A few months back, I revealed some movie franchises I’ve mostly overlooked; among them, the James Bond franchise, of which I’d seen only two films — and only one of them a canonical entry. I resolved at the time to start remedying this lack, starting in 2013, by going through all the entries in the series in chronological order — even the few I’ve seen before, even the non-canonical entries — so as to have a proper perspective on the growth and development of the series. The reviews will come sporadically throughout the year (and possibly into next year), but they start today with a decidedly odd entry in the series.
Due to some of the little quirks of the property rights, the very first portrayal of James Bond is actually a non-canonical entry. 1954’s Casino Royale was a live performance on the anthology series Climax!; such a thing could easily have been lost, but fortunately it was preserved, and MGM — knowing full well that their fans could be obsessive — included it as a bonus feature on the DVD for the similarly non-canonical 1967 parody version of Casino Royale. Watching this film is an interesting experience, as even somebody whose knowledge of James Bond mostly comes from pop-culture references will recognize this as being very different from the standards of the series.
“Do you expect me to talk?”
“No, Mister Bond, I expect you to bathe; you’re a bit ripe.”
The story in Casino Royale is fairly simple. James Bond is at the casino on assignment; a Soviet agent known as Le Chiffre (among similar code names) is there trying to earn back a small fortune he has lost before his supervisors kill him over it, and Bond is there to prevent him from winning it back. The fateful duel will take place at the baccarat table. As the show was performed and broadcast live — and had a run time of just under an hour — the format and the story are affected by the medium. William Lundigan, the host of Climax!, provides a brief intro, talking about the dangers of spying and the risks of gambling. Then the show begins, taking the form of a three-act play. Special effects are limited to a few gun shots, and action sequences to a few brief fist fights; most of the film takes place as the small cast engages in intrigue around the hotel, or as they sit down at the baccarat table. The baccarat sequence is unfortunately not terribly interesting, despite how important it is. It’s a little hard to follow and harder to be engaged in it when it appears to be just a game of pure chance, at least if one is (as I am) unfamiliar with the rules. There’s a scene in which Bond explains the game to his colleague, but it doesn’t help to dispel the tedium of watching the game.
“Hit me.” “Can we shoot him instead? It’d be more fun.”
Besides the reduced action, there are a few other traditional elements of a James Bond film that aren’t yet present. There’s no M giving orders, and no Q providing interesting gadgets — the only interesting gadget is a cane gun used by one of the villains. Also, James Bond — who goes by Jimmy — is an American agent for the “Combined Intelligence Agency”. He’s still smooth, but it’s a casual American smoothness rather than suave British sophistication. In a lot of ways, his MI6 counterpart Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate) — who acts as Bond’s handler on the mission — fits the image of James Bond more than Bond himself does, though he’s a bit more of a bureaucratic type. Barry Nelson’s performance as Bond is thus a little difficult to judge — he’s not playing the kind of Bond that today’s viewers would expect, yet it can’t really be held against him, as he didn’t write the script. Nelson is quite believable as a 1950’s-era American spy, it’s just that this feels out of place for James Bond, even to somebody with limited exposure to the character.
Pate, for his part, performs admirably well as Leiter. The scene with the two of them, where Leiter explains Bond’s mission and Bond provides cover by explaining baccarat, feels natural and unforced. Linda Christian plays the first-ever Bond girl as Valerie Mathis, an agent of Le Chiffre who has a past with “Jimmy”. The chemistry between Christian and Nelson isn’t as convincing as in a lot of film relationships, but it isn’t as bad as some either. It gets the job done, but it’s actually possible for the audience to believe Bond when he says he doesn’t care if Le Chiffre’s men kill her.
“Make it quick, I don’t want the funeral to interfere with my travel plans.”
Le Chiffre himself is played by Peter Lorre, who is easily the highlight of the program. Even though Lorre isn’t quite bringing his A-game here — he doesn’t seem as energetic as he does in other pictures — he is still very entertaining as the villain, and feels like a natural fit for the character. He’s calm, in control, and nonchalantly odious. Though there are sadly no elaborate death traps in Casino Royale, it’s easy to picture Lorre’s character devising several. It’s enough to make a person wish that Lorre could have been the villain in a real entry in the series, one that could have given him proper room to use his talents.
Casino Royale is an odd entry in the James Bond series, and not just because of its non-canonical status. It’s light on action, light on style. It isn’t as exciting as one would hope it would be. It’s reasonably entertaining but it’s likely that only die-hard Bond fans will want to check it out, and then primarily for the novelty factor.