As you probably already know, we here at the Shattered Lens have been counting down the days until the American release of Skyfall by reviewing every single film in the James Bond franchise. Today, we take a look at the first non-EON Bond film, the epic, psychedelic 1967 spoof Casino Royale.
Where to begin?
When Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953, veteran Hollywood producer Charles K. Feldman bought the film rights. However, Feldman didn’t buy the rights to Fleming’s subsequent novels and was forced to sit by and watch as Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had unexpected success with Dr. No and the subsequent EON-produced Bond films. Much as Kevin McClory did with Thunderball, Feldman first attempted to co-produce a serious adaptation of Casino Royale with Broccoli and Saltzman. However, when Feldman, Broccoli, and Saltzman couldn’t come to an agreement on how each side would be compensated in the proposed production deal, Feldman decided to make Casino Royale on his own. He also decided that, instead of trying to compete with EON by making a “straight” James Bond film, his version of Casino Royale would be a satirical extravaganza.
Feldman’s vision of James Bond is apparent from Casino Royale’s opening credits. While the credits are definitely based on the iconic openings of the EON Bond films, they’re also designed to play up the fact that Casino Royale — in the grand tradition of the Hollywood studios at their most excessive — is meant to be a big budget, all-star extravaganza.
Casino Royale actually starts out with a pretty clever premise. It seems that the name “James Bond,” is simply a code name that has been assigned to several British spies over the years. As M (played by John Huston, who also directed the first third of the film), explains it, the name “James Bond” strikes such fear in the hearts of Britain’s enemies that the name must be kept alive.
(Speaking for myself, this is an idea that I kinda wish that the official James Bond series would adopt. If nothing else, it would certainly explain how Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig could possibly be the same person.)
The original James Bond (played by David Niven) has long since retired to his stately country estate, where he spends his time playing the piano and complaining about how the agents who have inherited his name are sullying his reputation with excessive womanizing and violence. It turns out the Sir James Bond is a man renowned for his “celibate image.” At the start of the film, Bond is asked to come out of retirement by not only M but the heads of the CIA, KGB, and French secret service as well. SMERSH, an organization of female assassins that’s led by the mysterious Dr. Noah, has been eliminating agents worldwide and only the original (and very chaste) Bond can defeat them. Bond, however, refuses and M responds by ordering a mortar attack on Bond’s estate. The estate is blown up but so is M and Bond soon finds himself returning to London as the new head of MI6.
Interestingly enough, David Niven was one of the actors who was considered for the role of James Bond in Dr. No. Reportedly, Ian Fleming was quite enthusiastic for Niven to take the role but, by the time that Dr. No went into production, Niven was considered to be too old. There’s a nice bit of irony here in seeing David Niven playing a retired James Bond who spends a good deal of the film complaining about the men who have subsequently assumed his name.
Once Niven takes over MI6, he orders that, in order to confuse SMERSH, all British agents (including female agents) will be known as James Bond. The rest of the film is divided into episodes that feature these new James Bonds battling SMERSH and the mysterious Dr. Noah.
Among these agents, there’s the handsome Coop (played by Terrence Cooper) who has been trained to resist all sexual temptations.
There’s Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet), the daughter of Sir James Bond and Mata Hari.
There’s Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress) who is sent to seduce and recruit the expert gambler Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) so that Tremble can beat SMERSH agent Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) at the Casino Royale.
Best of all, there’s Sir James Bond’s nephew, Jimmy Bond. Jimmy Bond is played by Woody Allen and … well, let’s just take a look at Jimmy’s first scene in the film:
Casino Royale had a notoriously troubled production history and most of those troubles seemed to center on Peter Sellers. While the film was designed to be a broad, slapstick comedy, Sellers reportedly insisted on trying to play his role straight and even rewrote his lines to make his scenes more dramatic. Welles eventually grew so disgusted with Sellers that he refused to be in the same room with him. This caused quite a bit of difficulty since Sellers was in almost every scene that featured Welles. Eventually, Sellers walked off the film and the film had to be hastily (and awkwardly) rewritten to account for his sudden absence.
When one watches Casino Royale today, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Sellers was essentially correct. While most of Casino Royale often feels disjointed and incoherent, the scenes featuring Sellers, Andress, and Welles are some of the strongest in the film. Sellers’ dramatic approach doesn’t negate the film’s comedy. If anything, it makes the comedy even stronger because Sellers actually seems to be invested in the reality his character, regardless of how ludicrous a situation that character may find himself in.
When I watched Casino Royale, I was struck by the stark contrast between the parts of the film that worked and the parts that didn’t. This is a movie that truly swings from one extreme to another. Either the film’s satire is working brilliantly (mostly in the scenes featuring Woody Allen and Peter Sellers) or it’s falling completely flat (like in an extended sequence that features Deborah Kerr as a SMERSH assassin).
I found myself laughing more at the little scenes than the big set pieces. For instance, I loved it when David Niven embraces Miss Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet) just to be then told that she’s actually the daughter of the original Miss Moneypenny. I don’t know much about the actor Terrence Cooper (though, according to Wikipedia, he was also a contender to take the role of James Bond in the official series) but I enjoyed the brief sequence where Moneypenny “tests” him to see if he can take on the Bond identity. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really have enough of these small, clever moments.
Ultimately, I found that Casino Royale works best when viewed as a time capsule. Casino Royale was made at a time when the established major Hollywood studios (and veteran producers like Charles K. Feldman) were struggling to remain relevant. Foreign films (including, it must be said, the James Bond films) were challenging the common assumptions of what could and what couldn’t be shown on-screen and the studio system reacted by trying to make films that would appeal to younger audiences while also reassuring older audiences that the movies hadn’t really changed that much. The end result were films like Casino Royale that featured the occasional psychedelic sequence along with cameos from old (and safe) Hollywood stars like George Raft, William Holden, and Charles Boyer. Casino Royale is the type of self-indulgent film that could only have been made in 1967 and, as such, it’s a valuable time capsule for all of us cinematic historians.
I also have to admit that, as excessive as Casino Royale may be, I happen to love excess. Casino Royale might be overlong and occasionally incoherent but the costumes are simply to die for. The film is a visual feast, if nothing else.
Casino Royale was released to scathing reviews and terrible box office but, in the years since, it has become something of a cult favorite. Our own Trash Film Guru has identified Casino Royale as his favorite Bond film. Myself, I found the film to be extremely flawed and yet oddly fascinating to watch. Casino Royale is a total mess and that is both its greatest flaw and greatest strength.
Tomorrow, we’ll return to the official James Bond series by taking a look at You Only Live Twice.