Casino Royale I

Would you believe an American James Bond
November 17, 2006 11:11:09 AM

“CARD SENSE JIMMY BOND”? It’s enough to make Sean Connery barf in his vodka martini.

Cinema buffs and Bond fans know that the Casino Royale that’s opening in theaters this week isn’t the first screen version of Ian Fleming’s novel. Back in 1967, a spoofy, very-late-British-’60s Casino Royale opened opposite the franchise entry On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with at least a half-dozen Bonds (Peter Sellers, David Niven, and Woody Allen among them) and almost as many directors. Panned by the critics, it did well enough at the box office. But even that was only the second Casino Royale. The first — and the first time James Bond appeared on screen — was a one-hour version made for the CBS live dramatic anthology Climax that aired Thursday October 21, 1954. James is played by nascent American TV star Barry Nelson, and, yes, this Bond is a Yank. Felix Leiter is on hand, renamed Clarence Leiter, and he’s a Brit. What’s more, our hero is known far and wide as “Card Sense Jimmy Bond.” It’s enough to make Sean Connery barf in his vodka martini. But if you’ve a stronger stomach than Sean, you can see for yourself, since the show, which was thought lost till it turned up in 1981, is available on videotape and DVD.

Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, his first James Bond novel, was published by Jonathan Cape in 1953. Hoping to promote Bond in the US, Fleming in 1954 sold a six-month option on the film rights to Gregory Ratoff for $600; Ratoff took the property to CBS, which made the Climax episode, and a year later he bought it outright for an additional $6000. Fleming had reason to regret not asking for more; in 1961, Ratoff’s widow sold the rights to Charles K. Feldman for $75,000. By then, Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were teaming up to make the “official” Bond films, starting with Dr. No in 1962. Feldman proposed a joint Casino Royale with Broccoli and Saltzman, but negotiations fell through and he wound up making the 1967 parody version on his own. EON Productions didn’t acquire the rights to what would become the Daniel Craig Casino Royale till this century.

But the 1954 version, in what’s now a very washed-out black-and-white, is reasonably faithful to Fleming and no aberration. CBS doubtless figured Fleming’s Normandy wouldn’t register with viewers as a romantic gambling venue, so the setting is Monte Carlo, though you’d hardly guess from looking at the far-from-opulent sets of Hollywood’s Television City. Bond is no 007 but an agent of the CIA (Combined Intelligence Agencies), Leiter (Michael Pate) works for the British Secret Service, and before it’s all over we’ll learn who’s working for the Deuxième Bureau. Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) is the same Soviet agent we met in the book; instead of Vesper Lynd, however, we get Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian), who used to be in love with James but is now going about on Le Chiffre’s arm and his considerable dime. The plot smacks more of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca than of Fleming’s hard-boiled, cynical novel, with Lorre as the heavy and Christian doing a passable Ingrid Bergman as a woman who’s not supposed to love James still but does. (There’s a little of Notorious in there too.)

After Climax host William Lundigan explains to the viewers what a baccarat shoe is (“It’s made beggars of many and millionaires of a few. Mighty few.”), the program starts with an unseen gunman trying to plug James as he enters the hotel casino; shortly, Leiter will ask, “Aren’t you the fellow that was shot?”, and Bond will answer, brightly, “No, I’m the fellow that was missed.” They sit down and smoke, and the Yank, rather improbably, explains to the Brit (and the TV audience) how baccarat is played while the Brit, just as improbably, explains to the Yank who Le Chiffre is and what James is there for. Their drinks come: Scotch and water for Bond, Scotch and soda for Leiter. (In Fleming’s book, the first ever drink Bond orders is an Americano, Campari and Martini rosso and soda.) There’s a tearful scene in Bond’s hotel room where, over the strains of Chopin’s stormy D-minor Prelude, Valerie tries to dissuade him from playing so he won’t get hurt; James whistles a snatch of “La vie en rose,” which a lounge trio plays in the book.

The game itself is much compressed, which is just as well, since as Bond points out to Leiter, baccarat is “mostly luck” (Fleming’s Bond is a man Lady Luck smiles on) and doesn’t offer much opportunity for heroics. The money that bails James out here comes not from the Americans but from a mystery friend. He wins 87 million francs, or about $250,000 (which must have seemed like a lot of money in the era of The $64,000 Question), and as in the book, he takes a check, which makes him vulnerable. (Couldn’t the casino just wire the money to his bank?) No sooner has he hidden it (same place as in the book) when Valerie and Le Chiffre and Le Chiffre’s goons all arrive in his room and a barefoot Bond is tortured with pliers (no cane chair, no carpet beater) before Valerie shows her true colors (the very ones you expected). The “fight” scenes amount to some awkward and unconvincing pushing — when you’re shooting live, it won’t do for anyone to get knocked unconscious or even sprain an ankle. Nelson is a boyish, tough Bond with a sense of humor, a plausible (if more likable) American version of Fleming’s hero. He’s got just one mode of macho, however; Lorre has 57 varieties of sniveling, and then there’s all the mewling, wheedling, sniggering, and wallowing in self-pity, not to mention that nanosecond glance of professional respect Le Chiffre bestows when Bond accepts his bank of four million.

The only complete version of the 1954 Casino Royale is the one offered on a Spy Guise videotape. The MGM DVD edition of the 1967 Casino Royale includes the 1954 program as a bonus feature; the last minute or so is lacking, though all you really miss is another round of gunplay. Both are available from Amazon.


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