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Monday, December 19, 2005

I, THE AUDIENCE: THE FIRST JAMES BOND! 

James Bond first appeared in Ian Fleming's novel Casino Royale in 1953. The first theatrical film would not appear until Sean Connery played Bond in Dr. No in 1962. But Connery was not the first James Bond to appear on film.

There was a small-screen Bond in 1954. A little more than a year after the appearance of the novel (which became a best-seller), an hour-long television drama show called CLIMAX! presented "Casino Royale" as its third episode. Peter Lorre played the villain, Le Chiffre, the same role that Orson Wells played in the 1967 version of Casino Royale. And James Bond was an American!

That American was Barry Nelson, and he is probably a very nice man. I don't want to bag on the state of television in 1954. The medium was in its infancy, and "Casino Royale" may have been quite innovative and exciting for its time. And I don't want to get on Mr. Nelson's case too much about this performance. But I will say this:

It's a little hard to watch for modern audiences.

There really was no template for a movie Bond until Dr. No, and a stage-bound television drama show was not the place for experimentation of the kind that made Bond such a hit in 1962. The 1954 James Bond uses the American tough-guy model. He's an international Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. That stuff had been around in the movies since The Maltese Falcon and it was also very popular on the radio. The inclusion of Peter Lorre as the villain made it easy for all concerned to just act like it was a Humphrey Bogart movie.

Briefly, the plot: James Bond (whose nickname is Card Sense Jimmy Bond) is a member of Combined Intelligence and he has been called to the Riviera to Casino Royale to put his baccarat skills to work in beating Herr Ziffer, also known as Le Chiffre, the top Soviet agent in the area. Le Chiffre is a very dangerous man to the West, but he has a terrible weakness: he is addicted to gambling and he has squandered 80 million francs in Soviet funds at the baccarat table. If he doesn't win it back, the Soviets will liquidate him themselves and the West will save money on bullets.

(Yes, you read that right. Somebody called him Jimmy Bond! Card Sense Jimmy Bond!)

Le Chiffre has a little entourage of tough characters, as well as a pretty girl named Valerie Mathis, played by the lovely Linda Christian. (The very first Bond girl is a Christian!) Valerie and Bond have a little history together, and Le Chiffre tries to use her against Bond several times in the photo-play.

And for back-up, all James has is Clarence Leiter, who calls him Jimmy and doesn’t even know how to play baccarat!

One thing I very much like about this film is how they handle the card-playing. I am a big fan of the 1967 version and I find it very annoying that they never explained baccarat, not one little bit! The way it's treated in the 1967 film, it could be a made-up game, like Jumanji or something. In the 1954 TV version, Bond and Leiter find an isolated table where Leiter can tell Jimmy about Le Chiffre (for example, he carries three razor blades, one in his hatband, one in his shoe, and one in his cigarette case). Every time somebody walks by, Leiter stops talking and Bond explains how to play baccarat. They don’t want anyone to know they are talking about Le Chiffre. (Because it's RUDE to talk about peple behind their backs!) And if the viewer pays attention, he knows all he needs to know for the big baccarat showdown between Bond and Le Chiffre.

The baccarat game is actually pretty exciting. Bond loses BAD at first. He runs out of money. Le Chiffre gloats and nonchalantly dangles his cigarette on his lip in a contemptuous sneer at Bond. (And when he opens his cigarette case, we see the razor blade! Wow! It's true! This guy is obsessed with shaving!) But the maitre'd walks up and informs Bond that somebody has fronted him 35 million francs. He assumes it's Leiter and he proceeds to wipe up the floor with Le Chiffre. In your face, Herr Zeffer!

It's not Leiter, though. It was Valerie Mathis, who turns out to be with the French Secret Police or something.

Le Chiffre is not happy. With his thugs, he trashes Jimmy's hotel room, ties up Valerie, beats up Bond, ties him up, and lays him out in the bathtub. He wants to know where the money is. Jimmy won’t tell him, so Le Chiffre tortures him with a pair of pliers! On his toe! Ouch! Ouch! Stop! (There's some pretty bad acting here, but let's be nice and let it slide. It's probably hard to concentrate on your acting when somebody is torturing you with a pair of pliers on your toe.)

Valerie can't take it. She loves Bond and she can't bear to see him tortured. Le Chiffre pulls out his cigarette case and leaves it on the side of the tub as Valerie tells him what she knows. She doesn't know where the money is, but Jimmy was carrying a screwdriver when she came to his room. (The money must be inside the screwdriver!) Le Chiffre and his henchmen leave the room. With Valerie's help, Bond gets the razor blade out of the cigarette case, frees himself and Valerie, and they fight their way to freedom, killing Le Chiffre in the process.

Hoo-ray!

Don't take my word for it. It is not that hard to get a hold of this great little bit of James Bond history. The 1967 version of Casino Royale is available on DVD and the 1954 TV version is one of the bonus features.

It was a rather inauspicious beginning for Bond. No quips, no gadgets, no M, no Q, no Moneypenny, no car chases, no exotic location shooting, only one babe. But it was a start.

Next: We jump ahead 13 years to 1967, when Sean Connery learned You Only Live Twice.

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