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Now Pay Attention, 007: Introduction and Casino Royale '54

by David Cornelius

In 1954, before anyone had heard of Sean Connery and before Daniel Craig was born, the Columbia Broadcasting System chose the first novel by a British journalist to adapt as the third episode in their new suspense anthology program.

This is where we begin.

What we’re beginning is an extensive look at the on-screen adventures of James Bond. Every couple of weeks, give or take, we’ll make our way through all things 007, from SPECTRE to Quantum and everything in between. There’s no real reason behind this series - there’s no new Bond movie hitting theaters this year, no home video re-releases of the classics scheduled - except a pure love, admiration, and all-out obsession for these films.

We start, then, with “Climax!” The show, which ran on CBS from 1954-58, was an anthology of suspense and mystery yarns performed live in the tradition of television’s golden age. The series premiered with an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” which made headlines when an actor playing a corpse, thinking he was no longer on camera, stood up and walked off stage, confusing audiences nationwide.

Two weeks later, on October 24, viewers got their first glimpse of secret agent James Bond, who at this point had appeared in two Ian Fleming novels: “Casino Royale” and “Live and Let Die.” Fleming had been shopping the former around in the hopes of finding a producer willing to pay big for a film adaptation; when this failed, the author agreed to sell the rights to CBS for a meager $1,000. (Fleming’s character was slow to take off, especially in the States; when “Climax!” host William Lundigan introduces the story as being a “bestseller,” he’s lying through his teeth.)

Adaptation duties fell to Anthony Ellis, a newcomer, and Charles Bennett, a screenwriter best known for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock (including “The 39 Steps” and “Sabotage”). In condensing the story into a quick one hour play, the duo loses much of detail that makes the book so memorable, the limitations of the format reducing the plot to a few set pieces. Still, the teleplay does manage to squeeze in some of the wit that would later make the film series so popular (Leiter: “Aren’t you the fellow that was shot?” Bond: “No, I’m the fella that was missed.”), and the book’s rather nasty violence isn’t watered down too much, resulting in a rather gruesome third act.

But it’s not the reworked plot that’s made this “Casino Royale” infamous in certain circles. You see, this adaptation gives us flattop-sporting Barry Nelson as “Card Sense Jimmy Bond,” a Yankee working for the “Combined Intelligence Agency.” At the time, viewers unfamiliar with 007 wouldn’t have noticed (or cared) just how radically different the character had become for television; it would take more than a decade for the idea of “Card Sense Jimmy Bond” - a Yankee, no less - to sound ridiculous.

And let’s be honest here. On its own terms, the Americanization of Bond works well enough. There’s nothing in this digest version to demand the character remain a Brit, and no reason for Stateside producers not to make him more identifiable to their viewers. While this version of James Bond remains a secret agent, he’s really more along the lines of a hard-boiled detective, a square-jawed Mike Hammer type, and that’s the sort of role that almost demands an American accent.

Still, it’s kinda weird, ain’t it?

What’s most peculiar on closer inspection is the decision to make Bond a gambling expert, only to throw him into a game based entirely on luck. Despite its high profile, baccarat is a game that requires almost no skill - you might as well be playing war. While the same can be said of the novel itself, Fleming used the game as only a jumping-off point. The TV adaptation, on the other hand, is limited to the confines of the hotel and casino, and as such is forced to make the game the centerpiece of the plot, taking up the entire second act.

The core of Fleming’s story remains the same: Bond is brought in to defeat Soviet money man Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) not with bullets, but with cards. Le Chiffre is desperate to recoup some serious losses before the Russkies track him down, and if Bond can beat him at the baccarat table, the villain is as good as dead. The teleplay strips Fleming’s book down to this simple premise, shooing away the excess. Act I covers Bond’s arrival and his briefing by British agent Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate); Act II shows the game; Act III gives us the aftermath, in which Le Chiffre and his henchmen attempt to torture Bond into revealing the whereabouts of the hidden winnings.

Considering the live TV format, there’s an elegance to this simplicity. SMERSH is not mentioned, nor do we see any Soviet agents. The Vesper Lynd character is reworked into Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian), Bond’s former lover who’s now Le Chiffre’s moll; with no time to deal with Vesper’s variable allegiances, we’re given the love interest and the potential danger without the tangled plot.

The first act freely gives in to spy pulp cliché - watch as Bond and Leiter dance around their codeword introductions. It’s enough to draw us in, even if Nelson doesn’t do a solid job convincing us of his character’s debonair qualities. He’s miscast, that’s for sure, even on the level of American tough guy, and he never quite convinces us during the hackneyed espionage bits. Much has been made over how the script was drastically trimmed at the last minute to fit for time, leaving some dialogue nonsensical, but even taking this into account, Nelson still trips over his lines and lacks the elegance needed for the role.

His performance smooths out as the show progresses, though. The second act doesn’t offer much in terms of excitement or suspense, but Nelson begins to play off Lorre quite well. Of course, Lorre is the real main attraction here, the veteran villain working at full weasel mode; Mads Mikkelsen might’ve been a more sophisticated Le Chiffre, but it’s Lorre who turns the character into a vile little man, a grotesque weasel whose very presence makes you uncomfortable.

It’s in Act III that Lorre really gets to let loose with the ickiness. The teleplay deletes (for obvious Standards and Practices reasons) Fleming’s testicle torture, replacing it with a scene where Le Chiffre’s henchmen tie up Bond in a bathtub and remove his toenails one by one, which is pretty nasty in its own right. The script even toys with the thought of making Bond less than valiant: “I’m no hero,” he tells Le Chiffre, “I don’t like pain.” (Sure, he finishes with, “You won’t get anything out of me. Pain and killing’s part of my job.” But still. It’s James Bond as fraidy cat!)

Most modern viewers don’t even get the chance to see Lorre’s Le Chiffre at his most horrid. The kinescope recording included by MGM as a special feature on their 2002 DVD release of the 1967 “Casino Royale” doesn’t include the last minute of the program (which was originally thought lost, only to resurface in the mid-90s; there’s no telling why MGM chose not to include it). Considering this is, internet bootlegs aside, the most widely available print of the show, the majority of today’s fans will miss out on seeing Le Chiffre hold a razor blade to Valerie’s throat, feverishly goading Bond to kill them both. (MGM’s print ends instead with Bond holding Le Chiffre at gunpoint; fade to restored credits.)

It’s a twisted, sweaty final act of desperation, a grimy chunk of violence that’s very much in tune with Fleming’s book. And that’s the card hidden up this adaptation’s sleeve: what begins as a lightweight piece of low budget glamour quickly melts into a rougher, more dangerous tale, all pulpy noir and bad attitudes. Even goody-goody Barry Nelson looks pissed off by the end.

Following the broadcast, CBS hired Fleming to concoct more stories for their anthology programs. The network never used any of them, but Fleming did, recycling his ideas as plotlines for later Bond novels. The author also spent the rest of the decade shopping the character around to various film producers, having no luck until two rival producers teamed up in 1961...

Next: James Bond goes to Jamaica, Sean Connery becomes a star, and Honey Ryder makes one hell of an entrance.

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originally posted: 01/20/10 13:18:50
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