was more all over the place with inconsistencies, re-castings, etc. much more so than his daughter. Hell, he changed Feliz Leiter and Blofeld more than a hobo changes his socks!
Stark: There is some stuff in the books about Blofeld changing his appearance drastically, but we will get to that as we get to him in later books. No idea why they never settled on a Leiter though. I think only Heddison (Licence To Kill and Live And Let Die) and Wright (Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace, No Time To Die) are returnees.
On the subject of Leiter, it does feel like it didn’t need him AND Mathis as allies. I think Fleming’s English snobbery maybe couldn’t, wouldn’t, accept a Frenchman bailing out Bond with extra cash! Fleming was always very pro-American.
Run: Yeah. They should have stuck with Jack Lord at least through the 60s.
Fleming is a snob no doubt about it. It really comes through in his writing. I’ll have a lot more to say about when we get into Live and Let Die, where I think his knowledge of Black Americans came solely from Gone With the Wind, Our Gang comedy shorts, and Walt Disney’s Song of the South. The problem is he acts like he’s an expert on every topic he writes about but in some instances, he comes off either like a poser or a downright fool.
Stark: Controversial. Don’t forget he was very well travelled and a journalist as well as a military man in his career. Came from a very rich family too. So he probably had at least a passing acquaintance with a lot of what he wrote about. He was also fond of the ladies. You get a lot of Bond out of his biography.
Anyway, looks like we could be warming up to Live And Let Die which is coming next, so maybe we leave this here with the very last words of the book, a key kart of which was also included in the movie. Signals a major change within Bond that would go on to shape him:
“The telephone rang and Bond snatched up the receiver.
He was on to ‘the Link’, the outside liaison officer who was the only man in London he might telephone from abroad. Then only in dire necessity.
He spoke quietly into the receiver.
‘This is 007 speaking. This is an open line. It’s an emergency. Can you hear me? Pass this on at once. 3030 was a double, working for Redland.
‘Yes, dammit, I said “was”. The bitch is dead now.’ “