Almost six years to the day, MGM has reissued Casino Royale, the original 1967 007 spoof that turns the spy craze into a big Technicolor party. Five directors, twenty name stars and a blockbuster budget are thrown into the mix, but the show's reason-to-be ultimately comes from its infectious Burt Bacharach musical score -- Casino Royale plays like a dozen unrelated visual vaudeville acts, backed by the same good orchestra in the pit. Entertaining stars abound, even though most are squandered. Many of the sets and special effects are dazzling but most of the attraction of this ten-ring circus is wondering how it ever came to be made. Was it censored, assembled from bits by Frankenstein, or did everyone quit halfway through? The answer, courtesy of an exhaustive disc docu and commentary is, "All of the Above."
Bond fans thoroughly charmed by super-spies and other escapist nonsense in the late sixties loved Casino Royale; it generated a 'we're hip' attitude that made impressionable dopes like myself laugh at every gag as if it were the height of wit. 1 Thankfully, every third joke actually was fairly witty, and many of the performers either hit the nail on the head, or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And as I said, there's that infectious Burt Bacharach score with its swooning saxophones and martial drums. The title tune is perhaps the only Tijuana Brass hit single that hasn't dated miserably. 2
The plot has a decimated MI5 renaming all of its agents 007 to confuse the enemy. Unusually cooperative, considering that his estate has been destroyed by "M" McTarry (John Huston), an affable and charming David Niven recruits Mata Bond (who if her mother was Mata Hari should be at least 50) to figure out the SMERSH - Le Chiffre connection, while super-criminal and literal man-killer Vesper Lind recruits cardsharp Evelyn Tremble to snooker Le Chiffre at the baccarat table.
The movie spends perhaps five minutes developing this tale, and from then on devotes its time to elaborate and sometimes-aimless side plots. The film is really a closet stinker, whether or not one is amenable to its Hellzapoppin', Mad, Mad World brand of anarchy. In 1967 we roared with delight over movie star cameos and thin gags like an appearance of Frankenstein's monster; we had to have it explained to us who the heck George Raft was. Only later on did recognizing a brief appearance by Jackie (Jacqueline) Bisset become an added thrill.
Other references will be lost to new viewers: in a particularly surreal bit Mata Bond is plucked from outside Buckingham palace by a ceremonial Guardsman, whose steed carries her right up the ramp into a flying saucer landed in Trafalgar Square. A popular but idiotic television commercial at the time showed a white knight riding around zapping people's clothes white with his lance ... I guess you had to be there.
Heedless producer Charles K. Feldman knew that the ability to put any kind of James Bond movie on the screen guaranteed success. He turned his directors loose to film pieces of various scripts, without the slightest coordination. When none of it worked (Duh), director Val Guest stayed on for months to engineer more interstitial nonsense to give it at least a hint of coherence. John Huston's rather pointless Scottish segment really doesn't fit, but Guest tries to make it seem intentional by bringing back Deborah Kerr for a quick appearance in the third act. When Kerr re-appears, she's seen with Niven only in over-the-shoulder shots where a double could have been used. Casino Royale has a lot of material that looks as if it were fudged to accommodate difficult-to schedule actors.
That's exactly what happened with Peter Sellers and Orson Welles, high-octane egos who apparently got on so poorly that most of their scene together was shot with only one actor on the set at a time. Sellers became such a bother that when he decided to take a day off he wasn't invited back, even though his part hadn't been finished. In Casino Royale that doesn't make much difference. When all the angels gather for the silly Looney Tunes finish (I always expect to see Sylvester the Cat among the harpists), Sellers is still dressed as a bagpiper, a clever editorial steal from an earlier scene.
Val Guest once explained that Feldman's spoken instructions were to make the film 'psychedelic', which the director wisely interpreted as: 'Senseless farce, plus glitzy visuals'. Richard Williams' captivating animation and montage effects appear to use scenes left on the cutting room floor. The movie can seem moderately brilliant one moment, and then revert to doltish idiocy. What we remember are the captivating bits, as when Evelyn Tremble decks a French Customs agent, just because it's what James Bond is supposed to do. Other nonsensical gags, like Le Chiffre's assassins reaching through a TV monitor to attack him, are great.
David Niven's suave manner and good humor keeps Casino Royale from going under. An authentic gentleman, Niven outclassed Hollywood pal Errol Flynn and is fondly remembered for the best bon mot in live television history. At the 1972 Oscars, a streaker (Remember them? Now we have terrorists) ran across the stage. To paraphrase the unflappable Niven: "One has to be very brave to parade one's shortcomings like that." Best off-the-cuff rejoinder of all time.
Genuinely funny: the spy-school scene. Anna Quayle and Derek Nimmo are appropriately broad, and Vladek Sheybal is priceless as the auctioneer, especially his frustrated look when he empties his gun next to the Berlin Wall, and nobody seems to care. Richard Wattis is wonderful as a twit army officer: "Hello, Fiona?"
Totally gratuitous but welcome is the nonsense in India, with its rather good and beautifully photographed dance number. Joanna Pettet has the right sense of spunk and humor in both this and the spy school scene, and manages not to look ridiculous while playing most of her role in a harem outfit. Quite the contrary -- Ms. Pettet has class.
It's also one of Orson Welles' punchier parts, as he drifted around slum-acting in other people's movies. For a character with little screen time, Orson uses his oomph to make Le Chiffre count, and shows a rare willingness to appear foolish, as with the tiny eyeglasses he puts on by mistake.
Less oomphy and more iffy are Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress, who are given terrific photographic and musical backup for their love scenes (slow motion, even) but do little but look attractive. Zaftig Andress uses her own voice for once, and is fairly intelligible. Sellers' zaniness ("Hello Sailor!") falls flat, but there wasn't much to work with.
Woody Allen claimed that his part was chopped to expand Sellers', another feud that didn't help matters. Allen comes out with the best resume film of anyone, however, expanding on his What's New, Pussycat? debut and finishing the film off with classic Allen material. His Dr. Noah riff could have been the main inspiration for Mike Myers' Austin Powers.
Clearly filling out a Columbia contract is Daliah Lavi, who looks grotesque as The Detainer, decked out in beehive hairdo and mod makeup that turns her into a skeletal Barbara Steele. She does serve as an excellent comedy foil for Woody, however.
If Woody felt shortchanged, the core newcomers of Casino Royale must have thought they were robbed. Barbara Bouchet and Terence Cooper are given big intros and then have practically nothing to do. In the Casino battle finale, which, considering what a shambles it is, generates a not-bad party atmosphere, Lavi makes an awkward exit and Andress an awkward re-appearance, scotch-taped together by Val Guest.
A fun embarrassment, Casino Royale is still sufficiently amusing to be re-watched, and especially re-heard, again and again. Bond spoofs were so common in 1966-67 that dumb humor became as important to the idea of a spy film as semi-naked women and violence; not long thereafter the official Bond series itself transformed into a spoof-athon almost as broad as this picture. 007 maintained his popularity, if not his self-respect.
MGM's reissue Collector's Edition DVD of Casino Royale looks essentially the same as the 2002 release, with more elaborate extras. Amazon still lists the disc as a "40th Anniversary Edition", but MGM must have realized at the last minute that the release came too late to qualify for that subtitle. The audio has been remixed in 5.1, with a mono original included to capture the exact original mix. This time around additional mono tracks are encoded in Spanish and French.
The 2002 extras included a good interview with co-director Val Guest, based on a 'psychedelic' theme probably inspired by the then-popular Austin Powers films. That's gone, along with a sorely missed extra, a presentation of the 1954 live-television version of Casino Royale starring Barry Nelson and Peter Lorre. So don't get rid of the old Casino Royale DVD, with the old MGM DVD logo on the cover.
But we do get a full 5-part docu and an information-filled commentary by Bond experts Steven Jay Rubin and John Cork. The docu rounds up many surviving personnel to tell the entire crazy story of Charles Feldman's wholly disorganized "mad party", a production that went wildly over schedule and budget. Rubin and Cork set us straight on the dozens of cameos and bit-part players as well as the stories of the major stars -- George Raft and Jean-Paul Belmondo have guest star billing but are on screen only for a few seconds apiece. The commentators also explain several scenes that were filmed but didn't make it into the final cut.
A trailer and a still gallery finish off the video extras; inside the keep case are a set of miniature reproductions of Casino Royale door standees, each featuring a main character. The full docu and commentary are welcome, but we wish that MGM would have waited a bit and offered the film in the Blu-ray format; DVD collectors are now less likely to respond to double-dip reissues that offer only new extras.
The words 'James Bond' appear only in small print on the back of the box, and '007' not at all, perhaps a concession to MGM's Danjaq partners and their franchise, full rights to which were confirmed in a court battle with Columbia a few years back. It also explains how Columbia tentpole Casino Royale migrated over to the MGM library. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Casino Royale Collector's Edition rates:
1. The original film was also heavily promoted in Playboy, which practically was a partner in the production, at least when it came to procuring actresses. This is a film with a legendary 'party set'.
2. Not to mention Bacharach / Dusty Springfield's The Look of Love, the sexiest make-out single of the sixties. Another, damning appearance of the Tijuana Brass is when a cover of Tijuana Taxi is sneered at in The President's Analyst as emblematic of degenerate suburban values: "Total Sound!"
3. The Bond Girl graphic on the package front was originally 'body painted' with the 007 logo. It's been redesigned there, but shows up intact in the trailer.
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