SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.
“Live!” a dramatic voiceover declares at the start. “From Television City in Hollywood!” This adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first novel was the third episode of Climax!, an anthology series shown on American TV network CBS. Without its advert breaks, the surviving copy runs for about 50 minutes – so let’s see how it measures up… It begins with a short introduction by host William Lundigan, who explains what a shoe is in a game of baccarat. It’s nice of him, but I’m not sure why we need an intro. We’re then into an abbreviated version of the book’s plot. The episode is entirely shot on interior sets, a necessity because it was broadcast live, while the script is dialogue-heavy. It’s melodrama, essentially, and not especially engaging. We don’t get to the crucial card game until about 25 minutes in, and when it arrives it’s a drab seven minutes, lacking any tension. Sadly, the stakes don’t feel especially high. Better is the final act set in a hotel room – events turn surprisingly nasty, though it’s a shame that Bond wins by simply nabbing a gun and killing the bad guy. Five razor blades (for slashing purposes) out of 10
Bond: Barry Nelson became the first actor to play 007 on screen, though this is not the character as later defined in the film series. This guy’s American, works for a nebulous ‘combined intelligence’ agency, and people call him Jimmy. It’s not an especially good performance, but to his credit Nelson seems genuinely in pain during the torture scene.
Villains: Peter Lorre plays the bad guy, Le Chiffre, who has bodyguards called Basil, Zoltan and Zuroff. (Basil!) He’s oddly watchable in the classic Lorre style, though the performance lacks the sparkle the actor used in, say, The Maltese Falcon. He seems to be going through the motions. (Presumably the script was tailored once Lorre was cast: Le Chiffre is called a ‘toad-like creature’.) After losing all his money to Bond in the card game, Le Chiffre threatens to torture him to ‘a point beyond madness’. He then brandishes a pair of pliers and does something with them to Bond’s foot. (This is 1950s American telly, so of course there’s none of the novel’s testicle-bashing.)
Girls: Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian) is like a film-noir dame – all tortured and haunted. She’s an ex of Bond’s who now works for the French secret service, but is being coerced by Le Chiffre. She’s basically taking book character Vesper Lynd’s role in the narrative, though she doesn’t suffer Vesper’s fate.
Regulars: Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate) is a combination of two characters from the novel: Felix Leiter and Rene Mathis. After a fun bit of coded business with matchsticks, he and Bond confirm who the other is and team up. Leiter works for British intelligence and gives Bond his mission.
Action: A smattering of gunfire at the start. Bond is seemingly knocked out by a goon, but the key hit comes *during an advert break*. Later, there are a couple of minor scuffles.
Comedy: There’s an amusing bit where Bond and Leiter discuss the case, but have to switch to a jovial chat about baccarat if anyone walks up to them. Later, there are funny cutaways to Le Chiffre listening to the bug he’s placed in Jimmy’s room (Bond has turned the music up loud).
Music: There are a few short bursts of dramatic incidental music, which sound like library cues.
Personal connection: Viewing the episode in order to write this review was the first time I’d ever watched the whole thing through. It was thought lost for many years, but then an incomplete copy was found in 1981. Most of the remaining footage has turned up since.