James Bond sat at the vingt-et-un table and looked about him. Something about the man by the stairs seemed all too familiar. Was it Plongeur, the evil henchman of the megalomaniacal Le Chiffre? Could it be Debris, the sadistic double-agent, whose wife had danced the gavotte érotique before Bond at the Cheval Qui Rit the night before? Perhaps it was Roblochon, the dim, breast-fixated copper from the Sureté, checking up on the world's top secret agent in the hope that some associative glory might rub off?
Actually, Bond hadn't the faintest idea who it was. His new spectacles, from Dollond & Aitchison in the Strand, seemed to have been designed for a myopic molecular scientist and he could see nothing more than 10 feet away. The man in the suit could just as easily be (and in fact was) Gervaise, the Ritz-Carlton casino's cocktail waiter.
"Dix-neuf," called the dealer, a smirking fellow called Philippe, with a Gallic shrug. "Nahnteen to beat. Zer banque pays vingt and vingt-et-un. Monsieur Bon', you weesh to 'ave anozzer carte?"
Bond looked at his hand through rheumy eyes. A jack of hearts and a four of spades made... um, fourteen. "Suivi," he said. The dealer slid him an eight of clubs. Fourteen and eight. What did that make? Fourteen and six is nineteen, carry the one, add the two (or was it three?) and you have...
Bond began to sweat. He was getting too old for this game. His short-term memory was shot, his cognitive reasoning was more full of holes than his Man at C&A socks, his eyes were going funny, his ears were jangly with tinnitus. Worse, home didn't seem to be home any more. Outside the casino, all the street signs were in Czech. He couldn't locate the MI6 building in Vauxhall. The policemen in the street talked a guttural Euro-demotic he couldn't identify. The long-anticipated night of amour fou with Marie-France, the sleek translator from the Ministry of the Interior, had been a fiasco.
And now he couldn't add up simple sums. "Forty-four years I've been doing this," he thought bitterly. "It's time I got out." He looked at the dial of his Rolex Senior Citizen Chronometer. It was getting on for 10 o'clock. Soon - 10.15, say - he could make an excuse and slip away for an early night with a mug of Ritz-Carlton cocoa and the June issue of Saga magazine...
Is time finally running out for 007? By rights, Casino Royale, the 21st instalment of the second most-lucrative franchise in film history (it has so far made $3,332,026,028,544,004,000 over 20 films, but is still narrowly beaten by Star Wars) should be in hot production as we speak - deploying a jaw-loosening series of technological wonders and stunt-man calisthenics, starring Pierce Brosnan and an all-new platoon of bosomy Anglo-American actresses prepared to ruin their careers for a few minutes of screen time with the most heinously sexist hero since Sid James in Carry On Cleo.
Unfortunately, things aren't working out too well for Bond aficionados. After four movies as Bond, Brosnan put himself out of the running for the role with the words: "At 52, I'm too old." Speculation about who would inherit his suave mantle persisted all through last autumn. The movie was about to start shooting in January this year, but in April, a spokesman from Eon, the Bond producers, said with categorical blankness: "We haven't even started pre-production. There is no James Bond yet cast. All we can confirm is that it definitely will not be Pierce Brosnan, the film will be called Casino Royale, it will be written by Neil Purvis and Robert Wade and it will be directed by Martin Campbell. If you want any more, ring back in a couple of months."
A couple of months later, the story has moved forward only in negatives. Now it seems likely that Pinewood, the film studio where 18 of the 20 Bond movies were made, from Doctor No (the prototype Bond in 1962) to Die Another Day in 2003, will lose the lucrative privilege of making Casino Royale spin into life. The studio's turnover has dropped from £38.5m to £8.7m, its shares have dipped by 20 per cent and a gloomy question-mark hangs over its future. After 70-odd years as a world-class studio, it is losing its biggest clients, the US mega-budget studios. With the dollar languishing in a long-term swoon against the might of sterling, Hollywood is finding Pinewood too expensive to afford, no matter how legendary its crew of artisans, its army of carpenters, lighting riggers and dolly-grip wielders.
Film executives on both sides of the Atlantic are waiting to see whether the Chancellor will allow for tax incentives along the American "Section 42 model," by which big studios offset the cost of large productions by 20 per cent. As they wait - there may be no clear judgement from the Treasury until next spring - some Hollywood players are growing impatient. In April this year, Paramount halted filming of Watchmen, a comic-book superhero flick costing £67m and directed by Paul Greengrass, the British helmer of The Bourne Identity. Also given the red light was Risk Addiction, the sequel to Basic Instinct, starring Sharon Stone as the pick-wielding ice maiden with the relaxed approach to underwear. Its producer, Lloyd Levin, said fiscal uncertainty and the exchange rate meant they were forced to explore "alternative shooting options".
Pinewood stands to lose millions if more such projects are abandoned. The loss of the Bond gig is a particularly heavy blow. "In the 1970s and 1980s, the Bond movies were easily the biggest money-spinner for Pinewood," says Matthew Sweet, who chronicled the British film industry in his book Shepperton Babylon. "They pulled off some very impressive effects. The underwater sequences in The Spy Who Loved Me were filmed in the huge water-tank at Pinewood. And the volcano rocket-silo in You Only Live Twice. The trouble now is that they've sold off so much of the backlot, so much asset-stripping went on in the 1980s, that they'd be hard put to accommodate an American blockbuster any more."
Rumours began to circulate at the Cannes Film Festival in May that the 21st Bond movie (and the first of the Bond novels), Casino Royale, would be filmed in the Czech Republic at the famous Barrandov Studios ("the Hollywood of the East") which is likely also to be the new home of the Harry Potter films. Such a move was never confirmed by the producers, but much hand-wringing broke out in the British press about the "defection" of the most English of spies to the shadowy backstreets of Prague.
One is forced to ask the awkward question: who cares about James Bond any more? Which country would be proud to present him as a national paradigm? What kind of filmgoer still admires his combination of sadism, suavity and snobbish omniscience?
There was always something very facile about the relentlessly one-dimensional Bond heroics, as the author himself spotted. "James Bond is the author's pillow fantasy," he told an interviewer in 1953. "And fantasy isn't real life, by definition. It's very much the Walter Mitty syndrome - the feverish dreams of the author of what he might have been - bang, bang, kiss, kiss, that sort of stuff. It's what you might expect of an adolescent mind - which I happen to possess." Half a century later, the adolescent fantasies don't play as well as they used to. Anyone who's seen the Austin Powers movies just can't take suavely priapic super-spies seriously any more.
"I don't know at whom James Bond is aimed now," Sweet says. "Unless it's seven-year-old boys. Or perhaps Bond movies get screened in those outdoor cinemas in Bratislava."
Mind you, Sweet has had it in for Bond since the early days. "He always was the most terrible old fart - the sort of man who likes driving gloves and admires posh upholstery, and insists on having champagne served at a certain temperature. He is fantastically outdated. If you want a spy-film hero for the kids of today, it's more likely to be Vin Diesel in xXx. His films are all-action and don't have to stop for that awful, Leslie Phillips-style humour."
Sweet has put his finger on the problem with which the franchise-holders are wrestling: how can the old-style Bond go on in a world where he has become increasingly irrelevant? The dispute rages between two factions. In the blue corner are Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson of the Eon corporation, the children and heirs of Albert R ("Cubby") Broccoli, the long-term producer of the Bond movies from 1961 and careful nurturer of the 007 image.
In the red corner are two big Hollywood corporations, Sony and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, both desperate to maximise the Bond appeal for a modern audience that flocked to see The Bourne Identity and Spider-man. Sources in the industry say they want to explore some murky areas of Bond's character and his CV - to furnish him with a child, a conscience, even a homosexual past, to make him a thoughtful, morally scrupulous figure instead of a heartless killer with a line in crap innuendo.
The Broccoli half-siblings won't buy any of this. They are the keepers of the flame, forever asking: "Is this in the Bond tradition? Is this the right thing for the franchise?" They visit the set of every film, they demand approval of director and star, they hang around the editing suite, they become involved in every decision - even deciding at which point in the film the twangy Bond theme tune should be played. Barbara Broccoli once told a TV documentary about her late father's advice: "One time he said to me, 'The most important thing is, don't let 'em screw it up.'"
By all accounts, the stalling of Bond No 21 can be laid at the door of Broccoli and Wilson. It is they who have insisted that Brosnan should be replaced by someone younger - someone in his early 30s, or even late 20s. You can understand their concern. James Bond is a goose that lays spectacular golden eggs - the most recent film, Die Another Day, grossed $430m, the biggest earner in Bond history - and you tamper at your peril with underlying assumptions about the character.
But Bond has been subject to subtle changes in the last four movies. He has been bawled out by his (female) boss M as a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur"; he was seen in a very unheroic posture, wild-haired, bearded and half-dead, at the start of Die Another Day. It's clear that the Broccolis understand the need to drag the martini-swilling, casually homicidal Mr Smooth into something like the modern world, even if it will never resemble the real one. But after years of rows with United Artists (the original studio backers of the original movies) and with MGM, who've financed the films for 20 years, the Broccolis know better than to make changes by accident, or devotion to the trendy.
So, as Sony takes over MGM and tries to make James Bond a clean-cut, Spider-man-style, action-hero-with-a-conscience (and maybe also a pacifist, a social worker and a vegetarian while they're at it), the heirs of his first producer fight for the right to keep him a snobbish, insufferable, wise-cracking, gun-slinging, perma-shagging macho machine. It's not the most edifying dispute ever mounted between the forces of tradition and progress, but when there's such a huge box-office at stake, neither side is giving in without a fight.
In the meantime, you can feel a small twinge for James Bond himself, as he sits in M's oak-panelled anteroom while the warring factions wrestle over his identity - waiting to be sent into battle again, long past his life as a fictional character of the British Fifties, long past his sell-by date and, poor old soul, long past his bedtime.