The literary career of James Bond, Agent 007 on Her Majesty's secret service, began in 1953 when 44-year-old Ian Fleming, late of British Naval Intelligence, completed his dream of writing a spy novel that reflected his own awareness of the live of an espionage agent, with the publication of Casino Royale. Later fans of the character, knowing only the subsequent novels or more likely, only the monumentally successful film series loosely adapted (and eventually, not adapted at all) from the book series, would have a hard time recognising not just the character of Bond but the very idea of a spy thriller at all in this sleek, plot-light text, which consists predominately of two sequences: a lengthy one in which Bond wins at the esoteric and frankly kind of stupid card game of baccarat, thereby bankrupting Soviet flunky Le Chiffe, and a shorter one in which Le Chiffre's thugs beat the crap out of Bond, who survives thanks to a deus ex machina. I cannot say what the book's reception was in the 1950s, but six decades later, the impression one gets is that Fleming was creating a deliberately unromantic and incident-free depiction of espionage as a frankly unexciting and somewhat pokey affair, well-suited for the elegant but somewhat dull and thuggish spy.

Bond's cinematic career didn't start until 1962, with eight bestselling novels and a short story collection making the spy a full-on literary phenomenon, but this was not the first time that Bond's adventures were dramatised. It has become somewhat well-known, particularly in the last ten years or so, that the first Bond adventure to be filmed - "filmed", anyway - was the first next year after Casino Royale was published, when Fleming allowed his book to be adapted as the third episode of the new adventure/mystery television series Climax! A few words on the state of television drama in the 1950s. Back then, before anybody knew what the hell TV was going to be, a very common format for hour-long dramas was not the "cast of characters having unique and self-contained experience once a week" that 30-minute comedies had already fallen into; there were a great many examples of what we would now probably call anthology shows, in which every single week would be, in effect, a brand new minimovie, united to the rest of the series only by tone and perhaps genre (the only example of this style likely to be familiar to most people nowadays is Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone). Literary or stage adaptations were not rare, so as odd as it sounds now for a bestselling spy novel to be purchased for use as an episode of a new TV show, it wouldn't have seemed that way in 1954 at all, especially with Casino Royale being such a thin narrative in the first place.

Climax! being an American production, the first and biggest change was almost certainly an inevitability: Fleming's James Bond, every millimeter the post-WWII Englishman, was transformed into Jimmy Bond of the U.S. government's Combined Intelligence Agency, played by the rather outlandlishly bland Barry Nelson. To make up for it, Felix Leiter, the American sidekick form the novel, was turned into the British Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate), which rather seems like an unfair trade. And while we're on the subject of character name changes, femme fatale Vesper Lynd is for no obvious reason rechristened Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian), which would have ruined one of the book's most iconic moments - nobody would ever name a martini "The Valerie" - except that the show's Bond is a strict scotch-and-water man.

Other than these things, and a general lessening of detail and significant compression of the plot that goes along with turning even a short novel into a television program running an hour including commercials, the TV Casino Royale does a fair job of sticking with Fleming's source material: Bond shows up, meets Leiter, is told that he has to bankrupt Le Chiffre so that the turncoat's Soviet handlers will kill him for losing a staggering amount of official money on a gambling hobby, does so, flirts with Valerie, gets caught, is tortured, escapes (though you don't see the bit where he escapes in the more readily available incomplete print; for most of its existence, the whole show was assumed lost, and the final few minutes were only recovered in the 2000s). What the show does that no other filmed Bond adventure managed, not even the much tonier 2006 Casino Royale feature, is capture the essence of the grubby, nuts & bolts spying of Fleming's earliest books. It's quite a compact, process-oriented story, less invested in action than in "character", if that word can be attached to the slight figures who don't get all that much space to breath and develop. And it is maybe worth pointing out in this context, that one of the two writers (Anthony Ellis was the other), Charles Bennett, was a frequent collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock in the '30s, and if you reduce one of Hitch's great '30s spy pictures to the narrow location and breakneck pace of a short TV feature, you're in the right ballpark of what kind of mood and milieu Casino Royale is hunting for.

It does not entirely get there: for one thing, Barry Nelson is just plain awful, even making exceptions for the difficulties of the show's production (nobody else is nearly as bad), and given how much of the Bond in Fleming's books absolutely has to be British, it makes sense that an American who looks like he'd have been happier standing in the background of a Frankie Avalon & Annette Funicello picture wouldn't be able to capture any of the nuance and attitude of that character, or really any other character at all.

For another, Casino Royale, like a lot of '50s television, was broadcast live; and it's such a far remove from anything we have in our culture now that it's almost like watching some kind of conceptual art piece rather than a dramatic narrative. This was done cheap and fast and they had one shot, and a lot of mistakes were made: little ones, like Nelson pronouncing the "t" in baccarat, and a few great huge ones, like a moment were we hear a very, very loud crash in the background of one scene near the end, or a horrifying moment that must have caused at least one heart attack in 1954, when Pate and Nelson are having a phone conversation, and Nelson says his line, and then Pate just stands there, on his extension, dead silent, for about three seconds; but they are a soul-wearying three seconds. And even setting the out-and-out mistakes aside, the fact that this was completely live did some very peculiar things to the blocking of scenes and the transitions between them; it's like the most artificial parts of live theater and three-camera sitcoms being mixed up and placed before us with the barely-hidden plea that we just go along with it, because come on, we're really trying, this is a new medium and all...

All that being said, the show is a fascinating and even good hour of spy drama: cutting the fluff out ended up making Fleming's narrative almost more propulsive than adding action and stakes did in 2006, and while the translation to television resulted in some unfortunate changes, mostly in the third act, when the book's casual, sickening violence is stripped of all its brutality, and the final beat of the story given a blander action hero gloss - and naturally, "The bitch is dead" can't crop up on network TV in the '50s, not that the bitch even dies here.

What really makes Casino Royale absolutely sing, and I would nearly go so far as to call it essential viewing for this one element alone, is Le Chiffre. Who, in a fucking brilliant casting decision that could only happen because of the actor's descent into poverty after the 1940s, is played by Peter Lorre. 59 years later, I would still hold up Lorre as being one of the very best actors to ever play a Bond villain, and maybe even the best - not that he gives "the best performance", but I mean, Peter Lorre - that sweaty, puffy, piggy face, and that shrill, wheedling Austrian accent, and you have to wonder if he hadn't died in 1964, if he'd have ever been given the call to show up in a proper Bond picture (and even before his death, can you imagine him delivering the classic line, "No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die?" in that voice of his? Because I sure as hell can, and now I can never love Goldfinger again). Even with the cheapness and rushed production of a TV movie (though the rumor that he got up after "dying" proves to be an urban legend), Lorre is something really special here, both threatening and pathetic in exactly the mixture that the character requires, and if the show were better-known and better-mounted across the board, I think it's probable that he'd be regarded as one of the top-tier Bond villains, with the asterisk that he wasn't "official".

And while, admittedly, Casino Royale is ultimately more of a curio than a genuinely great spy thriller - though I certainly was surprised by how much I liked it on its own terms, Nelson notwithstanding - and while it assuredly was not part of the conversation in 1962 when Bond made his big-screen debut, I think it's fascinating that even in this pupal stage, the fortunes of Agent 007 as a dramatic character ended up falling into the same trap that such a huge number of the later features would: it seems easier to judge the whole project based on the quality of its villain than anything else. The Bond franchise having produced some of the most colorful (and, in the same breath, some of the most terrible) supervillains in cinema history, it is with a curious sense of satisfaction that I find this trend began in the series' prehistory; and it is with an unabashed sense of delight that Peter Lorre is the one who got that tradition to such a splendid start.