Spotlight on James Bond
With the wild success of the James Bond films produced by partners Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and (Canadian) Harry Saltzman, which had run from the years 1962 Dr No to 1965 Thunder clap, it was only natural for the Hollywood system to create a slew of other spy genre images. After all, like it or not, imitators do a great job, often regardless of how good the movies themselves are. Without a shadow of a doubt, the most inquisitive impersonator of all, one who has earned cult status over the decades for both good and bad, was dreamed up by producer Charles K. Feldman. Determined to cash in on the 007 craze, Feldman not only made a copy of Bond, he tried to make a Bond film, albeit completely different in nature from the official ones from EON Productions released by United Artists. .
What he considered the key to success were the rights to the original 007 novel by author Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, something that had escaped the aforementioned Broccoli and Saltzman. The other was a huge budget to spend and a pick of the brightest stars in the industry, as well as some interesting up and coming talent. What started as a legitimate attempt to recreate Bond’s formula quickly turned into one of cinema’s most infamous catastrophes: the 1967 parody Casino Royale, directed by a boat full of different directors (almost all of them were fired by Feldman at one point or another or simply left the project), written by multiple writers, and featuring a cast of what appeared to be hundreds of recognizable faces . It is almost impossible to watch Casino Royale and not recognize at least half a dozen faces.
What is the story of Casino Royale? That’s a great, great question. Correct what is the story to Casino Royale?… In summary: The British secret service has been in shambles since the retirement of the real James Bond 007 (David Niven), a man much more prudish than the 007 that people have come to know, which pushes the leader of the MI6 M (John Huston) as well as the representatives of the secret services of the great political powers to plead for his exit from his retirement. After M’s inexplicable disappearance (literally inexplicable given the poor quality of the film’s editing), Bond agrees to lead MI6 with new agents who will all go by the code name James Bond 007, including Terence Cooper, Peter Sellers and the American nephew of David Niven, little Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen). Along the way, viewers meet Vesper Lynd (played by Bond alumnus Ursula Andress of Dr No), Mrs. Moneypenny’s daughter (Barbara Bouchet), the original James Bond’s daughter, Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) as Peter Sellers’ Bond fights Le Chiffre (Orsen Welles) at the Casino Royale baccarat table . This is literally only half of the plot points of the film and the actors that show up.
So what exactly is wrong with Casino Royale? John Huston, Peter Sellers, Orsen Welles and David Niven are all involved in the same photo and it sucks? What is happening?!? The bluntest explanation possible is that a lot of the blame must be on the man responsible for trying to bring all of these fine artists together, Charles Feldman. Without going into detail (the books and DVD supplements will do that for those curious to dig deeper into the history of the film’s production), Feldman just wanted to “make a movie” rather than “make a movie.” if that makes licking make sense. There was no real direction because Feldman himself was quite indecisive. Ultimately, as the individual investing the money in the project, he was the one who hired and fired, and has he ever hired and fired. John Huston, Val Guest, Robert Parrish, Joe McGrath and Ken Hughes all directed parts of the movie which would be nice were Casino Royale an anthology photo. Sadly, that’s not the case, and as a result, the story, structure, and tone of the film is a complete mess. A single viewing provides enough clues that this is a project that lacks cohesion, a singular vision and a clean voice. At times it’s a psychedelic journey, other times a whimsical (not funny) sex comedy, other times the Peter Sellers impersonation show and so on. Granted, there are films out there that successfully mix different styles and tones, but this one is definitely not one of them. Casino Royale is poles apart from the aforementioned films which skillfully juggle various elements: he tries to throw everything into the mix and therefore in the end to feel totally empty. As strange as the following commentary may be, there is so much going on that there is really nothing happening at all.
If one tried to illustrate the incongruities of the film, among the vast selection of options, one could for example try the editing. More than once the story, if we risk calling it a story, moves from one point of the plot to another in extremely jarring ways. Early on, M and other Secret Service men visit the original Bond at the latter’s country house. Suddenly, as the group is enjoying the famous spy’s beautiful garden, rockets are mistakenly launched into the field. Cut from Niven’s Bond offering condolences to M’s now widowed wife. When did M really perish? Apparently it was during the bombing, although the movie never showed it. In fact, John Huston’s latest shot shows the actor trying to get his hands on his wig before it flies off, not of him injured on the ground breathing his last breaths. Such a ridiculous edit, a constant from start to finish, is both understandable and unforgivable. Huston just walked off set one day, tired of filming and wanting to play high stakes poker with friends in Scotland. The directors changed every few weeks. In essence: there was no plan.
The worst part about it is that the film, which is supposed to be a parody, is painfully no fun. It was written several times before comedy was exceedingly hard to measure. What makes one laughter laugh can lead to another to death, as simple as that. Anyway, this reviewer will not hesitate to state his opinion, that being Casino Royale is about as mundane a comedy as it gets. Woody Allen, David Niven, and Peter Sellers are comedy geniuses, but all three made it in this movie. It was reported that Sellers in particular was having some real personal issues at the time, which explains her strained relationship with the director co-stars (Jacqueline Bisset had a particularly negative opinion of the man at the time). Almost everyone on set considered him a pompous bastard, but credit is due since he later apologized. Every now and then a good line is spoken with a hint of enthusiasm, like the “Here are my credentials / They seem to be in order” from the pre-title scene, but they are very rare. It doesn’t hurt to have the remarkably beautiful Barbara Bouchet in the movie, but even her stunning beauty can’t save this movie.
It’s not all bad, mind you. In all fairness, much of the movie looks good, with the highlights being the inspired sets. Sometimes futuristic, sometimes exotic, with a mind-boggling haunted house style, the production design team deserves at least some applause. Plus, Burt Bacharach, one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded sheet music composers, delivers the goods even if much of the rest of the movie isn’t good. The gaze of love is now considered a classic and many recognize the catchy and catchy main title theme and even some of the other wonderfully playful cues that appear throughout the film. You may not want to buy the movie on DVD or Blu-Ray, but buying the sheet music is a good choice.
Casino Royale is an oddity, not least because it is an unofficial James Bond film. It’s a quirk for the countless horror stories about his production, the fact that despite his most enviable cast nothing seems to work, and despite all of his issues, some of which are quite painful, he still holds a place in it. 007 Cinema History (as a serious James Bond fan, even I own a copy!). How ironic then, when critics of cinema’s most famous franchise often confuse one movie for another because of all the changing cast and “all stories are silly anyway”, the worst and most confusing of all is the very first to have multiple actors to play the part. Imitation is never as good as the real thing.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight. The article is part of our James Bond Spotlight.