Monday, April 26, 2010

Nelson, Barry Nelson: The first James Bond

Casino Royale (1954)
Starring: Barry Nelson, Linda Christian, Peter Lorre and Michael Pate
Director: William H. Brown Jr.
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When allied intelligence agencies learn that a key Soviet operative (Lorre) has been funding his gambling habit with KGB money, secret agent James Bond (Nelson) is charged with beating him at one final high-stakes card game and then expose his theft and force the Soviet spymasters to kill him in order to save face. When one of Bond's former lovers (Christian) turns up in the employ of the enemy, the mission becomes far more complicated and dangerous.

I did not make a mistake in the plot summary above. In this, the very first screen adventure of Ian Fleming's James Bond, Britain's super-spy isn't British at all. It's a little known fact that the very first James Bond adaptation was made by American producers and directed at an American television audience. They decided that Bond needed to be an American so they could relate better to him. While it feels a bit odd to have James Bond presented as an American, Barry Nelson does a decent job with the character, being at least the equal of the other one-shot James Bond, George Lazenby from "On Her Majesty's Secret Service".

As would be expected from a 1950s television drama, Bond more a man of romance than randiness. Also, as would be expected from a 1950s television drama, especially when one considers that it was performed and broadcast live, the adventure is not as wild as any of the "official" Bond pictures that followed. What is very unexpected, however, is the cold brutality of the villain, La Chiffe. He is as vicious and brutal as any Bond villain that follows. In fact, I don't think Bond was tortured in such a straight-forward manner as he is in this film until the Pierce Brosnan-starring "Die Another Day" in 2002.

Cast-wise, the film is also better than expected. As mentioned, Barry Nelson plays a very good Bond, while Peter Lorre is likewise the equal of any actor who portrayed a Bond villain in the 25 other cinematic Bond adventures in the 50+ years since this was filmed. Even Linda Christian is good--perhaps she is better in live performances than traditional filmmaking, because I never would have thought she could act based on other performances I've seen from her.

If you like spy thrillers, I think this movie is worth checking out. That goes double if you're a big-time Bond fan, as this historical curiosity shows that there has been more than one "reboot" of the James Bond "franchise" since its beginning.

(This version of "Casino Royale" is included as a bonus feature on the 2002 edition of the David Niven- and Ursula Andress-starring "Casino Royale" from 1967. (I will be reviewing that version eventually on the Watching the Detectives blog.)

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