I Spy (a detour)

With the new Casino Royale opening this weekend and with Simon Winder, author of The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond making rather obvious declarations about how James Bond was Britain's replacement fantasy for its lost empire, I dug up my 10-year-old review of Andrew Lycett's biography of Ian Fleming. It's a book that many others, such as Christopher Hitchens, thought more highly of than I did:

A biography of Fleming -- Ian Fleming
by Jerome Weeks
April 28, 1996
To grasp Ian Fleming's achievement: Think of another pop novelist from the '50s whose work is still being made into big-budget movies, whose work is still an international commonplace.

It has been 42 years [now 52] since Casino Royale was released. Only Mickey Spillane's books could still be considered Hollywood properties, while Jim Thompson (The Grifters, The Getaway) is a late cult-contender. Other genre writers' works -- Harold Robbins', say -- have long since been ground into the wood pulp from whence they came.

In contrast, GoldenEye was a hit last year [1995]. The original 007 material petered out a decade ago, but Jurassic Park-like, GoldenEye has revived the dinosaur, and the most profitable movie franchise ever ($1 billion in box office) is hatching another film.

It's not outlandish to suggest that in 007 Mr. Fleming created a pop character nearly as universal as Sherlock Holmes -- another son of the British Empire. There's even the theory that our current genre of Bruce Willis-Arnold Schwarzenegger, massive-budget, action-boy films developed partly because the Bond series died out. A hole opened up in our collective movie psyche, and it promptly got plugged with Die Hard and True Lies.

All of which prompts the question, why? Why did we lap up this improbable stick figure, this piece of Tory voodoo? Bond waves his Walther PPK and his British bespoke tailoring and, magically, he's extricated himself (and the fate of the Western World) from all of these strange exploits.

Andrew Lycett's new biography, Ian Fleming: the Man Behind James Bond provides no answer, but then it never intends to. It's rather like Mr. Fleming's writing that way: highly readable, well-researched but somehow beside the point when it comes to evaluating James Bond.

Instead, we learn that Mr. Fleming didn't have the blue blood to qualify as Eurotrash. Granddad was a Scottish merchant banker -- hence, perhaps, Bond's penchant for up-market consumerism, as if flashing your designer-label socks made you sophisticated. Yet Mr. Fleming certainly did the Eurotrash thing in his early years, wandering the world as a promising young something-or-other with no visible career.

We also learn that Mr. Fleming was an amoral cad when it came to women, a bit of a sadist. He mistreated one girlfriend, she died in the Blitz and he felt guilty over it all -- prompting another woman to comment that you had to die before Ian felt anything for you. Ever diplomatic, Mr. Lycett doesn't note the high mortality rate among Bond's female conquests.

Perhaps the most telling thing that Mr. Lycett does discuss is Mr. Fleming's literary ambitions. He so wanted intellectual approval (much like his brother Peter's); his Hollywood success embarrassed him greatly. Those crass Yanks, they never get anything right. So -- can I freshen up your Boodle's?

Indeed, the films mutated Bond into some balloon-animal American: the gleaming gadgetry, the Playboy sexuality, the commando foreign policy, the cute Brits popping up like joke trolls. The film franchise itself became like a monstrous Fleming villain: moneyed, machine-oriented, decadent and with a hunger for global market share. What we always suspected is true: James Bond is Ernst Blofeld.

Mr. Fleming's increasing ambivalence toward his creation helps explain what John Cawelti and Bruce Rosenberg note in their fine analysis, The Spy Story: Mr. Fleming's writing is remarkably unstable; the dry, amused worldliness falls off often enough that you're not sure if he's actually spoofing himself.

What's more, it all got out of control, it all got tired. To be a free agent in a giant bureaucracy, to seduce and kill with aristocratic impunity: Sure, Bond's a modern fantasy, a formula. But Mr. Fleming had to believe in some of it. It's his real journalist's skill with authentic details that helps us swallow the sillier bits. When that fails, well, Bond just becomes Roger Moore in outer space. Or the films turn into GoldenEye, which tried so hard to be exotic, to be dangerous, it made you nostalgic for lazy but effortless junk like [the original] Ocean's Eleven.

In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his 1964 children's story that Mr. Lycett treats perfunctorily, Mr. Fleming created a magic car that could fly, swin and catch bad guys. Not unlike Bond, although the car, of course, had no license plate to kill. And in the end, in what's supposed to be an expression of free-spiritedness but now seems more like wistful impotence, the magic car flies away, out of control, no one knows where.

copyright, The Dallas Morning News

Addendum: I must add that the new Casino Royale is easily the best Bond film in years, perhaps, yes, the best ever. Rather than trying, once again, to find a guy who looks great in a tuxedo and then have him pretend to be a killer, they found a fine actor -- Daniel Craig, the British Steve McQueen -- who can make us believe he's a cold-blooded killer but who, as one character puts it, wears his expensively-cut suits with disdain. It's what Timothy Dalton tried to do when he was Bond -- a seriously underrated Bond, I believe -- but his 007 vehicles turned out be underpowered.

And then, perhaps, the smartest thing the Casino Royale creators do is that they give this Bond a heart. Which means there's something at stake beyond the usual global domination/nuclear warhead/terrorist plot.

It's still a formula; but this Casino Royale shows why the formula once worked.

November 18, 2006 3:29 PM | | Comments (3)



I agree that Casino Royale is a terrific movie.

Craig's Bond was non-aristocratic, self-aware, full of hubris and simmering with violence. His portrayal was more true to the original novel than any other characterization. I read the novels when I was a young teen and remember being frightened and thrilled (part of the thrill came from knowing I'd catch it if my mother found me reading the books).

You're welcome. As I tried to indicate in that review, I have aesthetic and political objections to many of the Bond films -- just about anything with Roger Moore in it -- but as a piece of pop entertainment, Casino Royale is pretty smartly done. If you are obsessed with spy novels, I assume you've read and seen The Ipcress File. The 1965 Michael Caine film was hailed as the "anti-Bond" when it came out, and it holds up very well. It's one of my 16-year-old daughter's favorite films.

Thanks for this--I'm excited for the movie. Watching James Bond films on t.v. on Sunday nights marked the origin of my spy novel obsession. It's exciting to think that there's a fun new one.


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