The Reviewinator: Climax! – Casino Royale (1954)

casinoroyaleposterMost people don’t know this, but James Bond started off on the small screen. In black and white. As an American! Back in the 1950’s, in the magical land of Hollywood, there was this anthology series called Climax! that had different mystery stories and characters every episode. And one of those was the screen debut of James Bond, albeit not the suave British spy we’ve come to expect.

As a huge James Bond fan (is there any other kind?) I’m actually sorry to say that this is the most accurate adaptation of Ian Fleming’s original novel. It begins right at the Casino Royale, with “Combined Intelligence” agent Jimmy Bond (Barry Nelson) being recruited to defeat Soviet agent Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) at a game of baccarat.  His ex-girlfriend Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian) is Le Chiffre’s current girlfriend, and agrees to play both sides.

What follows is some melodramatic card-playing, followed by a melodramatic torture scene that really doesn’t look all that painful. It doesn’t help that Barry Nelson is really not likable as James Bond, or a leading man in general. He’s a cardboard cutout of a better leading man. But the biggest tragedy is the lack of suspense on a story that is relying entirely on it, a casualty of adapting the book so closely, which I also felt was weak in that area. And don’t expect the famous catch-phrase or fancy gadgets or any of the classic music; there’s none of that here. All of that cool, seductive spy stuff is found in the real franchise. This is just two guys playing cards and one of them being a sore loser about it.

The book is very short, as is this adaptation. At 50 minutes (60 minutes minus commercials; those must have been the days), this is by far the shortest James Bond movie. But if you can manage to find it, watch it. Every James Bond fan should see how the series really got started, even if it leaves you with less than you came in with.

2 out of 5

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