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Comparative Review: Casino Royale (1954/1967/2006)

June 23, 2011

Remakes are a rather fascinating phenomenon, especially when the multiple versions are all based on a source material from a different medium. Such is the case of the adaptations of Casino Royale, based on the 1953 Ian Fleming novel that introduced MI6 spy James Bond 007.

Casino Royale was the only novel that EON did not receive the rights to adapt in the 1960s, and thus the main film series broke continuity with Fleming’s original narrative arc from the start. The rights to the original Bond thriller bounced around for decades, resulting in a televised version and a live action comedy, before EON finally obtained them and produced its own version in 2006.

Climax Presents Casino Royale (1954)

  • Dir. William H. Brown Jr.
  • Premiered on CBS
  • Written by Charles Bennett and Anthony Ellis
  • Rating: **

A year after the release of the novel and nearly a decade before Sean Connery took on the role in 1962’s Dr. No, James Bond made his live-action premiere on the small screen. An hour-long adaptation of the Fleming novel was produced for the television anthology series Climax, and the results were okay if somewhat underwhelming.

This version cast Barry Nelson as Bond and the ever-thrilling Peter Lorre as LeChiffre. Oddly enough, the filmmakers opted to make Bond an American secret service agent and to transform CIA spy Felix Leiter into British agent Clarence Leiter. Other characters were combined or excised altogether to fit the episode’s running time. Lorre is the standout of the cast, dominating the baccarat scenes with his classic persona. Nelson feels like the Leave it to Beaver version of Bond, and he is easily the worst actor for the role.

Still, the TV Casino Royale is fairly faithful to Fleming’s novel for the most part, if severely toned down, truncated, and romanticized. Structured in three acts, the episode covers the baccarat matches fairly well and, unlike subsequent adatptaions, sticks to the casino location just as the book does. The ending receives the biggest change, for the worse. Even so, Bond fans will find this to be an enjoyable curiosity, although non-fans will likely not share in the excitement.

Casino Royale (1967)

  • Dir. Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parish, Val Guest, and Richard Talmadge
  • Released by Columbia
  • Written by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers
  • Rating: **

The second adaptation arrived in the same year as EON’s You Only Live Twice, and it posed itself as a competitor to the main series’s entry while taking a rather different approach to the material (although neither 1967 Bond film bears much resemblance to the corresponding Fleming novels).

Instead of producing another straight version of the book, the filmmakers opted to create a spoof of the countless spy films that had appeared in the wake of the EON series. And not just any spoof: an all-star parody on a scale to rival the EON films! A collection of wacky, weird vignettes follow a large number of characters under the hands of five directors, and the result is disjointed, if funny.

The plot of the book becomes a subplot of the film. In the main story, Sir James Bond (David Niven) comes out of retirement after his namesake (presumably Connery’s Bond) and other agents go missing so that he can take on Dr. Noah’s terrorist (and absurdist) schemes, with the help of a crew of pseudo-007s, including baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers). Tremble confronts Le Chiffre (played here memorably by Orson Welles) at the titular casino with the help of Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, the Bond Girl from Dr. No).

After providing a cartoonish take the baccarat game and subsequent torture scene from the novel, the film resumes its own story and builds toward a climax with all of the spies attempting to escape the casino before Woody Allen explodes. Cowboys, Indians, trained seals, George Raft, and any number of other wacky characters join the final fight as any restraint that the film displayed until then is lost.

Casino Royale’s scope is too much for one James Bond film. This clunky comedy is filled with hilarious moments, but the epic nature of the picture undermines its ability to please, and behind-the-scenes troubles render some sections incomprehensible. Still, the overlong movie features a nice Burt Bacharach score that makes the overkill go down a bit easier, and lovers of Pink Panther-style humor will be able to get something out of the film, even if most people will not.

Casino Royale (2006)

  • Dir. Martin Campbell
  • Produced by EON
  • Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis
  • Rating: ****

The EON Bond series starts from scratch in this adaptation of the first Bond novel, tossing out the entire 1962-2002 continuity. The decision to take this approach is a bit of a shame, since it prevents the novel from ever joining its siblings in the original narrative, but considering that it revitalized the 007 series just as Batman Begins saved its franchise, the gamble certainly paid off.

The first entry of the new continuity shows the Bond character (who earns his 00 status during the delightful pre-credits sequence) develop from arrogant and reckless to cold and detached, but that is one of the less interesting aspects of the film (especially since it requires a rehash of the M scenes from Goldeneye). The main appeal is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the best Bond girl since Tracy from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and one that Bond understandably grows to love.

The film faithfully depicts the events of the novel and adds some of the best action scenes in the series around those events. Despite being based on a story set in the Cold War, the adaptation manages to tell a contemporary tale that is aware of modern international concerns and politics. The most unfortunate update is the change of the card game from baccarat to poker, something that was quite important to Fleming’s narrative and that the previous versions got right.

Daniel Craig works well as the novice Bond, and the tinkerings with franchise conventions are usually amusing rather than painful. It’s also good to see Felix Leiter again, since he has been missing from the series since 1989’s Licence to Kill. Judi Dench is as good as ever as Bond’s boss, M, but her return was an odd choice considering that everything else from the old series was scrapped.

The newest and best take on Casino Royale is very much in the Fleming spirit, and yet it is also successful as the latest update of the immortal British film series. Even if the continuity wipe was probably unnecessary (for this story, at least–it clearly sets up a story arc), the retelling of the original story results in one of Bond’s most entertaining and satisfying pictures.

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From → Film Criticism

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