3 of 5 stars
“The name’s Bond. Jimmy Bond.”
Or so this American James Bond might as well say in 007’s screen debut.
Before Sean Connery played Bond in 1962’s big-screen Dr. No, Barry Nelson (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) played the secret agent in this 1954 CBS small-screen live adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel.
Jimmy Bond is an American CIA (Combined Intelligence Agency) officer. He is tasked with cleaning out communist agent Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre, Casablanca) in a game of baccarat. Le Chiffre has been living like a high-roller on party funds, and if he can’t recover the funds quickly, he’s likely to be executed by his own party. He plans to stake everything on one card game at Casino Royale in France. Bond’s mission is to make sure Le Chiffre is ruined. Bond is helped by British secret agent Clarence Leiter (perhaps a cousin of Felix Leiter) and sexy French double agent Valerie Mathis (Vesper Lynd and René Mathis from Fleming’s novel rolled into one character).
This early Bond film is markedly different from the later MGM series, and criticisms of it arise mainly from comparisons with the wildly popular franchise. To many, Sean Connery was the only Bond, and later actors were only replacements. Nelson still doesn’t benefit by coming before Connery. Since “Casino Royale” was made for American TV as a part of the CBS series Climax!, the producers seemed to think they needed to make the hero American. Nelson plays Bond like a hard-boiled private eye. He talks with a stiff upper lip and drinks water instead of vodka martinis shaken-not-stirred. Peter Lorre, however, is spot-on as the villain. Even though he is a small man, he radiates an erratic intensity that makes him menacing.
Since this version of “Casino Royale” was made for live TV, there are also mistakes as a result of not having multiple takes to get it right. There are long pauses in telephone conversations, Lorre is inaudible at times, and in one shot, he clearly didn’t know the camera was still on him.
This film probably won’t be interesting to a general audience today, but it is a must-see for Bond fanatics.