Wednesday, January 4, 2012

50 Years of 007 - The Other Royales

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film series, Life Between Frames will be running a bi-weekly feature throughout 2012, covering every Bond movie.

Cody kicks off the feature by discussing a couple of Casino Royale adaptations that exist outside, and in one case predates, the official series.

The 50 Years of 007 feature will be celebrating the big screen cinematic adventures of James Bond, but we can't get started without first acknowledging that this is actually the 60th anniversary of the character's existence. Created by Ian Fleming as a literary character, Bond made his debut in the novel Casino Royale, which Fleming wrote in February - March 1952. The novel was published in 1953, nine years before the theatrical release of the first Bond film, Dr. No, which was an adaptation of Fleming's sixth Bond novel.

What was a little known fact until recent years has to also be noted: Sean Connery was not the first actor to play Bond in a filmed adaptation. In 1954, CBS adapted Casino Royale into an hour-long episode of their anthology series Climax! and American actor Barry Nelson was cast in the lead role of Jimmy Bond, with the British MI6 agent rewritten to be a Combined Intelligence agent from the U.S.

While much of the novel's scenes were dropped for time and the restrictions of a live broadcast and some characters were shuffled around - Bond Americanized, American agent Felix Leiter changed to British agent Clarence Leiter, the name of male French agent Rene Mathis combined with female character Vesper Lynd to become love interest Valerie Mathis - the basic plot remains intact: a secret service agent skilled at playing cards is dispatched to the title casino, where he is to play baccarat against a man called Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre works with the Soviets and has lost some of their money, which he needs to win back at the casino. If Bond causes him to go bust instead, Le Chiffre will be assassinated by his Soviet cohorts.

Overcoming odds and obstacles including attempts on his life, Bond succeeds in his mission to clean Le Chiffre out. A desperate Le Chiffre later manages to capture Bond and tortures him in attempt to get the money back. In the novel, Le Chiffre sits a nude Bond in a chair with the seat removed and pummels his genitals with a carpet beater. The TV-friendly version of the torture sequence has Le Chiffre twisting Bond's toes with a pair of pliers. I wouldn't abide having either done to me.

Taking the changes in stride and accepting it for what it is, the '54 Climax! adaptation of Casino Royale is quite an enjoyable version of the story, worth the fifty minute viewing for anyone interested in Bond. Nelson certainly isn't proper Bond material, but he does fine with what he's given. Le Chiffre is played by the great Peter Lorre, a fantastic bit of casting.

When Harry Saltzman acquired the Bond film rights and partnered with Albert R. Broccoli to produce adaptations through their Eon Productions company, the rights to Casino Royale were not included. These rights ended up in the hands of producer Charles K. Feldman, who failed to make a deal to co-produce the film as an entry in the Eon series. Not wanting to compete with Eon by making a straightforward adaptation on his own, Feldman decided to make his Casino Royale a spoof.

The Bond mania caused by Eon's films was at a peak when Feldman's Casino Royale was released to theatres in April of 1967, less than two months before Eon's fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice, came out.

The 1967 Casino Royale is widely considered a total disaster of a film, an assessment that I can't disagree with. It was put together by three credited and many uncredited writers, plus five credited directors and one uncredited. There was great talent involved both behind the scenes and on screen, but the "too many cooks in the kitchen" saying holds true as the 131 minute result of this collaboration is a nearly unbearable mess.

It begins with John Huston as M, the head of MI6, accompanied by representatives of the CIA, KGB and the Deuxième Bureau, trying to convince a retired James Bond (David Niven) to help them. Many secret agents around the world have been killed and they need Bond on the case. Bond here is the opposite of the character as written by Fleming and represented in the Eon films, he believes that an agent should keep himself pure and chaste, considering the service an "immaculate priesthood". Reference is made to another Bond currently working, just another agent who was given this Bond's name and number to keep his legend alive (and is later said to have gone off to work in television).

Retired since the love of his life, Mata Hari, was executed in 1917, Bond refuses to return to service... So M has Bond's house bombed, and in the first of the film's many jarring transitions from one director's section to another, we're notified by members of the enemy organization SMERSH that Bond is now back in service and M was killed in the bombing. Hmm.

Amidst episodes that feature female SMERSH agents attempting to ruin Bond's celibate image, Bond ordering that all surviving MI6 agents (male and female) be renamed James Bond, an agent being trained to be resistant to women, Bond's disappointing nephew Jimmy (Woody Allen), and Bond's daughter Mata Bond (lucky he managed to keep his celibate image after her birth) thwarting SMERSH plans, there is a short, comedic adaptation of the novel the movie gets its title from.

Bond has Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, also an official Bond girl from her role in Dr. No) recruit baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers, who is comparable to Connery in hairiness) to play against Le Chiffre (Orson Welles, also fantastic casting for the role). Le Chiffre has been using SMERSH money for his own unsuccessful pursuits and has to win money to replace the lost funds or be executed. Tremble-Bond manages to beat Le Chiffre at the gaming table and Le Chiffre retaliates by somehow (it isn't shown) capturing him to be tortured in attempt to get the money back. Tremble wakes up in a chair with no bottom and a carpet beater to the side, but there is no genital beating or even toe twisting in this torture sequence, instead Le Chiffre uses gadgetry to give Tremble psychadelic hallucinations.

I don't like Casino Royale '67 much at all. It's awkward, way too long, most of the humor doesn't really work. I only mention it for completion's sake and am doing it now instead of waiting to write about it between Thunderball and You Only Live Twice just to get it out of the way. Some fans include CR67 as part of their viewings during Bond-watching marathons, but I wouldn't. If/when I someday have a big Bondathon of my own, I wouldn't inflict this movie on unsuspecting friends. I think the fact that it's a spoof and not truly a Bond movie makes it exempt from being counted among the others, but still, if you're a Bond fan you kind of have to watch it at least once. Just for completion's sake.

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