If there’s a red-headed stepchild in the world of James Bond, the 1954 CBS production of Casino Royale would be it.
The television Bond is mostly ignored. When it does come up in fan conversation, it’s the subject of derision.
An American as James Bond? Outrageous — although Eon Productions, which makes James Bond movies, seriously considered the notion twice, for Diamonds Are Forever (John Gavin was signed before Sean Connery was enticed back) and again for Octopussy (James Brolin was screen tested before Roger Moore was enticed back).
And he’s called Jimmy Bond! Outrageous — although Bond never calls himself Jimmy, other characters do. The only time he refers to his own name, he is making a telephone call and says, “This is James Bond.” Actor Barry Nelson also is clearly billed as playing James Bond in the end titles.
The television production, part of CBS’s Climax! anthology series and airing live on Oct. 21, 1954, is more like a televised play. While Ian Fleming’s first novel was short, it still covered too much ground to be covered in a 60-minute time slot. Excluding commercials and titles, only about 50 minutes was available to tell the story.
Antony Ellis and Charles Bennett, who adapted the novel for television, certainly took plenty of liberties with the source material.
Two Fleming characters, Vesper Lynd and French agent Rene Mathis, are merged into one character, Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian), a woman from Bond’s past who is working for French intelligence. Meanwhile, Bond is changed from being a British agent to an American one. Felix Leiter is changed to a British agent and his name is now Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate).
Presumably, the idea of an American Bond stemmed from how this was airing on U.S. television. At this point, Fleming and Bond weren’t huge names among the American public.
Anyway, to get things going, Act I opens with Bond being shot at outside a casino. It’s not terribly convincing, mostly because of the limited resources of the production, which was broadcast live. Bond ducks behind a column and the audience can see squibs going off to simulate gun fire.
Shortly thereafter, Bond makes contact with Leiter, who explains to Bond (and the audience) how the agent’s mission to bankrupt Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) in a high stakes game of baccarat. No M, no briefing from M.
At one point, Leiter says Bond’s nickname is “card sense Jimmy Bond,” while Valerie calls Bond “Jimmy.” However, she also calls him “James Bond” when introducing the agent to Le Chiffre ahead of the big baccarat game.
Peter Lorre is the first actor to play a Bond villain referring to the agent constantly as “Mr. Bond,” something that would be repeated throughout the Eon films.
There are some bits from Fleming’s novel, particularly during Bond’s card game with Le Chiffre. Even here, Ellis and Bennett do some tinkering. After Bond is cleaned out, he gets additional funds not from Leiter, as in the novel, but from Valerie. What’s more, Bond’s torture is considerable milder than the novel or 2006 feature film. The ending from Fleming’s novel isn’t used and things end happily.
This version of Casino Royale’s main value is that of a time capsule, a reminder of when television was mostly done live. Lorre is suitably villainous. If you find him fun to watch on movies and other television shows, nothing here will change your mind.
Barry Nelson’s Bond won’t make anyone forget the screen 007s. Still, Nelson was a pro who had a long career. He does the best he can with the material and production limitations. He even gets to deliver the occasional witticism. (“Are you the fellow who was shot?” Leiter asks. Bond replies, “No I was the fellow who was missed.”)
UPDATE: Casino Royale was the third broadcast of the Climax! series. The first was an adaptation of The Long Goodbye, with Dick Powell reprising the role of Philip Marlowe. So in two of the first three broadcasts, Climax! tackled novels by Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming.