Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

By Will Ross and Devan Scott

For the first part of our You Died Scratching My Balls retrospective, we'll be looking at a little-known television relic comprising the first screen adaptation of Ian Fleming's James Bond.

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In 1954, the new anthology TV series Climax! aired a one hour episode detailing the gambling adventure of a dashing American secret agent named Jimmy Bond (if you’ve noticed two things that seem wrong already, you’re paying proper attention). The story was based on a modestly successful novel called Casino Royale by Ian Fleming. The program aired and went into obscurity until its rediscovery in the early 80s, after the world had fallen in love with the dashing British secret agent named James Bond. Whose movies, even at their worst, weren’t boring crap. Which 1954’s Casino Royale is.

In a way it’s unfortunate to start this retrospective with a film so utterly uninteresting when seen or thought of in a vacuum, but its utter ineffectuality serves us with a useful launching point from which to survey what it means to be Bond. Namely, by means of contrast with what isn’t Bond. With that in mind, let’s start with the most egregious departure from the 007 ethos made by Casino 54 (as I’ll be calling it throughout this retrospective to avoid inevitable confusions with the theatrical films): It is boring.

I'm not ignorant to the budgets and schedules of television, particularly not in a 50s one-hour series with 38 episodes in its first season. It is the resultant limit upon production control that makes television arguably more a writer’s medium than a director’s but the facts are the facts: Even the best writing requires skillful production to flourish, particularly in scenes filled with action, and Casino Royale simply doesn’t have those things. I don’t mean to be too disparaging to the direction of William H. Brown, who, as IMDB tells me, has only five TV episodes in 1954 and 1956 to his directorial credit. He was, as I mentioned, subject to the limits of television and in a few instances creates credible and even memorable shots. In the first shot, for instance, we see people entering a high-class casino, and when Bond (whose identity we don’t yet know) walks into frame, the silhouette of a pistol appears in the foreground and fires. It’s not ingenious, but it’s an effective way to create immediate mystery and tension. What Casino 54 more often suffers from is the kind of shot that follows, one of the pillar behind which Bond hides. The camera flatly films the pillar as three shots hit it. Bap – bap – bap. A far more interesting shot would obviously have been one of Bond’s face as he hid behind the pillar, reacting to the nearby bullet impacts, but the obviously tiny set was, no doubt, unpermissive. And though stylistic pretensions and camera movements occur often, they suffer from the same messy framing and staging as nearly every other shot.

All of which could have been somewhat salvaged by some ballsy potboiler writing, but fat chance there. The compression of the novel into a 50-minute TV episode necessitates far too much clumsy exposition and far too few moments of wit (though what is there barely passes for wit – the best of them is “Aren’t you the fella who was shot?” “No, I’m the fella who was missed.”) The plot: Bond enters the casino and receives instructions to play baccarat against an indebted criminal syndicate member, Le Chiffre, and to win a fortune from him, resulting in assassination by his debtors. The complicating factor: An old flame of Bond’s is also in the casino, Valerie Mathis (who will be known as Vesper Lynd in the later Royale adaptations). Unbeknownst to Bond, she is assisting Le Chiffre. I can’t help thinking it would have been better off without her, as she forms an entirely unconvincing and underdeveloped romance of betrayal and redemption with Bond, a fact exacerbated by the awful performance of Linda Christian.

The acting is rather lousy on all counts. Not only for premiere 007 Barry Nelson, who later said he didn’t know how to play the part because he had neither read the book nor heard of James Bond (he later had the good fortune of being cast as the hotel manager in The Shining), but more glaringly for Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre, a marked low point in a career that, since the late 40s, had been thrown into decline by typecasting and diminishing roles. The once great actor of M, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca is now visibly uncommitted and sad, putting no discernible work into making dialogue like “Screwdriver? Where is – could he use a screwdriver – where – where could he use a screw – where did you use it!” sound any more convincing than it reads. Watching Casino 54 is a chore as it is, but seeing the fallen Lorre makes it downright depressing.

All of these criticisms, of course, aren’t all that much worse than those that could be leveled against many other Bond films, but the single most important missing element here is a sense of daring. No risks are taken in the 1954 Casino Royale – it has none of the go-for-broke attitude that defines each and every other James Bond adventure and makes them fun. Even in its most modest dialogue, set pieces, and procedural minutiae, not a moment passes when the franchise doesn’t aim for the sexy, the exotic. After this, Bond will make many mistakes, but he’ll never be boring again.



There were really only two James Bond films to have the privilege of starting off on something resembling a clean slate. One of these, the de facto ‘first James Bond movie’, would have the fortune of sparking a cultural phenomenon, lifting the single most profitable franchise in film history off the ground. It introduced a new star – a new character - a new archetype to the masses; one Mr. James Bond.

Unfortunately, that is not this movie. Casino Royale, the de jure holder of the title ‘first James Bond film’, is about as far from what I picture when I think ‘James Bond film’ as I could conceivably imagine a James Bond film being.

Which makes perfect sense, actually. Casino Royale is but a one-hour episode of a short-lived American anthology series from the 1950s. Practically all of the film’s departures from the novels, dissimilarities from its successors, and crippling weaknesses stem from this single restriction. It’s quite unfair, then, to compare it unfavorably to a set of films not saddled with such a constraint. But did that ever stop me? Nope!

James Bond films are unique for their mixture of derring-do, carefree cheesiness, English sensibility, occasional brutality, and singularly magnetic starring character. Casino Royale has absolutely none of these things. The limitations of television circa 1954 as a medium dictate that the entire affair be played absolutely safe; there wasn’t enough production time, much less willpower, for any of the risks or hijinks that characterize the best Bond films. This is a strictly tied-down affair.

And what of Bond himself? He’s not even in the film. In his place is CIA agent extraordinaire Jimmy Bond, as portrayed by Barry Nelson: a veritable black hole of charisma. This is a character whose only truly memorable moment is his rambling, ludicrously drawn-out explanation of the finer points of the rules of Baccarat, a lesson that is free of any intrigue and practically dominates the screen time of the first act of the film. There comes a point where, after several minutes of this, Bond and his British friend Felix Leiter mercifully change the subject of the conversation to villain Le Chiffre and his Russian connections. Then, after a minute or so, Bond chimes in “Now, back to the rules of Baccarat…”, and they proceed to continue discussing the rules of Baccarat. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

This scene, possibly the most brutally interminable in the film, is, for anyone aware of the Bond franchise, conspicuously devoid of any of the quips, double-entendres, or clever turns of phrase that characterize the dialogue in even the weaker Bond films. It’s a wasteland of a scene, a stretch of celluloid where attention spans go to die.

It’s interesting to note how self-serious Casino Royale really is. In fact, it might be the most consistently self-serious Bond film. This isn’t due to any of the sinister subject matter that characterizes entries like The Living Daylights or Quantum of Solace; even the considerably darker 2006 take on Casino Royale managed to pull a painfully funny moment out of its most sadistic scene. No, it’s the fact that the screenplay and performance ares so uniformly mirthless. There isn’t a single point where a character attempts to make light of the situation; I’ve seen nary a film more levity-starved than this one.

For years, Casino Royale stood as the last extant James Bond film that I had yet to see. And now that I’ve finally seen it, I can safely say that it is, in my humble opinion, the worst James Bond film in existence. Sorry, [Name redacted for the purposes of suspense], you've been dethroned.


Theme Song:

There is none, really, but the Climax! opening is a shot that careens into a camera lens and moves through it as the starring credits appear, which, in a funny way, mirrors the famous gun barrel openings of the EON films.

We welcome guest pieces for the retrospective. Just let us know which film you'd like to write about and we'll discuss the possibility.


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