I recently rewatched the 1954 episode of the CBS TV show Climax!
that adapted Ian Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale
. And I was surprised at how, in spite of Bond being American, the entire production was much truer to Fleming's vision than anything we've gotten in the Daniel Craig era. Casino Royale
has been adapted three times, more than any other Fleming novel. And yet, none of the adaptations is totally satisfactory. The Climax!
version is a 50 minute TV production that has come down to us in a poor state of preservation and was broadcast live, with all the bloopers that entails. It isn't about James Bond but an Americanized version of him called "Card Sense" Jimmy Bond. The David Niven version is utterly ludicrous and appealling only to fans of Austin Powers or Burt Bacharach's music. The Daniel Craig version is about a sociopathic murderer. In the end though, the Barry Nelson version of Casino Royale
is still the most satisfactory. What's more, in spite of being American, Barry Nelson proves to be much better as Bond than Daniel Craig, and as much as Nelson can't compete with the five "classic" Bonds (Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan), he at least is in their league. Watching him brings out the gross inadequacies of Daniel Craig, as I hope to do in this thread.
In fairness to Barry Nelson, he didn't really get much guidance as to how to play Bond, as he himself recounted in interviews before his death. And it's also worth noting that in 1954, James Bond was not a cultural phenomenon. There had been one novel with another on the way. Bond was still what Ian Fleming had intended when he chose the character's name from a book about ornithology - an anonymous agent fighting
's war against the
. So making Bond American was not quite the gross sin that it would have been had John Gavin or James Brolin not only played Bond onscreen, but played him as American.
What's more, if Bond is going to be American, making him into a sort of spy version of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe isn't a bad choice at all, given how influential Marlowe's work was on Ian Fleming. And Barry Nelson does this very well. His dialogue and mannerisms are reminiscent of film noir, but with the sort of shiftiness that goes well with Fleming's work. There's a moment where Bond walks onto the floor of the casino and looks around him suspiciously. At that moment, in spite of him being an American working for "Combined Intelligence" along with MI6's "Clarence Leiter", in spite of his crew cut hair, which ranks along with Dalton's "Count Chocula" haircut in LTK as the worst hair ever donned by a Bond (though the skinhead look Craig has in SF looks like it might surpass both), in spite of all that, at that moment, Barry Nelson becomes James Bond for me.
For one thing, Nelson is much wittier as Bond than Craig. Nelson stars in an adaptation that, given it's time constraints, is pretty faithful to the outline of Fleming's plot. But the humor that the show's writers created and Nelson delivered shows a side of his interpretation that the show didn't fully explore. For example, there's nothing in Craig's outings to compare with this brief exchange in Nelson's production:
Leiter: Weren't you the fellow who was shot?
Bond: [a beat] No . . . I was the fellow who was missed.
Great delivery! Nelson does it so well that one of the women at the gaming table looks up at him when he delivers that line and keeps looking at him, as if she's suddenly interested in this witty guy who just appeared over her shoulder. It's a moment that almost screams for the James Bond theme, which, alas, wouldn't be composed for another eight years.
There's another thing about Nelson that really sets him apart from Craig - his humanity. He's suspicious of "Valerie Mathis" (a stand-in for Vesper) but never contemptuous of her. And as suspiecious as he is of her, he's genuinely concerned for her when threats are made against her life. Contrast this with Craig seeing the body of Solange. Bond has pretty clearly helped cause Solange's death. Now, perhaps this is justified - he had to extract information from her to stop her husband's plot. But that doesn't excuse Bond's total lack of reaction to Solange's beaten corpse, which is implied to be so grotesque it causes Villiers to go off and puke. At one point Judi Dench's by then completely tiresome M says that she would ask Bond if he could remain emotionally detached, "but that doesn't seem to be your problem". All Craig says is "no" in a voice so flat it could be from a schizophrenic.
Contrast that loathsome scene from Craig's first film (that makes him seems like a sociopath, even if Babs is too stupid to realize it) with this brief exchange from Nelson's CR:
LeChiffre has just promised to torture Bond until he gives up the location of the check for the winnings
Bond: You needn't bother. Pain and death are my business.
LeChiffre: Mine too
Bond: And you probably enjoy it, don't you? [delivered with real venom by Nelson]
LeChiffre: Who told you! [chuckles]
It's clear that Nelson's Bond is, like all the classic Bonds, a professional who kills because he has to, not because he likes it. He is motivated by his duty. Craig's Bond claims the exact same thing in QOS, but it's not the least bit clear if he's telling the truth or not. The glee with which Craig dispatches hoardes of enemies is not only mind-numbing, it's also rather disturbing. I mean, who the hell breaks into an embassy in broad daylight and takes on an entire batallion of soldiers to retrieve one bombmaker, as Craig does in CR? There's something horribly perverse about Craig's Bond.
Speaking of perverse, contrast the CR toture scenes in Nelson's and Craig's versions. In Nelson's version, Bond is in obvious pain, and hurls the occasional insult at LeChiffre when he can muster up the energy too. These aren't quips, they're the 1950s American TV versions of the censored curses Bond hurls at his torturers in Fleming's novels. Bond is cleary in great pain, and is doing what he can to keep his and Valerie's spirits up. Craig's torture scene start-off alright as well (though the continued homoerotic fixation of the camera on Craig's body is already growing very tiresome - even Mikkelson has to comment on Craig's body). Craig looks appropriately afraid of what's coming. But then the scene degenerates into farce, when Craig goads LeChiffre into "scratching his balls" and laughs in the midst of being tortured. The whole scene is weird, and combined with previous information we've been given about Craig's "Bond", he appears to be severely sado-masochistic, to the point that he ought to only be hanging out with people who wear leather and carry whips as accessories all the time.
The end result of all this is that in an adaptation of Ian Fleming's first and to many people best Bond novel, Daniel Craig can't even come close to properly portraying Bond. By contrast, in a one-off television episode that was clearly given little forethought and even less budget, Barry Nelson proves that if he isn't one of the classic Bond, he at least deserves to be an honorary "American cousin" of the five classic Bonds. And that is at least something. It takes Barry Nelson fifty minutes to become Bond in an American way. After two films, with another dirgeful production on the way, Daniel Craig is still not James Bond.
FINAL VERDICT: In spite of being a mere padawan, Barry Nelson cuts Daniel Craig in half with his lightsaber in the same way that Obi-wan Kenobi killed Darth Maul (ironically, Darth Maul and Daniel Craig have an equal amount of onscreen charisma - none).
"For a moment Bond looked up into two glittering eyes behind a narrow black mask. There was an impression of a crag-like face under a hat brim, the collar of a fawn mackintosh." - Ian Fleming, Casino Royale