Casino Royale

Movie Information

The Asheville Film Society will screen Casino Royale Tuesday, Mar. 8, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Hanke is the artistic director of the Asheville Film Society.
Score:

Genre: Big-budget Scattershot Satire Spy Spoof
Director: John Huston, Val Guest, Joseph McGrath, etc.
Starring: Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, David Niven, Orson Welles, Woody Allen
Rated: NR

Casino Royale is too much for one James Bond,” claimed the ads back in 1966—and they weren’t kidding, since before the movie is over everyone in MI5 will be James Bond. Well, it hardly matters anyway, since we learn early on that the James Bond we know as James Bond (“That sexual acrobat who leaves a trail of beautiful dead women like blown r-roses behind him”) is only a cheap imitation (“That b-bounder to whom you gave my name and number”) of the real Sir James Bond (David Niven). The critics hated it. Audiences, however, made it one of the top grossing films of 1967. I saw it twice. I loved it then. I love it now. I concede that it’s bloated and absurd—and that it only entirely works if you get jokes and pop-culture references that were topical 44 years ago. It may, in fact, be the first post-modern comedy, but it feels more good-natured than snarky—and there’s an undercurrent of true British satire here.

I have written about this film on and off for years, starting with a defense of it when Orson Welles died in a tribute for Films in Review (1985). It also formed the basis for a “Screening Room” column.

Perhaps the best one line description of it is on the commentary track of the DVD—“Cinema run amuck.” There’s no denying that that’s what it is when all is said and done, but it’s gloriously—and expensively—run amuck. But it’s also filmmaking run amuck, not in the least because some of the cast were hired under the delusion that they were going to be making a James Bond picture.

Part of the behind-the-scenes friction with Peter Sellers stemmed from the straight Bond movie idea. Sellers wanted to play James Bond, but found himself playing a milquetoast, completely unsuave expert on baccarat named Evenlyn Tremble, who is hired by MI5 to impersonate James Bond to play baccarat against Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) in the course of the movie (about the only part of the novel left in the film). This didn’t make Sellers happy, nor, as it turned out, did the casting of Welles—even though he apparently suggested Welles for the part. It’s unclear why he took a dislike to Welles—it may have been Welles’ insistence that he get to do magic tricks in the scene—but he did. The upshot found him refusing to actually act with Welles. There are shots of the two in the same frame—or actually one set-up used several times—but I’m not sure that it wasn’t achieved in post-production. For the most part, though, they never inhabit the same frame.

The final film—with Sellers missing from the climax because he walked off the picture—is a huge grab bag of only vaguely related scenes. Some of them are brilliant—the entire German Expressionist sequence at the Mata Hari School of Espionage is a gem—some of them are merely silly, some are simply epic for the sake of being epic. There’s just no good reason for Mata Bond’s (Joanna Pettet) temple dance, except that it’s gorgeously photographed and huge. The big cowboys and Indians fight at the film’s slapped together climax apparently wasn’t even written, and was directed by an uncredited Richard Talmadge. That the movie makes any sense at all is amazing—and yet, if you go with it, it does make some narrative sense, despite what has been claimed. Amusingly, the film’s weakest—or most unworkable—narrative point is the whole Mata Hari business. Stretching a point, you might accept the 57-year-old Niven as a dapper 70-something James Bond, but no way is 25-year-old Joanna Pettet passing as the daughter of woman executed 50 years earlier! It hardly matters.

Today, the film’s biggest problem is probably topicality. Guest stars like Charles Boyer, William Holden and Deborah Kerr don’t mean a lot to younger audiences. Kerr’s scenes as the bogus Lady M. seem especially padded—if you don’t get the joke that it’s all so wonderfully out of character with her screen image. A lion jumping atop a car with “Born Free” coming up on the soundtrack mayn’t register. Spoofing an Ajax laundry detergent ad (the knight on horseback who kidnaps Mata) is lost to the ages, as is the reference to 400 “tiny time capsules” in Jimmy Bond’s (Woody Allen) bomb (taken from the Contact cold medicine pitch). George Raft’s guest bit assumes you recognize him, that you know he became a star by flipping a quarter in Scarface (1932), that you know the bit about the gun that shoots backwards from The Silencers (1966), and that the man he talks to at the bar is David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin from The Man from U.N.C.L.E TV series. That’s asking a lot.

There are two references to Clive Donner’s What’s New, Pussycat? (1965)—another Feldman production—and the whole point of Peter O’Toole’s cameo with Sellers is grounded in the viewer knowing that they’re spoofing dialogue from a scene they did in the earlier film. Jean-Paul Belmondo shows up (with an English phrase book that translates “merde” as “ouch,” which he pronounces “ooch”) for no very good reason except that he was Ursula Andress’ boyfriend at the time. And there are naked girls painted gold a la Goldfinger (1964) for no good reason, except the pop culture reference. Well, it’s that kind of movie.

But if you can revel in its sheer excess, its gorgeous production design, its epic-for-epic’s sake approach (every dollar shows on the screen), the jokes that work (Sellers’ inability to carry off the “Bond, James Bond” schtick the moment it’s questioned is priceless), the jokes that don’t, the scattershot satire, the great musical score, and the fantastic anarchic messiness of it all, well, it’s a pure 1960s experience. And, despite what Mario Bava fanatics insist, this is the movie the Austin Powers pictures are spoofing, not Danger: Diabolik (1968)—and that’s kind of odd, since Casino Royale is itself a spoof.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

12 thoughts on “Casino Royale

  1. Grant Millin

    Since the only news out of Hollywood these days in about Charlie Sheen we might as well cover the oldies… but greats…

    I got into film school by referencing the entertainment value of Huston’s Casino Royale. A lot of the heat and energy from this film is found in the Burt Bacharach/Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass soundtrack. Of course, Dusty Springfield singing Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” made it into cinema history with this film.

    Buy the soundtrack, load into your smartphone/iPod, and have several Royale cocktails at Posana Cafe (with a designated driver or exfiltration via taxi).

    Groovy, Man. Groovy.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I got into film school by referencing the entertainment value of Huston’s Casino Royale.

    I can think of worse ways.

    Buy the soundtrack

    I wish I had picked it up a few years ago when it was readily available. I do still have the LP I bought when I was 13. I shudder to think of the condition 44 years on.

  3. arlene

    The LP is still fine all these years. I played it into near oblivion before I moved it to cassette, It made the transition to CD. It and I, are too old to take it to Ipod.

    But when I listen to it- it still evokes pure, loopy joy.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Your LP may be fine. Even if I had anything to play it on, I’m doubtful that mine is. I read recently that the LP is considered — by people who consider these things — to be possibly the finest sounding recording ever made.

    I am also told that someone or thing put out a soundtrack album that included the version the ending music complete with the vocal that did not make the original album. Anybody know where this can be obtained?

  5. Grant Millin

    Ken, do you watch movies at home on a 16mm projector? I’m not trying to be mean, I’m just asking.

    You can download a few of the songs individually by searching “casino royale burt”. The full soundtrack is on Amazon. There’s a few $10 versions. There’s a $85 version that may be the special edition you mention. It does not show a playlist on Amazon, but some Googling of the ISBN, etc. might tell you more about the special edition.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Ken, do you watch movies at home on a 16mm projector? I’m not trying to be mean, I’m just asking.

    I’m trying to figure out how that question could be construced as mean… Anyway, no, not for many years, even though I once was a pretty avid 16mm collector and I still have three projectors and ca. 30 movies I drag around with me for no really good reason. To be honest, good DVD projection generally beats 16mm of nostalgic memory with battered prints shipped in from Films Inc. or Twyman, dodgy dupes, reduction prints, and generally pan-and-scan copies of ‘scope movies. Of course, much depends the quality of the DVD authoring. A lot of the MGM discs — especially early ones — is not very good (and often not anamorphic with widescreen titles). Their disc of Women in Love is only so-so and not anamorphic. Their disc of Hair is absolutely ghastly and non-anamorphic. On the other hand, I’ve seen some of the Charlie Chan films put out by Fox (obviously not anamorphic) on an actual full-size theater screen and you could have sold me that they were 35mm if I hadn’t known better.

    There’s a $85 version that may be the special edition you mention. It does not show a playlist on Amazon, but some Googling of the ISBN, etc. might tell you more about the special edition.

    It should be easy to tell because it was put out on a small label — Kritzerland, I think — and not by Colgems/Columbia/Sony/whoever owns it now. I was surprised to find the vinyl going for $100 and more, but it appears the LP has become legendary as possibly the best recording ever. (My ears are not that good anymore.)

  7. DrSerizawa

    My copy of “The Searchers” achieved it’s “widescreen” staus through the cheap dishonest shortcut of cutting off the top and bottom of the screen. I had to wait until TCM showed it to get a real letterbox format. Same thing happened with “Dark City”. Chintzy lazy and dishonest in my book. MGM has nothing on Warner Brothers.

  8. Ken Hanke

    My copy of “The Searchers” achieved it’s “widescreen” staus through the cheap dishonest shortcut of cutting off the top and bottom of the screen.

    I have to admit this is something I haven’t encountered, but then I have neither film. The problem with TCM — apart from their logo — is that they aren’t broadcast in a manner where copying them makes them anamorphically enhanced for a wide screen TV.

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