To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen (and the release of Skyfall), we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.
A new era of Bond deserved a new type of villain. Or, at least, a renewed look at the oldest. Casino Royale had been the first James Bond novel written, but it was only the twenty-first filmed – long past the point where the series had even paid lip-service to Fleming’s novel and short story titles, let alone their plots. Much like the Bond girl Vesper Lynd, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale radically reimagined the story’s villain, while remaining relatively true to the character’s roots. The result is a rather interesting addition to Bond’s iconic selection of foes, as brought to life by Mads Mikkelsen.
When Fleming wrote Casino Royale, he had yet to fully realise the tropes and clichés of his Bond novels, which would then be translated into another distinct sets of rules and expectations for the feature films. In particular, Le Chiffre does not seem like a fully-formed Bond villain. Fleming would get considerably closer to the archetype with Mr. Big in Live and Let Die, before managing to fully realise it with Hugo Drax in Moonraker, but Le Chiffre never quite felt fully formed in the novel.
In particular, Le Chiffre feels relatively small fry when measured against various Bond villains, whether in the novels or the books. He isn’t plotting to destroy London or conquer the world, or even to play kingmaker. Instead, Le Chiffre is a man outside his depth desperately struggling to stay afloat long enough to replace the money he lost from his employer. In the novel, he wasted union money of a string of brothels. Here, he loses rebel funds in a botched get-rich-quick scam.
While the small scale of the character’s ambitions played against Fleming’s attempt to portray him as a sinister father figure, they work much better here. Campbell’s Casino Royale reimagines Le Chiffre as more of a direct counterpart to Bond, a reckless and feckless gambler who takes massive risks in the hope that they will pay off. Like Bond is just a secret agent operating in the field and answering to various mission statements and objectives, Le Chiffre finds himself under the weight of various external forces.
Fleming’s novel makes it clear that Le Chiffre is more of an authority than Bond, clearly a bit older and with a bit more power and influence in the world than the trigger-man who has been sent after him. During the novel’s brutal interrogation, Le Chiffre taunts the agent:
“My dear boy,” Le Chiffre spoke like a father, “the game of Red Indians is over, quite over. You have stumbled by mischance into a game for grown-ups and you have already found it a painful experience. You are not equipped, my dear boy, to play games with adults and it was very foolish of your nanny in London to have sent you out here with your spade and bucket.”
Kingsley Amis argued that many of the best of Fleming’s Bond villains were portrayed as stern father figures for Bond to rebel against, in contrast to the benign father figure that Bond found in M. The literary Le Chiffre certainly fits that bill:
Le Chiffre places himself in the position of a father reprimanding his son: he speaks “like a father”, and everything he says is designed to make Bond feel “hopelessly stupid and childish.” In this regard, he sets a pattern for the villains in most of the later novels. Kingsley Amis argues convincingly that Le Chiffre and his successors represent the father “at his moment of wrath.”
While the film keeps the novel’s famous (or infamous) attempted castration, and the motivations of the character are somewhat similar, there’s a strong shift in emphasis between the novel and the film. In the novel, Le Chiffre seems much more in control of the situation from the outset. He has two hired goons to protect him. He is desperate to replace the money he lost, but it seems that he operates with a relatively free hand until the climax of the novel.
In contrast, the movie version of the character is more clearly off-balance. He’s clearly scrutinised by Mr. White eve while he takes the rebels’ money into his possession. He is attacked during the tournament by investors wanting their money back. “Do you think you can lose that kind of money and no one would notice?” they demand, breaking into his hotel room. Even during his torture of Bond, he seems less than assured, and Bond seems less intimidated by his physical presence. In the novel, the torture took place at an old villa, a symbol of his power and influence. Here, it’s relegated to the cargo bay of an old and rusty ship.
His physical appearance has been changed. Mikkelsen gives the character a wonderfully understated and unnerving presence, but he looks quite different from the character of Fleming’s novel:
Eyes very dark brown with whites showing all round iris. Small, rather feminine mouth. False teeth of expensive quality. Ears small, with large lobes. Hands small, well-tended, hirsute. Feet small.
The novel describes “his big fluid body hunched forward” driving the car with Vesper in it. Mads Mikkelsen certainly doesn’t look like he weighs “18 stone”- that’s more in keeping with the cast of Orson Welles in the 1967 version of the film.
In contrast, the movie gives him a more traditional Bond villain deformity. He cries blood. He assures a guest, “Weeping blood comes merely from a derangement of the tear duct, my dear general. Nothing sinister.” He has a neat scar across his eye, calling to mind the make-up used for Donald Pleasence as Blofeld. Still, Le Chiffre is a pretty physically inactive Bond villain, especially when contrasted with Daniel Craig’s much more physical James Bond.
However, it’s his gambling addiction that makes Le Chiffre seem a bit more complex than the average Bond villain. In the book, the character was bankrupt because he made a relatively sound investment that went horribly wrong due to an unforeseen shift in government policy. It was, of course, a risk – but it was hardly as compulsive a gamble as this iteration of the character takes. His men are loading his clients’ money into the back of his jeep, and he’s already calling up his stockbroker to invest it on his behalf.
There is, of course, a hint of relevance in the characterisation of Le Chiffre. He’s anchored in a slightly more modern form of violence than most Bond villains, and Casino Royale features a foiled terrorist attack on a plane, as if to acknowledge the post-9/11 realities. M even explicitly references those terrorist attack when outlining his failed get-rich-quick scheme. “When they analyzed the stock market after 9/11,” M informs Bond and the audience, “the CIA discovered a massive shorting of airline stocks. When the stocks hit bottom on 9/12, somebody made a fortune. The same thing happened this morning with Skyfleet stock or was supposed to.”
It’s an interesting allusion to the oft-repeated urban myth that nefarious sources turned a massive profit on the attacks at the stock market, frequently parroted by those insisting that the atrocities must have been some sort of vast conspiracy. Casino Royalerather shrewdly uses that pulpy myth to give us a bit of background information on its villain, in much the same way that Fleming would mix in a fact or two with his fictional accounts of various characters, lending his work a hint of authority.
However, Mikkelsen makes Le Chiffre seem slightly pitiable and almost pathetic, a character trapped by a compulsion that he very clearly can’t control. He’s undoubtedly quite skilled at what he does – one doesn’t rise to that sort of position without any talent – but he is a slave to his vices. In that respect, perhaps, he’s a mirror to Bond. Bond is a character who has a very clear fondness for a certain type of living, with a weakness for nice cars, beautiful women and expensive alcoholic beverages. He’s a professional, but he only survives to managing his dependency on those things.
Le Chiffre very clearly lacks that innate self-control that Bond has, allowing the movie to shrewdly position Le Chiffre as a counterpart to Bond, rather than as a father figure. Indeed, with his sharp suits and dark features, Le Chiffre probably looked more like the archetypal Bond than Craig did at the time – a lot of coverage of his hiring focused on his blonde hair. Le Chiffre even has a Bond girl of his own in the form of Valenka.
Unlike the independent and assured Vesper, Valenka contributes relatively little to the plot except eye candy. She’s a tool to be used by Le Chiffre and exploited by his enemies. She’s a woman to whom he feels no emotional attachment. Le Chiffre’s creditors show up and threaten to cut her arm off, but he is silent. Even the man who threatened to take her arm advises her, “Not a word of protest. You should find a new boyfriend.”
The most useful thing that Valenka does over the course of the film is to poison Bond’s drink. In many ways, you could argue that Valenka is intended as a parody or a deconstruction of the traditional Bond girl, the arm candy for a more important leading man. Her lack of importance is demonstrated by her death. She dies off-screen at the hands of Mr. White, and few viewers even notice. She’s that disposable.
In that respect then, Le Chiffre is a dark mirror to Bond. Bond is a gambler. He takes silly risks. Casino Royale allows M to call him on this. Invading a foreign embassy can’t be that much riskier than anything Le Chiffre attempts. However, Le Chiffre seems to lack both the luck and the skill that Bond has. Despite what Bond says about the importance of skill in poker, it is unfair to talk about skill when those sorts of cards keep coming up. The odds seem a little weighted.
For Le Chiffre, gambling is just a way to assert his superiority over his fellow man, something very in keeping with Fleming’s general portrayal of villains – especially Hugo Drax, who refused to lose at cards to English men. M offers us a brief summary of his history, “Albanian, we believe. Chess prodigy. A bit of a mathematical genius and liked to prove it by playing poker.” It seems that Le Chiffre believes that he is smart enough to run circles around most of his competitors.
Throughout the film, he’s portrayed as a character who knows the odds and the numbers involved in gambling. At one point, he advises a colleague, “I have two pair, and you have a 17.4 percent chance of making your straight.” And yet, like all addicts, he can’t apply that rational thought to his own gambling. During the tournament, Bond observes that Le Chiffre’s betting is a bit reckless. He spots the villain’s tell during a hand Le Chiffre wins on the last card. “The odds against were 23-to-1, and he’d know that. When he did his first raise he had nothing. Winning was blind luck.”
Much like Craig’s Bond throughout Casino Royale, and particularly towards the end, Le Chiffre allows his objective judgement to be clouded by other concerns. Bond’s affection for Vesper blinds him to her treachery, while Le Chiffre’s desperate need to win blinds him to the fact that he’s throwing good money after bad. Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre as a man struggling to put up a brave face as his world falls apart, one who trying to fool himself into believing that he can pull himself out of the abyss into which he has fallen. It’s a fascinating angle for a Bond villain, since most villains typically operate from a stronger footing. Le Chiffre knows the ground is falling out from under him, and trying desperately to keep afloat.
Casino Royale was very much a different type of Bond film, and Le Chiffre was a different type of Bond film. Going back to the very first novel, Martin Campbell and Mads Mikkelsen were able to put a unique twist one of the most recognisable pop culture archetypes, and to give us one of the most human adversaries to face Bond in quite some time.
You might be interested in our other Bond villain character studies:
- Doctor Julius No (Dr. No)
- Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
- Ernst Stavro Blofeld (You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever)
- Francisco Scaramanga (The Man With The Golden Gun)
- Aristotle “Aris” Kristatos (For Your Eyes Only)
- Max Zorin (A View to a Kill)
- Franz Sanchez (Licence to Kill)
- Alec Trevelyan (GoldenEye)
- Elektra King (The World Is Not Enough)
- Le Chiffre (Casino Royale)