We like to think that James Bond appeared on screen fully formed in Dr. No, but oh what a different world we could have had.
Sean Connery may have nailed it straight out of the gate in 1962, but he wasn’t the first actor to fill the suit – that honour goes to Barry Nelson in a single episode of a US anthology series called Climax! which aired eight years earlier.
Hewing much closer to Ian Fleming’s source material, and with only half the time to tell the story, this version of Casino Royale almost solely concentrates on what we know as the climactic card game.
The basic elements are still there – Le Chiffre needs to win at cards to win back his money and Bond is helped, or hindered, by a beautiful woman – but this is a much slower, quieter Bond.
Baccarat chemin-de-fer is the game of choice and as a consequence much of the episode is taken up with Bond trying to explain the rules to Clarence Leiter (and thus the audience) without much obvious success.
Slightly more awkward in a suit than any of the Bonds that came after, and definitely more American, Barry Nelson nevertheless gives a fine turn as the suave spy that we know and love. His poker face may not be ideal, but luckily he’s playing Baccarat.
For some reason nobody can pronounce ‘Le Chiffre’ in this production, but Peter Lorre carries the role with aplomb. He may not be as urbane as Mads Mikkelsen, but there’s a quiet viciousness to his performance that works well.
Combining Vesper Lynd and René Mathis into one character, Valerie Mathis is the money, the betrayer, the fixer and the girl. Linda Christian is an admirable addition to the Bond Girl canon, and actually plays less of the damsel in distress than you might expect from 1954.
Seemingly only there to facilitate an explanation of the rules of Baccarat chemin-de-fer Michael Pate’s Clarence Leiter (yes, Clarence) nevertheless performs well. He also sets up the first Bond one-liner so for that much can be forgiven…
Leiter: “Aren’t you the fellow who was shot?”
Bond: “No, I’m the fellow who was missed.”
The only black and white Bond (until the opening sequence of Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale in 2006) and definitely, thankfully, the only time James ‘Jimmy’ Bond is an American.
Barry Nelson has said that one of the principle reasons he took the role was to play opposite Peter Lorre, an extremely well-respected actor famous for the likes of M, The Maltese Falcon, Arsenic and Old Lace and Casablanca.
Baccarat chemin-de-fer may be largely incomprehensible to the lay-man but it has featured in a few Bond films since: Thunderball, Casino Royale (1967), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only and GoldenEye.
1954 was a very different time when it came to TV production (this was broadcast live, for one thing) and it shows.
Barry Nelson tries his best but is ultimately mostly unsuccessful in translating Bond to the screen, although admittedly that is partly because he’s not playing Bond how we’ve known him for the last fifty-odd years.
The thrills are still present, particularly by the end when Le Chiffre is torturing Bond and threatening Valerie, but it never quite gets off the ground. For the completist only.
James Bond will return in Dr. No.
What do you think of 1954’s Casino Royale? Let us know below…