Climax! Casino Royale – The fake props and wooden dialogue and the poor budget of a live television studio are nauseating in 1954…
Be careful when testing your James Bond knowledge with the question “What was the first Bond film?” safe,
Climax! Casino Royale
Was the first feature film in an officially authorized film franchise, the first to star Sean Connery, the first to be shot in color, the first to be released in theaters, and the first to introduce the general style of everything that followed, but it wasn’t the first time when James Bond appeared on the screen.
Watched Casino Royale 1954 Again, I Do Enjoy This Obscure Little Film (it’s Sure The Second Best Out Of The Three Adaptions)
In 1954, about a year after James Bond debuted in Ian Fleming’s introductory novel Casino Royale, CBS paid the author $1,000 to acquire the rights to adapt the book into a television play.
Was primarily aimed at the American audience, since that is where it was broadcast. This left the character and the world he lived in feeling gutted and exhausted. Nationalities have changed throughout history; and leaves no room for a good British agent with a license to kill. In his place comes “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond, an American spy who works for Combined Intelligence. Barry Nelson, who decades later would play hotel manager Stuart Ullman in a Stanley Kubrick film
, was cast as the first actor to bring Ian Fleming’s iconic creation to life. When he’s not tripping over lines and looking oddly conspicuous in his ill-fitting, very unBondish (I’m assuming it’s brown) tuxedo jacket, Barry Nelson’s Jimmy Bond is brazenly strutting his stuff in a casino or explaining baccarat games to a clearly confused British intelligence agent Clarence Leiter. But at least Bond smokes in this one.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Going back to the history of this little-known part of James Bond history, the television episode went unnoticed for many years, even after the launch of the official Bond film series. In fact, the film itself was considered lost until 1981, when Jim Schoenberger (yeah…I don’t know who that is either) rummaged through a garage full of old film canisters and came across what he believed to be a copy of the 1967 bootleg version of Casino Royale . Old Jim got a surprise after turning on the projector to watch. What he discovered was the first ever James Bond film. Several pieces were missing, including bits of the final scene, but these have since been restored elsewhere, and the entire film has since been made available on VHS (and later DVD/Blu-Ray).
James Bond: All 3 Casino Royale Adaptations Explained
The opening title sequence consists of a classic 1950s narrator voice and the title of the series staring back at us in all caps:
The rest of the film doesn’t have a distinct theme song, nor much music. What little music there is consists of stereotypical brass and disjointed riffs that are as unmemorable as they are sparse. After a brief sequence of titles, we cut to TV host William Lundigan playing with a deck of cards in his shoe (not in his foot, but in a casino). In this short prologue, Lundigan seems quite level-headed and confident. So why not
Play james bond? Anyway, he briefly explains some of the basics of the casino card game before introducing today’s game, which will be played at “the highest stakes” adapted from Ian Fleming
Act I begins with the exterior of the casino. Or to be more precise, the front door. Do not get carried away by some exotic places. This is the closest thing to an outdoor landscape. A witty Jimmy Bond narrowly escapes a rather low-key assassination attempt when a pair of thugs drive by and shoot from their car. It is meant to draw us, the audience, into the exciting and dangerous world of espionage. Does it work? Well… no comment.
Climax S1 E3 Casino Royale (1954)
After the opening sequence, we learn about Jimmy Bond’s reputation thanks to the timely introduction of Clarence Leiter, who more or less acts as the voice of the action, carefully explaining everything as he goes along. Clarence, played by Australian actor Michael Pate, is not at all like his counterpart Felix Leiter. He is the most knowledgeable character in the film and has that Britishness that the Bond character so lacks. He becomes more likable as the film progresses, but doesn’t come across as intelligent or resourceful until he tells Bond about the Le Chiffre situation. It’s only after he’s confronted by an upset Bond fan that the character becomes more grounded. I was a little surprised when he didn’t ask for an autographed photo. The role is one of many elements of the film that foreshadows ingredients that will be crucial to the formula of the official Bond franchise. The ally is always slower and less talented than James Bond, and largely plays a subservient role, even when that ally should be in a higher position, like Tiger Tanaka in
Leiter nibbles on Bond’s heels until they sit down to discuss the two most important things viewers need to watch out for so they don’t turn off the TV halfway through the show. Bond explains baccarat: how to play, what the cards mean, etc. Leiter explains the premise of the story, which, when discussing the main points, he feels is pretty faithful to the original novel. Le Chiffre, or Herr Ziffer as he is known in some circles, is a “frog-like” creature (ha ha ha ha ha!) whom Bond has been assigned to bankrupt at the baccarat table, thereby preventing him from repaying his debt before the Soviets. SMERSH, the KGB death squad that appears in almost all of Fleming’s early novels, is never mentioned.
Le Chiffre is played by classic bad guy actor Peter Lorre, who starred in a number of memorable films from the era such as
. Despite everything wrong with this picture, Lorre would be right at home as a Bond villain in the official series. Although I always saw him as more of a sidekick than a main villain. However, he is the best part of the film and is actually the closest of the three actors who have played the character over the years to Ian Fleming’s original work. His voice and demeanor are genuinely creepy, but the low production numbers and choppy script are extremely limiting.
Climax! Casino Royale
Before Bond and Leiter talk a bit about the plot, an argument breaks out on the casino floor between villain Le Chiffre and beauty Valerie Mathis (I’m serious, she’s hot – watch below). Valerie is a hybrid between Vesper Lind and Rene Mathis from the novel, but in a departure from the source material, she is immediately shown conspiring with the villains. Played by Mexican actress Linda Christian, Valerie turns out to be an old fan of Jimmy, and her true allegiance remains ambiguous throughout the film as she flirts with the likes of Le Chiffre while almost simultaneously flirting and/or cursing with Bond. Eventually, her affiliation with the French Deuxieme Bureau is revealed and she clings to Bond for the rest of the film in a typical damsel in distress, more or less foreshadowing the role most Bond girls would play in the future film series. There’s also a rough household where Bond outdoes her… something that would never come up in modern times, but would become a constant theme in all the early Bond films. Without a template to work from, Linda Christian does well as the first Bond girl, but unfortunately, good looks don’t always make up for the three personalities she has plenty of, especially in her interactions with Barry Nelson. Ah…can’t blame the actress even if she finds herself in a situation involving a character with a signature in a live telecast.
Aside from the four main characters (Bond, Le Chiffre, Valerie, and Leiter), the rest of the cast has very little characterization. The entire MI6 crew, including M, Miss Moneypenny, etc., are absent from the story. The supporting cast consists mainly of Le Chiffre’s three lackeys, who look nothing like the whimsical minions that would appear in the coming decade. Instead we have Basil, Zoltan and Zuraf. It doesn’t really matter who played them, but it’s interesting to note that during my quick look at Wikipedia I found Zurafa to be played by an “Unknown Actor”. Vasyl is physically imposing, but otherwise this trio is neither menacing nor memorable. I guess you can only do so much in 50 minutes to tell your story.
As you can tell from what we’ve seen so far, most of the movie takes place in a casino. Being a soundstage, the set is very obviously cramped, allowing Bond and Leiter to discuss their plans while seated.
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