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.

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