Written by Craig Arthur
In James Bond movies, any elevator or lift has the potential to become a death-trap. The lift in Stromberg’s ‘Atlantis’ in The Spy Who Loved Me has a trapdoor leading to the shark-tank; A View to a Kill demonstrates what happens if you take the lift instead of the stairs in a burning building. And in Casino Royale Vesper Lynd, the love of the new James Bond’s life, dies inside the wrought-iron lift-cage of an historic Venetian building which collapses and sinks into the Canal, trapping her underwater.
In these examples the Bond films are manipulating the audience’s sense of what Alfred Hitchcock called ‘frightmares’, where nightmares that manifest themselves in our waking lives, where everyday places become death-traps. “Fear isn’t so difficult to understand,” Hitchcock explains to Charlotte Chandler in her book It’s Only a Movie. “What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. . . . The fear complex is rooted in every individual.”
Between the late 15th century when Venice was the hub of Europe’s maritime power until 1857 when Elisha Graves Otis designed and installed the first passenger lifts in America, building a structure higher than the one depicted in Casino Royale was not considered economically viable. Who would want to walk up more than five storeys? Otis’s invention overcame this problem, heralding the era of the skyscraper. But first he needed to prove the safety of his invention. To do so, he took advantage of the fears rooted in the human imagination when unveiling his lift design to the crowds at the 1853 New York World’s Fair, in much the same way that Hitchcock does in his movies.
Elisha Graves Otis unveiling his lift design at the 1853 New York World’s Fair
Inside a vast exhibition hall modelled on England’s Crystal Palace, Otis wowed the spectators by riding the lift platform to the top of a specially constructed gantry. He would then instruct his assistant to slice through the cable supporting the gantry. “It’s what your mind doesn’t see that frightens you, what your mind fills in,” Hitchcock used to say and, true to this maxim, the spectators watching Otis would gasp, expecting to see him plummet to his death. Instead, miraculously, Otis remained safely in place, thanks to the system of ratchets he devised, to prevent the platform from falling should the main cables break.
Architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas refers to the outcome of Otis’s World’s Fair stunt as an ‘anticlimax as denouement.’ A term which could equally apply to the resolution of the plot in virtually every Bond movie since Goldfinger. The plots always play upon an audience’s real world fears, most often manipulating our terror of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. They take this terror and use cinema to give it a crutch of reality in the same way that Salvador Dali took paranoid conjecture and gave it a fabricated reality in his paintings. We see an imaginary enemy achieve what we fear but then the movie will exorcise that fear, in an identical way to Elisha Otis’s assistant cutting the lift cable.
The most literal parallel is in Octopussy where, as well as the audience in the cinema, there is an on-screen audience inside the circus Big Top gathered there like the spectators at the 1854 New York World’s Fair. Bond desperately tries to alert the authorities to the presence of the nuclear bomb hidden in the circus cannon, set to explode in ninety seconds time. The fact that there is a countdown to Armageddon extends the moment when the cable is cut, so-to-speak, as though the audience is watching Elisha Otis perform his stunt in slow-motion. But the circus audience gasp as Octopussy shoots off the lock revealing the ticking bomb inside the cannon, just as the spectators would gasp as Otis’s assistant cuts the support cable. After a few seconds of tense silence, Bond defuses the bomb and then Francisco the Fearless, the Human Cannonball, raises his head from the cannon, confused why he hasn’t been shot out. “Now?” he asks, incredulous, and the members of the circus audience laugh at the apparent bathos (as the cinema audience did too each time I saw the film on the big screen). Anticlimax as denouement.
The ticking bomb plots – and the numerous variations on ticking bombs such as the deadly satellites in Diamonds Are Forever, GoldenEye and Die Another Day – used in the Bond movies are, also, a literal use of Hitchcock’s explanation of how suspense operates. There is a bomb placed beneath a table. The characters seated at the table are unaware the bomb is there but the audience watching them know. They know when it is due to go off. The suspense comes from the gap between what the audience knows and the characters do not. When the ticking bomb plot is used in a Bond movie, both Bond and the audience are privy to the villain’s plans but the intended victims – like the characters seated at the table in Hitchcock’s analogy – have no idea, just as the victims of the terror attacks of 9/11 or the Bali and London Underground bombings had none. In a Bond film, of course, there has to be an anticlimax as denouement (something Hitchcock stipulated in his ticking bomb analogy, too) but the point is, the tourists on the Bosporus cruise at the end of The World is Not Enough, for instance, who think Bond and Christmas Jones are merely waving at them, have no clue how close they came to nuclear annihilation minutes earlier. In this manner, the films deliver the fantasy that security forces are at work to prevent terrorist attacks of which we remain blissfully unaware (just as Otis’s ratchet system is invisibly present to save us should the support cables perish and snap while we’re in an lift).
So Bond films, on the one hand, show us our frightmares made ‘critical’, but on the other deliver a hero figure who can vanquish the threat. As such, like Otis performing his stunt at the World’s Fair, they create a feeling of invulnerability – insulating audiences from reality. (I remember when, as a child, I emerged from Sunday night double-feature screenings of the Bond movies, the only people on the streets at that hour would be people who had been at the same screening; they would drive like maniacs, projecting the illusion of invulnerability from the movies into real life).
New York’s Coney Island
Manhattan’s skyscrapers are similarly statements of apparent invulnerability, like the vicarious fantasy world of Bond. Their flamboyance was borrowed from the legendary early 20th century amusement parks on New York’s Coney Island, where visiting merry-makers could visit replicas of exotic locations, such as Venice’s canals and refrigerated mock-ups of the Swiss Alps, and enjoy countless thrill rides – an early equivalent of things audiences would flock to see, in Bond movies, decades later. As such, Manhattan skyscrapers have allowed their tenants to exist in an unreal comfort and safety, immune from the violence and hardships that have plagued most of the planets’ population, today and throughout history. Immune, most of all, from reality itself.
The Giant Ferris Wheel at the Prater amusement park in Vienna
Vienna’s equivalent of Coney Island was the Prater amusement park with its famed Ferris wheel. As every Bond fan knows, it featured in The Living Daylights. When Bond and Kara’s gondola reaches the top of the wheel, it shudders and stops like a broken lift. As this is a Bond film, we expect trouble (shades of the Sugar Loaf cable car ride in Moonraker). But the movie is manipulating audience expectations, as Otis manipulated the expectations of the World’s Fair spectators. Nothing happens: another anticlimax as denouement. It turns out Bond has arranged for the wheel to stop, for his own amorous purposes. Instead of danger, the gondola offers a brief escape from reality, from the murder and distrust which lies ahead in the narrative, on the ground below. When that very same Prater wheel featured in Carol Reed’s The Third Man – during the famous sequence where Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins confronts his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – Lime asks Martins to glance down at the people on the ground beneath the Ferris wheel. “Look down there,” he instructs. “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” Similarly, in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, we see Cary Grant – first mistaken for a secret agent and now photographed holding a murder weapon – fleeing across the from the UN building in New York, running across the lawn outside the UN building, a mere dot dwarfed beneath the mighty skyscraper. The scene then shifts to a Washington office where indifferent spymasters discuss his fate and consign him to oblivion. The elevation of a New York skyscraper, like that of the Ferris wheel equates with a detachment from responsibility, from reality and consequences.
As does two hours spent watching a Bond movie.
The violence in a Bond movie is purely for either plot requirements or pictorial affect – like the stylised pop-art blood that drips down the screen during the opening gun-barrel sequence at the beginning of each movie, Jill Masterson’s gold-painted corpse in Goldfinger, or for that matter the electrocution of the Mexican thug in the bath-tub.
Bond is, after all, an assassin. A difficulty the early Connery films faced was distracting audiences from the violence of the films. They did so by emphasising black humour – giving Connery’s Bond trademark one-liners to round off an action sequence. Through such means the film-makers create a sense of self-parody, distancing the audience from the implications of the killing, as if turning Bond’s victims into simple dots on the ground. “Victims,” Harry Lime remarks in The Third Man, trying to distance himself from the effects of his black-market operations, “you’re being so melodramatic.” But Lime could be a Bond movie producer trying to deflect criticism of the movies (Albert Broccoli even bore a striking physical resemblance to Orson Welles, circa The Third Man era).
Consider all the Russian soldiers Bond shoots in GoldenEye. They represent dots that stop moving forever. The plethora of violent action in the four Brosnan James Bond films exists as little more than an amusement park ride, with explosions and bullet-hits to best exploit the wonders of Dolby digital surround-sound. While Pierce Brosnan is capable of conveying a wide range of emotions from tender vulnerability to the hardness of a paid assassin but his boyish elegance always puts a stamp on the action because it distances him from the unpleasant and violent actions depicted, turning the carnage into a mere aesthetic, the victims just dots. But the post-9/11 era has stripped away our sense of invulnerability, making the violence of Brosnan’s movies look too detached, too far removed from reality.
Viewed with hindsight, the most striking characteristic of the Brosnan Bond films (including Die Another Day, despite being made after 9/11) is the invulnerability of the world they depict. The Timothy Dalton films dispensed with the traditional anti-climax as denouement, in keeping with Dalton’s more low key, serious style. (Although there is a ticking bomb threat in The Living Daylights, the bomb is small; it threatens only Bond and Kara aboard the commandeered Russian Cargo plane, rather civilisation itself). But because the Dalton’s two outings as Bond did rather poorly at the box-office, the Pierce Brosnan films reverted to variations on the ticking-bomb formula. However, because the Cold War was over, the film-makers could no longer use the nuclear brinkmanship between the Superpowers to evoke the threat of Armageddon.
Tomorrow Never Dies uses the same plot as You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me, where a third party tries to start World War Three between two rival Superpowers. But not only are the attacks on British battleships and Chinese fighter-plans far less spectacular than the capturing of American and Russian space-capsules in You Only Live Twice and nuclear submarines in The Spy Who Loved Me, but the conflict between Britain and China, should it occur, seems less threatening than a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union in the earlier films. Similarly the GoldenEye satellite, the threatened nuclear irradiation of Istanbul in The World is not Enough and Colonel Moon’s satellite targeting the Korean demilitarised zone in Die Another Day seem rather toothless compared to the plot ‘McGuffins’ of Connery’s era or Moore’s.
Such is the invulnerability of the west after the fall of the Soviet Union, the biggest threats in Brosnan Bond’s universe come from within (as with a myriad of imitators in the wake of GoldenEye – most notably Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible franchise, Broken Arrow and Sean Connery’s The Rock). Alex Trevelyan in GoldenEye is a former Double-O agent. Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies is a western media mogul, supposedly reporting the ‘truth’. In The World is not Enough the heroine, Elektra King turns out to be the villainess and in Die Another Day Mi6 agent Miranda Frost turns out to be the person who betrayed Bond in North Korea, leading to 007’s lengthy incarceration in a North Korean prison. Simultaneously, unlike Timothy Dalton’s Bond, Brosnan’s Bond rarely questions his orders. If anything, the closest person to Dalton-Bond in the Brosnan-Bond universe is Alex Trevelyan. “Did you ever ask, why?” Trevelyan asks Brosnan-Bond, in a confrontation reminiscent of The Third Man, using words that could have easily come from the mouth of Dalton, “why we toppled all those dictators, undermined all those regimes, only to come home: ‘well done, good show but sorry old boy, everything you risked you life and limb for has changed’ . . .” “It was the job we were chosen for,” Brosnan-Bond responds, never for once questioning authority in the same way Dalton’s 007 did.
In the era of the Iraq War, this is too simple a view. Plus, of course, 9/11 has stripped our sense of invulnerability. In Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s Bond says to Vesper, “I have no armour left. You’ve stripped it from me.” He is talking about Vesper Lynd’s grip on his heartstrings but he could be talking about the effect of world events upon both the character and, indeed, contemporary consciousness. Indeed during the movie’s trailer, the line delivered in voice-over while on-screen, the image cuts from Bond’s startled look, discovering Vesper cowering in the shower to the shot of the Venetian building collapsing from later in the film.
The action sequences in Casino Royale still resemble a Coney Island thrill ride. Sequences such as the spectacular chase in Madagascar, the terrorist attempt to destroy the prototype airliner on the runway at Miami Airport, and the final act in Venice. (Incidentally, like the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios, the blank white exterior of Coney Island’s Dreamland contained a replica of Venetian buildings and a Venetian Canal and, again like the 007 Stage, Dreamland burned to the ground). But the way in which the action in Casino Royale differs from, say, the tank chase in GoldenEye is that there is more at stake for Bond personally. Not simply in the illusion of physical danger – though that too – but emotionally.
If anything, Daniel Craig portrays Bond in a colder light than his predecessors. This 007 is a blunt instrument, truer to Ian Fleming’s initial conception. “It doesn’t bother you, killing those people?” Vesper Lynd asks him. “Well,” he responds, laconically sipping the trademark Martini, “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did.” In other words it wouldn’t worry him if one of those dots beneath the Prater wheel stopped moving, so long as the end justified the means: if, say, it is M demanding that he snuff out a life in the name of national security. But Casino Royale is above all a tragic love story. By establishing Bond’s cold indifference to killing, the film-makers are setting up the tragic effect; his coldness, his armour is of no help when it comes to Vesper. There is far more at stake for Bond once he falls for Vesper. The tank chase in GoldenEye, with all its collateral damage on the streets of St Petersburg, is purely for spectacle. It doesn’t matter what Bond crashes the tank into, even if he destroys famous statues and demolishes buildings in the process, it’s all just for fun. Whereas, in Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd is tied up and placed in the path of the speeding Aston Martin DBS. If he doesn’t swerve and roll the Aston Martin she will be killed.
The necessity for Bond to swerve and crash serves as a metaphor for Vesper’s affect on his so-called ‘cold heart’. And the doomed romanticism of Venice, slowly sinking into the lagoon, whilst not featured in Ian Fleming’s original novel, is an inspired choice for the setting Casino Royale‘s final act, emphasising that Bond’s love is also doomed. There is little hope of the anticlimax as denouement found in the traditional Bond plot structure. Audiences will respond to this movie’s narrative in the same way they watch Othello or Hamlet. With a mixture of pity and fear.
It would be difficult to imagine such a Bond movie made prior to 9/11, when people felt less vulnerable, just as, for instance, the final act of The Bourne Supremacy where Jason Bourne goes to explain to the young woman that he killed her parents would have seemed very out of place in a 1990s’ action movie. Such a narrative device reflects the fact that world events impact on civilian lives far more than before 9/11. So, to a degree, we all resemble the orphaned girl Bourne confronts or Cary Grant’s tiny insignificant figure fleeing from the UN Building or clinging to the stony faces of the American presidents on Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest.
Pierce Brosnan was an excellent Bond and his performances in such movies as The Tailor of Panama and The Matador demonstrate that he is more than capable of portraying a darker, colder version of Bond but the stumbling-block would be that audiences would identify him with the preceding four movies. For Bond to venture into unknown territory in Casino Royale they needed a new Bond. We have seen Bond on screen before and so know who he will become. We know the icons of the character – the Aston Martin, the tuxedo, the martini, the theme music – but something needs to be different about Bond in Casino Royale, to reshuffle the deck and allow the audience to willingly suspend disbelief and pretend that the action takes place in a parallel universe where they have not met this character before. The hair was the obvious choice (that said, Roger Moore’s hair wasn’t much darker).
Daniel Craig is James Bond
Daniel Craig’s detractors waited to see him fall flat on his face – waiting like the people Ian Fleming describes in Miami airport in the opening chapter of Goldfinger, standing up as the DC7 hurtles down the runway, hoping to see it crash, or the crowds at the first New York World’s Fair watching for Elisha Otis to plummet to his death.
As with Otis’s demonstration, the denouement was an anticlimax. Daniel Craig, like Otis, prevailed. As he will prevail again in Bond 22.
We live in precarious times. Daniel Craig is the best actor to portray Bond in such times.
© Craig Arthur 2006, 2007