AVAILABLE ON DVD [cut]/ YOUTUBE [full]
RUNNING TIME: 62 min/ 59 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After avoiding an assassin’s fire, American “Combined Intelligence” agent James Bond enters Casino Royale where he meets his British contact, Clarence Leiter, who explains Bond’s mission: to defeat Le Chiffre at baccarat and force his Soviet spymasters to “retire” him. Bond then encounters a former lover, Valerie Mathis who is Le Chiffre’s current girlfriend, and is being used by him to get information out of Bond. Just before the game, Bond is informed by telephone that, if he wins, Valerie will lose her life….
I’ve been considering doing my own reviews of the James Bond films for some time, and my recent purchase of the ‘official’ movies on Blu-ray [Region ‘A’ of course, so I didn’t have to sit through the dreadful re-done sound mixes of the early movies with the music scores drowned out by sound effects and other things added] has finally prompted me to do it. My plan is to also cover the ‘unofficial’ 007 entries, and I also decided to take a look at the first ever appearance by Bond, which isn’t a movie but a pilot for a James Bond television series that was never made. For some reason I never bought it on video when it was easily available to buy and now had to view it on YouTube as the only version on DVD, which is as a ‘special feature’ on the Region 1 Casino Royale 1967 disc [and what a comparison those two make], is missing the last couple of minutes which only exist in poor quality but should still be included in a presentation of it. Why it hasn’t had a full restoration for Blu-ray is a mystery considering the ongoing popularity of 007. Then again, this live TV play, which has a Bond not much like the character we know and love, is more of a curio than anything else, and is probably hard to sit through for some, making it probably a good thing that it didn’t spawn a TV series and instead led to the great movie franchise that never seems to die. In fact, there are times where it’s almost painful for watch, as well as somewhat amusing, but if you lower your expectations and appreciate the limitations of its making, there is some enjoyment to be had.
Casino Royale was Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, and surprisingly it wasn’t a success and was released under different titles in an altered form in the US. Fleming received three offers for the film rights in 1954, but producer Gregory Ratoff decided to take it to CBS who opted to make an adaptation as an episode of a series called Climax which consisted of unrelated thriller stories which were shot and broadcast live. The plot of the novel was followed reasonably closely though the characters of French agent Rene Mathis and love interest Vesper Lynd were combined into “Valerie Mathis”, and the final quarter was totally removed. Just before it went to air, the producers discovered that the live performance would run three minutes over its allotted running time, so some shots, lines, part-lines and words were cut to bring the running time down. The entirely studio bound production got hardly any attention and no series happened, though three years later CBS changed their mind and offered Fleming a Bond TV series which would consist of thirty two episodes which were to have ran over two years. Fleming wrote between three to seven outlines for the series but CBS axed the project. Fleming subsequently turned the material into some of his short stories. This Casino Royale was thought lost for decades until it was found in 1981, though the last two minutes weren’t located till some years later.
Now I don’t think that anyone watching this would expect many of the typical ingredients one finds in a Bond film, so there’s no opening gun barrel here for a start, but ironically the opening credits, which also have an announcer calling out the names of the cast, are shown over a zoom into a similarly round camera lens. Then we have another announcer explain a bit about the game of baccarat, and let us know the names of the principal cast members again. After this we [finally] go into the episode proper, which is divided into three acts. The first ever moment of Bond on screen has an unseen and obviously inept gunman trying to shoot him outside the Casino Royale and missing him by a mile, after which we get the first ever witty Bond one-liner, where he goes inside to meet his contact Clarence [not Felix] Leiter who asks: “Aren’t you the fellow who was shot?” and James Bond replies: “No, I’m the fellow who was missed.” I should probably say right now though that there’s precious little action in this Casino Royale; all we really get are this opening sequence, a couple of tiny scuffles and a climactic showdown, though I didn’t really expect much consider that this is a very low budget TV play shot live.
One has to chuckle at things like an American Bond and a British Leiter who tells him: “Oh, you’re a legend. Card Sense Jimmy Bond they call you”, and the scene where Leiter tells Bond his mission amusingly switches to Bond explaining in more detail the rules of baccarat whenever somebody passes their table. In fact one still doesn’t really get much of an idea of the game, but at least they tried, unlike the 2006 Casino Royale which didn’t really tell us what it was all about at all [while on the other hand Fleming took up many pages meticulously explaining it]. Then we meet our love interest, and what with her being a former girlfriend of Bond but now being with the main bad guy, it’s rather like Tomorrow Never Dies, though Vesper is also revealed to be a French undercover agent. The game is surprisingly short and creates little tension, but Le Chiffre’s subsequent torture of Bond with electrodes on his toes, if different from the novel and shown very discreetly, is surprisingly grim, at least for a TV programme of the time. The final showdown with Le Chiffre is reasonably tense and I actually wondered if Vesper was going to be shot so that we would still get a tragic ending for the character as in the book and the 2006 version, but this doesn’t happen and it all closes very abruptly even if you’re watching the full version.
Unsurprisingly this is a very cheap production which, aside from the very first few seconds, all takes place inside on very cheap looking sets. Even Le Chiffre’s torture of Bond happens in the bath tub in his room, while we’re not even told where the Casino Royale actually is, but perhaps the biggest problem of this Casino Royale is that it’s just lacking in any suspense until the very end. A few elements which quickly became features of the movie series are in evidence though, such as a gadget weapon – a villain’s gun passing for a cane [which was re-used in The World Is Not Enough‘s walking stick which doubled as a gun]. And it’s interesting that the film of Dr. No was not the first instance when producers decided to give Fleming’s creation, who was deadly serious about everything, some humour, with Barry Nelson given some fairly weak quips, though of course his Bond is hardly the debonair superspy we all know. Some may say his Americanised, rather bland agent is more of a bastardisation of the character then any of Roger Moore’s eyebrow raising silliness, but I like the believability and down to earth portrayal on paper which makes it a shame that this unique incarnation of 007 [though his code number is never mentioned] is so poorly played by the stolid Nelson.
In fact Nelson is absolutely terrible in his first few scenes though he does improve a little as time goes on. Meanwhile, it’s extremely obvious that Peter Lorre is having trouble remembering his lines as he often repeats words like “maybe” and “I” twice one after the other as he thinks of something to say. Lorre seems awkward throughout in what is a disappointing performance by one of my favourite old-time character actors. First Bond girl Linda Christian does quite well though as the duplicitous, though in the end very sympathetic, Vesper, making it a shame that the character has been seriously altered. With no music aside from some brooding opening and closing notes and the occasional dramatic chord or two, this Casino Royale is a bit of a slog if you don’t have much of an idea of what you’re in for, but it has some few aspects of interest and certainly deserves a decent release on home media so more Bond fans can see the character’s first depiction. I’m sure it would sell.