The Series Project: James Bond (Part 7)

Witney Seibold brings his James Bond Series Project up to date with in depth looks at Skyfall and Casino Royale (1954).

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Earlier this year, as some of you may have read, I took on the epic task of watching and writing about every single James Bond film to date in The Series Project: James Bond. I watched all 22 canonical Bond flicks and two so-called non-canonical Bond flicks, 1967’s Casino Royale, and 1983’s Never Say Never Again. The entire project took me six weeks, covering four films per week. It was a wonderful journey for me, and I hope, for the people who read the articles, that it was a wonderful journey for you too. 

The problem with a lot of the articles in The Series Project, though, is that one can never be sure when a series is properly over. One can be relatively certain of a few; I’m pretty sure, for instance, that there will never be another Death Wish film (in the original franchise). Or a 3 Ninjas film. But I knew going into James Bond that there were going to be more, and that Skyfall, the 23rd canonical James Bond film, was due out in theaters later that year. Something tells me that James Bond will be with us for decades to come. In my mind, this is a good thing. Sadly, this means I may have to update other Series Projects as time passes. For instance, there is another Superman on the near horizon, and another X-Men promised in the future. An obsessive completist’s work is never done.

But to make sure I’m doing my critical due diligence, and to keep The Series Project up to date, I have decided to run this addendum to the 6-part James Bond Project. It will only include two films, but, at the end, I’ll have written about every single film to feature a James Bond in it. It’s nice to swim in these waters again.

Indeed, after having seen all the James Bond movies now, I fancy myself something of an expert. True, there are people in this world who have devoted much more of their lives to agent 007, but I, at the very least, can refer to each of the films in a knowing and significant way. In this addendum, I will be covering, of course, the recently-released Skyfall, which has opened to great financial success and critical acclaim [and for which this article has MAJOR SPOILERS], and I will be covering the 1954 TV movie version of Casino Royale, which was not available until recently.

Previous Installments of The Series Project: James Bond:

The Series Project: James Bond (Part 1)

The Series Project: James Bond (Part 2)

The Series Project: James Bond (Part 3)

The Series Project: James Bond (Part 4)

The Series Project: James Bond (Part 5)

The Series Project: James Bond (Part 6)

Welcome back, agents. Our quest continues. I’ll start right off the bat with the newest…

Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes, 2012)

Bond: Daniel Craig

Gadgets: The Walther PPK, a small radio transmitter

The Babe: Sévérine, played by Bérénice Lim Marlohe

The Bad Guy: Silva, played by Javier Bardem

Location(s): New Delhi, Shanghai, Scotland

Theme Song: Performed by Adele

Bond Directly Kills: A sniper he accidentally drops off of a tall tower. Three or four thugs on Silva’s island, whom he kills in a flurry of kicks. A bunch of thugs who are breaking into his childhood home. I’d say about a dozen. That one guy he left in the lizard pit.

WTF Moments: James steps on the back of a komodo dragon to escape a lizard pit. He gives four million Euros to a fellow agent just for fun. James Bond may be bisexual. I always suspected. There’s a scene were James enters a drinking contest, and pulls on a shot of booze with a live scorpion sitting on his hand.

At 143 minutes, this is now the second longest of the James Bond movies.

I noted in previous installments of The Series Project that James Bond films seem to undergo a kind of radical experiment every five or six films. We have a few “baseline” James Bond feature films, wherein James will be exactly as audiences know him to be; a flamboyant, hard-drinking, witty, charming, and kind of silly spy who takes on assorted billionaire sociopaths with unshakable designs on world domination/world destruction/revenge. However, audiences being as fickle as they are, will likely only stand for this sort of thing for a few films before they begin to complain that Bond is finally getting stale. The makers of the films will then respond by presenting us with a slightly altered version of Bond. There will perhaps be a new actor, or a James Bond film will deal with something modern and up-to-date. Examples of this: When Timothy Dalton was presented as a tender lover who takes women on dates in The Living Daylights. Or when James Bond was sent into space in Moonraker, which was a transparent ripoff of Star Wars. Or when he married Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Or, most recently, when Bond was changed dramatically into a brutish thug in 2006’s Casino Royale.

I hold the unpopular opinion that Daniel Craig’s new James Bond, as presented in Casino Royale, was not necessarily a good idea. Having spoken to James Bond fans, I realize that my opinion is in the minority. I always felt that James Bond worked best when he functioned as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy for the males in the audience. Bond should be put in danger, but he should never leave too bruised or bloodied. James Bond should possess an element of indestructability to him. He should, perhaps, harbor mildly misogynistic views of women, commit casual violence, and kill people while making cracks. I felt that by giving Bond gravity and angst, by making him hurt and moved by the violence he is causing, you are robbing him of something fundamental.

That said, I do want it made perfectly clear that Casino Royale is an awesome action film, and is most certainly not one of the lesser James Bond films. Those appellations can be saved for Quantum of Solace, the following film.

With Skyfall, however (to finally get into the movie), I fell that the filmmakers are creeping irresistibly back to the Bond we all know and love. Skyfall is a pretty awesome film that straddles the line between the un-fun broody Bond we saw in the last two Craig movies, and a more traditional Bond, i.e. one peppered with a light tone, a wacky villain, and several moments of much-needed levity. Skyfall is the best of the Craig films so far.

The story is refreshingly traditional. Bond is trying to reclaim a computer disk from a bad guy. The disk contains the names of hundreds of agents undercover in the field. Who wants this disk is unknown. In the film’s intro (which involves a train, a crane, and a bunch of Volkswagen Beetles), James is accidentally shot by another MI6 agent named Eve (Naomie Harris) and falls into a river. While MI6 regroups, James secretly survives, and takes a few weeks off under the guise of death. Spurred by his unflagging patriotism, though, James returns to MI6 to be reinstated. M (Judi Dench) is still there, and is still really snippy with Bond, but allows him back into the fold, even though he fails his tests. Then, just like in older James Bond movies, it’s off to exotic countries to investigate the missing disk, to wear nice suits, and to beat up or kill dozens of thugs and bad guys. There’s an amusing scene in a casino wherein James falls into a pit of Komodo dragons with a bad guy, and ends up vaulting off of the back of an enormous lizard to escape the pit. Shadows of Live and Let Die there. There’s also a really spectacular fight scene in a high-rise that is illuminated by a bloody great digital billboard just outside the window. James and his attacker are filmed in shadow, and it looks bloody fantastic.

Indeed, this is probably the best-looking of any of the Bond films. Sam Mendes has previously made moody dramas like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, and often works with master photographer Roger Deakins. The action scenes are clear and great to look at.

James Bond may still be his Daniel Craig version, but there’s a lot more lightness to his attitude this time, and I liked that. For instance, when he meets Eve again, after she accidentally shot him, he actually flirts and banters with her, playfully ribbing her bad marksmanship. Finally. Some good humor. Eventually, too, we meet the villain of the piece, and he’s a wonderfully over-the-top villain in the true Bond tradition. He’s decidedly a step up from the bad guy in Quantum. The villain is a mincing Spaniard named Silva (Javier Bardem) who is a master computer hacker (you’d think there would be more hacker villains in this age of technology fetishizing). He sports a blonde wig, and flirts with just about anything with a pulse. There is a scene wherein he implies that he intends to seduce James. James defies his flirtation, but implies that he’s been with men before. From Craig, I actually kind of buy that. Roger Moore, for instance, would have deflected the advances of a male lover. Craig may actually go the distance. Silva is presented as a dark mirror to Bond, as he is himself an ex-MI6 agent, only missing part of his face after a mission went awry years ago. He now lives on an abandoned island, using his supercomputer skills to wreak mayhem. Fun.

The Bond girl, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, is pretty but a bit forgettable, and comes to a tragic end. Her death seems to be the last gasp in this broody version of Bond. The film’s final 40 minutes or so are devoted to a shootout at Skyfall Manor, James Bond’s childhood home. He locks himself in a mansion and fends off attackers with M’s help, and the aid of a grizzled old father figure named Kincade (played, surprisingly, by Albert Finney). There’s a lot of talk about how Bond grew up, and how he became the type of brutal jerk who would join MI6. This is the only part of the movie that I didn’t like so much. I’ve always felt that James Bond was perfectly fine just being James Bond. I don’t want to see about his tortured childhood. I don’t want to see him walk wistfully past the graves of his parents. I want to see him get down to the business of being the handsome violent badass that we all know him to be.

Q is back too, by the way. He’s now played by Ben Whishaw. The gadgets he gives James are not too elaborate, but they are a welcome return of a series icon. One gadget is a radio transmitter. Another is the famous Walther PPK. See what I mean about the film trying to creep back to a Bond we know? Well, welcome back.

I feel that the next Bond film will be back to business as usual. I walked out of Skyfall thinking out loud “Finally. We’re back on track.” I liked Casino Royale just fine, but Skyfall is a better Bond movie by leaps and bounds.

And that brings us to the present day. This would be a perfect time to come full-circle. Let us look back now to the dim and distant past, beyond the early days of Bond. James Bond, it turns out, made a single TV appearance before 1962’s Dr. No. He was in…

Casino Royale (dir. William H. Brown, Jr., 1954)

Bond: Barry Nelson

Gadgets: A walking cane with a silent gun in it

The Babe: Valerie Mathis, played by Linda Christian

The Bad Guy: Le Chiffre, played by Peter Lorre

Location(s): Just the casino

Theme Song: N/A

Bond Directly Kills: Two of Le Chiffre’s thugs.

WTF Moments: James Bond is American (!). James has his toes tortured by Le Chiffre. There are several small production errors throughout, including a gun that clearly goes off by accident, and a razor blade that is, I suspect, dropped accidentally.

This version of Casino Royale was actually a single 50-minute episode of the TV adventure serial program called "Climax!" which ran 40 episodes from 1954 to 1958. It was broadcast live, and each week would feature a new adventure. The show was hosted by a white guy named William Lundigan. This show was the first to find Ian Fleming’s famous source novel and adapt to the screen. Home videos of it are hard to find, and I was forced to watch it on YouTube.  

In terms of accuracy to what we know about James Bond, this TV special is all over the map. James Bond is, most notably, now an American spy who works for the CIA. He is often called “Jimmy Bond.” By contrast, Bond’s well-known American ally Felix Leiter is now a British agent named Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate). Bond is flip and confident, yes, but it’s in that box-bodied, pushy American mode, seen so often in B-films of the 1950s. I feel like I can’t compare Barry Nelson to any of the other Bond’s because he so much an entity unto himself.

But then, maybe he isn’t. There’s actually a lot here that very clearly presages what Bond was to eventually become. Aside from the confidence, Bond is also actually a clever agent, a wholly worldly dude who teaches Leiter how to play baccarat, and handy in a fight. Sure, the action all takes place in a few rooms, and the fights are relegated to stage skirmish levels of mayhem, but the thrill still lingers. There are no quips, no blood, no fancy cars, no globe-trekking, and no sex scenes, but I kind of see James Bond nonetheless.

It also helps that Peter Lorre plays the villain, and it certainly helps that he might be the best villain in the entire James Bond universe, canon or not. Lorre is just so deliciously evil the way he casually orders people to their deaths, or wrenches at Jimmy Bond’s toes with a tool that looks like a speculum. He doesn’t have any fancy weapons, this Le Chiffre, but it’s stated that he carries several razor blades on his body at all times. In an intimate way, a guy who carries little razors is way scarier than a maniac who lives in a space base. An evil guy in a distant lair is only scary in an academic way. A little wide-eyed German guy who carries razor blades seems like a guy I’ve accidentally brushed up against in a bar. There were times in my life when I was sure I’d be sliced by a stranger. Peter Lorre plays that stranger.

A funny moment: Someone looks at Le Chiffre and shouts “You’re an ugly little man!”

This TV special is certainly a mere addendum to the James Bond canon. It’s a footnote. Bonus content. I think you can consider yourself a legit James Bond fan without having seen it. But I feel that any James Bond fan would enjoy the journey to the past the way I did. It’s an exciting flick for something that was made on a tiny budget and broadcast live on TV (live, mind you).

If you count 1954 as the beginning, James Bond on film just turned 58. If you count Dr. No as the first (as we all do), then he’s 50. Either way, we’ve reached a major milestone. Happy anniversary Bond. Thanks for sticking around. 

Also, if you’re into this sort of thing, you can now contact me on a website called “Twitter.” My  secret “Twitter” codename is @WitneySeibold. I promise to “Twit” bizarre things, and nothing of substance.