Climax!: Casino Royale (1954)

Directed by William H. Brown Jr.
Written by Anthony Ellis & Charles Bennett

To be completely honest, entering into this Bond marathon I considered myself a pretty big hardcore fan, but I have quickly discovered that there are some much more devout and fanatical followers of the franchise than I, but I mean that in a good way, as well as the fact that the marathon, something I viewed to be more fun than educational (heck, I’ve seen ’em all already). But then there is this episode in the Bond saga. True, this rendition of the classic Ian Fleming character is not an official entry per EON productions. True, it is not a full feature length production. True, it is an adaptation of Casino Royale, the battle between Bond and Le Chiffre. True, Bond is an American this time. True, this is the first screen appearance by the character. Wait! What!? Bond, American!? There was Bond before Connery!? Preposterous. I told you I thought I was hardcore. Well, you’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore, which entails venturing into this made for television adaptation of Casino Royale. I understand some fans of the 2006 film probably have no idea the 1966 spoof version exists, but even I didn’t know this 1954 version existed until this marathon.

The basic story of Casino Royale remains the same. James Bond (Barry Nelson) is called in to take down the villain, Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre), who is out to make back the evil money he lost. His plan? Play baccarat. So the card savvy Bond is called in to go toe to toe at the table with the Soviet spy. British agent Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate), because remember Bond is American so it follows that Leiter would be British, is on hand to support Bond financially. Also there is the complicating opposite sex in the form of Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian). Every Bond story must have the Bond girl. At a brisk 48 minutes, the television episode must jam pack the story into the narrative to be able to get everything needed across to the viewer. There is card playing, assassination attempts, flirting, and the classic Bond swagger that ultimately leads to the showdown between Bond and baddie.

I was very excited to sit down and experience this version of Bond for the very first time, though I did have some apprehension given my experience with the 1966 spoof version of Casino Royale, which I found to be downright objectionable. But I did also enjoy Never Say Never Again, the other non-official Bond entry in this marathon. But I think the short runtime, given the “film” was a made for television, mystery theater production, is what threw me the most. To tell the whole story of Le Chiffre and set up the Bond character and get them together at the card table with the stakes as high as they supposedly are, the short run time was a problem in my eyes. The 2006 version, which is obviously completely different, is nearly 100 full minutes longer. Everything just really felt trunckated and underdeveloped between all of the characters save perhaps the Bond/Leiter relationship. But also keeping in mind the market for this production, I can say that it did what it was supposed to. For a short, 48 minute, mystery theater television adaptation, Casino Royale was nicely done. But for the sake of the marathon, it pales in comparison to the other productions we have examined.

I can get over Bond being American, Leiter being British and all that nonsense, but I cannot get over the performance of Barry Nelson as James Bond. As the first go with the character on screen he has nothing to base the character on other than the Fleming novels and the direction from Brown Jr., the episode’s director. Having never read any of the novels (yea, I’m really not hardcore) I cannot say anything from that perspective, but Nelson was really dry, dull and unexciting in the role. The film really made him come across as a sort of American brute who played cards well. He was fairly lifeless in my opinion. So how interesting then when I found Michael Pate, who played Clarence Leiter, to be perhaps the best part of the film. Pate actually dripped authenticity whereas all the other players seemed much more trapped in a production. Even the great Peter Lorre was somewhat underwhelming, though perhaps that is given his reputation. As the choice to play the villain, Le Chiffre, it seems perfect, but maybe a little past his prime, Lorre is rather mediocre here. He certainly has his classic Lorre moments, mostly nearer the end/climax of the film, but overall I found him to be bland as Le Chiffre. The same can be said for Linda Christian as the Bond girl Valerie.

I really cannot knock this film all that much when it put it into the context of a 1954 television episode. It seems like it would have probably been fairly entertaining back in the day, but now, having seen all that Bond has to offer in the other 24 films, this production must rank low on the list. There is just not enough to grab a hold of and Nelson is too forgettable as Bond for the film to really do anything all that interesting. Am I glad I watched it? Absolutely. I love pretty much everything Bond and getting any new tidbit is more than welcome, but I must say that I can see why it is overlooked by many, as I would hardly call it essential. After rewatching Never Say Never Again I said that I required it in my collection. This go around I think I can pass on Climax! and do it gladly. I will say this, it did more than any other Bond film has ever done in educating me on the game of baccarat. Now I actually know how the game works.

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