Monday, October 4, 2021

Stubs - Casino Royale (1954)

Casino Royale (1954) Starring: Barry Nelson, Peter Lorre, Linda Christian, Michael Pate. Directed by William H. Brown Jr. Teleplay by Anthony Ellis and Charles Bennett. Based on the novel Casino Royale by Ian Fleming. Produced by Bretaigne Windust. Run Time: 50 minutes. USA Black and White. Television, Drama, Espionage

Whenever there is a new actor announced to play James Bond, there are always comparisons to those that went before. When Daniel Craig was signed on for the role in Casino Royale (2006), he was inevitably compared with Pierce Brosnan, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Sean Connery. But what about the first actor to portray the character, Barry Nelson?

Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, was a big success in the UK, selling out within a month of its publication on April 13th. Sales were slower in the U.S. a year later, but it was enough to interest CBS-TV. They had a new hour-long Anthology show, Climax! (1954-1958), and paid Fleming $1000 for the rights to adapt Casino Royale for the series. They hired two writers, Anthony Ellis and Charles Bennett, to write the adaptation. Bennett, an English playwright, had previously worked with Alfred Hitchcock on two films, The 39 Steps (1935) and Sabotage (1936), so he would seem a good choice. However, the hour-long format, 50 minutes after commercials, meant that a lot had to be jettisoned from the book to make it fit.

Characters from the book, like Felix Leiter and René Mathis, were combined into one, Clarence Leiter. The name Mathis was also repurposed, making the character of Vesper Lynd into Valerie Mathis.

Since this was an American show, it made sense that James Bond 007 from MI6 would become James (Jimmy) Bond, an American agent from “Combined Intelligence”, a stand in for the CIA. Barry Nelson had started his career as a contract player for MGM, making his film debut in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941). He would also appear in Johnny Eager (1942), a film noir opposite Robert Taylor and Lana Turner, before starring in A Yank on the Burma Road (1942), only MGM’s second war film during World War II.

There was some talk that this episode of Climax! might be considered as a pilot for a James Bond series, but that never came to be.

This episode, the third in the series, was broadcast live on October 21, 1954, and the story was broken down into three acts.

There is a little introduction handled by William Lundigan, an actor and the host of Climax! He just sort of sets up the episode.

Not long after arriving at the Casino, an attempt
 is made on the life of Jimmy Bond (Barry Nelson).

The first act begins with the arrival of James Bond (Barry Nelson) at a French casino. Shots are fired at him, but he manages to take cover behind a pillar outside. Bond seems to take the attempt on his life in stride, like it’s all in a day’s work. The casino doesn’t appear to know who he is, but its Chef De Partie (Eugene Borden) is very apologetic and offers him additional protection if he wants it.

Bond watches baccarat with Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate).

Inside, he watches baccarat and makes a couple of small wagers and wins, of course. He is then approached by Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate), who remembers Bond as "Card Sense Jimmy Bond" from having watched him play and clean out a Maharajah at Deauville. He asks Bond to explain the game to him over drinks. (Basically, baccarat is similar to 21, but instead of the casino being the bank, one of the players is. The point is to get as close to 9 as possible, with the ten and face cards not counting in this game.)

Bond pretends to explain baccarat to Leiter.

Leiter reveals he is Bond’s contact by breaking a match into three pieces and while Bond pretends to explain the game, Leiter gives Bond an assignment: Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) is a ruthless Communist agent who should be considered armed and dangerous. Leiter explains that he always carries three razor blades with him in addition to the three bodyguards he has at all times, Basil (Gene Roth), Zoltan (Kurt Katch) and Zuroff (actor not credited).

Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) is a ruthless Communist agent with a weakness for gambling.

But Le Chiffre has one weakness, gambling. Because of that, he has lost 80 million francs of the party’s money and is desperate to win it back playing baccarat. He plans to be the bank tomorrow night with the 26 million francs he has left (Francs were the French currency before adopting the Euro). Bond’s job is to defeat him, cleaning him out. Leiter then plans to plant a story in the press to make sure everyone knows that Le Chiffre lost the money and let the Soviets take care of him.

Leiter promises Bond 26 million francs, which he will give him tomorrow night. He informs Bond that Le Chiffre is in the suite above his at the hotel and Bond informs him that he’s aware his room is bugged. Before Bond leaves to go back to his hotel, Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian), an ex-lover of Bond’s, introduces herself. Valerie has been sent by Le Chiffre, whom she is now with. Bond recalls that she was his good luck charm and he escorts her back to the hotel after introducing her to Leiter. At the hotel, she insists that he take her to his room.

Bond introduces Valerie (Linda Christian) to Leiter.

There, Bond turns up the volume on the stereo and tells Valerie he knows she’s working for Le Chiffre, who happens to be also listening in on their conversation. He then turns off the music and makes her tell him as much as she can without giving anything away. She does remind Bond that she once loved him. He sends her away, back to Le Chiffre, who is her new lover now.

Zuroff tries to hold up Leiter.

The next day, Leiter gets the money from the cashier but is momentarily held up by Zuroff, who has a gun-shaped like a cane. He demands the 26 million francs or he’ll kill him. But Leiter outsmarts him when the house phone rings and one of the casino employees comes over to answer. Leiter insists the call is for him, but he gives the money to the employee to hold for Bond.

Bond is told to lose or Valerie will die.

After he picks up his money, Le Chiffre and Valerie arrive together and Bond sits down to gamble. But there is a phone call for him. On the other end is the voice of an unidentified man, who tells Bond that if he doesn’t lose to Le Chiffre, Valerie will die. Before he sits back down at the table, Bond asks Leiter to keep an eye on Valerie. End of Act I.

Bond and Le Chiffre playing baccarat.

Act II opens with the game of baccarat. At first, Bond watches as Le Chiffre plays another man and cleans him out. Bond bets and wins the first hand, claiming 16 million francs in the process. But on subsequent hands, he loses and his 26 million francs are gone. But just then he is delivered an envelope that has 35 million francs inside. Thinking the money is from Leiter, Bond bets it all and eventually cleans out Le Chiffre, who quickly leaves the table.

Zuroff threatens Bond with his cane-shaped gun.

As everyone scatters, Zuroff comes up behind Bond and, with his cane gun, threatens him if he doesn’t turn over the money. Bond manages, rather clumsily, to disarm Zuroff and gives the gun to Leiter. Bond's winnings have been turned into a check by the casino of more than 80 million francs. Both men go looking for Valerie, Leiter on the floor of the casino while Bond heads back to the hotel. Leiter comes across Zuroff and uses the cane gun, given to him by Bond, to question him about Le Chiffre’s and Valerie’s whereabouts.

Leiter calls Bond in his hotel room and warns him that Le Chiffre will come looking for the money. Bond then hides the check under the number plate on his hotel door. Leiter calls again but at that moment, Valerie enters the room and Bond momentarily thinks everything is okay.

Valerie and Bond in his hotel room ready for trouble.

But right on her heels is Le Chiffre and two of his henchman, Basil, and Zoltan. Le Chiffre then threatens to kill Bond if he doesn’t give him the check. End of Act II.

Act III opens and Bond has been knocked out by Basil during the commercial break and Valerie has been tied up and gagged. Le Chiffre knows that she is actually a French agent and that she supplied Bond with the 35 million he needed to win that night. Even Bond wasn’t aware of her espionage work.

Bond is to be tortured in the bathtub.

Since Bond won’t talk, Le Chiffre has him taken to the bathtub, where he will be tortured. Using one of Zuroff’s instruments of torture, Le Chiffre does something to one of Bond’s toes, while Valerie is forced to watch. But when Bond still refuses to talk, Valerie offers that Bond had a screwdriver on him when she arrived. Le Chiffre, Basil, and Zoltan go throughout the room looking for where a screwdriver could be used.

While they’re out of the bathroom, Bond manages to free himself and Valerie using the razor Le Chiffre keeps in his cigarette case, which he’d left on the bathtub edge. But Le Chiffre has already found the check by then.

Bond, hiding in the bathroom, asks Le Chiffre for some water and he sends in Basil. Basil seems oblivious to the fact that Bond is no longer in the bathtub and is easily overpowered by Bond. With Basil’s gun, Bond shoots Le Chiffre, but only wounds him. Bond then shoots and kills Basil when he gets up.

Out in the living room, we see Le Chiffre reach for his hand band, where we’ve been told he has hidden a razor in the past, but nothing comes of that. Bond tells Valerie to call the police. End of Act III.

Originally considered lost for a time, a black and white kinescope of the show was found in 1981 by film historian Jim Schoenberger (a kinescope is a filmed version of the television broadcast, made by pointing a motion picture camera at a television screen). While I’ve read that the original broadcast was in color, most of the televisions at the time were black and white. Color broadcasts had only started earlier that same year, when NBC broadcast The Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 1954.

I’ve also read that the last two minutes were missing and then found, so I don’t know if the version I’ve seen includes them or not. To be honest I would think the run time of the version I watched, 50 minutes and 24 seconds, was inclusive of the entire show. While 42 minutes seems to be the current standard in the U.S. for an hour-long show, there were less commercials in the 1950s and so more of the timeslot was actually devoted to the show.

Barry Nelson was the first actor to play James Bond.

While Barry Nelson is not bad in the role, he does not have the sophistication or the flair of say Sean Connery, who would first appear as Bond in Dr. No (1962). It just doesn’t seem quite right to have Bond be an American. Nelson, who had not read the book, had nothing to base his performance on and while he does give it the old college try, he pales in comparison to most of the actors who have portrayed the character since.

Peter Lorre plays Le Chiffre, seen here with his henchmen, as a pretty one-dimensional character.

Peter Lorre is good as Le Chiffre, but he seems to act very little, or, perhaps to say, his character portrayal is very one-dimensional. Best known for his roles in M (1931), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Casablanca (1942), Lorre, with the right material, can be a very good actor. However, here there is very little subtlety in his performance.

Linda Christian was the first Bond girl.

Linda Christian, born Blanca Rosa Welter in Mexico of a Dutch father and his Mexican wife, had wanted to be a physician until she met and became the lover of actor Errol Flynn. Flynn persuaded her to come to Hollywood and gave her the stage name using the character Fletcher Christian, whom Flynn had played in an Australian film in 1933. Christian is best known not for her acting, but for her marriage and divorce to Tyrone Power. She is all right here as the first Bond Girl, but nothing to really get excited about.

To round out the International flavor of the cast, Michael Pate, who plays a British Agent, was actually born in Australia. Pate came to Hollywood in work on Thunder on the Hill (1951) and ended up appearing in about 300 television shows in the US before returning to Australia in 1968. He may actually give the best performance of anyone in this cast.

Bond films have become known for their exotic locations, but because of its production limitations, Casino Royale has a very claustrophobic feel to it. Everything, save for the first scene, takes place in either the casino or Bond’s hotel suite.

The show is somewhat violent for television. There are two onscreen shootings and some offscreen torture, which is pretty heady stuff for U.S. primetime at the time. Bond films would eventually show far worse, but times have changed as they say. To round off the comparisons, in this version of Casino Royale, there are few gadgets (only the cane gun), no martinis shaken and not stirred, and “no Bond, James Bond.”

One thing that this version does that the later adaptation, Casino Royale (2006), doesn’t is that it retains the more exotic game of baccarat at its story center, which the latter substitutes for the more pedestrian and trendy Texas Hold ‘Em Poker. Baccarat, though it needs some introduction, seems more worldlier and I have to give the writers credit for not dumbing down the story for its audience who might not have been as familiar with the game.

While that Bond series based on this episode never did materialize, four years later, CBS did hire Fleming to write 32 episodes over a two-year period for a television show based on the James Bond character. Fleming agreed and did outline several stories. However, that series never came together either. But Fleming was able to make three of the outlines into short stories and, combined with two other short stories, released them as the 1960 anthology For Your Eyes Only.

Overall, you have to give CBS credit for taking the lead on the James Bond phenomenon. However, being first doesn’t always mean best. While a true Bond aficionado may seek out this early version, most casual fans of 007 would be best served by the films that have been released based on the character and not this early TV adaptation.

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