Eight years before Sean Connery sipped a vodka martini “shaken, not stirred”, American Barry Nelson played the role of Ian Fleming’s immortal James Bond on an hour long television drama for Climax Theater. While it’s far removed from the Bond we all know and love, Casino Royale will no doubt prove to be a must see for all Bond-philes out there.
The plot is more or less what Fleming intended. Secret Agent James Bond attends a high stakes baccarat game where he squares off against a cutthroat villain named Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) in and out of the casino. The biggest liberty taken with the material is that Bond is an AMERICAN agent and his right hand man is named CLARENCE Leiter. (Also Le Chiffre tortures Bond’s toes and not his balls, which I guess is acceptable since we’re talking made for 50’s TV, here.)
The film’s primary stumbling block is in fact, Bond himself. Dubbed “Card Sense” JIMMY Bond, the character is not anything remotely close to the Bond we all know and love, and is more of a cardboard cutout hero you’d usually see on a show like Climax. As portrayed by Nelson, Bond seems less like a secret agent with a license to kill and more like a guy that would sell you 10W-30 motor oil at Pep Boys. He lacks the suaveness, sex appeal and machismo that we’re so accustomed to and seems a tad uncomfortable in his own skin. (My theory: Nelson was just plain nervous because the show was being televised LIVE.) Even the brief glimpses of Bond-ian humor that Nelson was given to work with, he manages to flub. (When someone asks him, “Are you the man that was shot?” He retorts, “I’m the man that was missed,” but you can clearly tell that Nelson was not informed that this was a JOKE.) With so much of the show on his shoulders, and so little charisma, it’s easy to see why his interpretation of the role never caught on. (A weekly Bond show was proposed by Fleming but it fell on deaf ears.)
Oddly enough though almost everything else in the teleplay works; namely Lorre’s slimy performance as Le Chiffre. He pretty much set the bar for Bond villains to come and is at his most menacing when he quietly SUGGESTS the torture he’s willing to inflict upon Bond. The actor who plays Leiter, Michael Pate is also quite good. For television, Bond and Leiter’s nationalities were reversed so that it is Leiter is a British agent working for the Americans. Actually the more I think about it, their CHARACTERS were pretty much reversed as well as Pate exudes a lot of the suavity normally associated with Bond and Nelson reeks of an unassuming blandness that’s typical of all the cinematic incarnations of Leiter.
And for a one hour LIVE television show, it never once FEELS like a TV program, which is the best compliment I think I can give. The camera is always in motion and there are always multiple set-ups being used. Also it moves at a lightning pace and every scene plays on the next. The only real let down is the ending, which from the looks of things, they just plain ran out of time. (Nelson says, “Call the cops!” and then it fades to black.)
The casual viewer who is used to the real deal James Bond will probably scoff at Casino Royale, but true Bond fans will definitely want to see this for strictly historical purposes. They may even find out that it’s not that bad either. It’s a lot better than the 1967 spoof and more tightly paced than the Daniel Craig version, so that’s at least worth something in my book.