It is fair to say that James Bond is quite a lucky man. More so than any other force, good luck drives his story onwards and throws him into epic adventures. Or at least, that is often what it feels like when you watch the modern 007 movies.
They are quite different to the old versions and this has led to lots of fans turning away from the reboots. For instance, the original Casino Royale is less about (basta casino) angst and internal trauma than it is cunning and wit.
There is less of a need to delve deep into the psyche of Bond because the cinema of the fifties is more concerned with traditional values of masculinity, manners, and etiquette. The original Casino Royale was released in 1954 and its leading actor, Barry Nelson, is the eponymous agent 007.
The movie depicts Bond before the waves of preening females and the expensive suits. Nelson plays him as a dashing and polished gentlemen, with a distinct sense of old-fashioned charm. He is adventurous and daring, but also curiously reliable. He is the mysterious agent that damsels in distress cannot help but trust, even if they don’t know why.
While Nelson didn’t manage to hang on to the role of Bond for long enough to become a household name, he plays the part beautifully and deserves recognition. To explain why I am going to discuss the original Casino Royale and why it is a worthy piece of classic cinema.
In Casino Royale, James Bond is a secret agent on a mission from Combined Intelligence. He is dispatched to Casino Royale, where he meets up with his British contact; a man called Clarence Leiter. The contact is impressed by Bond, as he can remember his skills at another high-stakes card game.
He explains the mission to Bond. He must beat a man called Le Chiffre at baccarat, in order to convince his Russian spymasters to get rid of him. Before the game starts, 007 bumps into a former lover. She is now in a relationship with Le Chiffre. As the paramour, Linda Christian is dazzling in her role.
She seems to have been born for the part and lends Valerie Mathis a sense of sultriness and sex appeal. In fact, she brings the Le Chiffre narrative right into the foreground. The plot is very simple and there aren’t many sub-narratives to follow. The only subtext (and it is not much of a subtext) is that Bond is trying to win the battle against the growing threat of communism.
Interestingly, this early version of Bond seems less naïve than the Daniel Craig character. He isn’t fooled by the appearance of Valerie Mathis at all. He sees through her speech and knows that Le Chiffre has sent her. Despite his caution, it is clear that the two have a deeply romantic history.
There is less intrigue, in many ways, than can be found in the newer Casino Royale. Right from the outset, we know who the bad guys are and who can be trusted. There is no attempt to trick the audience into softening towards a character who later turns out to be a villain. To modern viewers, this can feel overly simplistic.
Admittedly, the 1954 version of Casino Royale (youtube version) is not without its weaknesses. The plot is thin. The acting is shaky in places, particularly when Nelson is delivering those soliloquy like monologs. He can be quite wooden at times, but the pace and spirit of the movie are invigorating enough to carry it along.
Right before the big baccarat game begins, it is hinted to Bond (though it is actually absurdly clear in the movie) that Valerie may come to harm if he does not concede the game to Le Chiffre. The presence of the female character starts to make more sense after this point. Le Chiffre clearly sent her to Bond, before the game, as a way to stir up old feelings and get him to care for her again.
As anybody who is familiar with Casino Royale will know, Bond wins the high-stakes game, but Le Chiffre is certainly not one for losing quietly. He follows the agent to his hotel room and proceeds to torture him in the bathtub. At this point, the entire audience is waiting for Bond to, somehow, find a way out of the situation, as they know he must.
When it finally happens, the satisfaction is huge and it is easy to see why these movies have gripped generation after generation of viewers. The older version of Casino Royale isn’t as slick or high tech as its super modern reboot, but it has oodles of charm and it is definitely worth a watch.