Casino Royale [1953]

Last year I wasn’t too kind about the most recent James Bond film, Spectre, and a couple of years has eroded the mildly positive feelings I had about Skyfall, and before that I didn’t like Question of Sport much at all, but at least I wasn’t alone on that one. Re-reading my review from the time, I was a bit less keen on Casino Royale than I remembered being. You might have to go all the way back to Goldeneye for a film I liked at the time and still do. I’ve generally thought that my problem with Craig’s bond was that he wasn’t the Iconic Bond that I’d always understood, but I began to wonder about that. It’s rare for an Iconic Character of any kind to genuinely spring fully-formed into existence, and rare for that Iconic nature to translate into another medium. For me the poster-child for this is Sherlock Holmes, whose semi-sociopathic aspect as exemplified by Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a massive amplification of the aloofness and superiority complex in the short stories and novels. To an extent, this means that when reading the novel Casino Royale, we can almost consider it a kind of prequel to the aggregate identity that emerges over the later novels and the films.

Casino Royale has a great cold opening:

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.

And that’s perhaps the most striking thing about the first Bond story – he’s nothing we’d recognise as being a spy, he’s a gambler first and foremost for the purposes of the story, and not a calculating one. Bond’s game is Baccarat, a game which has all but disappeared from the common imagination and can’t have been too well known even in 1953 because Fleming devotes a lengthy section near the middle of the book to explaining how the game works, finishing with this remarkable summation by Bond:

“But in the end,” Bond stubbed out his cabaret and called for the bill, “it’s the natural eights and nines that matter, and I must just see that I get more of them than he does.”

Fleming is quite open with the reader that Bond is more or less happy to take a 50/50 chance at any time, and that rather than out calculate or estimate the villain as we commonly understand the case in Poker, Bond’s plan is essentially just to change his own luck. This is the same kind of preternatural confidence in self that drives the most extreme pulp heroes – Race Williams, for example, survives his adventures almost purely on luck and machismo. Bond is essentially rewarded at each turn of the story for this reliance; Bond loses his first stake to le Chiffre only to have Leiter provide replacement money, when Bond is helpless and being tortured an operative of SMERSH arrives to rescue him, and at the last when he is hopelessly in love with Lynde she kills herself while confessing her duplicity. This is nothing short of reality being distorted to aid the hero of the story, making Casino Royale a kind of weak-tea Magic Realism.

What’s important in Casino Royale is not Bond’s iconic identity, but the way events unfold around him to enable and promote that identity and the cultural construct it serves – Bond in Casino Royale is dangerously close to being a Dramatic rather than Iconic character. He is still a character partially-formed, with numerous small developing touches that will slowly erode over the course of the series. Fleming is still learning how to tell a story and who to tell the story about.

I appreciated Daniel Craig’s first outing far more after refreshing my memory of the book. The film adds much needed connective tissue to the plot, as well as fleshing it out beyond what is essentially two short and discrete episodes. It won’t be the last time we see Baccarat in the series, but it is the last time we’ll see such a lengthy section devoted to card-mechanics. The equivalent scene in Moonraker just assumes everyone reading will understand the intimacies of Bridge, for example.

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