“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.