Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The movie that changed my life

Everyone has movies that changed their lives one way or another, I think. After all, there has to be that first exposure to anything that becomes a passion. I started thinking about this when I saw a posting on the message boards I moderate this past week. Someone I know announced — in light of the death of Charlton Heston — that Planet of the Apes (1968) changed his life.

Personally, that baffles me, because the only impact it had on my life was in the form of fallout from talking about the picture in front of my best friend’s mother. I guess we shouldn’t have mentioned Charlton Heston’s full rear nudity, because not only did she forbid my friend’s brother to see the movie, but she ruled out the viewing of any movie rated M (the early version of PG in the first few years of the rating system that began in 1968).

Truth to tell, there are several movies that could be said to have changed my life over the years — and I may well address that topic in the near future — but the one that stands out in my mind as a special kind of turning point is the 1967 film Casino Royale, a movie that was savaged by critics at the time of its release (which didn’t prevent it from being the second biggest money-maker of the year) and is still much maligned by folks who take the James Bond films seriously.

For the uninitiated, Casino Royale was the one Ian Fleming James Bond novel not owned by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who were heading up the Sean Connery series. The property was owned by Charles K. Feldman, who, realizing he couldn’t really do battle with the immensely popular Connery pictures, opted to have Casino Royale turned into a big budget spy spoof. In the world of the film, James Bond is, in reality, the long-retired Sir James Bond (played by David Niven). The rakish James Bond of the Connery films is never seen in Casino Royale, and is merely referred to by the more patrician Sir James as “that bounder to whom you gave my name and number.”

As the wildly convoluted plot has it, Sir James is coerced (his home is blown up) out of retirement to take over the British Secret Service in an attempt to thwart arch-villain Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) by ruining him at the baccarat table at the titular casino. Rather than take on Le Chiffre personally, however, Sir James blackmails “the world’s richest spy” Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress) into recruiting the world’s foremost authority on baccarat, Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers), into posing as James Bond.

The screwy logic of the film doesn’t end there. Before things are over everyone in the secret service — Andress, Daliah Lavi, Terence Cooper, etc. — has been re-christened as James Bond 007. We’ve also been introduced to Sir James’ nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) and his illegitimate daughter (with Mata Hari) Mata Bond (Joanna Petet). Room has been made for guest appearances by George Raft, William Holden, Deborah Kerr,Charles Boyer, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and un-billed Peter O’Toole, who has an exchange with Peter Sellers taken from some of their dialogue in What’s New, Pussycat? (1965).

If this wasn’t enough, five credited directors — Val Guest, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Ken Hughes, Robert Parrish — were called in to make the movie with a sixth uncredited director — Richard Talmadge — brought on to shoot a new ending that, according to the titles of the pieces of Burt Bacharach’s score, could be called “The Cowboys and Indians Fight at Casino Royale.” When the writers — credited and uncredited — were tallied up, there were 10 of them: Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, Michael Sayers, Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder and Peter Sellers.

The making of the film was by all accounts a little slice of hell, due in no small measure to the increasingly bizarre demands of Peter Sellers. These demands reached into absurdity when Sellers, for no reason anyone seems to have ever discerned, refused to appear onscreen with Orson Welles. Considering the fact that the centerpiece of the movie was the baccarat game between the two, this posed a very real problem. As it stands in the final cut, nearly the whole scene is played by cutting between the two actors. There is one master shot — used several times — with both of them in the frame, but it may very well be a composite.

Legend has it that the Sellers factor was such that a hapless production assistant made the mistake of complaining about the troublesome actor, saying that they ought to just fire Sellers. The poor guy thought he was talking to Woody Allen — the similar eyeglasses and Sellers’ talent for mimicry make this believable — but he was actually complaining about Sellers to Sellers. At the conclusion of his rant, the bogus Woody Allen agreed with the man, got up and walked away — and off the film entirely. The story may be apocryphal, but certainly Sellers disappears from the film at the 105 minute mark and is absent from the final ending.

The final 131 minute film was a much re-edited, re-written, re-shot mess of a movie. How could it be otherwise? But it’s a mess of a movie that worked — at least so far as I was concerned at the age of 13. Frankly, it’s a mess that still works for me 40 years later. Oddly, it’s also come to be more highly regarded in general in the intervening years, which may or may not indicate that I was ahead of my time in appreciating the film.

Casino Royale now has a nice 1960s British Invasion movie feel to it. Its messiness and scattershot satire seem deliberate. Its gorgeous mish-mash production design — recalling everything from the German Expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) to the exotica of the Bond series it spoofs — has only been heightened with age (how many movies are going to present the Berlin Wall with West Berlin in pop neon colors and East Berlin entirely bathed in red?). The topical gags have aged less well, perhaps, but they’re in the midst of so much calculated insanity that it really doesn’t matter. At its worst, it now comes across like a fascinating monster. At its best, it’s a savvy spoof — and a real spoof, not just a collection of references — of the whole spy movie genre.

Now, how did the film change my life? Well, I could cite the fact that it offered a clue as to how far cinema could be stretched out of traditional narrative form and still tell a more or less coherent story. And I could remark that it demonstrated the possibility of a movie where a variety of styles could happily co-exist within a single framework. Both claims would be true in themselves, but I don’t think anyone, including myself, is going to buy into the idea that such notions suddenly leapt into my 13-year-old head. No, it was something more basic, and something that might be harder to grasp in this day and age.

In 1967, a year away from movies with ratings, moviegoing for most kids fell into two categories. There were the Saturday matinees that you attended with your friends and then there were the family outing movies. As a matter of course, you tended to go to the movies with your parents. You might have some influence over what you went to, but more likely than not, you were simply taken along to the film of their choice. In its subtle way, this tended to mold your tastes into a reflection of their tastes. That was certainly the case for me up to Casino Royale.

The trip to see the film was simply the standard Sunday afternoon outing to the movies. For me, that meant we went to a movie, followed by dinner at Morisson’s Cafeteria and perhaps a stop at the magazine rack at the Rexall pharmacy (where, with any luck, the new issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland might be available). This was no different. We got in the car, drove to the nearby town of Winter Haven, Fla., to the Ritz Theater. They’d picked the movie solely on the strength of it being “the new James Bond picture.” They were sorely disappointed.

To put it bluntly, my parents hated Casino Royale. To put it in their standard terminology for a movie that had displeased them, it was “the nearest nothing I’ve ever seen.” (There seemed a large number of “nearest nothings” in their pantheon of bad movies.) I don’t know that I openly disagreed with them, but I do know that I had a very different response to the movie, and that that response marked the big shift from feeling something like an extension of my parents to feeling like a person in my own right with my own views and tastes.

The movie also caused another possibly equally significant change. Being that this was in the days before saturation releases — in 1967 movies just didn’t open in 4,000 theaters in every town in the country — it was only a matter of a short wait before the Ritz would drop Casino Royale and the film would make it to the State Theater in Lake Wales. And when it did, I was there — with all my friends — to see it a second time. The completely foreign idea of going to see a movie a second — or even more — time was born at that moment. In all honesty, I think my mother is still a little perplexed by the idea (unless the movie is Gone with the Wind), but she long ago learned to accept the fact.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. 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."

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6 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The movie that changed my life

  1. arlene

    Yes, I love it, too. I was already a bit “bent” in my preferences by the time it was released, but I just LOVED it! I may not have known why I loved it at the time (we are six months, give or take, the same old vintage). Watching now, it has lost little of the joy of a really fine mess.

    The wildly diverse styles of the writers and directors added to pure open abandon of a very (VERY) unusual film for it’s time. It spoofed Bond, the spy glut of the time,and the over-blown epics that were sinking their studios with aplomb!

    It was I who dragged the parents to see it (along with an old Army friend of my Dad’s-envision the excursion)! Because I was besotted with Peter Sellers. The adults squirmed or snored. I wanted to stay for the midnight show.

    I was resoundingly voted down!

  2. Ken Hanke

    Ah, had I but been there, I’d have voted for the midnight show!

    I ought to confess, I suspect I’m being a little hard on my parents here. They may have thought CASINO ROYALE was rubbish, but my father is the one who a few years later started tracking down showings of old movies at non-theatrical venues, starting with him coming across a screening of A DAY AT THE RACES at St. Pete Medical College. This was followed by THE THIN MAN and THE DEVIL DOLL at some art society in Clearwater, and LOVE ME TONIGHT at the Univ. of So. Fla. in Tampa. When you consider that the closest of these meant a 65 mile drive to Tampa (and a 65 mile drive home), I hardly have room to complain.

  3. Chip Kaufmann

    My family almost never went to the movies preferring instead to watch them on TV. I have never seen the ’67 CASINO ROYALE. That was the year I entered high school and due to a burgeoning family crisis I saw very few movies until late 1968. The movie that changed my life was Michael Reeves’ WITCHFINDER GENERAL w/Vincent Price which was released in the U.S. as THE CONQUEROR WORM and only recently has come out on DVD in its original form. Having seen every one of Roger Corman’s Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe pictures, I went to see this film which was marketed as a Poe picture (but wasn’t) at the Fox Theatre in Greenville SC. It was my first “M” rated film and it dealt with 17th century witch hunting in England (hence the original title). CQ/WG was a cruel and incredibly cynical movie with Price playing his villianous part completely straight without a hint of humor or parody. It was also my first exposure to film nudity, sex, brutally realisic onscreen violence, and a downer of an ending where all of the principal characters got killed or went mad. To say that it was a real bummer (my description of it at the time) would be a serious understatement. I left the theatre in a daze and was depressed for quite some time afterwards. Yet CONQUERER WORM/WITCHFINDER GENERAL had made its impression and helped to open me up for the explosion of creative freedom that would briefly flourish in the movies during the 1970s until JAWS and especially STAR WARS would steer the studios back to product over content. I bought a 35mm copy of the film in 1975 (no videos then) even though I had no projector to run it on. It disappeared shortly after I moved to Asheville in 1984. I think it was stolen but I can’t imagine why. While not the great movie that I thought it was at the time, WITCHFINDER GENERAL still holds up quite well 40 years later and because of its original impact, will always be special to me.

  4. arlene

    Your father was a gem!

    My mother’s only saving grace was her love for old movies- musicals and soggy romances in particular. Poor Dad never understood.

    Did his only child want to watch baseball??? Alas, no. Movies. Horror in particular from the time I could toddle over to the dial and change it.

    Karma has not been kind to poor Dad. My Stepmom can and will watch old movies 24/7.

  5. Ken Hanke

    “The movie that changed my life was Michael Reeves’ WITCHFINDER GENERAL w/Vincent Price which was released in the U.S. as THE CONQUEROR WORM and only recently has come out on DVD in its original form.”

    I saw WITCHFINDER GENERAL/THE CONQUEROR WORM when it was new (or close to new — release patterns being different then) on a double bill with … something. Can’t remember what. I remember little of my original reaction (it was obviously more profound than my reaction to the other movie!) beyond thinking it was really cool to see Vinnie killed with an axe. I was still young enough for that to impress me.

  6. Ken Hanke

    “Your father was a gem!”

    That, I guess, is pretty true. Oddly, the last conversation I had with him before he died was about one of those movies he took me to see — LOVE ME TONIGHT. I’d just written an article on Rouben Mamoulian, which he read and commented, “I don’t suppose anyone who ever saw that opening sequence ever forgot it.”

    I also should reiterate (I got some offline crap for citing CASINO ROYALE as the movie that changed my life) that CASINO ROYALE is a movie that changed my life in a very particular way. I could name three other movies that had a greater artistic impact on me, but that’s another subject for another column.

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