Friday, 5 February 2016

Casino Royale (TV, William H. Brown, 1954)

 Long before (well, eight years before, at least) Sean Connery essayed the role of superspy James Bond in Terence Young's 1962 Dr. No, and two years prior to Bob Holness of TV's Blockbusters playing Bond in a version of Moonraker for South African radio (and how i hope that the story of the genial Mr Holness greeting the news of Connery's casting with "Who's this cunt that's got my job?" is not apocryphal, because it never fails to amuse), there was only one actor to play Agent 007.  His name was Nelson.  Barry Nelson.

Starting out his career as an MGM contract player, Nelson had made his screen debut in the fourth in the series of William Powell and Myrna Loy's Nick and Nora Charles series Shadow of the Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1941) before appearing in a string of movies as diverse as the noir mystery Eyes in the Night (Fred Zinnemann, 1942) and Victor Fleming's wonderful romantic fantasy A Guy Named Joe (1943) - the basis for Steven Spielberg's 1989 remake Always - and then returning to the US after his wartime military career to feature in prestigious Broadway productions (Moss Hart's Light Up The Sky and F. Hugh Herbert's The Moon is Blue) before making many appearances in television dramas.

 Cast as James Bond, 007 - referred to throughout the American adaptation as 'Jimmy' - Nelson was unfamiliar with the character or the material with which he was working ("I was scratching my head wondering how to play it.  I hadn't read the book... it wasn't well known", he admitted in an interview), the source novel - the first of Ian Fleming's soon to be world famous series - having only been published two years earlier.  Made and aired as part of CBS' Climax! mystery theatre anthology series (which also went on to feature an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - starring Michael Rennie of Robert Wise's seminal 1951 SF classic The Day the Earth Stood Still) and broadcast live as was the televisual practice of the time, the episode is introduced by host William Lundigan who explains to the audience about the game of baccarat (which i honestly could have done with Martin Campbell 2006 film version doing with the rules of Texas Hold 'Em poker).  Nelson's flat-topped Combined Intelligence Agent 'Card Sense' Jimmy Bond is paired with Clarence Leiter - changed from the Felix Leiter of the novel and now a British agent, possibly as part of some kind of foreign exchange programme with Bond - played by Australian thespian Michael Pate (best known to me through my penchant for the slightly less dignified areas of cinema as the undead gunslinger Drake Robey aka Don  Drago Robles in the extraordinary vampire Western Curse of the Undead [Edward Dein, 1959], and his turns as the President in two Philippe Mora directed spectaculars: The Return of Captain Invincible [1983] and Howling III: The Marsupials [1987].  I do watch more edifying films.  Honest.  Sometimes.) and French agent of the Deuxieme Bureau Valerie Mathis - a composite of Fleming's Vesper Lynd and Rene Mathis characters - played by the gorgeous Mexican actress (and wife of Hollywood star Tyrone Power) Linda Christian.

Bond's mission is to take on and 'clean out' the villainous Le Chiffre, played by the great Peter Lorre (of Fritz Lang's superlative classic M [1931], Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much [1934], John Huston's The Maltese Falcon [1941] and many, many more - including favourites of mine Stranger on the Third Floor [Boris Ingster, 1940] and The Boogie Man Will Get You [Lew Landers, 1942]).  Lorre is perfectly cast as the 'toadlike' Le Chiffre, wheedling and plotting as he tries to win back the funds of his Soviet paymasters that he has blown (he's blown the funds, not the Russians) and dreading the dreaded revenge wreaked by SMERSH should he fail in his gambling endeavour.

The story moves at a good pace (perhaps due to incorporating the famed 'Fleming sweep' of its source material) across it's just under an hour runtime, with no perceptible gaffes or errors - always a danger in live broadcast material, as evidenced by the earlier Climax! production of Raymond Chandler's 'The Long Goobye', in which the actor playing the corpse assumed he was out shot, got up and ambled away.  It also stays pretty close (merged characters and swapped nationalities aside) to the novel, including the scene in which Le Chiffre's henchman holds Bond to ransom during the duel of cards by holding a trick walking stick that is actually a gun to the base of his spine in order to persuade him to leave the game and hand over his winnings - a sequence changed in the 2006 version to Bond being poisoned with a Digitalis-flavoured Martini and having to race to his car to self-administer defribrillation and medication.  Perhaps EoN Productions simply didn't think escaping a life or death situation by gripping the edge of a table and throwing oneself backwards onto the floor fit the image they wanted for the 21st century Bond they wanted to project. Still, it's nice to see it here.

One sequence that has altered however, inevitably due to the sensibilities of 1950s US television, is the torture sequence after Bond has been lured into the clutches of the vile Le Chiffre by the kidnap of Valerie / Vesper.  There was simply no way that the original scenario (a naked Bond tied to a wicker chair with the seat cut out and having his genitals battered by a carpet beater) was going to stand, yet the replacement in which a beaten Bond is tied and placed in a bathtub, his shoes removed and having his toes worked on with a pair of pliers is actually quite effective.  Due to the camera cutting away from what is precisely being done to the Bondian dactyls, and the agonised reactions of Nelson and Christian (Valerie being forced at gunpoint to watch her lover's grueling ordeal) it is left vague as to whether his toes are being broken or his toenails pulled out.  Either way, it led to me wincing almost as much as the canonical clacker-cracking.

 An enjoyable oddity of a production, obviously very different to the 'canonical' Bond series but still a fascinating curio, 'Casino Royale' features good performances from a great cast and a nicely taut and pacy script.  Rumours suggest that it had been mooted as a backdoor pilot to launch a 1950s US James Bond  TV series, and i do like the notion of a parallel universe wherein Barry Nelson was as well-known as James Bond as, say, Richard Greene is for Robin Hood.  He'll always be remembered by me, however, as 'officious little prick' Stuart Ullman, martinet manager of the dreaded Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's seminal The Shining (1980).  Shaken and stirred.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating stuff as usual Glen. Where do you find all these little oddities?