Casino Royale 1954
Cast & Credits
Barry Nelson James Bond
Peter Lorre LeChiffre
Linda Christian Valerie Mathis
Michael Pate Clarence Letter
Directed by William H. Brown Jr.
Original running time: 51 minutes
Back in the 1950's, James Bond was not the cinematic superstar that he is today. He came from humble literary beginnings and the first couple of novels didn't exactly have stellar sales. As a matter of fact, Bond creator Ian Fleming was shopping his first novel titled Casino Royale around for a big screen release to any producer that would listen. He was repeatedly turned down and desperate to get his character noticed by anyone. Finally he decided to sell the rights to his first book for $1,000 to CBS. They used it for their brand new show Climax! Mystery Theater. It was filmed live and this review is of that movie that aired on October 21, 1954.
During the opening credits something struck me as fascinating. The first shot is a shot that zooms into the lens of a camera. The round camera lens reminded me of the iconic gun barrel sequence which was used by director Terence Young in the movie Dr. No and has been used in every other official Bond film that's ever been made. Maybe I'm crazy, but the I definitely see a similarity and wonder how the people from Climax! felt about this fantastic intro being "borrowed" and improved upon.
Before I go on further with the review, let me explain how many liberties were taken with Fleming's creation. No doubt they were done because it was being shown on American television. Bond is not a British secret agent, but an American that works for Combined Inteligence. Also, CIA Agent Felix Leiter has now been turned into Clarence Letter who works for the British Secret Service. Furthermore, the characters of Vesper Lynd and French agent Rene Mathis have been amalgamated into one character known as Valerie Mathis. All of this stuff is enough to make a Bond fan's head explode, but strangely it all kind of works in Bizarro Bond World.
The film starts out with an attempt taken on Bond's life outside of a casino. Our hero hides behind a tree and three pre-set cap shots go off. The man at the front desk says something to Bond about how he hasn't even played yet so they can't be after his money. Bond replies, "Well they weren't after my autograph either." I actually think that this one quip (along with a couple of others) influenced the movies to come. The Bond of the books was humorless and this guy was a little more light-hearted. The other major thing one notices at the beginning of the film is how different Barry Nelson's portrayal of Bond is then all of those who followed him. He plays the part like a 1950's American television actor because he was one so I guess it's no fault of his own. I do think that he got some of the character right though. He has a cocky and cool self-assurance about him and pulls off that off well. For those of you who don't know who Barry Nelson is, he was best known as the pilot in the disaster movie Airport (if he is known for anything).
The film kicks off with a brilliant piece of writing where James meets up with Clarence Letter. The CIA Agent asks Bond to explain to him the game of Baccarat while he explains to Bond what's going on. In the process we learn how to play Baccarat (and follow the upcoming game) and what Bond's mission is. It turns out that he is there to take care of LeChiffre, the Soviet's top agent in France. Bond is to do this by beating him at Baccarat. You see, LeChiffre is a compulsive gambler and has lost a lot of money playing with Soviet funds. He's trying to win it back. If Bond cleans him out, the Soviets will take care of him themselves. In a side plot, Valerie Mathis (Bond's ex) is now with LeChiffre.
The card game is extremely well done and a focal point of the film. I actually preferred it to the card game in the version of Casino Royale starring Daniel Craig. Why? It would make more sense to try to win a lot of money playing Baccarat as opposed to Texas Hold 'Em Poker. In Baccarat you have the chance of doubling up on every hand. Every hand is essentially the equivalent of being "all in" in Texas Hold 'Em. Also, the final hand in the new Casino Royale was wrong on so many levels but that's another thread all together...
The other part of the film that really sticks out is the ending. Every time I have watched this I am shocked at the level of brutality displayed and how shocking it must have been on 1950's television. After Bond wins the game (was there ever a doubt), LeChiffre and his henchmen come to take the winnings from him by any means necessary. The torture scene, while toned down from what most people know, is not pretty. LeChiffre doesn't strip Bond naked and repeatedly hit him in the genitals with a carpet beater, but he does put Bond into a tub and uses pliers on his toes. Ouch! I won't give away the ending, but let's just say that Bond uses his own ingenuity to get out of the situation and doesn't luck out this time.
So in the end, this was a very tough movie to review. On one hand, I wanted to be harsh on it for messing with the Bond universe, but on the other hand I wanted to praise it for what it is and had to remember that this came out long before any of the Connery movies so a precedent hadn't been set. Peter Lorre, for instance, was great in the film and in my opinion portrayed LeChiffre better than any actor ever. He was quirky, intelligent, and could go from soft spoken and tranquil to completely bonkers in approximately one tenth of a second. A great Bond villain. Also, I thought that the film was well-paced, gritty, fairly well acted, and tightly written. But one cannot help see it's shortcomings.
In the end, I thought that it was extremely well done for what it was, but I am comparing it to over Bond movies.
Score 2/5 - Below average for a Bond movie. It has a lot of flaws but, I found it enjoyable. Believe it or not, I would rather watch this than a few Bond movies. Definitely worth a watch for Bond fans or those who like old pulp movies.
A funny thing to look for: When Bond is removing the number plate outside of his hotel room with the screwdriver, it goes from nearly pitch black to near blinding in one shot. Apparently, the director thought that there wasn't enough light for people to see what was going on so he had someone put a search light on the door.
James Bond will return next Monday in Dr. No
Proud member of the SONIC SUPPORT SQUAD
Tag "Sorry man. Someone pissed in my Wheaties."
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