Monday, February 17, 2014

Climax!: "Casino Royale" (1954)

Ian Fleming always intended for Bond to get out of the books and onto the screen. In fact, the US edition of Casino Royale had only been out several months when it was adapted for TV by the hour-long, suspense anthology series, Climax. “Casino Royale” was the show’s third episode following an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and the Bayard Veiller play The Thirteenth Chair (which had already been made into three different movies, one of which was directed by Tod Browning and co-starred Bela Lugosi).

The show was kind of a big deal. Though the few, remaining prints are black-and-white, the series was actually broadcast in color, which was rare in 1954. It was also hosted by film star William Lundigan (Dodge City, The Sea Hawk). But Fleming would come to regret the hastiness with which he accepted the Climax deal and it’s not hard to see why. The show famously changed James Bond into an American CIA agent named “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond, and while that was the most obvious and horrific alteration, it wasn’t the only one.

The Le Chiffre job is still an international operation coordinated by Britain, but Her Majesty’s Secret Service is represented by Clarence Leiter (replacing the novel’s American Felix), who says he works for Station S (the MI-6 branch in the novel that comes up with the mission). Clarence bankrolls Bond’s initial gambling stake and even debriefs him on the mission, a la M. Bond himself is clueless about the case when he arrives at the casino and at first assumes that he’s supposed to assassinate Le Chiffre.

Bond’s being briefed in the field by another agency isn’t so bad, but he comes across as fairly clueless through the whole episode. Barry Nelson (Shadow of the Thin Man, The Shining) plays him with a boyish quality that makes me believe he’s fun at a card table or on a date, but doesn’t create confidence in him as an agent. He has none of the cruelty of Fleming’s Bond and any meanness in his performance is a reaction to pain.

He’s a reactionary, helpless character all around. When it becomes clear that his life is in danger, he asks the casino to give him an armed guard. It’s Clarence who points out that winning the game might not be the end of the affair and suggests that Bond hide the winnings checque. (Also unlike the novel, there’s no mystery to where Bond hides the checque since the camera shows him doing it.) Bond doesn’t even get to chase Le Chiffre in order to rescue Vesper. The villain just shows up in Bond’s room with the woman to look for the checque and that’s where the final showdown and torture sequence (working on Bond’s toes with pliers instead of the much more effective technique used in the novel and the Daniel Craig movie) takes place.

Vesper is another major change. Her name is Valerie Mathis in the episode, suggesting that she’s combined with the Mathis character from the novel (though how much isn’t revealed until late in the story). When she’s introduced, it’s clear that she’s working with Le Chiffre, who’s using her because she has a previous relationship with Bond that may or may not have been true love depending on which of them you asked and how much you trusted their answer

In the novel, Le Chiffre uses disposable henchmen in addition to loyal Basil and the Corsican, but in the TV episode his entire operation is consolidated to three goons. Basil is still the main one, and the other two are given names and increased responsibilities. They all make various attempts to keep Bond out of Le Chiffre’s way and it’s them and Le Chiffre who directly bug Bond’s room and listen in on his conversations with Valerie.

Valerie appears to be an unwilling participant in Le Chiffre’s plans. He doesn’t trust her and she tells Bond that she’s only helping out of fear for his life. Not revealing Valerie’s motives right away is the episode’s way of handling the more complicated relationship with Bond and Vesper in the book, but by the end it’s clear that she’s not only on Bond’s side, but working for France’s Deuxième Bureau. In fact, she’s the source of extra funds that saves the mission (rather than Felix and the CIA from the novel).

But for all the changes the show makes to the novel, it works as its own thing. Clarence is a smart, charming agent; too affable to replace the absence of a real Bond, but still clever and likable. He and Jimmy Bond have great chemistry and I enjoy watching them work together.

I don’t know that I want to say that the episode makes improvements to the novel, but it does a couple of things differently that work better for the screen. TV Le Chiffre is more tenacious than novel Le Chiffre for instance. Fleming’s villain makes a couple of attempts to keep Bond from playing/winning the card game, but Climax has him constantly planning and scheming. The episode opens with an assassination attempt, then one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen tries to stick up Clarence before he can deliver the gambling stake to Bond. Just before the game Bond gets a phone call threatening Valerie’s life if he wins, there’s the cane-gun trick right out of the book (though it takes place after Bond’s already won and is really just another glorified stick-up), and of course Le Chiffre uses Valerie throughout to try to convince Bond to give up.

In the novel, Fleming reveals that Le Chiffre carries a few razors on him at all times as weapons, but they're just color and never come into play. The TV episode makes important use of one of them, which is pretty cool. And there are a couple of other cool nods to the book as well. Bond uses the same trick with music to overcome Le Chiffre’s bug, for instance, and one of the baccarat players is Lord Danvers who also sits in on the novel’s game. And speaking of the game, it’s a great nail-biter, made even more exciting by Bond’s having explained the rules to Clarence earlier.

The casting is good too. Linda Christian (Tarzan and the Mermaids) would make a lousy Vesper, but she’s a terrific Valerie. Her feelings for Bond look convincing, but she’s able to keep her true motives mysterious. When all is revealed, she comes across as intelligent and capable while also warm and caring. It’s sometimes tough to see anything but Peter Lorre in his characters, but I like his Le Chiffre. He’s cruel, but with a sense of humor. He’s not the Fleming character, but he’s still a capable, interesting villain all on his own.

The episode comes up with some memorable, original lines too. When Clarence meets Bond, he refers to the opening assassination attempt and asks if Bond was the fellow who was shot. “No,” Bond says, “I’m the fellow who was missed.” Later, Le Chiffre explains why he needs the checque. “My life depends on it,” he says; then menacingly, “So, incidentally, does yours.” Bond of course refuses and as Le Chiffre continues to insist, Bond finally tells him, “It took me long enough to win it. It’ll take you longer to get it back.” There are more than that, but those are my favorites.

There’s one more thing that I really like, though unintentional on the creators’ part. The Climax program opened with the credits playing as the viewer travels through a series of camera lenses, completely reminiscent of the famous gun barrel opening of the Bond films.

For purists, I imagine that’s just enough similarity to be frustrating, because otherwise this is Bond in name only. And certainly no one can blame Fleming for being upset with it or continuing to pursue other ways of bringing Bond to the screen. But Climax’s “Casino Royale” is more than just an historical curiosity. It’s a fast-paced, witty, thriller with some truly great moments, even if it’s not our Bond.


Ken O said...

I need to make some time and watch this. Have you seen the Climax episode with the Long Goodbye? I enjoy Powell's version of Marlowe in Farewell/Murder.

Michael May said...

I haven't, but I'd like to. Apparently it and Casino Royale are a couple of the few episodes that still exist, so I need to track it down.


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