Five directors, twenty name stars, and a blockbuster budget can't disguise this gloriously lame James Bond parody, the biggest superspy spoof of all. It's ultimately an infectious Burt Bacharach musical score that gives the show a reason to be - Casino Royale plays like a dozen unrelated visual vaudeville acts, backed by the same good orchestra in the pit. There are fun stars to watch, even though most are squandered, and some okay effects, but most of the attraction of this ten-ring circus is wondering how it came about and ended up the way it did - was it censored, assembled from bits by Frankenstein, or did everyone quit halfway through? The answer, courtesy of an essential video interview by director Val Guest, is, "All of the Above."
Bond fans and people who were into superspies and other escapist nonsense in the late sixties loved Casino Royale; it had the kind of 'we're hip' attitude that made impressionable dopes like myself laugh at every unfunny gag as if it were the height of wit. 1 Thankfully, every third joke actually was fairly witty, and some of the performers either hit the nail on the head, or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And, like I say, there's that infectious Burt Bacharach score with its swooning saxophones and martial drums. And the title tune is perhaps the only Tijuana Brass single that hasn't dated miserably. 2
The plot basically has a decimated MI5 renaming all of its agents 007 to confuse the enemy. Unusually cooperative, considering his estate has been destroyed by McTarry (John Huston), a very affable and charming David Niven recruits his own illegitimate daughter (who if her mother was Mata Hari should be at least 50) to figure out the SMERSH - Le Chiffre connection, while supercriminal and literal mankiller Vesper Lind recruits cardplayer Evelyn Tremble to snooker Le Chiffre at the baccarat table.
The movie spends perhaps five minutes developing this tale, and devotes the rest of its time goes to elaborate and sometimes aimless side plots that are often amusing on their own. The film is really a closet stinker, whether or not one is amenable to the Hellzapoppin', Mad World kind of anarchy. in 1967 we roared with delight over thin gags like an appearance of Frankenstein's monster along with the other movie star cameos; and 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: a particularly surreal bit has Mata Bond 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 had a white knight who rode around zapping people's clothes white with his lance ... I guess you had to be there.
In his interview, Val Guest explains that clueless producer Charles K. Feldman just turned loose his main directors to go off and shoot pieces of various scripts that really couldn't be tied together. When none of it worked (Duh), 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 in a quick blackout later on.
When Kerr re-appears, she's only seen with Niven 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 accomodate difficult-to schedule actors.
That's exactly what happened with Peter Sellers and Orson Welles, both high-octane egos who apparently got on so poorly that their entire scene together was shot with only one actor on the set at a time. 3 Sellers apparently 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 are gathered 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 explains that Feldman's spoken instructions were to make the film 'psychedelic', which the director wisely interpreted as: 'Senseless farce, plus glitzy visuals'. Richard Williams' animation and montage effects are captivating, and appear to use cut scenes. The movie can seem moderately brilliant, and then revert to doltish idiocy. What we remember are the captivating moments, as when Evelyn Tremble decks a French custom agent, just because it's what James Bond is supposed to do. Other nonsensical gags, like Le Chiffre's assassins coming through a tv monitor to attack him, are great.
David Niven's suave manner and good humor basically 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 opens fire next to the Berlin Wall. 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 hareem outfit.
It's also one of Orson Welles' punchier parts, as he drifted around slum-acting in other people's movies. For a character who's really not on screen much, Orson uses his oomph to make Le Chiffre count, and shows a rare williness 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 (slow motion, even) for their love scenes 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 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 must 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 become a good 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 end Casino scene, which, considering what a shambles it is, generates a not-bad party atmosphere, Lavi makes an awkard exit and Andress an awkward re-appearance, scotch-taped together by Val Guest.
A fun embarassment, Casino Royale is still sufficiently amusing to be rewatched, 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 DVD of Casino Royale is a beauty, with a very handsome 16:9 transfer that brings out all of the film's eyepopping color and widescreen vistas of beautiful girls. The audio has been remixed in 5.1, and although it sounds better, changes in the mix seem odd to these ears. Where previously the music stayed at top volume, now it wraps and dips around the effects track a bit more. Nothing serious, but retaining a mono original would have been a thoughtful extra. Wrong! There is a mono soundtrack choice. Thanks to Stuart Galbraith for pointing this out!
The handsome docu-interview with Val Guest uses the psychedelic theme to give logic to an illogical production, and is a must-see. Guest properly refuses to talk out of school about his co-creators, but the only conclusion to be made is that producer Feldman interpreted the new Mod freedom of the screen as the freedom to make a movie without a real script or concept. Practical jokers like John Huston were only too happy to take his money and run. A journeyman (or repairman?) on this farce, Guest made his biggest mark earlier with a number of classics - Expresso Bongo, the Quatermass films, The Day the Earth Caught Fire.
As an added treat, the disc includes the Climax Theater presentation of the 1954 Barry Nelson version of Casino Royale, which is fascinating. The not-bad-looking kinescope is from a live presentation from the Golden Age of TV where entire acts were performed and broadcast live, without editing or interruptions. The show is fairly sophisticated in its camera movement and blocking, at least part of the time. The actors work hard to keep things running smoothly, and it's fun to see Peter Lorre's oily Le Chiffre ad-libbing and back-pedaling to keep the show on the rails. Nelson is awful as a dimestore American Bond, with Australian Michael Pate (Major Dundee) as Felix Leiter. MGM usually doesn't put public domain material out on disc, so this is a happy exception. When and if (don't hold your breath) the studio puts out the limp Operation Kid Brother, with Neil Connery, all of the semi-official Bond films will be on DVD.
The words 'James Bond' appear only in small print on the back of the box, and '007' not at all, perhaps a fob 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. 4
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Casino Royale rates:
1. The film was also heavily promoted by Playboy at the time,
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. That's what Guest says. There's at least one wide shot of them both
at the table.
4. The Bond girl logo on the package front was originally 'body painted'
with dozens of 007's. It's been silhouette-ized there, but shows up intact in the docu.