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"Casino Royale" (1967) Movie Review
Casino Royale (1967)
Produced by Charles K. Feldman
Starring: Woody Allen, David Niven, Orson Welles, Barbara Bouchet, Jacqueline Bissett
Directed by ... LOTS of people!
I've been on a James Bond kick lately thanks to my local public library, where I've been re-visiting the bulk of the 007 series on DVD. When I recently reserved a copy of Casino Royale, I thought that I would be getting the 2006 film starring Daniel Craig, not this "unofficial" parody from 1967...but that's what I ended up receiving. I was slightly annoyed, but I figured I might as well give the '67 "Casino" a look anyway, as I've read and heard much about it but had never seen it. What transpired was one of the strangest film-viewing experiences I've had in many a moon...and I seriously think that sitting through this two hour, ten minute monstrosity hurt my brain!!
1967's Casino Royale is a very odd film, produced under a very odd set of circumstances that require some explanation. When producers Harry Salzman and Albert Broccoli's Eon Productions purchased the film rights to Ian Fleming's James Bond novels in the late 1950s, the only title that wasn't available to them was 1953's "Casino Royale," because it had already been sold to American producer Charles K. Feldman. He had "Americanized" the story and turned it into a 1954 episode of the TV action/adventure series Climax! starring Barry Nelson as a U.S. agent who went by the name "Jimmy Bond." Several years later, of course, Eon's "official" series of Bond films starring Sean Connery became a global box office phenomenon... and Feldman, who still held the film rights to Casino Royale, saw an opportunity to cash in on his suddenly-very-valuable property.
Apparently, Feldman originally planned to produce Casino Royale as a "straight" Bond film, even approaching Sean Connery to star in it as 007. However, legend has it that Connery demanded a $1 million salary, which was an astronomical sum of money in the mid 1960s. Feldman soon realized that even if he'd been successful in hiring Connery away for his production, he and the star likely would've faced hefty lawsuits from Eon Productions. Rather than take the risk, Feldman made the bizarre decision to turn Casino Royale into a screwball comedy similar to one of his previous hits - 1965's What's New Pussycat? - and spoof the Bond series as well as the spy movie craze in general. He spared no expense to bring this idea to fruition, hiring an all star cast includingPeter Sellers, David Niven, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen, and Orson Welles. By the time Casino Royale finished shooting, it had gone through numerous script re-writes, five (!) directors, massive cost overruns, and the defection of Sellers midway through filming. When the movie hit cinemas in 1967, it was a loud, indulgent, confused mess, but it made no difference at the box office -- James Bond-Mania was in full swing at the time, so the picture still became a modest hit despite its near-total incomprehensibility.To this day, Casino Royale maintains a cult audience among Bond fans and aficionados of weird cinema.
Imagine what might have happened if the producers of the 1960s Batman TV series teamed up with the writers of Laugh-In and the members of Monty Python to produce a satire of the James Bond series...but they forgot to make it funny. That's Casino Royale in a nutshell. The story (and I use that term loosely) chugs along in fits and starts, plot holes abound, characters appear and disappear at random, and though everyone seems to be having a heck of a lot of fun onscreen, the audience is left to scratch their heads and say "What the hell is going on?"
As the film opens, the "original" James Bond (David Niven), now retired from public service, is approached at his palatial estate by his former boss "M" as well as representatives from the Russian, French, and American intelligence agencies. They beg Bond to come out of retirement and help them battle the evil organization known as SMERSH, whose operatives have been killing spies all over the globe. Bond refuses their request at first, but when a mortar shell suddenly destroys his house and kills M, he has no choice but to take over his former superior's position as the head of the British Secret Service.
Bond's first act as the head of Britain's spy agency is to re-name all active agents - male and female - "James Bond 007," so that SMERSH will be so confused by all the "James Bonds" running around that they won't know which is the "real" 007. This group of "new" Bonds includes Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers), a world class Baccarat player; tough guy Coop (Terence Cooper), who has been specially trained to resist the charms of women; millionairess Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress); and Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet), 007's illegitimate daughter with the legendary spy Mata Hari. The good guys learn that SMERSH's financial wizard "Le Chiffre" (Orson Welles) will be playing a high stakes game of Baccarat at the famed Casino Royale in order to replenish the funds he's embezzled from the organization, so Evelyn/Bond (Sellers) is sent to play against him, with orders to make sure he loses by any means necessary. Eventually the team learns that Le Chiffre is not the only threat, and that SMERSH's head man - the mysterious "Dr. Noah" - has nefarious plans of his own.
If that plot sounds random, it is... and mind you, I've left out the parts about the deadly, remote-controlled duck decoys that attack Niven at M's slapstick Scottish funeral, the art auction at an East German spy school, the flying saucer that kidnaps Mata Bond in the middle of London's Trafalgar Square, and a finale that takes place in both Heaven and Hell...all set to a swingin' '60s soundtrack by cocktail music demigod Burt Bacharach! Throw-away gags are shoehorned in wherever they'll fit (I'm still trying to figure out why there's a pair of sea lions wearing "007" medallions in the casino scenes), some of which work, but most do not. The film is lushly photographed, the women are gorgeous, and Woody Allen and Peter Sellers each have some good moments on screen that produce a few chuckles. Unfortunately, unless one of them is on screen, the film practically slows to a crawl. As a long time Bond fan, this "parody" only gave me a headache. If I'm in the mood for a spy spoof, I'll take Mike Myers' Austin Powers films (which were clearly heavily influenced by Casino Royale) any day.
The Swingin' Main Title Theme
Casino Royale might have been funnier if I'd seen it in 1967 while trippin' on LSD, because let's be honest - it certainly seems like the filmmakers were using more than their share of it during production ... but it certainly hasn't aged well at all. 50 years after its original release, this movie stands as a semi-interesting relic of a bygone era. Fans of the "official" Bond series might want to give it a look out of curiosity, but if Casino Royale didn't have the 007 connection and had been just another goofy, knock-off spy comedy (of which there were many produced during the Bond Mania craze of the mid 1960s), it would've been forgotten long ago. I am amazed that so much money was spent on this many gifted performers just so they could all be unfunny in the same film. Now I have to re-visit the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale, and hope that it will erase the memories of this turkey from my brain!
© 2012 Keith Abt