Friday, March 23, 2012

The Infernal Machine: Moonraker


The greatest war in the history of the world rages.  On June 6th, Allied forces assault the beaches of Normandy, and the Empire of the 3rd Reich begins to collapse.  In retaliation, the Nazis unleash one last horror, one born not of the ancient capacity of humanity to hate itself for its differences, but out of the explosion of technological breakthroughs of the 20th centuries as we found ways to finally pierce the sky itself.

From Paris, several rockets blast into the air.  Ethanol, Water, and Liquid Oxygen fuel a fiery blaze lasting 65 seconds.  The rockets soar over 50 kilometers in altitude, breaking free of the land and penetrating outer space.  They travel over 100 kilometers before descending at more than 10 kilometers per second, emitting an ear-shattering crack as they surpass the sound barrier three times over, crashing onto a London still devastated by the aerial bombardment of the Battle of Britain.  A thousand kilograms of explosives end the lives of two civilians - 63-year-old Ada Harrison and 3-year-old Rosemary Clarke - and one Royal Engineer on leave, Bernard Browning.  And for months, the rockets continue to fall, killing more than 2,700 in London, nearly twice as many as were killed by the bombings of the Lutwaffe, and injuring another 6,500.  On November 24th, a single V-2 kills 160 and seriously injures another 108 after hitting a Woolworth's department store. (In Antwerp, Belgium, an even more devastating hit strikes a cinema, killing 567 and injuring 291)

British Intelligence eventually leaks falsified information suggesting the rockets are overshooting London by 10 to 20 kilometers.  The ruse works, and most of the remaining rockets fall in Kent, greatly reducing though not eliminating civilian deaths.  Between the Blitz and the V-2s, London lies in ruins.

When at last the War ends, enough still stands that it can be rebuilt.

1955.  The trauma in England of the devastation of their homeland and their capital lingers, amplified by the economic difficulties Post-War.
Across the Pond, the Pentagon announces their plan to build ICBMs - intercontinental ballistic missiles, armed with the increasingly powerful nuclear weaponry of the age.  The Soviet Union oversees the Warsaw Pact between the Communist powers in Europe.  Winston Churchill steps down as Prime Minister after a series of strokes severely weaken him both physically and mentally.  His last term has overseen the fall of colonialism and the British Empire, despite his stubborn resistance.

Tolkien finishes The Lord of the Rings with The Return of the King.  The biggest hit single is Bill Haley's rousing rock-and-roll rendition of Rock Around the Clock, another lighthearted joy to counter the dark moods of England (and complement the much more optimistic mood in America).

While Fleming continues with his secret agent in Moonraker, but keeps Bond curiously grounded in England and has him face an even more horrific reflection of the destruction of London in the War.  What to a modern audience - and, I imagine, even a contemporary American audience - plays as a solid thriller that drags a bit in the middle but picks up for a thrilling and surprising finale, in 1955 taps directly into the fears and emotions of England.  A vastly successful businessman, Hugo Drax, is building the Moonraker, a vastly upgraded V-2 with nuclear capabilities to allow England to defend itself from its enemies.  But Drax is secretly a Nazi who changed his identity near the end of the war and infiltrated England, intent on its utter destruction in revenge for the defeat of his Fatherland.  The Soviets supply him with a nuclear bomb, which he secretly fixes to the top of what is supposedly a test rocket.

He's going to nuke London with what was meant to defend her.  In a single moment, he will utterly destroy England.

And so, with England itself in danger from both the enemies of yesterday - the Nazis - and the enemies of today - the Communists - armed with the space-age weaponry of tomorrow, Bond becomes England's White Knight, mythic in an entirely different way from Live and Let Die

Except Fleming undercuts his mythic hero twice.  The first is by humanizing him - at first, simply by showing a glimpse of his home life.  Even removed from the exotic traveling and expensive hotels and casinos, Bond is far from a relatable working-class hero, residing in a very nice flat with his own housekeeper.  But this glimpse still makes him less mythic and more human.

But Fleming's big humanization of Bond is in his finale.  Bond loses.  Oh, he does save London, but Drax's nuke still explodes out in the North Sea, resulting in a tidal wave that kills Drax... and thousands of civilians on the coast.  M tries in his distant, stiff-upper-lip way to sort-of comfort his best agent, but Bond limps out of the office largely defeated, with the only bright spot in his mind being Gala Brand, the girl he met at Drax's compound.

Gala is a much stronger and more interesting character than she's given credit for, largely because she's never appeared in one of the films.  She's a member of Scotland Yard, undercover in Drax's organization as a simple secretary.  She wears a ring, Bond assumes, to ward off advances in the otherwise all-male group.  She's clever, thoughtful, and pretty tough when it comes down to it.  And she's very good at a very difficult job, and a genuinely strong female heroine.  She can only even be considered a damsel in distress briefly, and even then, Bond's attempts to rescue her end up putting him in exactly the same position.

And having given Bond the best female counterpart he's had yet, and taken everything else away, he brings Bond to his "reward"... and takes even that away.  Gala's ring isn't just a ruse, after all; she's genuinely engaged and off to be married.  The intensity of their hours together fighting Drax have left her a bit confused, but Bond, despite having nothing else, denies her before she can really even ask.  He honorably lets her away to a better life.  A life Fleming suggests Bond neither shall nor could ever have.

Fleming uses an interesting structure that wasn't uncommon in thrillers and action yarns until the '80s -- holding off almost entirely on any action until the final act, but then packing that last act to the brim with set-pieces.  Done properly, setting a slow-burn baseline and paying off with a spectacular finale is exhilarating -- The French Connection exemplifies this style particularly well.

To pull it off, though, you have to get two things right, and Fleming doesn't quite make both.  The first is that your actionless first two-thirds have to be well-plotted and characterized, and the second is that the payoff in the last third has to be worth the wait.  It starts well -- the high-stakes Contract Bridge game comprising the first 60 pages is surprisingly exciting.  I love bridge, but it's not exactly one of the more tense or exciting card games out there.  Regardless, Fleming builds an incredible level of tension out of the face-off between Bond and Drax.

Once that winds down and the real mystery gets going, however, doldrums set in.  While Moonraker has fine if unexceptional characters, they aren't quite strong enough to carry the midsection, and the early plotting consists of about  80 pages of Bond wandering around Drax's compound trying to figure out who is up to what nefarious deeds.  Which could be interesting in theory, but Bond mostly just waits around for something to happen.

But even after largely dropping the ball on the first part, Fleming makes the last act such a knockout that it still feels worth the wait.  The set-pieces -- the incredibly sexy swim, the collapsing cliff-face, the race to London, and the car chase all escalate the excitement superbly.  Drax then, naturally, ties Bond and Gala up so that they will be killed by the launching rocket.  It's a theatrical gesture, of course, not a realistic one, but when it sets up such a terrific finale, it's difficult to complain.  Bond's escape is very clever, brutally taunting Drax into assaulting him... which leads to Drax unintentionally leaving the very tool Bond uses to escape behind.  Finally, the climactic scenes as Bond first uses Gala's instructions to set the rocket off-course, and then their long wait hoping they'll survive the inferno of the rocket blast create a terrific finale.

And then, Fleming lays out his dark, downbeat ending.  Today, it has a real impact as the sort of ending you never really see in a Bond story.  But it's strange, really, to see it in context - of his first three adventures, Bond has really only been fully victorious once.  It's an intriguing take on escapism, delivering all the thrills and excitement, but leaving bittersweet finishes.  And Moonraker, in particular, sets itself apart like this, spinning a fantastic, over-the-top yarn, but ending on a complex, shadowy note, and packing a kind of punch the series only occasionally achieves afterwards.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Climax! Casino Royale, TV Version

The early days of television experimented with a now largely-abandoned genre of Live Drama - dramatic shows, often thrillers, shot and edited live, the most memorable being the BBC's adaptation of 1984, starring Peter Cushing.  The goal, presumably, was to capture the energy and immediacy of Theater.  As it turns out, this rather misses the point - the energy and immediacy of theater comes largely from the performers actually being there.  The actors feed off the energy of the audience, and the audience off the energy of the actors.  There is something impressive about well made live drama if you know it's live.  Otherwise, it just feels a tad clumsy and cheap.  And kinda stagey.

For the audience, the only element of theater that really carries over is the possibility of some sort of major gaffe.  Of course, goofs happen even in the biggest-budgeted films, but they're generally hidden in the editing and framing.  But in theater - or live drama - if disaster strikes, like, say, an actor tripping and knocking over the entire backdrop (which I did once, but luckily only in rehearsal), there's no covering it up.  You just have to keep going.

Today, there are still comedy programs broadcast live, SNL being the best known.  But in SNL, if Chris Farley's wires meant to send him soaring over the audience fail to work properly, the live goof just sort of adds to the charm.  In a thriller built on dramatic tension, built carefully through lighting, performance, and pacing, however, even relatively small flaws can disrupt the emotion.

Or major ones, like, say, a dead character getting up and walking away because he thought he was off-camera.  Which happened in the first episode of the anthology series Climax!  

But in general, shooting thrillers live adds nothing to the tension of the story.  Whatever tension exists is all in the writing, acting, editing, staging, lighting, and so forth.  None of which are at their best in a live production.

Which brings us to the third episode of Climax, an adaptation of Casino Royale, the first adaptation of Fleming's stories.  Its changes to the story sometimes seem rather strange, starting with Barry Nelson's very American James, er, "Jimmy" Bond of Combined Intelligence. (matched by Michael Pate's very British Felix "Clarence" Lieter) Vesper Lynd and Rene Mathis are combined into Linda Christian's Valerie Mathis, who is now Bond's old flame and currently Le Chiffre's girlfriend.

Understandably, the entire story takes place in the casino, with the torture taking place in Bond's room. To compress the story into an hour, Fleming's last act is completely dropped, and the story is resolved with Bond escaping the torture and shooting the villains.  Which, on the one hand, is the most reasonable way to compress the story, and on the other hand, completely misses the entire point of the book.

The result is a competent but ordinary yarn of the usual 40s & 50s thriller cliches.  Valerie is indistinguishable from any other good-leaning femme fatale - Ilsa Lund lite, and she has little to do in the story other than provide the requisite romantic interest.

And as Ian Fleming's James Bond, Nelson is pretty bland.  All the rough edges are smoothed out, and none of his more mythic attributes from Live and Let Die have a chance in such a small-scale setting.  He's just a generic American hero.

... but as Jimmy Bond of Combined Intelligence, Nelson is really good.  He takes a blank role and gives it as much charisma and energy as he can, and he's excellent in the torture sequence, showing real grit.  For his counterpart Lieter, Pate brings class and intensity, and has one terrific scene threatening various villains with a cane-gun.  Despite being quite English (Pate's actually Australian, but you'd never know it) and having the wrong first name, he makes a better Lieter than most of the movie versions.  Linda Christian makes a lovely fatale and does all she can in the role.

While much of the story is a bit dull, the actual card sequence in the second half captures a measure of the tension Fleming gave it, and the torture scene is surprisingly effective given the era.  The climax is necessarily simplistic, but effective enough.

Best of all, Le Chiffre is played by the great Peter Lorre.  With all apologies to Madds Mikkelson's fantastic performance in the 2006 version, Lorre, one of the all-time-great character actors (and a great leading man as well), owns the role magnificently.  He's the one element that genuinely surpasses the equivalent in the 2006 film.

The strong performances, competent film making, and strong centerpiece scenes make it very watchable despite its weaknesses.  And yet, it's easy to see why this didn't go anywhere.  There's simply nothing memorable about this character, or this world.  Ultimately, the TV version of Casino Royale is interesting only because it's a dead end of what later became a cultural phenomenon.

Well, that and getting to see Peter Lorre playing a Bond villain.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Undertaker's Wind: Live and Let Die

"'De Undertaker blow de bad air out of the island night-times from six till six.  Den every morning de Doctor's Wind come and blow de sweet air in from de sea... Guess you and de Undertaker's Wind got much de same job."

1954.  The Cold War continues as the US blows up a deployable hydrogen bomb, while Russia opens a civilian nuclear power plant.

Still, the top movies in the US are largely lighthearted - White Christmas, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Rear Window, Carmen Jones, A Star Is Born, The Country Girl, Sabrina, and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers are all amongst the most popular films.  Even the darker stories - Rear Window, The Caine Mutiny, On the Waterfront, Dial M For Murder, and The Egyptian - are slick entertainment films in addition to any loftier ambitions.  Major novels include Bridge On the River Kwai, I Am Legend, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, The Horse and His Boy, and the first two volumes of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.  In music, Rock 'n' Roll is on fire - "Rock and Roll" is abbreviated to "Rock 'n' Roll", Elvis has his first recording session and first radio appearance, and "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" becomes the first internationally successful Rock song.

In January, Oprah Winfrey, future Ruler of the World, is born; the last confirmed Caspian Tiger is killed.  Later, the United States Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hold their infamous Comic Book Hearings, resulting in massive comic book censorship across the board.  

And the James Bond series begins to come into its own.

It's remarkable reading Live and Let Die and seeing how perfectly it nails a Bond story as we've come to think of it, particularly considering how un-Bondish Casino Royale felt.  All the elements we expect - the fantastic villains, the romantic affairs, the exotic locations, the violent action - are not only present, but superbly presented.  With the exception of a single element, it's the perfect second novel in the series, and still a terrific one.

And largely, it's the villain that makes it so great.  Mr. Big - real name, Buonaparte Ignace Galia - is, on the surface, an agent of Bond's sworn enemy, SMERSH, the Soviet anti-espionage agency.  But he's far more than just a spy.  He makes himself mythic, taking full advantage of Vodoo superstitions, he fosters rumors that "he was the Zombie or the living corpse of Baron Samedi, the dreaded Prince of Darkness... As a result, he commanded real fear, strongly substantiated by the immediate and often mysterious deaths of anyone who crossed him or disobeyed his orders."  Most of his followers obey him because they believe or at least fear that he may be much more than a mere mortal.  And he wields this fear and power so effectively that, for all intents and purposes, he is every bit the myth he makes himself to be.
'Why doesn't someone kill him,' asked Bond.
'You can't kill him,' she said. 'He's already dead.  He's a zombie.'
He's uniquely physically imposing - "... the photographs had conveyed nothing of this man, nothing of the power and intellect that seemed to radiate from him...  The skin was grey-black, taut and shining like the face of a week-old corpse in the river... There were no eyebrows and no eyelashes and the eyes were extraordinarily far apart, so that one could not focus on them both, but only one at a time.  Their gaze was very stead and penetrating.  When they rested on something, they seemed to devour it, to encompass the whole of it... They were animal eyes, not human, and they seemed to blaze."  Six-and-a-half feet tall, extremely well-built, and richly clothed.

He wields such power that when Bond and Felix first wander the streets of New York looking for one of his clubs, his vast web of subordinates, communicating through a switchboard run by "The Whisper", not only follow the pair for hours, but carefully set a subtle, brilliant trap, dropping clues that seem earned and not dropped, leading them into a club where they watch an intense voodoo-inspired dance -- at then end of which, their table lowers out of the club and into one of Mr. Big's lairs.  And Bond is led in to meet Mr. Big personally.

And it's spectacular.  Mr. Big shows tremendous elegance in his villainy.  He views himself as the great artist of crime.  We already saw a hint of this theatrical in his alarm clock bomb sent to Bond, which came with a poem:

The heart of this clock has stopped ticking
The beats of your own heart are numbered
I know that number and I have started to count

And now, face to face with Mr. Big, he explains his beliefs about crime.

"Mr. Bond, I take pleasure now only in artistry, in the polish and finesse I bring to my operations.  It has become almost a mania to me to impart an absolute rightness, a high elegance, to the execution of my affairs.  Each day, Mister Bond, I try and set myself still higher standards of subtlety and technical polish so that each of my proceedings may be a work of art, bearing my signature as clearly as the creations of, let us say, Benvenuto Cellini."

The mythic elements of Mr. Big go beyond using superstition to make himself more than human; it's his belief that he is more than a criminal.  He is The Criminal, so to speak.  And he shows the power and intelligence to earn that title.
"Those who deserve to die die the death they deserve."
 After his magnificent monologuing, Mr. Big breaks the small finger of Bond's left hand, his least-used finger, as a warning, and then lets him go.

His first appearance is so brilliantly built to and pays off so beautifully that Mr. Big doesn't even have to show up again until the finale, and his presence remains ever-constant.  We see his arm stretch across the entire
Eastern United States and feel his shadow over every page.
"No one looked up from his work.  No one would slacken when Mr. Big was out of sight.  No one would put a jewel or coin in his mouth.
"Baron Samedi was left in charge.  Only his Zombie had gone from the cave."
And it's here that Fleming makes Bond a great hero.  By creating such a fantastic, uniquely threatening villain, and then forcing Bond to face him down, he makes Bond himself epic -- a modern Perseus, striking an unfathomable enemy.  Bond's determination, cleverness, and toughness are just barely enough to defeat this unstoppable creature.
After the confrontation, Bond strikes back, killing Tee-Hee in a terrific scene on a staircase, then kills two more, taking one of Mr. Big's cars. (and, in a nice touch, he accidentally drives down the left side of the road for a while before realizing his error)  Casino Royale showed hints of Fleming's genius with set-pieces, but this is the first time a major action sequence centers around Bond's heroism.  And right away, Bond goes from a fascinating anti-hero to our great hero.  And yet the anti-hero remains within him, as we see much later.  His ability to tip-toe this line as both hero and anti-hero makes him more than just a mythic hero; he's something unique and special in fiction.  It's the ultimate escapism -- Bond's awesomeness in Live and Let Die, only hinted at in Casino Royale, brings the character to a special part of the imagination.  This is a man who travels the world and defeats the villains, unfettered by law or conscience.

And it's only his second time out.

Fleming expands on his world beautifully.  Where the exotic location in Royale was just a fancy casino, here we visit the atmosphere of Harlem, travel by train across the Eastern Seaboard to the Florida Keys, before arriving in Jamaica for our final act.  All these are given a vivid, dense atmosphere.  (He also constantly describes Bond's meals in meticulous detail, which would be infuriating if he wasn't so good at it.  Fleming's the kind of guy who can make a burger and fries sound endlessly exotic, which he actually does in Chapter 1.)

The supporting villains are all given intriguing personalities and fanciful names -  The Whisper, who only has part of one lung; the threatening Tee-Hee Johnson with the Striped Tie; Sam Miami; Blabbermouth; McThing; The Robber.

Bond's American ally from Royale, Felix Leiter, returns to become a terrific hero in his own right.  He's endlessly cheerful and good-natured.  Where Bond viciously fights his way out of Mr. Big's lair, Felix finds a different solution.  Felix loves jazz, and strikes up a conversation with Blabbermouth about the finer points of the art, making an instant friend.  And so, when Blabbermouth is given the order to beat Felix, he gives him only a single hit, then personally drives him to the hospital, apologizing profusely.

Like Bond, we love having him around - he just makes everything more fun.  Which makes Mr. Big's assault on him in the Keys so much more horrific.  Finding the duo to be a continuing nuisance, he has the Robber set a trap for Felix, and then feeds him to a shark.

And then leaves him just barely alive but horribly mutilated, and brings him back to Bond with a note attached: "He disagreed with something that ate him."

And Bond's dark side returns with a fury as he stakes out the Robber's warehouse.  Another terrific set-piece follows.  Fleming writes action sequences with style, economy, and imagination, creating some of the most tense and satisfying action in any thrillers.  And at the end of this showdown, he lets Bond's violent, cold side out for a chilling finale to a riveting middle segment of the book.

And then there's Solitaire, the girl.

Solitaire is a damsel in distress - she's here so that Bond has someone to rescue at the finale and his reward at the end.  And she's absolutely brilliant.  Fleming goes out of his way to give her life and personality, and she shines from her first appearance during Mr. Big's meeting with Bond, where she bodly sends Bond a subtle signal while Mr. Big is looking right at her.

Later, as she and Bond take a suspenseful train ride south to Florida, her conversation reveals her as an impassioned, intelligent woman, beaten down through her life but not beaten.  She does ultimately need Bond to rescue her, but she's a real, complete woman in need of rescue.  And in the context of a mythic novel, a classic damsel in distress is exactly what the story requires.  By breathing life and personality into her, Fleming makes her as good a damsel as she could be in that role.

When she and Bond kiss, it's an electric sequence that flies off the page.  Ultimately, like Mr. Big, after her big scene on the train, she doesn't show up again until the climax, but again, she makes such an impact she isn't needed for the majority of the novel's second half.

But let's return to Bond himself.  At the end of the second act, Solitaire is recaptured, Felix horribly mutilated, and Mr. Big only a week from completing his current work for the Russians.  So Bond travels to Jamaica to prepare for his final assault on Mr. Big's base.

He spends the entire week training for the attack.  Finally, as Mr. Big returns to his island for the final time, Bond begins his harrowing scuba-dive to reach the island undetected and destroy the operation.  To reach the end, the hero must travel through the Underworld, and Bond's journey through the hellish waters more than qualifies.  Alone in the nighttime waters, he is attacked by an octopus, barracuda, and sharks.  And after surviving that horrific ordeal deeply wounded, he reaches the island to rescue Solitaire... only to find Mr. Big was waiting for him to do precisely that.  And he's dreamed up a horrific death for the two.
"There was nightmare at every turn of his thoughts, sickening horror in every grisly aspect of the monstrous torture and death this man had invented for them.  But Bond knew he must remain cold and absolutely resolved to fight for their lives to the end...

"He shared all his hopes with Solitaire.  None of his fears."
The climax is a tremendous work of suspense as Bond and Solitaire try desperately to survive just long enough for Bond's plan to go into action.  It's an unforgettable, chilling finale, culminating in a perfect death for Mr. Big - gritty yet mythic.

That element of the fanciful, the voodoo and magic undertones, give Live and Let Die its own unique place in the Bond series.  It's exactly what the series needs in its second book: to make James Bond an epic hero.  To make him special.  And by setting him in such a fantastic world and watching how he deals with it, it succeeds superbly.  His place in fiction - and in us - is the Undertaker's Wind.  Dark and eerie in many ways, but he blows de bad air out of de island.

Fleming does end up topping Live and Let Die for such wildly inventive, magnificently theatrical villains, exotic atmosphere, and pulp intensity at times, but rarely do he or any of his successors mix it so perfectly.  And ultimately, his style is also the guide for the series - that lurid serial of sex and violence, those seedy elements that appeal to our darker natures, but classy, compelling, and at times, even poetic.   It's a fantastic thriller, regardless of its place in Bond canon.
Bond took out his gun and cleaned it, waiting for the night.
 ... except for that one element.

See, Mr. Big and Solitaire are half black.  And all of Mr. Big's employees are black.  Every villain in the piece is either African-American or Jamaican.  This is one of the major points of the novel: Mr. Big takes advantage of the culture of a race that was still in the 1950s largely treated as second-class citizens.

And the overtones of racism aren't a minor background detail - things get uncomfortable from the opening page - "... he felt like a Negro whose shadow had been stolen by the witch-doctor."

'I don't think I've ever heard of a great Negro criminal before,' said Bond.  'Chinamen, of course, the men behind the opium trade.  There've been some big-time Japs, mostly in pearls and drugs.  Plenty of Negros mixed up in diamonds and gold in Africa, but always in a small way.  They don't seem to take to big business.  Pretty law-abiding chaps on the whole, I should have thought.'"
 Which is not to say Fleming shows any hated or enmity towards blacks.  In fact, he doesn't even seem to show a sense of inferiority, per se.   But there is a constant sense that we are dealing with something other, something alien.  The Voodoo is said to be buried deep in the "Negro subconscious."  Fleming exploits White fears by making the terrifyingly intelligent, charismatic villain (half) black.  And all the black people except Mr. Big speak in an Aristocratic Englishman's approximation of Jive.  It sullies an otherwise terrific book.

Fleming clearly admires what he's experienced of black culture.  He never gives the sense that he thinks they're in any way less than whites.  And he introduces the character of Quarrel as one of Bond's allies, a guy you, like Bond, like instantly.  He's the best swimmer and fisherman in the Caribbean, and has a distinctive charm about him.  It's Quarrel who so aptly compares Bond to the Undertaker's Wind.

It may simply be that I like the book and want to give Fleming the benefit of the doubt.  But I don't get the impression that Fleming was particularly racist by the standards of an aging aristocratic Englishman in the 1950s.  I guess, overall, you get the impression that some of Fleming's best fiends are black.

Which is to say, Live and Let Die is a little racist, and that can't be dismissed, but neither is it a work of horror like "The White Man's Burden" or those Looney Toons Warner Bros ignores and so desperately wishes never existed.  It's from a different time, a different world.  It doesn't make that any less wrong.

But neither is it hateful or cruel, nor does it entirely deny the beautiful craftsmanship on display here.

Monday, January 16, 2012

To Be Loved and Not Feared - Casino Royale

"This is not a romantic adventure story in which the villain is finally routed and the hero is given a medal and marries the girl.  Unfortunately these things don't happen in real life."

1953. The death of Stalin, and the ensuing power struggle between Lavrentiy Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev, do nothing to relieve the tension of the Cold War.  In January, two months after the first successful test, President Truman announces that the US has a hydrogen bomb.  Later, in August, the Soviet Union actually explode their own first H-Bomb, although its relatively unimpressive 400 kiloton blast amusingly resulted almost entirely from fission elements, leading the US experts to largely denounce it as a "real" hydrogen bomb.  Regardless of its somewhat mixed success, however, it raises the stakes in the Cold War higher than they had ever been in human history: for the first time, humanity is in danger of extinction by its own hands.

In spite of a world on the brink of destruction and the devastation of World War II, the US economy flourishes.  The post-war boom results in a rich, optimistic culture, typified by the year's most popular song, Dean Martin's jovial "That's Amore" and a pair of delightful Marilyn Monroe flicks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, both of which are near the top of the year's box office. It feels like a bright and glorious time, other than the end of the world right around the corner.

But in England, the aftermath of World War II has left the once-glorious British Empire in ruins.  In 1922, the Empire commanded 1/5 the population of the world, spread across 1/4 of its land area.  Now, with Ireland and India independent, its power is slipping; the nationalism once largely defined by its empire is tattered, leaving the national identity lost and confused.  Britain was left virtually bankrupt after the war, saved only by a $3.5 billion loan from America, which is not fully repaid until 2006.  Travel restrictions created in the 1930s to protect its citizens are now trapping them on the island.  The rich and connected can find a way around these restrictions, but to most, even the short trip across the Channel to France sounds insatiably exotic.

Which perhaps explains how Ian Fleming could start his spy saga on such a small scale as Casino Royale and still create a cultural impact.  Fleming's talent for making anything sound exotic and exquisite is in evidence already, but to his primary audience at the time, the Casino at Royale-Les-Eaux and his tale of espionage and high-stakes card games for millions of pounds seems a near-impossible fantasy.

Casino Royale feels a bit strange today.  You expect the first Bond novel to be a bit smaller-scale than its follow-ups, much like the film Dr. No, but still recognizable.  But it's really nothing of the sort.  Bond himself does very little in the story besides beat Le Chiffre at cards.  Plenty of things happen - Bond is nearly assassinated twice, is brutally tortured, and finally is betrayed.  He does defeat one of the assassination attempts, but the other fizzles of its own accord.

Without any acts of heroism or at least reckless bravery, his characterization doesn't quite come together, makes his edges are even rougher than what becomes usual.

But there's still something uniquely fascinating.  In his first appearance, he meticulously plans how the casino could be robbed.  Ultimately, it's not that he has any interest - he simply wanted to eliminate the possibility.  But he seems as though he could pull it off himself.  Not long after, he's in his room, smoking his 70th cigarette of the night.

"His last action was to slip his 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 humor of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold."

His tastes are already incredibly refined.  The food he orders is so carefully detailed, and his knowledge of wine and champagne extensive.  There's a mixed feeling here - in a way, it seems it would be wonderful to be so refined.  And, at the same time, it's incredibly off-putting.

And that's precisely what makes him so intriguing.  He repulses us even as he fascinates us.

Fleming gives him a cold, tragic edge.  His license to kill brings him no pleasure.  "It's not difficult to get a Double O number if you're prepared to kill people... I've got the corpses of a Japanese cipher expert in New York and a Norwegian double-agent in Stockholm to thank for being a Double-O.  Probably quite decent people.  They just got caught up in the gale of the world."

The Girl, Vesper, is warned by her superior not to fall for him - "I don't think he's got much heart."  He turns out by the end to have one, albeit one that Vesper herself shatters.

Bond's attitude toward Vesper and females is actually quite ugly before he meets her.  He thinks, "Women were for recreation.  On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around.  One had to look out for them and take care of them.  'Bitch,'" says Bond to himself.

Today, that's painful to read, but even in the sexist times of its release, the sheer bluntness must have been shocking.

But Vesper's wit and class win Bond over instantly, and he rebukes himself for thinking so harshly of her.  "He was quite honest with himself about the hypocrisy of his attitude toward her.  As a woman, he wanted to sleep with her, but only when the job had been done."  Later, in anger (and in the mist of an intense car chase), his attitude briefly reverts to his dark, sexist attitude, and it's hard at times to know how to feel about this.  Even at its worst, it's toned down to a minimum in Fleming's later novels, and he largely abandons it.

A lot of Bond's personality and characteristics came directly from Fleming, and it's worth wondering how much of this sexism was Fleming's own.  After all, an upper-class Englishman of the early 20th century would hardly be expected to have much less.  But if so, Fleming certainly delights in undercutting his own sexism.  Writing strong women is something he gets better at over the years on the whole (with a few relapses), but Vesper flies completely in the face of the old-fashioned conventions in quiet ways.

Unlike many - sometimes, it seems, most - women in fiction, she doesn't seem to exist for the sole purpose of being the hero's lover.  She exists for her own sake.  The love story here is essential, and nearly every moment with her drives toward that.  But she's a rounded, complex character running her own plot and with her own arc.  Defining a strong female character more precisely is something I'll get to later on, but she qualifies.  She's worthy of the class and intelligence Eva Green will ultimately give her over half a century later.

She's good at her job - superb, really, considering what we learn about her by the closing.  She shows tremendous dignity and humor throughout.  She's absolutely enchanting.  There's no question why Bond falls so hard for her.  The two only get one really substantial conversation in the first two-thirds of the story, but Fleming makes it count.  When the final act of the story abandons the espionage to chart their affair, it feels more credible than it perhaps should.

There are three other significant characters in the story - two allies and a villain.  Of the allies, Renee Mathis is instantly likable, but it's Felix Lieter, Bond's counterpart in the CIA, who's particularly intriguing.  The jovial Texan makes a terrific impression.  Bond takes gambling with an intense seriousness, including a fairly elaborate system to win at roulette.  Felix, on the other hand, cheerfully loses everything he brings, betting it all on 17 and losing it all with a smile.  Granted, he's playing with the agency's money, but his attitude stays consistent.

In a crucial moment, he saves Bond after 007 loses it all to Le Chiffre, apparently losing the mission and making one of the great enemies of SMERSH a very rich man.  Felix drops in almost instantly with all the money Bond needs to return to the game and defeat the villain.  It's a clear reflection of America bailing out Britain with that massive loan - or in the War.  This was a time when America truly did seem like Britain's savior, and Felix reflects that nicely.

Felix becomes Bond's greatest ally already.  He's even better in the next book when, like Bond, he gets more to do than play cards.

Finally, there's the villain.  Le Chiffre isn't one of the great Fleming villains.  Fleming eventually found a true talent in creating the most outsized, outrageous villains, then matching them with intelligent, charismatic, larger-than-life personalities that made them work.  Although it's not true to say that Bond is successful only because of its villains, it's not entirely unfair.  And Le Chiffre, again, is restricted by Fleming's very simple plot that cuts off two-thirds of the way in.

But there are flashes of the great villains Fleming would ultimately create.  His urbane, polite dialogue while brutally torturing Bond makes a memorable impression. 

"'My dear boy,' Le Chiffre spoke like a father.  "... You have stumbled by mischance into a game for grownups and you have already found it a painful experience.  You are not equipped, my dear boy, to play games with adults and it was very foolish of your nanny in London to have sent you out here with your spade and bucket.  Very foolish indeed and most unfortunate for you."

Fleming also gives memorable descriptions of the minor, largely silent villains villains - one with a "crag-like face" and, later, an eye-patch.  It's a talent that comes together much better in later books, but still shows up here.

But the standout element of the story is its structure.  Again, 2/3 of the way in, Le Chiffre is defeated and ultimately assassinated by his former comrades.  Bond may have been brutalized, but he's alive.  Vesper throws herself in Bond's arms.  And, in a Bond story as we know it now, that's where the story would end.

Still, it takes its time, meticulously wrapping up loose ends, giving Mathis an extended send-off, and describing the aftermath of Bond's injuries.

And still it goes on, following Bond's and Vesper's romance across France while Bond slowly recovers from his ordeal.  And it continues, on and on, as we wonder where Fleming could possibly be heading with this.  After a while, their conversations turn to love, and Bond is ready to give up his job in the secret service, abandon his post while he still has something left of a heart, to be with this woman.  And, at last, he decides to ask her to marry him.

Finally, there's an odd appearance of a man with an eye-patch following them who throws Vesper for an emotional loop.  But there aren't enough pages left for a confrontation, or another plot.

... and then Vesper kills herself, leaving Bond an impassioned love note.  She had been forced to act as a double agent for the Russians.  But now, in love with Bond, she hoped they could run away, escape from the man in the eyepatch, but she came to believe nothing could help, and the only thing she could do to save Bond was to take her own life.  She professes her eternal love to him a final time before signing the letter.

He doesn't accept it.

"He saw her now only as a spy.  Their love and his grief were relegated to the boxroom of his mind... Now he could only think of her treachery to the service and to her country and of the damage it had done."

And here, again, he's both repulsive and irresistibly fascinating.  He refuses to feel sentiment or pain at losing her, burying all his emotions deep within.  All it does is give him a greater purpose than ever before to do his duty for the service... but on his own terms.  He has no desire to do the petty spy work.  He desires only to destroy SMERSH, the Russian spy organization that spurred her to treachery.  But his attitude is less one of revenge than one of duty.  He informs his superiors immediately that Vesper was a spy.

"Yes, dammit, I said was.  The bitch is dead now."

While the story is a bit simple and dragged-out at times, and Bond fails to do much successfully, Casino Royale still works above all for one reason: style.  It's style that makes its flashes of greatness - the torture sequence, parts of the love story, the finale - shine.  And it's style that carries whatever flaws crop up.

Fleming is already a master at building thrilling set-pieces.  The assassination attempt on Bond involving a bomb builds tremendous excitement across several pages few authors can match with vastly more complex and intriguing action concepts.  The attack with the cane-gun, the brief car chase, and the appearance of the man with the eye-patch build the tension beautifully.  And the torture scene is searing.

Most impressive, however, is the level of tension Fleming gives to the card game.  These scenes crackle with intensity.  The silent tension between Bond and Le Chiffre builds brilliantly, adding even more to the torture.

Fleming's style has the straightforward simplicity of pulp adventures, but also more than a dash of poetry.  It may not be great art - although a couple of his later stories may just be - but it takes a routine adventure and infuses it with class, imagination, wit, and romance.  There's a reason that even without the protagonist doing heroic things it can thrill.  That it could capture imaginations in 1953 and still today.

But it's something he got much, much better the second time around.

Friday, January 13, 2012


This past summer of 2011, Carte Blanche was released to great success, the most recent in a series spanning dozens of novels reaching back to 1953.  In 2008, Quantum of Solace  sold around 80 million tickets in theaters worldwide.  Those are strong numbers for any film, but for the 22nd film in a series spanning half a century and having rotated through six different leading actors, it’s astounding.
Particularly so considering what a dark, unsympathetic protagonist drives them.  Witty but cold; a man with romantic sensibilities expressed through unapologetic womanizing; a patriot of heroic bravery and cruel killings.  This unique mix of hero and antihero has become more than simply another pulp hero into one of the most recognizable cultural creations throughout the entire world.

Why has he survived so long?  His world, the world that allowed him to thrive - seedy underbelly buried, lust repressed, and everyone gripped in a cold war that, for the first time in history, really could have ended the world - is gone, replaced by a world with entirely different terrors.

His creators, too, are gone.  Ian Fleming, author of the original novels, dead just as his character reached his greatest heights.  Sean Connery, whose unassailable charisma and presence gave the role an even greater life in cinema, vowed within a decade to never again play the role.  And yet he survives, still enthralling the world.

The answer, like the answers to most good questions, is complicated.  There are simple answers that aren't wrong - he has all the girls and gadgets, or he fights the most colorful villains - but they don't capture a story best told piece by piece.

This blog (and, eventually, book) follows the "psychochronography" invented by Philip Sandifer in his brilliant Tardis Eruditorum blog - examining a slice of popular culture from the perspective of time and its passing.  How the character himself becomes such an icon; how his stories view and treat women, for better and worse; how its colorful villains and allies form a world, and an escape, that we're still loathe to leave more than half a century later.

And why he favors a shaken drink so stiff it could knock out a tank.