Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Becoming Bond: the use of elevators in Casino Royale

There's a moment early on in Casino Royale where a character named Dryden, a traitor to the British government, is seen going up in an elevator... or as they call it in England, a "lift" (although the scene takes place in Prague and I happen to live in America). Inside, the numbers shown counting up are 3, 4, 5 and 6 before it cuts to a shot of him entering his office. This was something that failed to catch my attention when I first saw the film back in November but upon re-viewing it on DVD this week, the question struck me: "Why did they not show a 7?" Was it just that the sixth floor was the elevator's destination? Does the building even have a seventh floor? Was it a totally arbitrary decision or could there be some other reason why chose to cut away on the "6?"

Since the sequence goes on to show Bond sitting sinsiterly in the shadows of Dryden's office, waiting for him to arrive so he can complete his required second kill and officially become a "Double-O" agent, I began to theorize that perhaps director Martin Campbell and editor Stuart Baird didn't show the "7" because Bond hasn't even become "007" yet (an event which is represented in the opening credit sequence that follows). If so, this wouldn't be the first time that 7 has been used for such effect in a Bond film (the most notable probably being in Goldfinger where the ticking bomb is diffused with only 7 seconds left). Then again, when I posed the question on the IMDB boards someone else suggested that they cut away at "6" because Craig was the sixth Bond (an interesting theory certainly) while still others dismissed it as being completely meaningless. Either way, perhaps I was making more of this than necessary.

However, another rather astute poster (apparently prompted by my suggestion) proceeded to mention something they noticed which intrigued me: the film both opens and ends in scenes that prominenetly feature an elevator. What fascinated me about this obervation was the possibility that the elevators themselves might be significant. In fact, when I thought about it I realized that elevators pop up all over the place in Casino Royale and are sometimes accompanied by a significant, perhaps even life-changing, event. To name a few such occasions:


-Bond uses an elevator (of sorts) to continue pursuing a bomb-maker in the film's rather spectacular opening chase sequence.

-Bond enters an elevator after conversing with "M" in her home and being temporarily dismissed from MI-6.

-Vesper Lynde (Eve Green) steps into an elevator and tells Bond to "take the next one" because there is no room in there for both "him and his ego" (later, of course, Vesper will deny Bond entrance in another elevator but for an entirely different reason).

-In an elevator with Vesper, Bond pulls a gun out of an envelope and then, when he realizes the situation is far more dangerous than he first anticipated, tries to send Vesper away but the elevator doors close forcing him to include her in on the ensuing fight in the stairway.

-In the film's climax, a remorseful Vesper (having betrayed Bond) commits suicide in an elevator that is submerged in water while Bond tries unsuccessfully to save her.


Now, one could argue that this is all merely a coincidence. That these elevators don't mean anything at all and that their appearance throughout the movie is no more important than the appearance of common things like automobiles, shoes, laptops or stairs... but I don't think so. I think the filmmakers are employing the elevator as a sort of recurring motif. Like clocks in Back to the Future , bathrooms in Pulp Fiction, television sets in The Manchurian Candidate (the original naturally) or mirrors in Death Becomes Her they visually represent one of the major themes of this film. When one thinks about the fact that elevators are used for transporting people, one realizes that entering an elevator is embarking on a "journey" of sorts. Granted, it's a rather short journey and it only goes up or down, but it nevertheless takes a person from one place to another and in this film Bond himself (a character who in most of his previous adventures has no "arc" or undergoes any sort of change) has a journey of his own. It takes him from the rough, inexperienced, physically and emotionally vulnerable novice to the tough, hardened professional we are all familiar with. His attitude toward women and his cold-hearted approach to his job all but cemented by the time we reach the film's final image of (SPOILER FOLLOWS) Bond looking down at the injured, prostrate, villainous Mr. White (on a set of stairs as it turns out) introducing himself as "Bond, James Bond." (END OF SPOILER) At that moment, this particular journey (the one of "becoming Bond") has ended, the destination has been reached and the transformation is complete. Bond has arrived.

As I said in my post "Do You Want to Go See a James Bond Movie?" (written just before Casino Royale was released) I am a HUGE Bond fan and although I was skeptical of Daniel Craig for the longest time, he eventually won me over. I like his harsher, grittier, edgier take on the character because I've always felt that, when there is so much at stake, Bond can and should be a bastard (this is one of the major reasons why I liked Timothy Dalton; I think his interpretation was/is highly underrated). The movie itself is easily the best Bond flick since Brosnan's debut feature Goldeneye (which, coincidentally, was helmed by the same director) and arguably one of the best in the entire series. From a technical standpoint it's very well done. The cinematography is quite good (which it normally isn't in a Bond film) as is the editing, the music score (though portions of it can be heard spottily throughout the film, David Arnold deliberatly saves the James Bond theme in all its glory for the film's conclusion), the pacing, the script/dialogue and the performances... not least of all Daniel Craig. Although the filmmakers tried to create a somewhat "different" Bond film, it still includes the requisite amount of action, beautiful girls, fast cars, exotic locations and just general "excesses" that Bond movies need to have. However, what sets Casino Royale apart is that it also has a degree of subtlety, a strong dramatic backbone and an emotional element rarely seen in the series. Some have even called it the best Bond film to date. I don't know about that (my vote still goes to Goldfinger), but it's certainly up there.

However, all of this has been expressed before (and more eloquently) by people other than myself and since there is nothing new I can really add to the plethora of opinions on the latest Bond epic, I'll shut up now... except to say that the next time you watch it (or the first time if you haven't seen it yet) pay special attention to the elevators. It doesn't mean that it will necessarily increase your understanding of the film or cause you to appreciate it more than you would otherwise, because nobody is ever going to mistake the Bond series for great art, but sometimes there can be depth and artistry involved in them... if we know where to look.


Tuwa said...

I still have not seen this film but I'm more and more wanting to.

Also: did you take your photos down or did they disappear? I know there's been some of that going around on Blogspot.

Damian said...

Well, I can certainly recommend it. I don't think one even needs to be a Bond fan to enjoy it. One just needs to like good movies. :)

Well, I haven't taken my photos down myself and I can still see them, so I don't know what's going on.

cineboy said...

great observations regarding the elevators. makes me wonder if there are other similar "themes" running through the film. good directors do that kind of stuff all the time and often audiences don't ever notice. it reminds me of the kinds of symbolic, yet subtle, touches certain directors have tended to use, like John Ford and hats.

Damian said...

Thanks, Tuck, but I can't take credit for the observations about the elevators. Like I said in my post, someone else brought that to my attention. I was however struck by the fact that filmmakers didn't show the number "7" in the film's pre-title sequence.

The use of symbolic images/objects, is something that I have only recently begun to notice in films done by good directors. You may remember that in a previous post I wrote about the use of clocks in Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future, but it was actually the frequent appearance of mirrors in Zemeckis' Death Becomes Her, a film that's all about vanity, that first got me thinking about this phenomenon.

The other day I re-watched Spielberg's Minority Report, a film about knowing the future (or "fore-sight") and noticed that the human eye is an incredibly important recurring motif throughout the story: a close-up of an eyeball it the first real clear image in the film (which I'm guessing is a nod to 2001 and perhaps Blade Runner as well, given that both stories are taken from Phillip K. Dick), it's how they identfy people in the future, it allows Tom Cruise's character access to the "temple" of the pre-cogs, etc. These are things that usually escape my notice on the first (and sometimes even second) viewing of a film, but now that I am becoming a bit more aware/sensetive to it, I am starting to notice it more and more. Like you said, you've never REALLY seen a film until you've seen it three times.

Incidentally, I didn't know that about John Ford and his use of hats. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

Gareth said...

This is something I'm also becoming increasingly aware of, the way that such tropes are sprinkled through films without us, at times, even noticing; someone had a great post about all the appearances of the letter 'X' in The Departed (though frankly, in my view, the film could have done with less of that and more attention to fundamentals).

David Bordwell, in his book on HK cinema, talks about the way that even highly commercial cinema can have moments of great artistry (he gives a wonderful example, with screen caps) that shouldn't readily be dismissed just because they occur in, say, a genre flick (though, as he acknowledges, he's not much of a Bond fan!).

Damian said...

I have a lot of respect for David Bordwell and completely agree with what he says about not dismissing the kind of artistry that can be displayed in genre films. I do, however, disagree with him (obviously) as far as Bond movies are concerned. Oh well. Everyone should be allowed a little "blind spot" I think. ;)