I don't mean the 1954 American television version of Casino Royale. It was actually kind of decent, grading on the 1954 television live performance curve. And especially on the American curve.
No, what I mean is, thank the heavens that Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman ended up with the movie rights to rest of the Bond series. Because if the rights had ended up permanently with American producers...well, on the basis of this production, I shudder.
This was a live broadcast on CBS's CLIMAX! Mystery Theater, in October 1954. The video quality is fairly horrendous, because this is from before the days of video tape. The process they used then was kinescope...literally, a film movie camera mounted in front of a video monitor, filming the live broadcast off the screen. That's how they did it back in those days, kids. And they liked it!!
Interestingly enough, the opening of CLIMAX! showed the credits moving down a movie camera lens, making it look not entirely unlike the gun barrel sequence we've all grown to love (see the opening scene below).
We know right off that this isn't quite the James Bond we've come to know and love because our first shot of him...before we've even seen his face...is Bond hiding behind a tree while bullets fly.
Well, what does Bond actually look like?
American actor Barry Nelson played Bond. But not our James Bond. No, for purposes of this program, he was an American agent, working for "Combined Intelligence." And every one called him "Jimmy." Leiter even says he's well-known by his nickname--"Cardsense Jimmy Bond." Because I guess they just didn't trust American audiences to take to a British hero.
Oh, and Leiter? He's not Felix Leiter, CIA...nope, he's now British, and renamed Clarence Leiter. Sigh.
Vesper Lynd is also not in this...instead we have Valerie Mathis (not Rene!!), played by Linda Christian. And again, because we Americans just can't handle toughness or tragedy in our entertainment, they a) didn't have her betray Bond...instead, she was betraying LeChiffre for the French Secret Service; and b) she doesn't die at the end.
Nelson is game, but he plays the part more like a noir gumshoe than a dashing secret agent. He comes across as Humphrey Bogart-in-Casablanca-Lite. Instead of being poised and confident in the world of Monte Carlo, he seems ill at ease in his tuxedo. At the end he seems more panicked and uncertain than we like our hero to be, as if he's in over his head.
So if Ian Fleming had sold off the rights to the rest of his works to Americans, is this what we could have expected? An American tough guy traveling amongst Eurotrash toughs, using his fists instead of his wits? Where Bonds comrades never die, and never betray him?
Ah, but I'm too harsh. Fleming sold off the rights to Casino Royale before any other Bond novels had been published, so we can't say for certain that even he knew what he had in his hands, let alone the poor hapless American TV producers in the dawn of the mass video age.
They do keep the plot largely intact--LeChiffre has been playing around with communist party money, and they're coming to check up on him. He has to make a huge score at the baccarat tables to save himself. And MI6--oops, I mean American "Combined Intelligence"--sends Bond in to clean him out. Bond wins, LeChiffre comes after him to recover the money, there's torture.
But in this version, Bond shoots LeChiffre dead, not his communist masters. Vesper (or Valerie) doesn't betray him, doesn't try to steal the money, isn't being blackmailed thanks to a captive brother/lover. Here, she's just a former lover of Bond's, and she helps him win, and that's the end.
In many ways it's an oddly tepid affair. Everybody knows from the beginning who everybody else is. The bad guys know Bond's mission before he does. There's never any question of who's working for whom. And while they try to keep us guessing about Valerie, well, again this was 1950's American television, and they can't have the hero falling in love with an evil woman, can they? So there's very little tension in the narrative, no undercurrents or guessing.
By far the best thing about this production? Peter Lorre as LeChiffre.
He's such an old hand at this point he could probably play this role in his sleep. And maybe he is. But he brings his trademark sophistication combined with subtle menace here, and it works miracles. He's just heads and shoulders above everyone else in the show.
Oh, yes, torture. No, there's no carpet beater to the gonads (thank you).
But, as you can see in this shot, there are pliers to toes....The actual toe-twisting is done off-screen, but you can watch Bond's face...ouch.
Really, you have to be forgiving of this production. Can you imagine how tough it is to pull off a live broadcast of a show like this? As a result, you get some flaws. Lots of long lingering scenes that go on too long as our stars get to their next positions off-screen; flubbed dialogue (although not as much as you might imagine) and plenty of umms and repeated lines while actors search for their next lines; stumbles and trips; spotlights in the wrong position and moving quickly to get back on the actors. So you have to applaud the effort, and bow in respect at the game attempt.
Sadly, the lack of the ability to do multiple takes, multiple camera angles, and modern editing drained all the tension out of the baccarat game, which comes across as a pretty listless affair. At least they kept it baccarat, which surprised me, considering how much else they changed to try and cater to an American audience.
The 1954 Casino Royale isn't in print in solo form right now, although you can find it without much effort. It is included as a bonus feature in the 2001 DVD of the 1968 "comedy" version of Casino Royale. There's a new "40th anniverssary" version being released in October (although it's actually the 41st anniversary??), but I can seem to find out whether that new DVD will still have the 1954 Casino Royale on it.
You can also find the whole thing, chopped up into 7 parts, on YouTube. At the bottom of this post I've embedded the first part for your viewing pleasure. Also, every commercially available version for some reason truncates off the last minute of the show!! It's not terribly consequential...LeChiffre makes one last desperate attempt to get away, Bond kills him for good this time. I've embedded that for you, too.
So the final verdict? Hey, it's the first attempt at Bond...you've gotta watch it for that, if nothing else. And it's a look at how a different team, a different medium, and a different culture would have approached our hero.
At one point, Bond tells LeChiffre, "Pain and killing's part of my job." They got that part right.