Spoiler alert! This review gives away the identity of the main villain. (Not that it really matters. I never knew what was going on anyways.)
1967’s Casino Royale is a majestically bad film. It’s as if someone had feasted on a cornucopia of cinema and then promptly threw it all up on screen, everything disfigured yet still retaining discernable shapes. The picture boasts at least five directors (one of them being the esteemed John Huston), a star-studded ensemble cast (including Peter Sellers, David Niven, original Bond girl Ursula Andress, the great Orson Welles, and even a young Woody Allen), elaborate sets (there’s a British country manor, a Scottish castle, an Indian palace, a German Expressionist West Berlin spy school, and, of course, the deluxe casino of the title), and a variety of lavish costumes (Sellers even models a few at one point). And yet, in spite of the sheer abundance, the only things one takes away from the film are a few moments of mild amusement and lasting bewilderment. What is this mess? What happened?
The production history sheds some light on the disaster. Producer Charles K. Feldman acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale but couldn’t bring it into production before the first Eon Productions screen adaptation of a Bond novel in 1962. After Eon’s Dr. No, Feldman tried to collaborate on a production of Casino Royale with Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, but they couldn’t agree on the terms, and so he eventually decided to turn his adaptation into a satire, presumably as a way to put it out amid the Connery films. Numerous screenwriters worked on various drafts over the years, and eventually the film was conceived as a sort of anthology of chapters, each made by a different director (for example, Huston directed the initial chapter with David Niven’s “original” James Bond.) To make matters worse, apparently there was also tension between Peter Sellers and Orson Welles. Thus, the production was marred by both business conflicts and competing artistic directions (whether among the different writers, directors, and even the actors).
However, in spite of the energy you might expect creative tensions to produce, the final result is probably the most boring spy movie spoof I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, since there are probably as many parodies of James Bond as there are canon films. There are a couple jokes about “the other guy,” meaning Connery, but the film is not a smart or sustained satire of the spy adventure genre. Instead, the humour limply tries in every direction. For example, the Americans come to the rescue in the final fight at the casino, and so cowboys and Indians have to rush in. That’s the kind of lame gags and tangential jokes that populate this satire.
The story, as far as one can be read, is that the original James Bond (played by David Niven as a chaste, traditional aristocrat) must be called back from retirement to fend off a SMERSH plot to kill all spies. M (John Huston) and the heads of other national spy organizations (William Holden is the CIA director, for example) all come to Bond’s country manor to persuade him back into action, since he’s a legendary secret agent and currently spies are being assassinated around the globe. When their verbal persuasions fail, soldiers shoot bombs at Bond’s manor, and we cut to Bond back in the game, ready to take over for M, who apparently died in the explosion. On his way down to England, Bond is diverted to M’s Scottish castle residence, which is now populated by SMERSH female agents posing as M’s wife and (many) daughters. (SMERSH is inexplicably conceived in the film as some sort of conspiracy of sexy women.) What could have been a humorous reworking of the Grail Knight being tempted plays out as one long, tired Scottish joke. Once at headquarters in London, various “James Bonds” are created in order to throw off SMERSH. For example, Peter Seller’s baccarat master Evelyn Tremble is brought in to defeat Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) at the casino, and Ursula Andress plays Vesper Lynd, also “007” apparently. Woody Allen is Jimmy Bond, Bond’s American nephew, who is later revealed to be the true villain (I don’t know why no one ever told me that Woody Allen played a Bond villain!).
There can be no valid defence of the film’s incoherence as some kind of “pure” satire, since it’s clear that parts of the film are simply missing or stitched together haphazardly. For example, while Sellers dominates the not-bad middle chapter of the film, which loosely follows the novel’s events at the casino, his chapter ends abruptly. Sellers apparently quit the film, and so there’s just a gap between Bond’s pursuit of Le Chiffre and his capture. Sellers’ Bond virtually disappears from the final scenes with no explanation.
Even Burt Bacharach’s score does not work. While the song, “The Look of Love,” has lasted the years, the rest of the music barely connects to the material on screen, the lazy tempo slowing down the already dull humour of the production.
Viewed today, Casino Royale is a dated, dull mess. Something fails on every level. The movie lacks little of value in either its form or function. Narratively, it’s a fiasco, and as entertainment, it’s not very funny. There’s probably a decent 45-minute comedy in there, mostly around the Peter Sellers chapter, but unfortunately anything of value can only be viewed through the prism of confusion. I can only suggest viewing for the most thorough Bond fans, or as an example of the spectacle of failure and disorder.
1 out of 10
Casino Royale (1967, UK/USA)
Directed by Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Val Guest, and Richard Talmadge; screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers; starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen, Joanna Pettet, Daliah Lavi, and Orson Welles.