Posted by David Kalat on November 10, 2012
I am writing this before having seen Skyfall, so I can’t talk directly about the latest James Bond film, but I can flirt about its edges. I am one of those who have greatly enjoyed the rebooted series with Daniel Craig—and am especially impressed that they managed to find a way to make Casino Royale into a genuinely dramatic visual spectacle. It’s not an easy book to film—which didn’t stop people from trying.
There was the 1954 TV version with Barry Nelson as James Bond, which completely failed to set the world on fire. Wikipedia claims that Howard Hawks considered directing a 1962 adaptation with Cary Grant in the lead—and the very thought of it makes me wish I’d brought it up in my earlier post about unmade treasures. And of course there’s the 1967 trainwreck in which a number of otherwise capable directors and actors squandered a giant pile of money on an insane mess.
Oh yeah, and then there’s the version starring Warren Beatty!
OK, it isn’t a proper authorized adaptation, and Beatty plays “Barney Lincoln,” a rogue card shark, not a professional secret agent. But the title sequence by 007-graphic designer Maurice Binder, the swinging 60s mod style, the jet-setting locales, casual sex, colorful villains, and action set pieces all signal the film’s ambitions pretty clearly.
But let’s be clear about exactly what these ambitions are: it isn’t simply mimicking the successful formula of the James Bond series. There were a slew of lesser-minded Bond knock-offs of the same era that tried that path, dutifully copying all the superficial details. Here’s a secret agent identified by number, licensed to kill, blah blah blah. Some of these Bond knock offs work just fine. But Kaleidoscope aims to copy the underlying aesthetic. Warren Beatty doesn’t play a spy, he doesn’t have a number, but he fits into the Bondian ethos of a film entirely oriented around entertainment, all plausibility be damned.
The true Bond films aren’t plot driven things, logically working through a cause-and-effect sequence to their finales. Instead they are outsized collections of spectacles, strung together. It doesn’t matter how cartoony or ludicrous anything gets in a Bond film, because there’s no pretense to reality. In fact, the more cartoony and ludicrous the better.
And so in Kaleidoscope we find nothing whatsoever that is sensible, but everything has been put in with an eye towards being interesting.
Beatty’s character Barney Lincoln (I mean, seriously, Barney Lincoln!!) breaks into the Kaleidoscope card factory and tampers with the printing plates, so that every playing card the company prints will come pre-marked according to his system. As long as the casino in question uses Kaleidoscope cards, Barney can walk in knowing he will be able to cheat. Apparently, every casino in the world exclusively uses Kaleidoscope brand cards, so Barney is able to scam them all, funding an indulgent playboy lifestyle for himself.
His orbit intersects with Angel McGinnis (Susannah York), a sexually uninhibited thrill seeking rich girl prone to acts of mayhem. The two of them are a match made in heaven, and could easily spend the rest of forever wandering back and forth between casinos and beds with one another if it weren’t for her father—a high ranking officer in Scotland Yard hunting the master criminal Domino (Eric Porter). Inspector McGinnis is delighted his daughter has found a worthy playmate, and doesn’t much care how the two of them spend their time, as long as he can benefit from Barney’s trickery.
You see, Domino is an inveterate gambler who plays high stakes poker with a carefully selected inner retinue of fellow bad guys. But one of those players has had to drop out (Domino suspected him of being a police informant and so set him on fire), making a space for McGinnis to send in a stooge. His plan is to maneuver Barney into that spot, and have Barney bankrupt Domino in the game.
In broad strokes like that, maybe the weirdness of all this doesn’t fully come across. So let’s linger on a few details, such as Barney’s marked cards. The camera repeatedly zooms into the cards to emphasize that they are marked, but no markings are actually visible to the audience. Exactly how he is reading them is never explained (there’s a suggestion that he has special glasses, but this is not entirely supported by the evidence in the film). But who cares? It doesn’t matter how he’s doing this, only that he is.
And then we get Inspector McGinnis. His plan is equally underexplained and irrational. Throughout the film, Barney keeps remarking on how unfatherly he is, and how his lack of parental responsibility towards his reckless daughter is hard to believe. Instead of being concerned for her health or safety, McGinnis focuses his attention on toy trains and mechanical contraptions, which he appears to collect—why? Because it’s interesting, not because it makes any sense.
McGinnis’ assistant is a prissy proto-fascist with an obsession with guns—imagine Barney Fife mashed up with M*A*S*H’s Frank Burns and Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper. But then played as a Nazi.
Susannah York as Angel is the shimmering soul of the movie, and her performance is delightful. But it is not a performance rooted in any psychological authenticity—her recklessness simply extends through to the end. Even in the heart of danger, she doesn’t take any of it seriously. The only reason she’s even in danger is because, well, you see, she has a thing for Napoleon, and when she sees Domino she thinks he kind of looks like Napoleon, and he (sensing an opportunity to flirt with a pretty girl) plays along, so… as if this makes any kind of sense.
For a character who is supposed to be the ultimate in mega-villainy, whose defeat would call for this level of risky gambit, Domino is not depicted as ruthlessly evil. Sure, he burns a colleague alive for thinking he’s an informant, but in almost every instance the film strives to make Domino interesting over threatening. Threatening might be more dramatic, but interesting is more fun.
But there’s a problem with this approach. To examine it, let’s take a look at this clip:
You can see the filmmakers’ aesthetic in full bloom here. The plot requires that the marked cards be replaced by unmarked cards, and to achieve that simple narrative end, we get a digression into character detail. These characters have not appeared before and will not return, but the film takes pains to make even its most minor walk-on roles interesting.
Which is a good thing–I’m not complaining yet. But notice what this scene has been about: Lincoln is now obliged to play his high-stakes, all-in game against Domino without the benefit of the marked deck.
The resulting game play ought to be a dramatic highpoint. This is what the whole movie has been building towards, and now our hero is deprived of his special advantage. But the film does nothing to capitalize on this.
By contrast, the 2006 Casino Royale digs in and makes sure that its gameplay is not as impenetrable and disappointing as, y’know, a filmed game of cards.
In Kaleidoscope, however, how the climactic game resolves is completely unclear. Maybe Lincoln is actually a good card player after all, independent of his cheating. Maybe he’s super lucky. Maybe he picked up on some secret tell. Maybe he’d actually marked this older deck, too, and we just didn’t see it. Who cares? The film certainly doesn’t.
There are plenty of examples of successful implementations of this glib style of filmmaking. The history of James Bond cinema, for one, embraces this aesthetic–that’s why Kaleidoscope is copycatting it in the first place. And to be honest, Kaleidoscope‘s facetiousness and contempt for its own storytelling compares favorably to the comparable ethos of the Roger Moore Bond era. But the Bond films pull this off by bringing extraordinary images and overwhelming cinematic bombast to the party.
And to cite another example, Steve Soderburgh’s Ocean’s films are equally glib and implausible, but make up for it by stuffing the screen with charismatic movie stars and synthetic moments of dramatic tension created by clever narrative trickery.
Kaleidoscope has the ambition to be in that league, and deserves respect for trying–it certainly lands in the upper quartile of James Bond knock-offs of the 1960s. But without the budget to compete with Bond’s high-octane set pieces, and without the filmmaking talent to compete with Soderburgh’s endless inventiveness, the result is a little too precious for its own good. Here is a film that aimed for cool, and instead ended up cold.
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