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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1954)

It's been a long time coming. Just like many other recent nerds, I first became invested in the James Bond franchise, one of the longest running and most popular series in cinema history, when the Daniel Craig films made the decade-old spy cool for a new generation of millennial asshats. I lived through the nineties, so I was aware of the series, through the Pierce Brosnan films and annual marathons on TBS. I watched that crappy "James Bond Jr." cartoon and played many rounds of "GoldenEye 64." Yet its lack of robots, aliens, or monsters kept me from being too interested as a child. As a disaffected, horny teen, the series' mixture of violence, sex, world-wide travel, a general disregard for the feelings of women (That was a joke), and its' incomparable grasp on coolness, really appealed to me. I've owned the Blu-Ray box set of the series since it came out a few years back. I've been planning this Series Report Card for quite some time. With a new film in the series coming later this year, I decided it was finally time to head down Bond highway. For completest nerd sake, I'm not just sticking to the officially sanctioned EON Productions films and am throwing in the three "unofficial" films in the series, as you'll see below.

To pay homage to my good friends at All Outta Bubble Gum, each review will also feature the 007 Seven, a check list of seven traits, cliches, and hallmarks usually, but not always, featured in the films. Why am I doing this? Because it's fun. It's the only reason to do anything.

0. “Climax!: Casino Royale

The James Bond series is one of the longest running, most successful franchises in the history of cinema. Bond and his adventures are not merely famous but truly iconic. For the huge place Bond occupies in pop culture history, the series had a beginning that can only be described as humble. The first on-screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s legendary spy did not feature Sean Connery, wasn’t produced by Eon Productions, and wasn’t even released in theaters. Instead, it was a modest television production, a one hour episode of the live anthology series “Climax!” So how do the obscure, long overlooked origins of the James Bond series hold up?

Though condensed to an hour, this “Casino Royale” hews relatively closely to Fleming’s text. However, there are some obvious, frequently pointed out differences. American secret agent Jimmy Bond, working for an organization called Combined Intelligence, is tasked with taking down Le Chiffre, a Soviet agent. Le Chiffre’s weakness is gambling, especially baccarat. Bond is assigned with beating the villain at his favorite card game, bankrupting Le Chiffre and leading to his extermination by the Russians. Valerie Mathis, a former lover of Bond who is now under Chiffre’s control, is sent to spy on the American agent. When Bond does defeat the bad guy at cards, the spy is captured and tortured, Valerie being exactly no help at all.

Of all the visual mediums, I think television ages the worst. “Casino Royale” is sixty years old and is nearly unrecognizable compared to modern TV. Befitting an anthology series, there’s a brief introduction from a host, tossing a baccarat shoe at the audience. The show was filmed live, as was the style of the time. There’s no musical score, save a brief jazz record that plays in one scene. The style of direction is stale and stationary, usually focusing on characters as they sit around and talk. The execution is generally stiff. There’s no exciting action or big explosions in this “Casino Royale,” that’s for sure. Those expecting the typical Bond thrills and spills will be disappointed.

This film, if you could even call it that, is Bond in his infancy. However, if you squint, you can see the vaguest, thinnest wisp of the traditional Bond archetypes. This was, after all, the first time Bond would ever sit around a table in a casino, wearing his tux. He teams up with Clarence Leiter, who briefs him on his mission, recalling many future meetings in M’s office. (This scene also gives Bond the oppretunity to explain the rules of baccarat to the audience, some clumsy exposition.) There’s a femme fatale, Valerie Mathis filling in for Vesper Lynd, that is sent to betray Bond but falls for his charms instead. Considering the Bond formula is so ingrained in the public consciousness, it’s interesting to go back to the very beginning and see how different everything once was.

At the center of the episode is Barry Nelson as Bond, the first, forgotten cinematic Bond. Nelson doesn’t have the immediate charm that many of the other actors who assumed the part over the years would have. However, he’s not at all bad. Like Bond is supposed to be, his wits are relatively quick. In the opening minutes, he dodges a bullet meant for him. He locks lips with a smooth lady, trades banters with supporting characters and villains alike, and relies just as much on luck as he does his spying skills. Nelson occasionally has a roughness to him that fits Fleming’s conception of the character. His slightly sardonic, which I also like. He’s also distinctly American, Nelson sporting some variation on a Maine accent. This obviously makes him very, very different then what we usually think of as Bond. If you look closely though, you can see the loose threads of the iconic character that would be.

The generally agreed upon highlight of the film is Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. Lorre made a career playing sweat-caked villains. His toad-like face, bulging eyes, and whispered accent were an ideal fit for Le Chiffre. Though not the most dynamic villain as presented here, Lorre plays the bad guy as someone who is always plotting but also at the end of his own rope. Beating Bond is literally a matter of survival for Le Chiffre. Lorre is conniving but also acknowledges the sympathetic aspect to the character. It would have been interesting to see him as the villain in a more traditional Bond movie.

If Barry Nelson is the first, unassuming Bond, Linda Christian is the first Bond Girl. Valerie Mathis isn’t the most compelling character. Though Valerie is supposed to be working for the bad guy, she never seems very interested in betraying Bond. Instead, she immediately falls to his charms. Maybe it’s just a side effect of condensing a larger story into an hour long drama but even the weakest Bond girls in the future usually took longer to be turned then that. Linda Christian is pretty but not particularly memorable in the part. Better is Michael Pate as Clarence Leiter. Yes, a British version of Felix Leiter is as weird as an American James Bond. Pate has decent chemistry with Nelson and it’s fun to watch the characters’ back-and-forth. There aren’t many other notable characters in the film, as the format keeps the story as small as possible.

Five decades later, Martin Campbell would make the card game central to “Casino Royale” way more exciting then anyone would have expected. In this “Casino Royale,” baccarat is a bore to watch. Bond and Chiffre read cards, push chips forward, barter money, and generally plot against each other. The scene drags on and on, never generating any suspense or interest from the audience. We basically watch two men sit at a table and stare at each other. It’s a big, bloated, sluggish moment in the middle of the episode, making the hour run time feel much longer.

So what passes for action and intrigue in this “Casino Royale?” There’s very little fisticuffs on hand. Bond gets a cane-gun poked in his back and pushes the guy aside. Later on, he briefly trades blows with one of Le Chiffre’s gruesome henchmen. Probably, the most exciting moment is after Bond gets captured. He’s tossed in a bathtub and is tortured with a pair of pliers. What exactly Le Chiffre is doing to Bond is left to the audience’s imagination, though I assume it involves Bond’s toes. It’s surprisingly grisly for 1954 television. The film builds an iota of tension in the last act, when Bond finally turns the table on his capture. It’s a fairly low-key finale but at least the bad guy fights the good guy. And they're not just playing cards.

The “Climax!” version of “Casino Royale” is mostly a curio for hardcore Bond fans. To compare it to any of the later Bond films is an exercise in futility, as they are entirely different beast. Taken on its own, it’s a fairly dull, occasionally interesting hour of ancient television. The show lingered in obscurity for many years, even being considered lost for a few decades before a kinescope emerged in the eighties. As an obscure side note to the Bond legacy, it’s mildly interesting but not an especially compelling film. [Grade: C]


[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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