Casino Royale — take one, take two …

Casino Royale — take one, take two … October 12, 2005

Quick question: Who was the first actor to play James Bond? Hint: It wasn’t Sean Connery, who played the character seven times between 1962’s Dr. No and 1983’s Never Say Never Again.

Give up? It was an American actor named Barry Nelson, who played James “Jimmy” Bond in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale produced for American television. That’s him in the bathtub in the photo above, about to be tortured by Peter Lorre and/or one of Lorre’s henchmen.

The entertainment world has been abuzz lately with news that an actor may have finally been picked to play Bond in an upcoming third version of Casino Royale. As it happens, I had placed a hold on the library’s copy of the 1967 version, which was an outright spoof of the James Bond movies even though it took its name from the novel which introduced Ian Fleming’s character — and the library copy happened to become available this week.

FWIW, since placing the hold, I had found a couple other reasons for becoming curious about the 1967 version, which I had seen many years ago and had mostly forgotten. I had recently seen The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004), which touches on Sellers’ role in this film (and on the fact that he left the set and/or was fired a couple weeks before he had finished shooting his scenes); and I had also recently seen Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958) at the local film festival, and I was curious to see David Niven and Deborah Kerr together again in a movie that would be the complete opposite of that melodramatic tragedy.

Come to that, I was just curious to see Kerr in an outright comedy, period. I get the feeling that she, at least, was stretching her range; many of the other stars, from the protean Sellers to the neurotic Woody Allen to the magic-trick-performing Orson Welles, use the film as an excuse to indulge their public personae.

But the reason I had placed a hold on this disc in the first place was because it includes the 1954 TV adaptation of the book. And I found it interesting enough — the way Bond and Leiter have switched nationalities, the way the torture scene has been revised so that it is less sadistic and less sexually charged, the way it cuts the story off before the point in the novel where Bond goes into his monologue about the need for an “Evil Book” to provide a counterpoint to the “Good Book” that is the Bible, etc. Still, while the story has been tamed somewhat, I can’t help thinking this version was kind of edgy for a mid-1950s TV broadcast.

And speaking of that torture scene, I was surprised to see just how much of Fleming’s original story was incorporated into the Peter Sellers section of the 1967 film. Sure, it’s been tweaked so that it’s a parody now and not a straightforward thriller, and the rest of the film has basically nothing to do with the book at all, but some bits — like this shot of Sellers sinking into the chair without a bottom — do work best if you have a knowledge of the original story.

That said, the 1967 film is still a long, disjointed, meandering mess — 2 hours and 17 minutes is far too long for a comedy, especially one that was slapped together with as little rhyme or reason as this one was. There is some nice music, though — I had no idea Dusty Springfield’s ‘The Look of Love’ was written for this film!

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  • In case anyone’s curious about that “Evil Book” business, here is the relevant section from Ian Fleming’s original novel. It’s from the 20th chapter out of 27, entitled ‘The Nature of Evil’. Bond is recuperating in the hospital and he has just told a colleague of his named Mathis that he intends to resign from the Secret Service. Asked why he plans to resign, Bond replies …

    – – –

    ‘When I was being beaten up,’ he said, ‘I suddenly liked the idea of being alive. Before Le Chiffre began, he used a phrase which stuck in my mind … “playing Red Indians”. He said that’s what I had been doing. Well, I suddenly thought he might be right.

    ‘You see,’ he said, still looking down at his bandages, ‘when one’s young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong, but as one gets older it becomes more difficult. At school it’s easy to pick out one’s own villains and heroes and one grows up wanting to be a hero and kill the villains.’

    He looked obstinately at Mathis.

    ‘Well, in the last few years I’ve killed two villains. The first was in New York — a Japanese cipher expert cracking our codes on the thirty-sixth floor of the RCA building in the Rockefeller centre, where the Japs had their consulate. I took a room on the fortieth floor of the next-door skyscraper and I could look across the street into his room and see him working. Then I got a colleague from our organization in New York and a couple of Remington thirty-thirty’s with telescopic sights and silencers. We smuggled them up to my room and sat for days waiting for our chance. He shot at the man a second before me. His job was only to blast a hole through the windows so that I could shoot the Jap through it. They have tough windows at the Rockefeller centre to keep the noise out. It worked very well. As I expected, his bullet got deflected by the glass and went God knows where. But I shot immediately after him, through the hole he had made. I got the Jap in the mouth as he turned to gape at the broken window.’

    Bond smoked for a minute.

    ‘It was a pretty sound job. Nice and clean too. Three hundred yards away. No personal contact. The next time in Stockholm wasn’t so pretty. I had to kill a Norwegian who was doubling against us for the Germans. He’d managed to get two of our men captured — probably bumped off for all I know. For various reasons it had to be an absolutely silent job. I chose the bedroom of his flat and a knife. And, well, he just didn’t die very quickly.

    ‘For those two jobs I was awarded a Double O number in the Service. Felt pretty clever and got a reputation for being good and tough. A double O number in our Service means you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some job.

    ‘Now,’ he looked up again at Mathis, ‘that’s all very fine. The hero kills two villains, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isn’t a villain at all, you see the other side of the medal. The villains and the heroes get all mixed up.

    ‘Of course,’ he added, as Mathis started to expostulate, ‘patriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.’

    Mathis stared at him aghast. Then he tapped his head and put a calming hand on Bond’s arm.

    ‘You mean to say that this precious Le Chiffre who did his best to turn you into a eunuch doesn’t qualify as a villain?’ he asked. ‘Anyone would think from the rot you talk that he had been battering your head instead of your…’ He gestured down the bed. ‘You wait till M tells you to get after another Le Chiffre. I bet you’ll go after him all right. And what about SMERSH? I can tell you I don’t like the idea of these chaps running around France killing anyone they feel has been a traitor to their precious political system. You’re a bloody anarchist.’

    He threw his arms in the air and let them fall helplessly to his sides.

    Bond laughed.

    ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Take our friend Le Chiffre. It’s simple enough to say he was an evil man, at least it’s simple enough for me because he did evil things to me. If he was here now, I wouldn’t hesitate to kill him, but out of personal revenge and not, I’m afraid, for some high moral reason or for the sake of my country.’

    He looked up at Mathis to see how bored he was getting with these introspective refinements of what, to Mathis, was a simple question of duty.

    Mathis smiled back at him.

    ‘Continue, my dear friend. It is interesting for me to see this new Bond. Englishmen are so odd. They are like a nest of Chinese boxes. It takes a very long time to get to the centre of them. When one gets there the result is unrewarding, but the process is instructive and entertaining. Continue. Develop your arguments. There may be something I can use to my own chief the next time I want to get out of an unpleasant job.’ He grinned maliciously.

    Bond ignored him.

    ‘Now in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we have manufactured two images representing the extremes — representing the deepest black and the purest white — and we call them God and the Devil. But in doing so we have cheated a bit. God is a clear image, you can see every hair on His beard. But the Devil. What does he look like?’ Bond looked triumphantly at Mathis.

    Mathis laughed ironically.

    ‘A woman.’

    ‘It’s all very fine,’ said Bond, ‘but I’ve been thinking about these things and I’m wondering whose side I ought to be on. I’m getting very sorry for the Devil and his disciples such as the good Le Chiffre. The Devil has a rotten time and I always like to be on the side of the underdog. We don’t give the poor chap a chance. There’s a Good Book about goodness and how to be good and so forth, but there’s no Evil Book about evil and how to be bad. The Devil has no prophets to write his Ten Commandments and no team of authors to write his biography. His case has gone completely by default. We know nothing about him but a lot of fairy stories from our parents and schoolmasters. He has no book from which we can learn the nature of evil in all its forms, with parables about evil people, proverbs about evil people, folk-lore about evil people. All we have is the living example of the people who are least good, or our own intuition.

    ‘So,’ continued Bond, warming to his argument, ‘Le Chiffre was serving a wonderful purpose, a really vital purpose, perhaps the best and highest purpose of all. By his evil existence, which foolishly I have helped to destroy, he was creating a norm of badness by which, and by which alone, an opposite norm of goodness could exist. We were privileged, in our short knowledge of him, to see and estimate his wickedness and we emerge from the acquaintanceship better and more virtuous men.’

    ‘Bravo,’ said Mathis. ‘I’m proud of you. You ought to be tortured every day. I really must remember to do something evil this evening. I must start at once. I have a few marks in my favour — only small ones, alas,’ he added ruefully — ‘but I shall work fast now that I have seen the light. What a splendid time I’m going to have. Now, let’s see, where shall I start, murder, arson, rape? But no, these are peccadilloes. I must really consult the good Marquis de Sade. I am a child, an absolute child in these matters.’

    His face fell.

    ‘Ah, but our conscience, my dear Bond. What shall we do with him while we are committing some juicy sin? That is a problem. He is a crafty person this conscience and very old, as old as the first family of apes which gave birth to him. We must give that problem really careful thought or we shall spoil our enjoyment. Of course, we should murder him first, but he is a tough bird. It will be difficult, but if we succeed, we could be worse even than Le Chiffre.

    ‘For you, dear James, it is easy. You can start off by resigning. That was a brilliant thought of yours, a splendid start to your new career. And so simple. Everyone has the revolver of resignation in his pocket. All you’ve got to do is pull the trigger and you will have made a big hole in your country and your conscience at the same time. A murder and a suicide with one bullet! Splendid! What a difficult and glorious profession. As for me, I must start embracing the new cause at once.’

    He looked at his watch.

    ‘Good. I’ve started already. I’m half an hour late for a meeting with the chief of police.’

    He rose to his feet laughing.

    ‘That was most enjoyable, my dear James. You really ought to go on the halls. Now about that little problem of yours, this business of not knowing good men from bad men and villains from heroes, and so forth. It is, of course, a difficult problem in the abstract. The secret lies in personal experience, whether you’re a Chinaman or an Englishman.’

    He paused at the door.

    ‘You admit that Le Chiffre did you personal evil and that you would kill him if he appeared in front of you now?

    ‘Well, when you get back to London you will find there are other Le Chiffres seeking to destroy you and your friends and your country. M will tell you about them. And now that you have seen a really evil man, you will know how evil they can be and you will go after them to destroy them in order to protect yourself and the people you love. You won’t wait to argue about it. You know what they look like now and what they can do to people. You may be a bit more choosy about the jobs you take on. You may want to be certain that the target really is black, but there are plenty of black targets around. There’s still plenty for you to do. And you’ll do it. And when you fall in love and have a mistress or a wife and children to look after, it will seem all the easier.’

    Mathis opened the door and stopped on the threshold.

    ‘Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.’

    He laughed. ‘But don’t let me down and become human yourself. We would lose such a wonderful machine.’

    With a wave of the hand he shut the door.

    ‘Hey,’ shouted Bond.

    But the footsteps went quickly off down the passage.