You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

Return to 50 Years of James Bond >>

Revisiting 1954's 'Casino Royale'

More Film

  • 'Shazam!' Review: Zachary Levi is Pure

    Film Review: 'Shazam!'

    In “Shazam!,” Zachary Levi brings off something so winning it’s irresistible. He plays a square-jawed, rippling-muscled man of might, with a cheesy Day-Glo lighting bolt affixed to his chest, who projects an insanely wholesome and old-fashioned idea of what a superhero can be. But he’s also playing a breathless teenage kid on the inside, and [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Showrunners, Screenwriters Back WGA in Agency Battle, Sides to Meet Again Tuesday

    More than 750 showrunners and screenwriters have backed the WGA’s battle against talent agencies taking packaging fees and other changes to the rules governing the business relationship between agents and writers. The letter of support issued Saturday is significant because of the immense clout showrunners and prominent screenwriters possess in Hollywood. Several showrunners had recently [...]

  • Doppelgänger Red (Lupita Nyong'o) and Adelaide

    Box Office: 'Us' on Track for Second-Highest Debut of 2019 With $67 Million

    Jordan Peele’s “Us” is on its way to scaring up one of the biggest debuts of 2019, with an estimated $67 million from 3,741 North American locations. Should estimates hold, “Us” will be able to claim several milestones: the highest debut for an original horror movie (the biggest launch for any horror pic goes to [...]

  • NF_D_JGN-D6-2160.cr2

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

  • James Newton Howard Danny Elfman

    New Trend in Concert Halls: Original Music by Movie Composers — No Film Required

    Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall. For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his [...]

  • Idris Elba Netflix 'Turn Up Charlie'

    Idris Elba in Talks to Join Andy Serkis in 'Mouse Guard'

    Idris Elba is in negotiations to join Andy Serkis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Fox’s fantasy-action movie “Mouse Guard” with “Maze Runner’s” Wes Ball directing. Fox is planning a live-action movie through performance capture technology employed in the “Planet of the Apes” films, in which Serkis starred as the ape leader Caesar. David Peterson created, wrote, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content