The Middlebrow

For Your Eyes Only

The secret life of James Bond.

“If all that was left of you was your smile and your little finger, you’d be more of a man than anyone else I know.”
from Casino Royale

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Who among us hasn’t heard such tender words? Why, it was just the other day a mysterious beauty was telling me that, after I’d killed a cockroach and lugged her suitcase up the stairs. The man most frequently on the barrel-end of such compliments is, of course, James Bond. In Casino Royale, the new Bond film, the woman is a lithe, brown-haired accountant, who initially finds 007 soulless and brutish, but by film’s end—one hardly needs to say “spoiler”—has come around to his cocky charms. In one of the film’s many luxuriant sex scenes, the camera hovers over Bond and his companion as they wrestle atop white sheets in a Venetian hotel room.

Being a Bond fan feels a bit like you’ve walked in on the middle of something. Now in his 54th year, Bond inhabits 21 EON-produced films and 12 Ian Fleming novels (and countless more spinoffs and imitations). And yet 007 himself remains a cipher, as impenetrable as his mortal enemies’ secret lairs. Ian Fleming once said of him, “Exotic things would happen to and around him but he would be a neutral figure—an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department.” Does Bond have something we could call a moral or intellectual center? Perhaps by brushing away the conventions of the Bond films and studying the man at the moment of his debut, in Fleming’s novel Casino Royale (1953), we can determine just what that would be.

At first glance, the Bond of Casino Royale seems like the rakish scamp embodied by Connery, Brosnan, et al. More rakish, perhaps: He has an “ironical, brutal, and cold” face, and his right cheek is bisected by a scar. A Morland cigarette—one of the 70 he smokes a day—dangles from his mouth. He favors a Bentley (“Bond’s car was his only personal hobby”) and a martini made to the following specs: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large, thin slice of lemon-peel.” The effect, Bond thinks, surveying himself in the mirror, is “faintly piratical.”

Casino Royale is Fleming’s best and leanest work, the only one that doesn’t creak under the weight of its own mythos. Bond has been dispatched to stop Le Chiffre, a French gangster, who lost his ill-gotten fortune when he invested in a chain of brothels. As befitting an Ian Fleming concoction, Bond is ordered not to kill Le Chiffre. Rather, he must beat him at a half-dozen hands of baccarat, thus ensuring his financial ruin. (In a bow to the ESPN generation, the new film has changed baccarat to Texas Hold ‘Em.) Bond enters a French casino with Vesper Lynd, the aforementioned accountant, and then waits to meet his nemesis across the baize.

“Ian used to say he wrote Casino Royale in order to take his mind off the horrific prospect of matrimony,” notes biographer Andrew Lycett. And, sure enough, Fleming has given to his hero his intense discomfort with the fairer sex. Bond’s attitude toward women cannot be called misogyny, exactly. It’s more that Bond views them with a disturbingly elegant detachment. Bond’s reaction to the bodacious Vesper Lynd: “As a woman, he wanted to sleep with her, but only when the job had been done.”

That Bond comes around on this point is one of the most intriguing developments in Casino Royale. At the novel’s opening, he confesses that he considers women a mere “recreation,” sexual partners to acquire and then dispatch. But Bond finds himself smitten with Lynd. After they spend the night together for the first time, he makes like an overeager teenager and decides to marry her. At which point Lynd, displaying the sphinxlike qualities we normally associate with Bond, begins to act mysterious and make excuses.

A failure with women, Bond’s true intellectual awakening comes in a hospital room, after he’s been tortured at the hands of Le Chiffre. (To reveal the method of torture would deprive you of one of the great surprises of the novel and the movie; suffice it to say, it would not have been out of place at Abu Ghraib.) Bruised and humiliated, Bond is no longer the sine qua non of British suavity; he’s a puddle of angst. Of the spy game he says: “[P]atriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out of date. … History is moving pretty quickly these days, and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

Bond continues, becoming more grand in his pronouncements:

Le Chiffre was serving a wonderful purpose, a really vital purpose, perhaps the best and highest purpose of all. By his evil existence, which foolishly I have helped to destroy, he was creating a norm of badness by which, and by which alone, an opposite norm of goodness could exist. We were privileged, in our short knowledge of him, to see and estimate his wickedness, and we emerge from the acquaintanceship better and more virtuous men.

That Bond is under a local anesthetic is no excuse. Here’s our Cold War hero, a lone ranger of the British Empire, musing not only about his loyalties but the very existence of “evil.” In his biography of Fleming, Andrew Lycett argues that the author (and, by extension, Bond) may have been struck by the recent defection of two British intelligence agents, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. It’s amusing to think about what would have happened if this bug had stayed planted in Fleming’s brain.Would 007 have holed up in his hotel with his copy of Sartre, too disillusioned to battle Hugo Drax? Would his third martini have been followed by a ruminative monologue about world affairs?

By the publication of Fleming’s second novel, Live and Let Die, Bond had been relieved of these inner pangs. Women were once again fabulous babes, and espionage was a straightforward battle of good versus evil. Whether on the page or screen, the Bond we have come to know over the last five decades is neither particularly sensitive nor open to psychological probing. As M tells 007 in the new film, “I would ask you if you could remain emotionally detached, but that’s not your problem, is it, Bond?”