Watching the 1954 Climax! version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale is a jarring experience. It defamiliarizes one of the most famous stories about one of cinema’s most famous characters. But only in retrospect. The oddness of Casino Royale is that it teases us with an alternate iconography for James Bond. Imagine a world where Eon Productions never formed, where Sean Connery never made the role an icon, and Goldfinger, Moonraker, and Skyfall never happened. Imagine a world where James Bond was an American! It might look very similar to the James Bond we see in Climax!. It’s a dispiriting thought experiment, but also fascinating, like a television version of an alternate reality.
Before Dr. No premiered in 1962 and Sean Connery redefined masculinity on the silver screen, James Bond was just a character in the novels of Ian Fleming. In 1954, there were only two published novels in the series, Casino Royale and Live and Let Die. CBS chose to adapt the first novel for their live anthology television series, Climax!. Fleming agreed and CBS paid him a marginal sum for the rights to the novel. Casino Royale aired live on October 21st in 1954 as the third episode of Climax!. It disappeared from public consciousness until the 1980s when film historian Jim Schoenberger located it, albeit without its final credits. We’re lucky Schoenberger found it, as it’s a fascinating oddity.
The plot of the TV film is largely similar to the novel, although condensed for TV and changed to suit its Eisenhower-era American audience. Barry Nelson plays James Bond as a cool American “combined intelligence” agent working to take down the Russian spy, Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre), during a game of baccarat. Michael Pate co-stars as Bond’s ally, the loyal British agent Clarence Leiter, and Linda Christian rounds out the cast as Valerie Mathis, Le Chiffre’s girlfriend who is secretly working for the French secret service.
Every Bond fan will be able to spot where Casino Royale differs from its source material. For example, they’ll know that Mathis combines aspects of the Vesper Lynd character with René Mathis, the French agent assigned to the case in the novel. She’s given a past relationship with Bond, but completely sidelined narratively, operating mostly as a damsel in distress. Other changes, like the condensation of the plotline to the events in and around the casino are understandable in order to accommodate the one-hour live television format. The most interesting change is the swapping of Bond and Leiter’s national identities. It reveals the most interesting aspects of this modest television production, clarifying 1950s American attitudes towards both the British and themselves.
Although the Bond franchise has always targeted American audiences, it has never tempered its distinct British identity to do so. The Climax! version of James Bond goes too far in catering to its presumptive audience. First of all, it makes Bond an American. That means he’s no longer a cold, mysterious gentleman, but instead a rugged, affable American who speaks and shoots straight. The producers likely believed that the British character as written would never appeal to American audiences—perhaps they disliked the classism inherent in Fleming’s Bond. Whatever the reason, they made Bond resemble a middle-class American hero familiar from the big screen at the time, while relegating the British presence to the supporting character, Clarence Leiter.
In Fleming’s novels, Leiter is an American named Felix. He’s a rough-and-tumble spy, with a weakness for ladies and a high tolerance for alcohol. Clarence Leiter is a refined gentleman, loyal to Bond, but hardly tough or sexy. He’s a tad feminine. Michael Pate plays him like a butler as spy, always subservient to Bond’s course of action. In one scene he talks his way out of gunpoint, using the arrival of a waiter to cover his exit, but you never get the sense Leiter will turn violent to escape. You can hardly imagine him getting in a fight, presumably because Americans don’t think Brits get their hands dirty. Leiter is good at his job, but he’s not exciting. He’s distant and stuffy.
Bond, on the other hand, is familiar and adventurous. He’s often called “Jimmy,” as if he’s the good ol’ boy you can count on when you’re in a tight spot. He’s violent and brave, but he’s not cool or mysterious. He’s also hardly charming. Nelson may be a memorable actor in other films (I especially like him as the manager of the Overlook Hotel, Stuart Ullman, in The Shining) but here he reads as alternatingly dull and hokey. When he’s trying to be cool, he’s apping William Holden, even trying to mimic his vocal patterns. As such, he often comes across as flippant instead of clever. He reads as a dull American hero—hardly James Bond, Agent 007 of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s as if the producers took what they presumed were the American attributes of the James Bond character, added a pinch of the silver screen spy persona, and distilled these characteristics into their Bond, while pushing the rest of the character from the novel into the emasculated Leiter. The result is two characters who are little more than emblems for their respective nations, a pissing match between an American man and a British strawman.
Peter Lorre fares better as Le Chiffre, overplaying the character’s confidence during baccarat and enjoying the sadism of the torture scenes. Lorre always excelled at playing deranged villains, so it’s not a stretch for him to play Le Chiffre. Still, he remains the sole performer to actually excite while onscreen. When he’s having Bond’s nails removed to suss out information (the movie understandably censors aspects of the novel, namely Le Chiffre’s mode of torture. Even nowadays it’d be nearly unthinkable for network television to show a man being tortured by damaging his testicles), Lorre revels in his power over Bond.
The other part of Casino Royale that is unquestionably successful is its explanation of baccarat. As baccarat was likely unfamiliar to the majority of Climax!’s audience, the film goes to great lengths to explain the game to the viewer. They do so by having Bond explain the game to Leiter as a cover to allow them to speak privately together. Although I have read the novel Casino Royale as well as a few tutorials of the game online, I’ve never entirely understood the baccarat betting system. Casino Royale clarified it for me. Although the way the film justifies explaining the rules is clumsy, it’s remarkably effective.
As for the filmmaking, since it was originally a live telecast, Casino Royale is visually unremarkable. Most cuts are utilized to mask theatrical changes. The camera always stays on one side of the characters. The overhead lighting is bright and flat, so as to light as many character’s faces as possible. It’s interesting to note that Climax! was one of the few network programs of the 1950s to be broadcast in colour, although only black and white versions of its programming remain. Perhaps a colour version of Casino Royale would have added some visual interest.
The Climax! version of Casino Royale made me thankful for the franchise we got. Ian Fleming’s debonair spy could have turned into just another alluring killer from a trade paperback, fodder for the occasional TV movie or serial plot. Instead we got the Aston Martin DB5 and the Lotus Esprit, the raid on Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s Piz Gloria fortress and the tank chase through the streets of St. Petersburg. Casino Royale gives us a fascinating glimpse into a world without Bond as we know him. It makes me glad we live in a world with James, and not “Jimmy,” Bond.
4 out of 10
Climax! a.k.a. Climax Mystery Theater (1954-1958, CBS)
Casino Royale (1954, USA)
Directed by William H. Brown Jr.; written by Charles Bennett and Anthony Ellis based on Ian Fleming’s novel; presented by William Lundigan; starring Barry Nelson, Peter Lorre, Linda Christian, Michael Pate, Eugene Borden, Jean Del Val, Gene Roth.