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January 09, 2007

Is Daniel Craig a convincing Bond? Noted Bond-watcher Jeremy Black offers his judgement: Casino Royale - Martin Campbell

Posted by Jeremy Black

Casino Royale
Directed by Martin Campbell
certificate 12A, 2006

Jeremy Black - amongst much else, the author of The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming's Novels to the Big Screen - assesses the latest Bond.

The appearance of another Bond film in 2006 led to much discussion of the choice for the new Bond, Daniel Craig. Less attention was devoted to the plot itself, or to the contrast between the film and the novel, the first in the corpus, which was published in 1953.

The novel had already been filmed twice, and each time in a very different fashion. In 1954, the first portrayal of Bond on screen was an American, "Jimmy Bond", played by Barry Nelson, in an hour-long television version. In contrast to the novel, it was the British agent, called Clarence Leiter, who assisted Bond. The Anglo-American power relationship of the book was reversed for American consumption. The villain, Le Chiffre, was played by a menacing Peter Lorre. In the live broadcast, the audience allegedly saw him get up from the floor when supposedly dead and walk to his dressing room, but this is not in the video versions available at present.

This television Casino Royale did not set the pattern for the films. Their Americanization of the Bond character, ethos, context and plot was always partial, certainly did not extend to his nationality, and was particularly limited in the early plots. Nor did the first feature-length film of Casino Royale set the pattern for the other films.

It was not the first Bond film - appearing as it did in 1967 after Dr No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball and in the same year as You Only Live Twice -, was not an Eon production, and was intended as a spoof. David Niven starred as the retired Sir James Bond, Woody Allen played his nephew Jimmy, and the script was lacklustre, but, more seriously, Bond was then a character that was difficult to spoof successfully.

In contrast, Eon Productions acquired the rights to Casino Royale in 2000 and have skilfully used this first novel to launch the new Bond. The tone of the new film, directed by Martin Campbell, is very different to that of the novel, which is tightly focused on Royale-les-Eaux, a fictional spa based on Fleming's pre-war visits to Deauville and Le Touquet. This tight focus provides a sense of locale that is ably built up, leading to the card duel. However, as an account of how Bond matures into his adventure hero persona, the film is very successful, helped of course by the superlative realisation by Craig, at once an effective physical presence and an intense characterisation.

There is no attempt to offer 1950s nostalgia by revisiting Bond's early days, and the detailed Cold War setting of the novel would indeed make scant sense to a modern audience. Instead of being paymaster of the Communist-controlled trade union in the heavy and transport industries of Alsace, a key fifth column, Le Chiffre, played by the taciturn Mads Mikkelsen, is a banker to third-world "freedom fighters", who, like Franz Sanchez and his investment banker Truman Lodge in the Bond film Licence to Kill (1989), embraces the opportunities of capitalism by betting on the stock market against the success of a leading aircraft manufacturer whose shares he proposes to wreck by getting a terrorist client to destroy its prototype on its test flight from Miami.

He is thwarted by Bond, whereas, in the novel, the problems confronting Le Chiffre arise as a result of a law closing down the network of brothels he has invested in. Instead, Le Chiffre now faces bankruptcy, as well as death at the hands of his defrauded African clients. Le Chiffre sets out to redeem his finances in the casino, and Bond is sent to out-play him. Initially unsuccessful, he does finally so, in part as a result of money provided by the CIA observer, Felix Leiter.

In both novel and film, the gambling scenes are extensively covered, which must be a challenge to violence-junkies and a problem to the many who find it difficult to follow card games. Bond's gambling skills are presented as a measure of his character, ability and style. He is put under pressure, but not contaminated, by gambling, just as he is not by killing. Skill at gambling and knowledge of how to behave at a casino were seen by Fleming as attributes of a gentleman that were important to Bond's success.

In the novel, Bond reveals a degree of reflectiveness and ambiguity that gives his character some depth and ensures that the denouement is satisfying in psychological terms, with "The bitch is dead" referring to his doubts as much as to Vesper Lynd. Bond tells his French contact, René Mathis of the Deuxième Bureau, that

this country-right-or wrong business is getting a little out-of-date.
He points to the mutability of political division:
If I'd been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that.
An appalled Mathis criticizes Bond as an anarchist, only to receive the reply that Bond would be willing to kill Le Chiffre (had he not already been killed) but for personal revenge, not
high moral reason or for the sake of my country.
This tension between introspection and duty is minimized because the plots in both books and films are designed to free Bond from the dilemma about violence. He is not shown fighting decent people, but, instead, is given purpose by the morality of the wider struggle in which he figures.

Although the new film brings forward the distrust also seen in the novel, the introspection of Bond in the novel is not brought out to the same extent in the new film. In both that and the novel, his early killings are presented, but in the novel an insight into his doubts is offered:

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 0. Probably quite decent people. They just got caught up in the gale of the world.
There is no equivalent doubt in the beginning of the film where Bond is on the hunt for a traitorous British agent.

Film is a different medium, with opportunities and limitations of its own. If the novel is tighter and more ambiguous, the film is more appropriate for a worldwide franchise. Craig is first-rate and more than makes up for some of the problems caused by a film that is powerful, but also over-long and overly violent. The film also compares very favourably with the last three.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter and the author of The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming's Novels to the Big Screen.

To read Prof. David Womersley's take on Casino Royale, see: Casino Royale is the most thought-provoking, and most thoughtful, Bond film since Dr No.

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