Our Word Is Our Bond is a new series which will look at every 007 film in chronological order. Jonathon Dabell kicks off the series with a look at Casino Royale (1954) starring Barry Nelson and Peter Lorre.
Imagine, if you will, that you are on a TV quiz show. The host looks you in the eye and asks you “who was the first actor to portray James Bond on screen?” You smile inwardly, confident in your own knowledge, and reply “Sean Connery”. You may even be enough of a smart-ass to add “in Dr. No“, just to prove you know your onions. Wrong. More paranoid players, anticipating a trick question, might plump for David Niven who portrayed an in-name-only version of the character in Casino Royale, a wacky 007 spoof made by other hands. But here again they would be wrong. The spoof Casino Royale was actually made in 1967, when the Connery Bond films were already well established.
The correct answer to the question is actually Barry Nelson. An anthology TV show called Climax! ran in America from 1954 to 1958, each episode around 50-60 minutes in length and many of them filmed in front of a live audience in colour (the episodes which survive, alas, are all black-and-white kinescope copies). The third show in the first season of the show was one Casino Royale, based on a recent novel by a then little-known chap named Ian Fleming.
It’s amusing to note from the off that James Bond (often referred to throughout the film as ‘Jimmy’) is an American agent working for some organisation vaguely mentioned as ‘Combined Intelligence’. His inside contact at the casino is a British agent named Clarence Leiter, played with the stiffest of upper lips by Michael Pate. Aside from this juggling of nationalities, and changes to the character names (‘Clarence’ is actually named ‘Felix’ Leiter throughout the Bond novels and films, while the main female character here, Valerie Mathis, is a combination of Rene Mathis, a French Deuxieme agent, and Vesper Lynd, a tormented double agent, from Fleming’s book), the film remains fairly faithful to the source novel.
Bond (Nelson) has been assigned to beat a French-based Russian agent, Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre), at baccarat. Le Chiffre is a dangerous and enormously valuable agent, incorruptible and totally reliable apart from one key character flaw – he has an addiction to gambling. After using money provided him in good faith by his Russian spy-masters to fund his gambling, Le Chiffre has lost almost all of it and needs to win it back urgently before he is ‘retired’ (that’s code for ‘assassinated’, just in case you missed the point). Bond’s job is to defeat him at the baccarat table and leave him to his fate. To add to the intrigue, Bond’s ex-lover Valerie (Linda Christian) is now Le Chiffre’s moll, although it’s clear she still holds a candle for Bond as does he for her. Bond receives an anonymous phone-call informing him that is he beats Le Chiffre at the baccarat tables, Valerie will be killed.
There’s very little in common between this Bond production and the many Eon productions that followed. Nelson admitted that he had little idea how to play the character – there were no existing Bond films for him to use as reference points, and he had not read the novel (it was not well-known at all in America – indeed, it wasn’t until John F. Kennedy labelled From Russia With Love as one of his favourite books that the Bond novels took off in America). He felt the role was poorly written and found the process of filming before a live audience rather terrifying on the whole, though the chance to act opposite the legendary Peter Lorre was enough to make him want to do it. The film is split, as if to reinforce its stage-play approach, into three acts. The opening act is mainly about getting the plot machinations into gear; the second deals with the card game at which Bond and Le Chiffre square up to each other; and the final act sees a desperate Le Chiffre torturing Bond in his hotel room in an effort to recover the money he has lost.
While Nelson is right about the role being underwritten, he lacks the charisma to raise it on the strength of his personality alone. His generally bland line delivery and posturing make one realise just how commanding a performance is given by Sean Connery in the later entries. Linda Cristian is also somewhat out of her depth as the hopelessly wooden leading lady of the piece. Lorre, though, is pretty good as Le Chiffre. Always a sinister and unpredictable presence in a movie, Lorre is close to Fleming’s original depiction of Le Chiffre and utterly steals the film from everyone else around him. The torturing of Bond in the final act is too graphic in the novel to be shown in any real detail in a 50s TV production (heck, even the 2006 Daniel Craig version it is still toned down a little from the book), but Lorre’s urbane savagery makes the scene effective. I watched the film for the first time recently with my wife, and during the torture scene she turned to me and said “this is quite dark for a 50s film!” which is pretty much what I was thinking myself at that moment. The effect is not achieved through visceral visual nastiness; it’s all down to Lorre’s uncanny knack for making one believe his ruthless evilness.
For many years, Casino Royale (1954) was considered a lost movie, until a kinescope copy was discovered in the 80s. Even that was missing the final two minutes, a final twist in which Le Chiffre tries to thwart Bond by taking Valerie as a hostage while he holds a razor blade to her throat. This final scene has since been found as well, although the picture and sound quality during this final frisson is clearly more deteriorated than the rest of the film. It’s just about watchable, albeit rather scratchy and washed-out.
Overall Casino Royale has not held up well, certainly not when measured against the best of the Eon productions. The low budget makes the casino scenes rather unconvincing, and Nelson’s general insipidness as Bond is a major distraction. However, it deserves credit for being a reasonably faithful adaptation of a fine novel, plus further praise needs adding for Lorre’s confident display of silky menace. Generally-speaking, though, it is more of a curiosity piece than anything else. Bond completists should give it a look just to say they’ve seen it. And remember, if you’re ever on that TV quiz show and they ask you who was the first person to play Bond on screen… Barry Nelson’s the name you’re looking for!
MoM Rating: 5/10