Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Crime Week: Casino Royale (Gambling)

Gambling is a tricky business. It's all about high risks and uncertain outcomes. This fits very much into the world of international espionage, an environment that requires carefully calculated risks where the slightest mistake could be the difference between success and failure. For a superspy like James Bond, gambling is a regular part of his job. This should make it fitting therefore that when Craig signed on to play the role of Bond, his first movie was one that centred heavily on gambling, both literally and metaphorically. Even the title of the movie, Casino Royale, emphasizes just how important the theme of gambling is to its overall narrative, and the opening title sequence makes heavy use of playing cards. In this case, the whole world is one big Casino, and its inhabitants the gamblers within.

Casino Royale introduces a much less glamorous Bond than its predecessors. Sean Connery's James Bond was treated as indestructible and unquestionably the good guy. He would charge into danger, shout one-liners after killing his enemies, and always seemed to know what he was doing. Craig's Bond is more enigmatic. While he may be cold, he is clearly affected by his experiences as a super spy (if primarily on a psychological level). There is a greater moral ambiguity, and as thrilling as the action might be one cannot always be sure if Bond is doing the right thing. Unlike Connery's Bond, the solution is not always so clear-cut and simple. This shift in tone sets the stage for a major aspect of the new Bond's character: his constant tendency to gamble.

This aspect of his personality is demonstrated at the very beginning, when Bond is tracking a bomb maker in Uganda. A mistake by his partner unwittingly alerts the bomb maker, who promptly runs, and Bond justifiably gives chase. However, he is faced with a difficult decision when the bomb maker escapes to an African Embassy. Bond makes the daring call to violate his own organization's rules and enters the embassy, practically taking several of its staff hostage in the process. When Bond is finally cornered, he is faced with one more gamble to escape, which ultimately pays off, though his quick decision to shoot the Bomb Maker does not go unpunished.

From this early scene, it is clear that Bond is a reckless individual. He is always making uncertain choices with high risks involved. These continue when he presents the even more daring move of hacking the personal information of his Boss, M (Judy Dench) and even breaks into her house despite the possibility that it could cost his job. This is also emphasized when he travels to Miami and stays at the Ocean Club, where the first thing he does is join in a game of Poker. Also present at this game is Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian), who appears to be losing. Out of desperation, he makes the daring move of wagering his car, but loses it to Bond.

It is naturally fitting that much of the film's story should centre around a poker game hosted by Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Like Bond, Le Chiffre is very much a gambler in his own right. He is established to be running a private bank that invests in terrorist groups, already a major gamble. His plan to obtain money for a client is to hold a high stakes Poker game, and it is implied that some embezzlement has been involved on his part. Given the people he has been working with, he is taking some extreme risks in the hopes that they will eventually pay off. Meanwhile, Bond's own government is making a huge gamble by recruiting him to keep Le Chiffre from winning. If he succeeds, there is a chance of gaining valuable information from him, but if he fails, MI6 will have officially funded a terrorist operation.

In order to accomplish this goal, Bond receives assistance from Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), and also consults an undercover agent named René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini). Both of these ultimately prove to be losing gambles. Bond's trust of Mathis proves costly when it is revealed he was really working for Le Chiffre. Lynd proves a more successful gamble for much of the film as she remains loyal to Bond, even saving his life, but in the end she is also used against him. In both cases, Bond gambles, unsure of the ultimate outcome, and has no choice but to face the consequences of his choice.

When the movie reaches the Poker game, the gambling themes become much more clear. Several gamblers are present, though only two (Le Chiffre and Bond) are given any real focus. Each of the players knows that this is a winner takes all game, and they will either finish with a fortune or nothing at all. Many of them lose as a result, and disappear from the table as the game progresses. For Bond and Le Chiffre, though, there is something else going on. These two spend much of this part of the film focusing on each other. They sit directly across from one another, analysing each other's moves carefully.

Both of them also try to cheat, making a few daring moves to eliminate or at least weaken their opponent. Bond tries to use Lynd to help him figure out the best moves while Le Chiffre outright poisons him, but the gambling aspects of their characters still apply to the game itself. A recurring detail is Bond's constant struggle to tell if Le Chiffre is bluffing. Over the course of the game, Bond repeatedly has to decide whether to call a bluff. The results are varied, with the first instance ending in his favour, but the second almost causing him to lose the game (followed by a discussion with Vesper where he sounds like someone addicted to gambling). Both men are gambling against each other within the Poker game, constantly betting and trying to outdo one another.

In the end, neither one of their gambles truly pays off. Le Chiffre is outwitted in the game, but he later makes one final desperate attempt to get the money from Bond. Unfortunately, it proves unsuccessful, and Le Chiffre is killed by the people he owed money to. He has gambled, and lost. His decisions have cost him everything, including his life. For Bond, his gamble has also failed, in that he has ultimately failed in his mission to capture Le Chiffre alive. Both are forced to realize that when one gambles constantly, they ultimately pay the price.

However, it is Vesper who presents the last gamble in the film. She is pressured into stealing the Poker winnings and handing them over to Le Chiffre's creditors. To do this, they have abducted her former boyfriend and threatened to kill him. Vesper's last gamble is to co-operate with them, hoping that they will spare her and Bond. Once again, this gamble ultimately costs her everything. By the time she is reunited with Bond, she has nothing left but the guilt of her actions. It has cost her any chance at happiness, and her relationship with Bond. This motivates her to drown herself rather than face the consequences.

Underneath the action, suspense, and international intrigue, Casino Royale is really a film about the dangers of gambling. It is a story where everyone must take extreme risks, with the ultimate outcome never certain. No matter what the reasons are a person may take part in such high stakes, be it fame, fortunate, desperation, or even just for fun, it is always a costly business. Gambling is a rough line of work, and for those who take part in it, it can change their entire lives in a matter of seconds.


  1. A bit of a surprising pick for this topic, given your own feelings on Bond. I knew you liked this one, but still a surprise. Can't argue with it, though. It really is all about gambling in every sense of the word.

    1. I figured this would be one people would not see coming. That was part of why I chose it instead of a more obvious film. That, and it also presented an interesting challenge in trying to discuss something about Bond apart from gender issues (on which I've written extensively). Technically in order to do that, I focused more or less entirely on this one film rather than Bond as a whole, but I still managed to find something new to bring up.