Casino Royale, the story of high-stakes, espionage-infused gambling that introduced the world to James Bond. Fearing that the book might not be a success, Fleming’s friends urged him to begin work on a second novel even before the verdict came back on his first, figuring that after two novels, you’re in the professional writing groove, where as waiting around to have your first novel fail is going to take you out of the game pretty quickly. Fleming and his chums needn’t have worried. Casino Royale did quite well, but the follow-up, the voodoo-tinged spy thriller Live and Let Die, did even better, and was a much better book to boot.
Laura La Plante was one of the luminaries of silent era cinema, making a name for herself when she was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, a promotional stunt arranged by the United States Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers to promote up and coming new actresses. During the 1920s, she appeared in more than sixty films, including one of our personal favorites, 1928’s The Cat and the Canary. Like many, her career did not survive the transition to talkies, and though she was the lead candidate to replace Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series when that star was mulling over the notion of leaving the films, Loy ultimately decided to stay and that was about it for La Planta, who moved to London, worked occasionally, but more or less went into retirement, emerging in the 1950s to do a turn on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life and, later in life, at a Night of a 100 Stars event during the 1980s.
But we love her for her role as a plucky heiress surrounded by sinister events in The Cat and the Canary — and we love her for the free spirit that sometimes led her to have a problem keeping her clothes on, including a stint as a nude model.
When one visits Kyoto, Japan, one expects to spend the bulk of the time there visiting a long parade of temples. And that’s exactly what we did, and for the most part, it was time well spent. However, there comes a time in every unwashed heathen’s life when he simply needs a break from serene Buddhas and hordes of schoolkids, and in those times, a man is well served by hopping the train to the small town of Arashiyama in order to hike Mt. Arashiyama and, if all goes well, see one of his friends attacked by an irritable monkey.
When Casino Royale proved to be a major success for first-time author Ian Fleming, the call went out for a continuation of the adventures of Commander James Bond. Luckily, Fleming was ahead of the game and had already started working on a follow-up. Because, they reasoned, if Casino Royale bombs, you won’t be in the mood to write another book. Live and Let Die pits Bond against Harlem-based SMERSH operative Mr. Big, who is using a curtain of superstition and voodoo to mask a treasure smuggling operation funding Russian spy hijinks. Live and Let Die finds the franchise on ground more familiar to Bond movie fans, who maybe found the last book confronted them with a sort of proto-Bond, an emotional and sometimes petulant agent who was far less ruthless and efficient than one might expect — at least until the final sentence, when we witness the birth of James Bond as popular culture would come to know him.
“My dear girl there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” — James Bond, Goldfinger
When you think spies, chances are you think of James Bond. Unless, that is, you happen to be looking at deported Russian spy Anna Chapman’s photo spread for the Russian edition of Maxim (there’s a 99% chance that any article about these photos will be titled “The Cold War Heats Up”). There are plenty of elements that go into making and so have become defining factors of the Bond films. The clothes, the cars, the exotic locations, the women, the booze — and of course, the music.
One fine July day, while better cyclists were battling for a yellow jersey in France, we drove up to Montauk on the far tip of Long Island for a day of trail and mountain biking in Hither Hills state park. It was a gorgeous day, and despite getting caught in crawling parade of Hamptons traffic on our way up and the sundry tailgating, over-aggressive at 10mph assholes those towns seem to attract, there was nothing that could dim our spirits on such a beautifully hot, sunny July day.
Macao starring one of our favorite half-asleep actors, Robert Mitchum, is an exceptionally good thriller, not exactly a noir film but a solid old school crime thriller with good pacing, cool characters, and a great twist. Despite the exotic setting, it doesn’t bank too heavily on the “shadowy Chinatown” style of filmmaking, and there are no Caucasians in fake eyelids parading about. Actually, no, there is apparently one, but it’s so well done that i didn’t even notice. In fact, there are very few Asian characters at all, other than a couple of assassins and a lot of background extras. Instead, the film focuses on a small group of ex-patriots who have converged on the infamously decadent and borderline lawless Portuguese colony.
I was staring directly into the fissure — a ragged scar that ripped across the face of the asphalt and heaved up mounds of broken black rock on either side of the opening, leading off into the swaying scrub that grew alongside the road. I read the sign, photographed for posterity the warning that I was standing on top of an underground fire. This was Centralia, just about smack-dab in the middle of eastern Pennsylvania, the heart of anthracite coal mining country. Below me — I wasn’t sure exactly how deep — was the fire that brought me here and sent everyone else away, burning since 1962 and showing no interest in extinguishing itself or being extinguished by the occasional intervening hand of man.
Common knowledge holds that the character of James Bond is vastly different in the books than he is in the movies, that the literary Bond is far more ruthless, cunning, and mean — a real bastard, if you will — while Bond even as played by Sean Connery is a bit more playful and whimsical. I decided it was high time I filled in the gaps and started reading the Fleming novels, and there seemed no better place to begin than with the first one, Casino Royale. In the end, Casino Royale would prove to be a bit rough around the edges — Fleming’s Titus Andronicus, if you will — but the seeds of what would become a long-lived worldwide phenomena are there. It begins with a simple but highly interesting idea: a Russian agent, Le Chiffre, with a penchant for the good life has “borrowed” a ton of money earmarked for the Communist party in France. And then he lost it all.
It was a good plan for as long as it was working. You’d managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain the madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target while still maintaining the beat on your tabla. But then his right hand man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you find yourself tied down in front of the villain in his egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain his entire nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be a blended scotch whisky.