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Casino Royale (1954)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

CASINO ROYALE (1954)

Starring: Barry Nelson, Peter Lorre, Linda Christian, Michael Pate, Eugene Borden

Written By: Antony Ellis, Charles Bennett, Ian Fleming (novel) Directed By: William H. Brown

The Short Version

Before the big screen hosted Bond, James Bond…

…the small one hosted “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond.

The results are just as awful as that simple statement suggests.

On the plus side, Peter Lorre plays the villain.

One watches 1954’s Casino Royale only as a curious artifact of history and not much else.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

AMERICAN.

Also known as “wax,” a name it got for a reason.


Pairs Well With...

SCOTCH & WATER.

The first drink ordered by “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond… so you’d better make it with cheap Scotch, for accuracy.

“The casino is full of apologies, Mr. Bond.  Such an act is beyond explanation.  You had not begun to play, so it was not your winnings they were after.”

“Yeah, and it wasn't my autograph, either.”


When Ian Fleming pounded out his first James Bond adventure novel, “Casino Royale,” back in 1952, his ultimate aspiration wasn’t the be the creator of the most famous spy and the most famous series in the history of literature.  No; he wanted to be known as the creator of the most famous spy and the most famous series in the history of motion pictures or television; either one would do.  The book was written with the screenplay in mind, and to that end, he shopped out the filming and broadcast rights to his novel as quickly as he possibly could.

It turned out to be… challenging.

Eventually, the rights went to a producer who decided to try the story out as the third episode of a live drama program on CBS television called “Climax!”  If things went well, it was entirely possible that a spin-off series would be in Mr. Fleming’s future.

Alas for Ian Fleming – and fortunately for movie fans around the world – things did not go well, and so James Bond would continue living only on the printed page for the next several years, allowing for many more stories to be written that would eventually be the basis for what has indeed become the longest-running, most successful franchise in motion picture history.

Considering how CBS shredded the one story it did get its hands on…  Yeah, television – especially American television – wasn’t going to cut it.

Here’s how they tried.

As noted, “Climax!” was a live drama anthology series, with different adventures playing out during each episode.  The intro to the Casino Royale episode begins with the host describing an object familiar to many a gambler…


“Good evening.  This doesn't look dangerous, does it?  But it's killed plenty of men and women.  It's made beggars of many and millionaires of a few, mighty few.

“In French gambling casinos, this is called a shoe.  It holds the cards for baccarat - king of gambling games - and its purpose is to make sure that no one can pull any funny business, like dealing from the bottom.  The game to be played tonight is for the highest stakes of all.  A man is going to wager his life.

“ ‘Climax!’ presents Casino Royale, from the bestseller by Ian Fleming.  Stars Barry Nelson, Peter Lorre, and Linda Christian.  And now, Casino Royale…”


So far, so good… but then it all goes to pot, and the audience knows it from the moment Our Hero is introduced.  Why so?  Because our hero is not introduced as a Brit who goes by the name of ‘Bond, James Bond.’  Instead, he’s an American called… wait for it…

“Card Sense” Jimmy Bond!

A Yank named Jimmy.  “Card Sense” Jimmy.  Go ahead, take a drink.  I’ll wait.  Hell, I’ll join you.

Eventually, “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond – so called because he’s allegedly a whiz with cards, despite the fact that he’s actually pretty awful once he’s at the table – meets up with British agent Clarence Leiter –

Another drink?  You bet.

– who alternates between loudly reciting the text of “Baccarat For Dummies” and quietly informing the clueless “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond what the mission is: to bankrupt and therefore humiliate a Russian agent  known as “Le Chiffre,” whose mistress, unbeknownst to the good guys, happens to be Jimmy’s ex-lover, Valerie Mathis –

Just give me the whole damn bottle already, all right?

Look, I get that certain things needed to be adapted here, not just for the sake of time (the show could only run 51 minutes), but also for content.  I don’t mind that the French whorehouses that are the cause of Le Chiffre’s trouble in Ian Fleming’s novel get whitewashed into something else.  That the folks at CBS decided that stripping “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond naked and mercilessly bashing his bare scrotum with a carpet beater on live national television was not going to be acceptable to them, I completely understand.  I know that the screenplay never ends up being the same as the book.  But the pointless pandering that is the remaking of nasty Brit James Bond into blundering American “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond is just too much to bear, and the complete dumbing down of everything and everyone else around him only serves to magnify this first, most basic problem, as does the shaky performance of Barry Nelson as the man of the hour.

I don’t condemn Mr. Nelson for his efforts, mind.  He was given a lousy script that got slashed and rewritten literal minutes before this live show went on the air (someone noticed that the show was going to run long), and he knew that he was out of his depth.  (He’s admitted as much in later interviews, during which he has demonstrated nothing but pure class, and I salute him for that.)  And it’s not his fault that television censors of the early 1950s wouldn’t tolerate the kind of sexual tension that a real James Bond story absolutely demands in order to be successful.  I’m sure he felt lucky to even get one incredibly lame kiss approved.  But for those of us who have come to know and love the character of James Bond as he’s appeared on the big screen for over fifty years…

Barry Nelson has described his performance as not “Double Oh Seven,” but rather, “Double Oh One-and-a-Half.”  He is both graceful for saying so and absolutely right.

To properly describe the rest of the debacle that it the “Climax!” take on Casino Royale would only serve to invite sadness and despair, and besides, I’m pretty sure you’ve got the gist of things by now.  Many have argued that the show deserves to be cut some slack because it was, after all, live, but so is every stage play that you or I or anyone else has ever seen, so that argument doesn’t really hold water with me.  Besides, I have cut it some slack, and it’s still bad.  Taking things a step further and approaching Casino Royale as though there was no other James Bond lore to link it to doesn’t help, either; any way you slice it, it still flips back and forth between being “annoying” and “a yawner.”

If there’s anything good to be noted about the “Climax!” attempt at Casino Royale other than the fact that it failed hard enough to deny Ian Fleming his then-dream of his own television series, it’s that CBS managed to acquire the services of Peter Lorre to play the villain, Le Chiffre.  Lorre is always a delight to watch no matter what he’s working on, and here, his signature oddity (yes, that’s a compliment) serves very well to bolster the script’s watered-down version of Le Chiffre back to some level of menacing respectability.  I daresay that without Peter Lorre’s presence, this would cross the line of “totally unwatchable;” with him, it stays in “have strong drinks handy” territory.

Bottom line, the CBS television one-and-done of Casino Royale is not something one watches for the purpose of true entertainment; on that score, there’s just no profit in it.  Rather, this is something best approached as an artifact of history, be it from the perspective of a James Bond fan who really Needs To See Everything, or that of someone interested in the history of broadcast television in general.  It is also something best approached with plenty of strong drinks on hand.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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