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Revisiting 1954’s ‘Casino Royale’

50 Years of James Bond

Bond, Jimmy Bond. That’s how world’s most famous secret agent might have introduced himself in the 1954 hour-long TV version of “Casino Royale” — the first screen adaptation of the first novel in Ian Fleming’s 007 series. As played by Barry Nelson, Bond is a far different character. “Jimmy” is an American, for starters, and hardly the refined, martini-drinking gentleman spy we know today, but more of a gorilla with a G.I. buzz-cut who talks of love and throws big haymaker punches.

Over the course of the next twenty-odd weeks, we’ll be revisiting Bond’s oeuvre, film by film in chronological order, with a few off-canon digressions along the way. The point of beginning with “Casino Royale” isn’t merely one of completism. Rather, the clumsy TV movie demonstrates how easily the world’s most successful franchise — the 22 Eon-produced films have earned more than $11 billion over 50 years, not counting the upcoming “Skyfall” — might have stalled had someone other than Sean Connery been cast in “Dr. No.”

By the time Connery first played Bond in 1962, audiences had long forgotten the one-off “Casino Royale” episode of “Climax!” In fact, the telefilm was thought lost until the ’70s, when a collector stumbled across a 16mm kinescope copy at a flea market, after which it found its way to VHS, as a bonus feature on the DVD release of the disastrous 1967 “Casino Royale” and, inevitably, on YouTube (where another fan has separately uploaded the ending left off from those earlier releases).

“Climax!” was one of those ’50s live-TV series on which directors like John Frankenheimer cut his teeth (though William H. Brown oversaw the “Casino Royale” episode), and the excitement was partly limited by the format. There are no car chases, no elaborate enemy bases to raid, no round-the-world sightseeing. Fleming’s novel had been published only a year earlier, and the entire story takes place in the book’s eponymous casino/hotel, where Bond’s mission amounts to bankrupting Le Chiffre at a game of high-stakes baccarat.

Nelson may have been the stiffest, most wooden star ever to play Bond, but the show retains a certain interest for its choice of villain: Peter Lorre. With his bulging eyes and wheedling voice, the Hungarian homunculus was already a well-established character actor, having embodied degenerates (“M”) and double-crossers (“The Maltese Falcon”) of every sort for decades (he also enjoyed a long-run as the Japanese detective-spy Mr. Moto).

The whole thing seems to have been done of the cheap: In the opening shot, Bond hides behind a plaster column, while off-camera gunshots tear big holes in the styrofoam looking set. Whatever charm this slipshod antecedent to the Bond oeuvre has to offer owes almost entirely to Lorre. It’s impossible to watch the episode’s third-act climax — in which Le Chiffre hovers over Bond, bound and held in a hotel bathtub, threatening torture — without flashing forward to the scene of a similarly petulant Goldfinger interrogating Bond a decade later.

“I’m no hero. I don’t like pain, but I can tell you one thing right now: You won’t get anything out of me. Pain and killing’s part of my job,” grimaces Nelson, channeling tougher, more convincing film noir heroes who have come before. And yet the bruise over his left eye and broken spirit with which he gains control of the situation (Bond is so exhausted, he ultimately takes a seat in order to hold Le Chiffre at gunpoint) suggests a realistically human vulnerability that wouldn’t resurface until Eon finally remade “Casino Royale” more than half a century later.

Apart from an amusing association with transatlantic ally Clarence Leiter (a British variation on CIA counterpart Felix Leiter), “Casino Royale” features few elements that would later become staples of the Bond series — but then, that could also be said of “Dr. No,” in which the nascent franchise was still feeling its way, as we’ll see next week.

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