BOND: The Other Casino Royale's

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Matthew Kresal takes a trip into Bond's on screen archives for two alternate takes on Casino Royale...

None of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels took longer to be adapted for the screen by EON Productions than Casino Royale. The first Bond novel, published back in 1953, was finally adapted by EON in 2006 and served as the debut for Daniel Craig in the role of 007. Yet many of those sitting in cinemas, and watching it hence on whatever format, were likely unaware that it was in fact the most adapted Bond novel in terms of screen versions. Indeed before the EON Casino Royale there had already been two other adaptations made decades before.

The first filmed version of Casino Royale, coming just a year after the novel's original publication, was also the first on-screen depiction of James Bond. In the spring of 1954, Fleming initially sold the option for an adaptation to producer Gregory Ratoff for a mere $1,000 (though reports suggest the amount might even have been as little as $600). Ratoff was unable to draw interest from any of the major Hollywood studios at the time, due to the novel's content, but he did draw interest from the American television network CBS, who agreed to broadcasting a hour long live television adaptation of the novel. Split into three acts, like a stage play, the first screen Bond was shown live on October 21, 1954 on the anthology series Climax!, a suspense series that had started airing only three weeks before.

Coming the better part of a decade before EON's Goldfinger firmly established the image of Bond in the public consciousness, the 1954 Casino Royale is interesting viewing. Despite being merely an hour in length, the script by Anthony Ellis and Charles Bennett is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the original novel. The central plot of the novel, of Bond going to a French casino to bankrupt Le Chiffre at the baccarat tables and thus ensure his death at the hands of his Soviet paymasters, is front and center here. Much of the incidental events from the novel are in this version, as well as including one of Le Chiffre's henchmen threatening Bond with a gun hidden in a cane during the game. Even when incidents from the novel are difficult to do on screen to network censors, the limitations of live television production or (more likely) both, versions of them still appear. These include an attack on Bond while entering the casino (which is changed from a bomb to an attempted shooting) and even a version of Bond being tortured after the game. Though it's less gruesome than what both the novel and the 2006 EON film presented us with  it certainly seems to be no less painful for Bond. In a way the adaptation here is more faithful to its source material than many of EON's subsequent adaptations of Fleming's novels.

Where it is less faithful is in its casting. Perhaps the most notable change, and the one most likely to hanker fans of both the novels and the later films, was the decision to make Bond an American in a move that seems to have been made to pander to the American audience who would hopefully tune in. Actor Barry Nelson (who is perhaps better known for his role as the hotel manager who interviews Jack Nicholson's character in the opening of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining) was cast in the role of “Card Sense Jimmy” Bond who worked for the fictional spy agency called Combined Intelligence. Nelson's Bond reflects little of the character that Fleming wrote in the original novel, with his squared jaw and lack of charm which at times seems more in the vain of the gumshoe characters out of countless film noir works from the period. Yet Nelson is also able at times to show a more vulnerable character, especially in the torture sequence, which the EON films wouldn't bring out until Dalton and Craig took on the role decades later. It's a credible attempt at bringing Bond to life but it's also one that shows just how crucial the casting of that lead role can be.

Other members of the cast work better. The characters of Vesper Lynd and Bond's French ally Rene Mathis are combined into a single character named Valerie Mathis played by Linda Christian. Christian does an admirable job bringing the first Bond Girl to life, though the adaptation not only combines the characters together but also gives them a past relationship that echoes Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca made a dozen years before. Another departure from the novel, and an interesting reversal of what was done with the Bond character, is the casting of the Australian actor Michael Pate in the role of British agent Clarence Leiter who takes the place of CIA agent Felix Leiter. Pate does an admirable job though the friendship between this particular Leiter and Bond seems a bit forced, especially in the opening minutes of the production. Like Nelson's Bond, the performances are credible but they're also far more admirable attempts as well.

The most notable member of the 1954 Casino Royale cast though would be its villain. Playing Le Chiffre is none other than Peter Lorre, an iconic character actor notable for films including 1931's M and 1941's The Maltese Falcon. Lorre was perfect casting for the role and he brings a wonderful sense of menace mixed with charm to the first Bond villain, something that's especially present during the interactions between Bond and Le Chiffre during the first part of the production. Where Lorre really shines is during the last act when he taunts Bond as he's being tortured, mixing the charm and menace together in equal measure. If anything from this 1954 production pre-echoes what EON would do later, it's Lorre's Le Chiffre and that isn't a bad thing at all.

Despite being the first screen Bond, the 1954 Casino Royale made virtually no impact upon either viewers or critics. In the spring of 1955, Ratoff eventually purchased the screen rights to Casino Royale in perpetuity for an additional $6,000 and still held the rights when he passed away in 1960. The following year, Ratoff's widow sold the rights to producer Charles K. Feldman for $75,000. Albert R. Broccoli attempted to purchase the rights from Feldman but he refused to sell, and Broccoli would eventually turn to Harry Saltzman with whom EON Productions would begin making the “official” Bond films beginning in 1962.

Feldman meanwhile approached legendary Hollywood director Howard Hawks with a script written by Ben Hecht, though the release of Dr. No and From Russia With Love derailed Feldman's plans. After an attempt at a co-production with EON starring Sean Connery was rejected (likely due to a similar situation arisen due to issues with the rights to Thunderball), Feldman eventually settled on a different approach to filming Fleming's novel.

That approach was a parody. Hecht's drafts of the script were straight adaptations of the novel, at least one of them without the Bond character being present, though in one of them he introduced a key idea of the eventual film: that James Bond was in fact a codename. That idea became central to the eventual movie that was released in 1967, ahead of the release of EON's You Only Live Twice. It was a big budget film for its time, costing $12 million and featuring an all-star cast, including David Niven, John Huston, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Bouchet, Jacqueline Bisset and Ursula Andress among others. It also featured the work of five directors (including Huston and the underrated Val Guest) and was beset by behind the scenes issues that included a budget that doubled over production and clashes between Sellers (who reportedly wanted the film to be a straight adaptation) and Welles (who regarded Seller as an “amateur”).

Looking at the film, it isn't hard to understand all the issues. It begins with M (played by Huston) and the heads of several spy agencies approaching the original James Bond (played by Niven) who is living in retirement in the English countryside on a massive estate. SMERSH is ravaging the spy world by killing agents from all sides, and they want Bond to do something about it. When he refuses, M gives orders for Bond's estate to be destroyed which eventually leads to M's death and Bond taking over MI6. Already entrenched in parody mode, the film becomes increasingly absurd as it goes along as Bond decides all MI6 agents will now be known as “James Bond” to confuse SMERSH. Niven's Bond then goes on a recruiting drive bringing in agents including Vesper Lynd (Andress), the oddly named baccarat master Evelyn Tremble (Sellers), Bond's daughter from Mata Hari who is also named Mata, as well as Bond's nephew Jimmy (Allen) amongst others. As if that wasn't enough, it goes into an episodic mode that takes the viewer from M's estate in Scotland, the gaming clubs of London, an auction of erotic images in Berlin and the titular casino where not only do Temble and Le Chiffre (Welles) have their card game but which also where SMERSH has its base.

As the description may suggest, the film is a hodgepodge and a messy one at that. Indeed, the film's description by the British Film Institute as "an incoherent all-star comedy" is an accurate one, though to call it a comedy may be stretching the definition of the word. Many times the film, despite being a parody, isn't funny at all but rather is dull and tedious as it stumbles along from one episode to another. The five different directors and the variety of writers who wrote it mean that the film completely, totally and utterly lacks any kind of cohesion in terms of visual style or indeed tone. The film's last section, a free for all fight sequence set in the casino that ends in an explosion and the various James Bond's appearing in heaven playing harps, is a summation of not just the film but all that is wrong with it: it's a mess. It's a rare waste of talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Which isn't to write it off completely. Sections of the film are actually surprisingly faithful to the original novel despite the comic overtones, such as the Niven Bond's choice of car (which matches that of Fleming's novels) and it's especially true of the section with Sellers, Andress and Welles set at the casino in the middle of the film The card game is largely played straight once Welles' Le Chiffre gets past doing some magic tricks and Sellers doing a comedy Indian accent. Even in the truly odd torture sequence, which becomes an assault on the mind of Tremble/Bond, there's echoes of Fleming's novel, such as Bond finding himself sitting in a chair with the seat removed from it, thus making it even more uncomfortable. Of all the actors in the film, Sellers is probably the one who comes off the best, though his appearances see him dipping in and out before eventually just disappearing (a result apparently of behind the scenes issues) while many of the others are effectively wasted on frankly poor material.

After 1967, Casino Royale would have to wait nearly four decades before being adapted for the screen again. The film rights to Fleming's novel sat with Columbia Pictures which was eventually bought by Sony. Sony held on to the rights for years until, as part of legal wrangling involving the rights to Thunderball, EON finally acquired them in the early 2000s. The stage was finally set in 2006 for EON to finally bring it to the screen, but not before the story of Casino Royale took another twist...

James Bond will return next Thursday.... and Matthew will continue the tale.

Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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