Monday, January 30, 2012

Climax! Casino Royale, TV Version

The early days of television experimented with a now largely-abandoned genre of Live Drama - dramatic shows, often thrillers, shot and edited live, the most memorable being the BBC's adaptation of 1984, starring Peter Cushing.  The goal, presumably, was to capture the energy and immediacy of Theater.  As it turns out, this rather misses the point - the energy and immediacy of theater comes largely from the performers actually being there.  The actors feed off the energy of the audience, and the audience off the energy of the actors.  There is something impressive about well made live drama if you know it's live.  Otherwise, it just feels a tad clumsy and cheap.  And kinda stagey.

For the audience, the only element of theater that really carries over is the possibility of some sort of major gaffe.  Of course, goofs happen even in the biggest-budgeted films, but they're generally hidden in the editing and framing.  But in theater - or live drama - if disaster strikes, like, say, an actor tripping and knocking over the entire backdrop (which I did once, but luckily only in rehearsal), there's no covering it up.  You just have to keep going.

Today, there are still comedy programs broadcast live, SNL being the best known.  But in SNL, if Chris Farley's wires meant to send him soaring over the audience fail to work properly, the live goof just sort of adds to the charm.  In a thriller built on dramatic tension, built carefully through lighting, performance, and pacing, however, even relatively small flaws can disrupt the emotion.

Or major ones, like, say, a dead character getting up and walking away because he thought he was off-camera.  Which happened in the first episode of the anthology series Climax!  

But in general, shooting thrillers live adds nothing to the tension of the story.  Whatever tension exists is all in the writing, acting, editing, staging, lighting, and so forth.  None of which are at their best in a live production.

Which brings us to the third episode of Climax, an adaptation of Casino Royale, the first adaptation of Fleming's stories.  Its changes to the story sometimes seem rather strange, starting with Barry Nelson's very American James, er, "Jimmy" Bond of Combined Intelligence. (matched by Michael Pate's very British Felix "Clarence" Lieter) Vesper Lynd and Rene Mathis are combined into Linda Christian's Valerie Mathis, who is now Bond's old flame and currently Le Chiffre's girlfriend.

Understandably, the entire story takes place in the casino, with the torture taking place in Bond's room. To compress the story into an hour, Fleming's last act is completely dropped, and the story is resolved with Bond escaping the torture and shooting the villains.  Which, on the one hand, is the most reasonable way to compress the story, and on the other hand, completely misses the entire point of the book.

The result is a competent but ordinary yarn of the usual 40s & 50s thriller cliches.  Valerie is indistinguishable from any other good-leaning femme fatale - Ilsa Lund lite, and she has little to do in the story other than provide the requisite romantic interest.

And as Ian Fleming's James Bond, Nelson is pretty bland.  All the rough edges are smoothed out, and none of his more mythic attributes from Live and Let Die have a chance in such a small-scale setting.  He's just a generic American hero.

... but as Jimmy Bond of Combined Intelligence, Nelson is really good.  He takes a blank role and gives it as much charisma and energy as he can, and he's excellent in the torture sequence, showing real grit.  For his counterpart Lieter, Pate brings class and intensity, and has one terrific scene threatening various villains with a cane-gun.  Despite being quite English (Pate's actually Australian, but you'd never know it) and having the wrong first name, he makes a better Lieter than most of the movie versions.  Linda Christian makes a lovely fatale and does all she can in the role.

While much of the story is a bit dull, the actual card sequence in the second half captures a measure of the tension Fleming gave it, and the torture scene is surprisingly effective given the era.  The climax is necessarily simplistic, but effective enough.

Best of all, Le Chiffre is played by the great Peter Lorre.  With all apologies to Madds Mikkelson's fantastic performance in the 2006 version, Lorre, one of the all-time-great character actors (and a great leading man as well), owns the role magnificently.  He's the one element that genuinely surpasses the equivalent in the 2006 film.

The strong performances, competent film making, and strong centerpiece scenes make it very watchable despite its weaknesses.  And yet, it's easy to see why this didn't go anywhere.  There's simply nothing memorable about this character, or this world.  Ultimately, the TV version of Casino Royale is interesting only because it's a dead end of what later became a cultural phenomenon.

Well, that and getting to see Peter Lorre playing a Bond villain.

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