Casino Royale (1967) Directors: John Huston, Ken Hughes, Robert Parrish, Joseph McGrath, Val Guest
Very loosely based on Ian Flemings’ inaugural James Bond novel, 1967’s Casino Royale is a silly, pitiful, chaotic, parody of the spy film genre. The production is now somewhat legendary for being complete pandemonium, with no less than five different directors who were cycled through disparate segments of the film (in addition to at least one uncredited director), along with an army of script writers (which at one point included Billy Wilder). Casino Royale is a haphazard, disjointed consolidation of various unconnected plot-threads that really would have been better served as a series of Saturday Night Live skits than a complete movie.
During production Peter Sellers apparently had a major falling out with Orson Welles, perhaps owing to an invitation for Princess Margaret to visit the set (Sellers had boasted about his relationship with the royal family) but when she arrived on set she snubbed Sellers and favored Welles. After this incident, Sellers refused to appear alongside Welles in the film again, and Sellers was also disappointed because he wanted to play a serious character rather than a slapstick version of James Bond. He hired his own scriptwriter to revise his lines in an effort to outshine Orson Welles and Woody Allen. There were many other Peter Sellers incidents during production -he fired the blank of a gun in a co-star’s face and also got into a physical altercation with one of the directors. Eventually he stopped showing up for filming and later dropped out of the production entirely (some say he was fired). In a desperate attempt to salvage the production, the directors brought in David Niven to add an additional, alternative side-plot. Several additional actors also refused to finish up their roles and in the end it was left to the editors to cobble something together out of this mess.
Top it all off, Casino Royale was one of the most expensive films created to date. It began with a budget of $6M that quickly doubled into $12M. For reference the most recent Bond movie from Eon was Thunderball in 1965 and had a budget of $5.5M. Per Orson Welles, the only reason Casino Royale found success at the box office was because the poster featured the outline of a nude woman. Critically, Casino Royale was widely panned. At least Burt Bacharach completed the notable ’60s lounge music for the film, and it featured an incredible, all-star cast: Peter Sellers, David Niven, Orson Welles, Deborah Kerr, Woody Allen, the director John Huston appears briefly as M. Many other famous actors appear in a variety of roles.
I had to read a plot synopsis after attempting to watching Casino Royale because I could not figure out what actually happened in this movie. So here goes: An elderly, retired James Bond (David Niven who once had Ian Fleming’s stamp of approval to play the real James Bond) is asked to return to fight the Soviet SMERSH organization (SMERSH was the real Soviet acronym for its counter-intelligence agencies, however in the canonical Bond films the organization is called SPECTRE). But then Bond’s mansion is suddenly mortared in a surprise explosion that also kills M. Bond then takes the remains of M to his widow, but M’s home has been covertly infiltrated by a clutch of young women at the behest of SMERSH. They intend to seduce James Bond but he escapes and becomes head of MI6 where he learns that agents around the world have been falling prey to enemy seduction. In order to confuse the Soviets, Bond decides to rename all active agents as “James Bond 007.”
He hires Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) to pose as 007 and beat a criminal called Le Chiffre (Orson Welles). There are a bunch of odd, disconnected side-plots, with some actors from the early Bond films appearing including Ursula Andress and Vladek Sheybal, and the story eventually concludes with a card game between Sellers and Welles. At the end, the casino explodes and all the characters die, though they appear in heaven before the credits role (Woody Allen’s character of Jimmy Bond or “Dr. Noah” descends into hell). The film is mostly a blur of incoherent allusions to classic films like Caligari, and other playful, experimental techniques that look fun on the surface but make for a terrible movie-going experience. As I watched the film, I wondered to myself: to what extent is the utterly dysfunctional plot of this film itself a parody of the often bloated, nonsensical stories in many canonical Bond films?
The rights to Casino Royale bounced around before falling into the lap of Charles K. Feldman, a talent agent and attorney in Hollywood. For one reason or another he decided to create this Bond spoof, after negotiations fell through with Eon, in the vein of his other 1965 Peter sellers comedy What’s New Pussy Cat? Perhaps owing to the success of 1966’s spy parody My Man Flint and 1967’s sequel In Like Flint (which are later alluded to in the Austin Powers films). Some films are successful with chaotic, absurdist humor (i.e. Monty Python and the Holy Grail) but 1967’s Casino Royale fails spectacularly in this regard. Many have suggested that the failures of Casino Royale sent the James Bond franchise into a downward tailspin because 1965’s Thunderball was a box office smash success, but 1967’s You Only Live Twice dipped below expectations.
Casino Royale in retrospect makes us contemplate why filmmakers would make such films for their times, knowing how understandably they wouldn’t be made today. The 60s were a most fascinating decade for how films and TV shows could be mixed between the downright ridiculous and the most pivotally rewarding. If its cast can attract several major talents including Peter Sellers, David Niven and Orson Welles, it may be as appealing as all the major talents that the 007 series attracted, which I certainly learned to appreciate when Christopher Walken played the villain in A View To A Kill. In the spy genre for all its attractions, I’m sure that most audiences can be more attuned to how Daniel Craig’s 007 era has made the best headway in decades.
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