Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Neal Purvis

“A terrible possibility began to gather in her mind…”

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"As she brooded over this..."

Note: This post is the twentieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 21. You can read the previous installments here.

Casino Royale is my favorite Bond film, and one of the most entertaining movies I’ve ever seen: it’s the one installment in the franchise that I never tire of watching, and it’s fun just to think about. But there’s a single moment toward the end that always struck me as a headscratcher. After Bond wins the big poker tournament, defeating the villainous Le Chiffre, he and Vesper celebrate with a late dinner and cocktails in the restaurant at the titular casino. Vesper gets a text message, checks it, and says that Mathis—their local contact, played by the indispensable Giancarlo Giannini—needs to see her. She leaves. Bond sits there for a minute alone, then mutters to himself, reflectively: “Mathis…” A second later, he’s on his feet, and he dashes outside just in time to see Vesper being herded into a car by a couple of thugs. He sets off in pursuit, and we’re quickly plunged into a crazy chase, a surprise reversal, a crash, and the most memorable torture scene in the entire series. It isn’t for another twenty breathless minutes, in fact, that Bond, recovering afterward in the hospital, explains how he realized that Mathis was a traitor: he was the only one who could have told Le Chiffre that Bond had discovered his poker tell. Mathis is dispatched with a stun gun to the solar plexus, and that’s that.

But it all raises a few questions, to the point where it actively distracted me on my first couple of viewings. We’ll leave aside the fact that Mathis actually isn’t the mole: in fact, as Bond realizes too late, Vesper was the one who tipped off Le Chiffre. Mathis is ultimately exonerated, although this point is revealed so casually, in a line of throwaway dialogue, that most viewers could be forgiven for missing it. More to the point, we’re never given any indication of Bond’s thought process before he jumps to the conclusion that Mathis betrayed them. Usually, this kind of “Oh, crap” moment is triggered by a clue, or a bunch of them, that the audience and the character in question put together at the same time, as we see most memorably in The Usual Suspects. Here, the reasoning is left deliberately opaque, and the gap between Bond’s sudden brainstorm and its explanation is so long—and so crowded with action—that any connective thread is lost. This isn’t a fatal flaw, and it doesn’t impair our enjoyment of what follows. But it’s striking that the blue-chip screenwriting team of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis evidently decided that all we needed was the dawning realization in Bond’s eyes, without giving us any indication of what caused it. (It wasn’t a choice made in the editing room, either: the original script follows exactly the same sequence of beats.)

"A terrible possibility began to gather in her mind..."

This interests me because it reflects the kind of shorthand that such stories often use when covering familiar territory. We’ve all seen movies that move from A to B to C, where A is a clue, B is the hero’s eureka moment, and C is the explanation. Casino Royale omits A altogether and relegates C to the status of a footnote, so the middle factor—the light that goes off in Bond’s head—is all we have left. It all but advertises the fact that A and C are basically irrelevant, or could be replaced by any number of arbitrary components: all that matters is the effect they have on Bond. Which only works if you assume that the audience is sophisticated enough to recognize the trope and fill in the blanks on its own. (It reminds me a little of an observation that Pauline Kael made about Raging Bull, in which Scorsese uses a single vivid scene to represent would have been an entire montage in another movie: “Probably for him it stands for the series.”) It’s revealing, too, that it appears here, in a movie that is otherwise more than happy to spin long chains of plot points. An “Oh, crap” moment depends on the film being ever so slightly ahead of the audience, and Casino Royale neatly circumvents the challenge by giving viewers no information whatsoever that might allow them to anticipate the next move.

And while I’m probably reading too much into it, or making conscious what really would have been an intuitive choice by the writers, it also feels like an acknowledgment of how artificial such moments of insight can be. It all depends on the hero seeing a pattern that had been there all along, and to keep the solution from being too obvious, we often see our protagonist making an enormous inductive leap based on the flimsiest possible evidence. There’s a moment much like this in Chapter 21 of Eternal Empire. Wolfe has just been told that Ilya, who has been held without talking for months at Belmarsh Prison, has suddenly agreed to cooperate with the authorities, and that he’s due for a hearing that day at the Central Criminal Court in London. Meanwhile, Vasylenko, his former mentor, is slated to attend a separate appeal that morning. The coincidence of the two court appearances being scheduled at the same time, along with the fact that Ilya and Vasylenko will be transported on the same prison van, allows Wolfe to conclude that they’re planning to escape. That single germ of suspicion is enough to send her racing out of the office, sending her chair rolling backward—the procedural equivalent of the cloud of dust that the Road Runner leaves in his wake. Is this moment plausible? No more or less than Bond’s. Which is another way of saying that it’s exactly as plausible as it needs to be…

Written by nevalalee

June 4, 2015 at 9:15 am

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