The screen is black, and suddenly a white ball appears on the screen, moving left and right, almost bouncing in time to the music. The ball suddenly moves forward, and as it becomes larger, it transforms itself into a close-up of a gun barrel. A man walks out, turns and fires, and this is our introduction to
Bond, James Bond.
Except there's no black screen, no white ball, no John Barry music, and no gun barrel. The very first James Bond movie had none of those stylistic elements we'd come to associate with the ongoing action series, and it wasn't even released in theaters. The man pictured above, however, was our first onscreen James Bond: beefy American actor Barry Nelson.
Shot in 1954 for the live CBS television series Climax!, and preserved on kinetoscope, Casino Royale was an adaptation of the first Bond novel, made only a year after Ian Fleming published it in 1953. For years, it was thought lost, but I managed to see it at an "Ian Fleming Symposium" I attended at Indiana University in 2003, and it's since been uploaded to YouTube. Bond purists have sometimes been critical of its very loose translation of the character: Bond is American, not British, and called "Jimmy Bond," a name which doesn't really connote suave sophistication. In keeping with this changing of nationality, Felix Leiter (in the books and all subsuquent films an American CIA agent) is British. The logistics of television in the period meant that it was all shot on soundstages, claustrophobic interiors replacing the panoramic globe-hopping that would be the trademark of the sixties films. And it runs only an hour, which necessitates a compression of Fleming's narrative sweep.
For all that-- and for all datedness of the black-and-white, low-budget mise-en-scene-- there's something fascinating about this version. It's not nearly as good as the 2006 Casino Royale, but it's far better than the 1967 spoof. Actually, what all three adaptations have in common is how well they reflect the period in which they were made. The '67 version is a Pop Art free-for-all, part bloated white elephant and part modish Marvel Comics satire. The '06 film is gritty and action-packed, and haunted by the spectre of post-9/11 terrorism.
The '54 edition is less a Bond film than a film noir, owing as much to Gilda as to Ian Fleming. As played by Nelson, "Jimmy" Bond seems like a later iteration of Glenn Ford's Johnny Farrell, a cynical gambler who's not as smooth or in control as he often thinks. The noir tone is actually enhanced by the lack of exteriors: it frames the clipped dialogue with Expressionist intensity, and helps to paper over the sometimes pedestrian acting and occasional live snafus. That Expressionist history-- an accidental tapping into of a tradition of cinematic espionage that extends back to Fritz Lang -- is further enhanced by casting Peter Lorre as arch-villain Le Chiffre, who Bond must take down in a one-on-one game of baccarat. Nelson apparently took the part in order to work with Lorre, but became so nervous that at one point, Lorre had to tell him, "Straighten up, Barry, so I can kill you!"
The telefilm was not a critical or commercial success, and CBS's plan to do a Bond TV show with Fleming fell through. Various other plans to translate the Fleming aesthetic to the screen-- including a character Fleming created called "Napoleon Solo" and writing a screenplay with producer Jack McClory for a film tentatively titled James Bond of the Secret Service would also not pan out (although the latter gave us SPECTRE, the novel Thunderball, and a massive lawsuit that would have far-reaching implications for the cinematic Bond). It would be eight more years before the character was visualized again onscreen, and the television Casino Royale would not be seen again for nearly thirty years. But none of that should keep you from watching it on YouTube, where much of it has been posted. As a first attempt, it's quite honorable, and as a totem of the Cold War-- airing just four months after the Army-McCarthy hearings would close out one version of the paranoid world of espionage and subversion within which Bond lives-- it's utterly fascinating.