Casino Royale (1954, William H. Brown Junior)
Tonight, a Climax one of a kind thrilling adventure. ‘Card Sense Jimmy Bond’, played by Barry Nelson, battles the slimy Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) in a card game in which the stakes are raised to the point where their very lives are on the line! MI6 contact Clarence Leitter (Michael Pate) assists Bond in this stupendous adventure, and no spy movie would be complete with a femme fatale, in this case the beautiful girlfriend to Le Chiffre, Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian). Get ready!
Whoa, whoa, whoa. What in heaven’s name is going on here? Peter Lorre was in a Bond film? There is yet another version of Casino Royale besides Daniel Craig’s outing and the 1960s spoof? To top it off, there is a version of James Bond where the character is American?!? The world is upside down!
Not so, fellow readers. In 1954, there existed a popular television show called Climax Mystery Theatre which aired until 1958. The show, hosted by William Lundigan, offered viewers an anthology of mystery and suspense stories, sometimes played in front of a live audience. An episode during the program’s early season was an adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale. Fleming perhaps unlike a lot of authors, was always keen on the idea of having his most satisfying creation reach new heights of fame through various media, tv and film among them. The show being American, one can assume the creators deemed it suitable to switch the protagonist’s nationality. I guess to retain some of the original story’s British elements they make Mathis English and from MI6 (he’s French in the books. Deuxième Bureau).
A lot of things have to be put into perspective when watching this. First and foremost, this is a totally different sort of James Bond adventure. A small budget and time constraints (it clocks in at only 48 minutes) result in a show which tries to reward the viewer with as many interesting ideas as possible in a very short time span. A lot of things must occur in rapid succession to keep the audience in the know as to what exactly is going on, but also develop character and suspense. The show definitely starts with a bang, literally, as an assassination attempt is made on Bond the moment he walks up to the Casino Royale entrance. Luckily our hero ducks behind a decorative pillar, but it is clear there are forces that wish to see him destroyed. So a sense of danger is immediately brought forth. Good. Then comes some of the trickier parts, such as setting up the characters and stakes. Here again, the show does a pretty decent job, introducing Mathis and Leiter is some pretty interesting ways and showing that Bond is very much a cool and confident character as he would be in the decades to come. Some viewers might have no clue how to play baccarat, and the creators realize this, but choose to fuse the exposition of Bond’s mission and the rules of the game together, with Bond and Leiter sitting at a table, the former explaining the game to his British friend while the latter explains what is expected of him from his upcoming game against Le Chiffre. It’s a nifty trick to handle exposition as neatly as possible. Eventually all the pawns are introduced, in particular Valerie Mathis, who, because things always have to complicate themselves, had a relationship with Bond but is now of course Le Chiffre girl.
How is the show overall? I look upon it favourably, although not ecstatically so. Some of the limitations do prevent the story from reaching heights of true greatness. That might seem like unfair criticism seeing as how it came some 8 years before the first official EON film, which obviously had a huge budget. Well, sometimes hindsight cannot be ignored, and I just don’t think this Climax episode is great. It has its moments, as well as some cool lines for Bond to toss around, like when Valerie asks why people shot at Bond and he replies that maybe they needed practice. But every now and then there are some cheesy moments, such as during the climax (get it, the climax of Climax? Ugh, I’m running on empty today...), when Le Chiffre and his brutes are torturing Bond in his own hotel bathtub. The unshakable CIA agent has by now defeated his nemesis at the card table, but Le Chiffre wants the money, demanding where the protagonist hid the check. Of course he refuses to reveal such a secret, but Valerie, unable to witness her former lover receive such horrendous treatment (they are, I think, breaking his toes), gives in to the pressure and confesses. It’s a crummy moment, acted in a crummy, with Valerie painting and telling Bond that she loves him too much and therefore had to save him and bla, bla, bla. Bond even tells her to simply ‘shut up!’. It isn’t played very well, and every now and then throughout the 48 minute long show there are moments that feel awkward and not handled particularly well.
How about the actors, especially given the sort of cast involved, like the legendary Peter Lorre and an American playing Bond? In all honestly, they’re alright. As great as Lorre was as an actor, and trust me, I do think he was great (before anybody gets some crazy ideas about me), I always thought his range was a bit limited. He does a good job as Le Chiffre, but nothing spectacular. He plays sleazy well enough, but not much more. I never had the impression that his Le Chiffre was truly villainous, despite what he does at times. Sleaze is fine in a Bond villain, but I think a bit more is needed and Lorre does not quite deliver. A good performance, but not a fantastic one. I share similar thoughts about Barry Nelson as Jimmy Bond. He has the knack for delivering some nifty lines and looks the part, but there is something a little bit off about the performance, particularly when he is getting into his ‘spy mode’ and trusting his instincts. It’s like he is trying to do a bit more than he is capable of, or overcompensating for the fact that he is in a television show playing opposite a legend, so he has to try for even more than is necessary. He’s still perfectly fine in the role overall though. And, to be clear, I do not have a problem with James Bond being an American just this one time. So there.
There isn’t an abundance of things to talk about concerning this version of Casino Royale. It is a must for aficionados in order to discover all existing interpretations of the character, but if you’re reading this and are aficionado yourself, then you already knew that. Of note is the fact that this show was almost entirely forgotten for years after its initial broadcast, only rediscovered decades later and even then the ending was missing for some time still. For the curious, go ahead and spend some time at the baccarat table with ‘Card Sense’ Jimmy Bond, just don’t mistake him for that other, more British James Bond.