This past week Silverview, the last novel by the great John Le Carré arrived on my doorstep. Earlier, I saw No Time To Die, which—spoiler alert!—may very well be the final James Bond movie. And now word has come from London that Michael Caine at the age of 88 is retiring from acting.
Pondering these—for me, anyway—seismic events, I was struck by the realization that Le Carré, Bond, and Caine all have been part of my life ever since I was a kid. In their various ways they served as escape routes out of my humdrum small Ontario town youth. I owe a lot to them.
The glamour and the exotic locales of the Ian Fleming Bond novels, followed by the first three Sean Connery films, enthralled me. The books and the movies seemed so off-limits, a forbidden door I dared not open. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to get pry it open— sneaking in to the Capitol theatre in order to see Dr. No, the first Bond movie. The opening words of Casino Royale, Bond’s debut, are hardwired in my brain: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”
I stumbled upon David Cornwell, who wrote under the pseudonym of John Le Carré, in 1963 when he published his groundbreaking The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I was immediately caught up in its dark, “atmosphere of chilly hell,” as J.B. Priestley called it, the burnt-out case that was the novel’s protagonist, Alex Leamas. I’ve devoured Le Carré novels ever since. Some were better than others, of course, but I’ve stuck with him over these long decades as he seemed to go on forever. Until, suddenly, so sadly he exited last December at the age of 89.
The secret agents who occupied the dark international spy world fascinated me back then, obviously. That fascination led me to my second-favorite novelist of the era, Len Deighton, and his nameless hero in Deighton’s 1962 novel, The Ipcress File. In fact, Deighton’s 1966 Billion Dollar Brain was the first hardcover book I ever bought. It cost $4.65. I still have it.
From there it was a short hop to Michael Caine who personified the cool imperturbable spy renamed Harry Palmer for the novel’s film version. I’ve admired Maurice Micklewhite aka Michael Caine ever since. He has made over a hundred films, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them all—well, okay, almost all—the very good (The Man Who Would Be King, Get Carter, Educating Rita) and the horrible (Jaws 4: The Revenge, The Swarm).
During my years as a journalist whenever I was asked about my favorite interview, I would always mention Michael Caine. I first met him late one night while he was shooting a movie atop a Hollywood hill. During the many times I’ve talked to him, he was always a lively, humorous interview, one of the few actors who actually seemed to enjoy talking to journalists, perhaps confident in the knowledge they were never going to give him a bad review. I know of no one who ever did. I’m not sure which I will miss more, Michael Caine on the screen or Michael Caine sitting down for a conversation.
The new Bond movie runs two hours and forty-three minutes, nearly twice as long as Dr. No. It tries to jam everything into itself—homages to the earlier movies (the Aston Martin, the Dr. No-like finale, a Hans Zimmer-channeling-John Barry/Monty Norman score); an unrequited love story; a heavy-handed, convoluted plot anxious to make it all very important when it isn’t.
After seeing the latest installment, I had to reluctantly agree with what Phoebe Waller-Bridge, one of the many writers who toiled on the hodge-podge script, observed of Bond: “…It’s a life none of us would ever want, if we’re honest. We don’t want to go put a bullet in someone’s head to sleep with people and have martinis. It’s a kind of fantasy nightmare.”
You can’t help but suspect producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson have turned in the keys to the Aston Martin, polished off the last shaken martini, and decided to go out with a final $250 million blast. If No Time to Die isn’t the end of the Bond franchise after twenty-five movies, it certainly feels like it.
The other night, I crawled under the bedcovers, eagerly settling in with Silverview, overwhelmed suddenly with a sense of sadness and regret. This was it. Le Carré’s books, the Bond movies, Michael Caine performances, they were at their end.
Then what of the guy who had followed them so loyally from adolescence into old age? Could he be far behind? The math, depressingly, said he couldn’t be. But I could still smell the scent and smoke and sweat of a casino at three o’clock in the morning. For now, there was no time to die. Not until I finished the Le Carré.
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