When Eon Productions, maker of all those James Bond movies, finally made a film based on the very first Ian Fleming novel, fans of the super spy may have wondered what took them so long. The novel, published in 1953, introduced us to the Cold War spy with a “License to Kill”, but why no movie? In the book as in the films (plural, follow along), Bond’s mission is to bankrupt the evil Le Chiffre of the Russian secret service by beating him at cards at the Casino Royale. Le Chiffre is desperate for the money, but confident he will win. His own life will be at risk if he loses.
The book was a hit in the UK, but sales in the US were slow and this set into motion events that would keep a serious adaptation of the novel away the big screen for over 50 years. In an effort to popularize his hero in America, Fleming sold the television rights for the novel to CBS to adapt into a live drama for the series Climax! The program aired October 21, 1954 and probably would have been lost forever, if not for the eventual popularity of the novels and movies.
Casino Royale 1954
The television production starred Barry Nelson as James Bond, an American agent. Sometimes he is referred to as “Jimmy” which ought to make the long time Bond fans cringe. The American agent in the novel in now a British agent and named Clarence Leiter (rather than Felix). For the live drama, parts are condensed or eliminated and the focus is on the card game. Since the game is baccarat, not poker as in the latest movie, a little time is spent explaining it for the American audience.
Le Chiffre is played by Peter Lorre, a veteran of the big screen, with just the right amount of evil. A film star of the 1940’s and 50’s, Linda Christian, gets the honor of being the first “Bond girl.” You are left to wonder, at least at the outset, whose side she is really on. I guess for an early black and white television drama, it is not too bad, if you can get past a Jimmy Bond as an American spy.
In 1955 Fleming sold the movie rights to film director and producer Gregory Ratoff for a mere 6 thousand dollars. Perhaps it was big money then. Unfortunately, Ratoff died in 1960, never having developed the story for the movies. Next up was producer, attorney, talent agent Charles K Feldman who represented Ratoff’s widow and ultimately obtained the rights. By that point, the Bond series was off to a good start and how could Feldman possibly compete? Failing to negotiate an agreement with Eon, he decided to do something that may have been typical of the mid to late 1960’s. He produced a “madcap” comedy, a spoof of the spy series.
There just is not enough space here to explain what the producers and various directors did to this film. Although they assembled what was meant to be an “all-star” cast, you can not say they got a lot of great performances from this crew. Various writers created sections that were to be filmed by different directors and all would be edited together. This allowed them to work with many stars doing different scenes at different locations and studios at the same time. A movie mess ensued.
John Huston, who also appears in the movie as M, directed one segment and left. Five other directors worked on the project, one is uncredited. David Niven is “Sir James Bond” who must be convinced by Huston, Charles Boyer, William Holden and Kurt Kazner to come out of retirement to deal with Le Chiffre. Bond takes on the role of head of the spy agency upon M’s departure and they recruit Peter Seller’s (Evelyn Tremble), a baccarat expert, to impersonate Bond and play Le Chiffre at the Casino. Le Chiffre is played by Orson Welles.
OK, now we will stop trying to explain it. You have to see it (or not). The temperamental Seller’s left the project for a rest before his part was finished, and he was asked not to return. Welles hated the unprofessional Sellers and they did not speak to one another, or work together much apparently. A whole gaggle of stars make cameo appearances. When all was said and done, and there was a confused mess on film, Val Guest, one of the directors, along with the film editor, got permission to film additional scenes with Niven and Ursula Andress (Vesper Lynd) It was an attempt to find some continuity to the script and deal with the missing David Sellers’ part. Watch for un-credited stars, especially at the ending. There is no good explanation for the final scenes.
The critically panned film did well at the box office, as many of the crazy comedies of the 60’s had done. At least it provided a great musical score by Burt Bacharach, including the hit song The Look of Love. The film rights then passed to Colombia Pictures, the studio that put out this mess. They held onto them until 1989 when Colombia was acquired by Sony. A legal battle followed, and the rights were used as a bargaining chip with MGM/UA for…wait for it…MGM’s portion of the rights to Spider-Man. Yes, Spider Man was traded for the original James Bond in 1999.
Casino Royale was not next as there was one more Pierce Brosnan movie to be made. When Brosnan declined a fifth film, the opportunity to “reboot” the spy series was at hand. It was back to the beginning. Our hero becomes “007,” and the silver screen welcomes Daniel Craig as “Bond, James Bond.”