Climax! Mystery Theater “Casino Royale” (part 1 of 2)
Editor’s Note: In anticipation of the next James Bond film—an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, due out in November—I’m pleased to announce that I and several other recappers will soon be bringing you an Agony Booth Mega Recap of the first movie based on Casino Royale. Starring the likes of David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen, and many more—including an astounding eight Repeat Offenders—the 1967 Casino Royale is a psychedelic, schizophrenic hallucination, a James Bond spoof that uses the title of Fleming’s novel and little else. The origins of the ’67 film are as long and convoluted as the movie itself, and we’ll surely be delving into those origins more in the upcoming Mega Recap. But did you know the ’67 version wasn’t the first attempt to adapt Casino Royale for the screen? And did you know James Bond actually made his screen debut in 1954? On American TV? As an American secret agent named “Jimmy Bond”? Well, if you’re reading this, you probably already did know all that, but regardless, here’s guest recapper Amanda Wells to tell you all about it. —Albert
I’ve been asked to give a synopsis of the 1954 live TV version of Casino Royale, originally seen on the CBS series Climax! Mystery Theater, and now featured as an extra on the DVD of the 1967 movie. Primarily, I’m recapping this to show that Ian Fleming wasn’t high when he wrote the book, and there actually is a coherent story the makers of this version thoughtfully chose to use, more or less. The ’67 movie might convince you otherwise, what with its bold choice not to use the book’s plot. Or any plot, for that matter.
This show, the third episode of Climax!, was supposedly meant as a pilot for a never-developed James Bond series. But even in this version, many of the details have been changed. James Bond is now an American agent working for the “Combined Intelligence Agency”. He’s still a very good baccarat player, but he’s known here as “Jimmy”. Way to kill his coolness quotient.
Because Bond is now Americanized, it falls to the character of Felix Leiter to become the British agent of the story. But his first name has been changed to “Clarence” for some reason.
Also, the character of Vesper Lynd has been inexplicably combined with the French Deuxieme agent Rene Mathis, becoming “Valerie Mathis”. I mean, I understand economy and all that, but combining Mathis with Leiter would have made far more sense. All this accomplishes is A) giving the Main Girl a name that TV audiences of the ’50s would be more comfortable with, and B) establishing that she works for the French.
Of course, the plot of Fleming’s book has also been thinned down to its barest essentials. SMERSH has been completely removed from the story, and much of the violence has been sanitized, obviously. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Like much of primetime TV in those days, this teleplay was broadcast live. Live TV is often fraught with peril, and this show is no exception. Throughout the episode, people can be heard talking off camera, coughing, giving stage directions, and the actors themselves frequently step on each others’ lines, or just plain mess them up. This might be why Peter Lorre gives such an oddball (yeah, even for him) performance, though maybe that’s just how he plays a heavy. [Technically, this is Peter Lorre’s second appearance on this site, but I’m invoking the Robert Wagner Rule right now and saying his first appearance doesn’t really count. —Albert]
The show opens with host William Lundigan holding a shoe, a device used for dealing cards in baccarat. He talks about how deadly one of these can be. I suppose that depends on how hard you throw it at someone’s head. He says tonight’s episode is about a man wagering his life on a game of baccarat, and he starts pointlessly dealing cards and (presumably) tossing them on the floor as he introduces tonight’s presentation of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale.
Act One opens on James Bond arriving at the Casino Royale. Unfortunately, Bond is being played by Barry Nelson, who bears a disturbing resemblance to Pat Sajak. Someone takes a couple of shots at him, so to avoid the gunfire, he cleverly hides behind a very skinny column.
The doorman asks if he was being robbed (geez! Moron). Bond looks off in the distance and says someone was trying to kill him. They both look off in the distance for a long time as the sound of a car grows faint. Bond says, “Well, we’ll never catch them now.” Not if you just stand there watching them get away, no.
A crowd has formed around the casino entrance. Way to be inconspicuous as usual, Mr. Secret Agent. Everyone stares at Bond as he enters, almost like it was low-class of him to be shot at.
The owner of the casino profusely apologizes to Bond, whose reaction is to nonchalantly exchange a wad of bills for chips. Attempted murder or no attempted murder, he came here to gamble. He heads to the baccarat table. A man strikes up a conversation with Bond, and to move things along, I’ll just tell you it’s Leiter, British secret agent, though Bond doesn’t know that yet. And even at this early stage, Bond is already delivering his trademark one-liners:
Bond: No, I’m the fella who was missed!
Leiter says he knows nothing about baccarat, and I’m already tired of typing the word “baccarat”.
Bond buys into the current game, which catches the attention of Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) and his gang of geriatric thugs. Apparently, they’re all just hanging out at the casino. Leiter keeps bugging Bond about baccarat, eventually saying he’s already heard of Bond. Leiter calls him “a legend, old boy!”
He says, “‘Card-Sense Jimmy Bond’, they call you!” Well, there’s a pathetic nickname if I ever heard one. They agree to discuss baccarat over a drink, and believe me, will they ever. (Ugh!)
Le Chiffre (another word I’ll grow tired of typing) is offered the shoe (look out! It’s dangerous!), but refuses. He says he’ll be playing the next night. He approaches a woman with several dead animals wrapped around her throat, and dialogue reveals that she and Bond were once lovers. Yeah, I know. Shocking! He always seemed the chaste type.
Anyway, it appears they’ve all come here tonight for the sole purpose of scoping out Bond. We learn that Le Chiffre is planning to use the girl as bait in a nefarious trap to catch Bond. It won’t be revealed anytime soon, but the girl wrapped in furs is Valerie Mathis.
Leiter and Bond sit down at a table and order scotch and water. Wait. What? Scotch? And water? They scrapped the vodka martini for scotch and water? You know, I could almost overlook the Sajak resemblance and the “Jimmy Bond” thing, but when you go and change his signature drink, you’ve gone too far. This character is quickly becoming JBINO.
Leiter starts talking about baccarat—yes, again—while lighting Bond’s cigarette with a match. He breaks the match into three pieces, and Bond kind of rearranges the broken pieces into a triangle. Kind of. This is their secret spy signal, kind of, so Leiter immediately starts talking about Le Chiffre. Their drinks arrive, and Bond abruptly goes back to teaching Leiter baccarat. When no one’s around, they talk about Bond’s assignment, and when someone is around, they talk baccarat. This goes on for roughly forever, so let me break it down to the fundamentals.
Baccarat works like this: A guy with a lot of money buys the bank from the casino, which allows him to deal cards. Everyone watching can bet against the banker, or with him. The odds are slightly in the banker’s favor. Another player plays directly against the banker, or a group of players can combine their money to match the bank.
Players are dealt two cards each, and the object is to get 9. Tens and face cards are worthless, and scores over 9 are only worth the second digit. Two sixes, for example, instead of equaling 12, equals 2. Players can only draw one extra card. Anything under 5 must be hit on, and 6 through 9 must be stayed on. A “natural nine”, a 9 scored without drawing an extra card, is the highest value, followed by a natural eight. Ties mean no one wins or loses. Saying “banco” means you’re matching the amount the bank lays down. “Banco suivi” means you lost the last hand, but you’re playing again to try and recoup your loss. The object, of course, being to clean the other guy out. [Geez. No wonder they’re changing it to Texas Hold ‘Em in the new movie. —Albert]
Meanwhile, Bond’s assignment is this: Play against Le Chiffre, a dangerous spy working for the Soviets, and get him to lose all his money playing baccarat. It seems he’s lost 80 million francs gambling with Soviet funds so far, and they’re on to him. He needs to win it back quickly. If Bond can get him to lose what he has left, the Soviets will kill Le Chiffre and he’ll be out of the West’s way. Why doesn’t the West just kill Le Chiffre themselves right now, you ask? Well, then we wouldn’t have a story, now would we? And who said you could ask questions, anyway?
And so, Bond will be given 26 million francs, the same as Le Chiffre still has, to beat him. There. I boiled down an interminable conversation to three paragraphs, most likely saving you six or seven minutes out of your life that you can now spend more productively.