A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.
Directed by John Huston, Ken Hughes, Val Guest, Joseph McGrath, and Robert Parrish
Written by Wolf Mankowitz & John Law & Michael Sayers
with uncredited contributions by Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Peter Sellers, Terry Southern, and Billy Wilder
Premiered 14 April, 1967
Yes, I am going to try to do this. Yes, I am a dumbfuck.
With no context at all to explain what's happening, British secret agent 007, James Bond (Peter Sellers) meets with an apparently Scottish inspector, Mathis (Duncan Macrae) in a public street urinal in Paris. Mathis shows his credentials, apparently waggling his dick at Bond, and they agree to find a quieter place to confer. It's quite weird on its own, and not nearly funny enough to work as a parody of the actual Bond opening sequences, and it turns out to have been snipped from a scene much later in the film for no better reason that "just because". Which, given where the plot goes, also makes it confusing.
So: not funny, pointless, and confusing? There couldn't be a more appropriate opening scene to this grindingly bizarre parody of the EON Bond films, forced into the world through the sheer willpower of producer Charles K. Feldman.
Rating: 1 Union Jack Parachute
"Casino Royale" is a peppy pop instrumental composed by Burt Bacharach and performed by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, a relic of the fascinating period in music history when poppy jazz performed on the horn could reliably top the charts. I cannot imagine the song having too large of a natural fanbase 45 years later, but it did surprisingly well in '67, and I will confess to having a real soft spot for the tune even now; it helps that I was exposed to enough Alpert at a young age that I have persuaded myself that I enjoy listening to it now. An end-credits version that adds inane lyrics - purposefully inane lyrics, I should hasten to point out - is much, much less enjoyable.
Better yet! This film is, weirdly, the only Bond picture of any stripe to put up two Top 40 hits; the other is Bacharach's gorgeously smoky "The Look of Love" as performed by Dusty Springfield in full-on "give me sex right now" mode. In addition to being seductive as hell and one of the perfect '60s songs, it's an Oscar nominee, the first of four Bond songs to be so honored. And it probably doesn't count, being as it's not a title theme, but Casino Royale is about to put up some exceptionally terrible scores and I feel sorry enough for it to cheat it up a little.
Rating: 4 Shirley Basseys
The initial letters of the various people involved in the making of the film are drawn in a big, cartoon style, with color-tinted footage from the movie in the gaps. That's all. It's a parody of the Bond opening titles to absolutely no degree whatsoever, slotting in much more comfortably to the "wacky credits for wacky comedies" tradition of the 1960s; and as as such things go, the credits are therefore perfectly satisfying, but not as charming nor graphically pleasing as their most obvious precursor, the titles from Feldman's own What's New Pussycat two years prior.
Rating: 2.5 Silhouetted Women
I'm pretty sure that if I take things slowly, I can make it all the way through.
Someone is killing spies, indiscriminately, and representatives from the four great national spy programs - M (John Huston) of Britain's MI6, Ransome (William Holden) of the USA's CIA, Le Grand (Charles Boyer) of France's Deuxième Bureau, and Smernov (Kurt Kasznar) of the Soviet Union's KGB - converge on the remote Scottish estate of the greatest spy in the world, Sir James Bond (David Niven), formerly of MI6. Bond, firmly entrenched in his retirement, will have nothing to do with it; he also is rather pissed off about how MI6 has recycled his name and callsign and given it to a sexually maniacal playboy who'd rather play with gadgets than do any real spying. When M dies in an explosion meant to kill the former superspy, he feels guilty enough to visit the spymaster's widow himself, only she has been secretly replaced by Agent Mimi (Deborah Kerr) of SMERSH, the Russian agency responsible for all these dead spies. Mimi falls desperately in love with Bond, however, and tells him everything, saving his life.
Bond heads to London to take over MI6, surviving another attempt on his life. Here, his first decision is to rename all British agents "James Bond 007" in order to confuse SMERSH. His second decision is to find a man irresistible to women who can be trained not to find any woman sexually desirable, to combat all these sexy female agents being used these days to take advantage of contemporary spies' well-known adolescent sexuality. Agent Cooper (Terence Cooper) is chosen to be this particular James Bond 007.
Sir James then calls upon Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress), a former spy turned corporate raider, to help recruit Britain's foremost baccarat expert, Evelyn Tremble (Sellers). For Sir James hopes to have Agent 007, Tremble edition, beat the notorious Le Chiffre at baccarat and thus bankrupt the infamous SMERSH agent, throwing the organisation into chaos. HOLY SHIT, it's something that resembles the plot of Ian Fleming's source novel!
And now, Sir James recruits the last of his top-drawer new James Bonds: his own daughter, Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet), whom he fathered during a passionate love affair with infamous spy Mata Hari, the only woman in his life. Young Mata has gone into hiding in India to avoid the life that ruined her childhood, but she rather eagerly joins in, traveling to West Berlin to sneak into an auction of blackmail material Le Chiffre is holding to raise funds. She stills the films of his photos and disrupts the auction.
Agent 007 (Tremble) and Agent 007 (Lynd) travel to Casino Royale, where Tremble finally pits himself against Le Chiffre in the flesh (Orson Welles, who at the time was quite fleshy indeed). Le Chiffre uses supervillain-style magic in addition to being a world-class spy and baccarat player, and when things start to go badly for him, he psychologically tortured Agent 007 (Tremble) and the spy dies when Agent 007 (Lynd) tries to save him. Le Chiffre is killed by SPECTRE agents.
Mata Bond is kidnapped by a flying saucer, drawing the rest of the James Bonds including Sir James himself to Casino Royale. Now we find that underneath the casino there is a huge underground bunker where the head of SMERSH plots world domination: he is actually Sir James's sexually neurotic nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen). He has kidnapped another one of the Agent 007s, this one known only as The Detainer (Daliah Lavi), hoping to make her his wife, but she tricks him and forces him to swallow a pill that turns him into a walking atom bomb.
All the James Bonds fight the SMERSH agents in the casino, and the Americans show up to help, and they are cowboys and Indians. As things seem like they can't get any more chaotic, Jimmy Bond explodes, killing everybody.
It makes much, much less sense while you're watching it. But I'll give it an extra half-point for sheer lunacy.
Rating: 1.5 Stolen Nukes
There's something deliriously clever about casting Woody Allen as a parody of a Bondian mastermind, who wants to kill all the men over 4'6" and thus eliminate all threats to his masculinity. And it helps that Allen is the only actor in this desperately over-conceived comedy who actually has a considerable number of funny lines, which is supposedly because in a fit of pique at a project that was turning into quite the agony right before his eyes, Allen rewrote every single sentence that came out of his mouth. Certainly, none of the other credited or uncredited writers has a QV that suggests a joke like "I have a very low threshold of death. My doctor said I can't have bullets enter my body at any time", or "Afterwords we can run amok. Or if you're too tired, we can walk amok". On the other hand, the mere presence of Allen throws into sharp relief how much everything else isn't working, and the fact is, when I get to the point that I want to rank all the Bond villains, I want to feel like I've insured myself against having to put him too high.
Rating: 1.5 Evil Cats
Christ, who is the Bond Girl? Let's go ahead and say it's Vesper Lynd, like in the book - hah! - and note that, in fact, Andress gives a genuinely better performance than she did as an actual Bond Girl in Dr. No, with a lot more fire and personality. And she also has a great deal more to do with herself than stand around looking sexy in a white bikini - after Sir James himself, she's probably the most active character in the whole movie, in fact, and if she's not, it's only Mata Bond ahead of her, who is too much a protagonist to qualify as a "Bond Girl".
Rating: 2.5 White Bikinis
Poor, poor Orson Welles, who has quite thoroughly ensconced in his "will take degrading cameo roles for money" phase, doing whatever he could to finance his crazed little European-produced masterpieces. Sometimes we can even use this as a comfort, e.g. he was in The V.I.P.s to facilitate Chimes and Midnight, and who wouldn't take that deal? Unfortunately, given the timing of Casino Royale, the proceeds were probably sunk into the legendarily clusterfucked The Other Side of the Wind, so we don't even have that silver lining. On the other hand, Welles used his significant clout to essentially wrap the fourth act (or sixth, wherever the hell the plot is when it arrives at Le Chiffre) entirely around his whimsies, driving the movie to a halt in a series of inscrutable magic tricks that the actor used to amuse himself and to drive Peter Sellers into a boiling frenzy. And you can see in Welles's face that he's not there for any reason that has to do with the art of cinema, and he just does not give half of a shit for Feldman or Casino Royale or James Bond, and it's hard to judge whether it's more heartbreaking or boring.
Boring. My vote is for "more boring".
Rating: 1 set of Metal-Plated Teeth
THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP
Since I picked Ursula Andress for no particular reason, I'll pick Deborah Kerr here, simply because she shows up first; one of an extravagant number of actors who truly should not be here embarrassing themselves thoroughly, though at least she's having obvious fun with a grrrreat thick Scottish brogue. And she and Niven even manage to spark a teeny bit of chemistry, such as it is.
Rating: 2 Golden Corpses
In the 1960s, there was a spate of comedies with great big casts and over-the-top, hugely expensive farcical beginnings and middles that turned into huge sprawling slapstick fights and chase scenes at the end (I suspect, but do not know, that Mel Brooks was deliberately satirising this trend in Blazing Saddles); perhaps the most legendary of these is Casino Royale's spiritual prequel, What's New Pussycat, which turns from a dated but largely enjoyable sex comedy into a completely unwatchable mess, shrill, histrionic, and confusing. Casino Royale's insulting and dumb finale makes Pussycat look like a rock-solid classic.
Rating: 1 Walther PPK
Between Sir James going out of his way to insult the whole notion of spy gadgets, and a scene that very feebly parodies Q - the one element of the Bond formula beyond parody, since even by 1967, Desmond Llewelyn had so magnificently turned the character self-parody - by fitting 007 (Tremble) with an over-loaded bulletproof vest, gadgetry is not high on this film's list of concerns, despite the seemingly obvious comic application.
Rating: 1 Easily-Riled Welshman
THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Honestly, I have nothing much to carp about. Jimmy Bond's vast complex is both '60s-chic enough and also flimsy and cheap enough to actually work as a commentary on the increasingly overwrought James Bond locations (though the point the "official" series had reached as of Casino Royale's production was nowhere near the flighty excesses it would reach with the very next film, released in the very same calendar year as CR). I am certain, mind you, that Feldman and his crew would be mortified that I praised their sets for looking "cheap". There's also a remarkable brave sequence set in divided Berlin, made up by designer Michael Stringer to look flawlessly like a color re-creation of the great impossible realities of German Expressionist cinema from the 1920s. Why, exactly, is there a nightmarish Expressionist labyrinth in the middle of a gaudy spy farce with a huge cast? That, I fear, is why I do not give it more points.
Rating: 2.5 Volcano Fortresses
ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Finally, something good to say! David Niven, Ian Fleming's own first choice to play Bond in the movies, is good at exactly one thing as an actor: he is effortlessly suave and charming and classy. He could make scratching his balls look chic and debonair. And he is given a role exactly tailored to his persona: the "classic" James Bond shorn of all the brutality and thuggish sexuality, with only the elegance left intact. Every day, he has a set hour to play Debussy. That much elegance. And while the trappings of his lifestyle are ramped up for comedy (lions allowed to roam the grounds, to facilitate a weak "Born Free" joke), Niven himself can't do something as simple as point to a map without making it seem like the height of wit and fashion to point at maps.
The rest of the film, now...
Rating: 3.5 Vodka Martinis
APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Evelyn Tremble checks into the Casino and very absently announces himself.
Forced or Badass? Neither, as it almost necessarily had to be.
BEST QUIP, WOODY ALLEN DIVISION
JIMMY BOND: "People called Einstein crazy."
AGENT 007 (THE DETAINER): "That's not true. No one ever called Einstein crazy."
JIMMY BOND: "Well, they would have if he'd carried on like this."
BEST QUIP, EVERYONE ELSE DIVISION
SIR JAMES: "The whole world believes that you were eaten by a shark, Miss Lynd."
VESPER: "That was no shark. That was my personal submarine. But enough of this polite conversation."
GODDAMN STRANGEST QUIP
PETER O'TOOLE: "Are you Richard Burton?"
AGENT 007 (EVELYN TREMBLE): "No, I'm Peter O'Toole."
PETER O'TOOLE: "Then you're the greatest man that ever breathed."
Oh, jeepers. Casino Royale. Not our first dance, you and I, and I'll cop to having re-read my old review before starting this one, partially to make sure I didn't repeat myself, partially to make sure I didn't out-and-out contradict myself. It's that kind of movie, you see, where having a set opinion or even a coherent one is kind of impossible. I am pleased to report that, in general, I still support the primary thrust of that review,* namely, that the film is some kind of desperately fascinating piece of chaos that by sheer virtue of existing is impressive, even willful.
The history of Casino Royale, you see, is a legendary nightmare: Feldman managed to snag the rights to the first James Bond novel when Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman hadn't even started kicking around the idea of their series yet, and his initial desire was to make a largely serious film starring Sean Connery. But Broccoli would have none of it, not even as a co-producer, and hung a massive price tag around the star's head; so Feldman decided to do a big-budget parody instead. It's hard to say why this proved to be such a spectacular mistake. Lots of spy parodies out there, then and now, from the Matt Helm pictures to the Austin Powers films which were, themselves, inspired by Mike Meyers hearing "The Look of Love" on the radio one day. Most of them are not horror stories.
In retrospect, the problem might have been casting Peter Sellers, one of the great spoiled brats in the history of British comedy. And not without being a tremendous comic actor; I wouldn't even know where to start praising his talents in better films than this one (hell, depending on where you stand on the late Pink Panther movies, I could praise his talents in worse films than this one). But a massive ego, all around, and this turned into one of the most infamous of all battles between stars when he was put on the same set as Orson Welles, another one of the great egos in cinema history. The stories are practically mythological: they only appear together in three shots, all from the same angle, which conceivably means they were only together on set for one single take; for the rest of their shared scenes (which include virtually all of Welles's part), the filmmakers had to rely on body doubles.
But the problems with Sellers only started there: after completing a substantial number of scenes, he left the project - fired or quit, we won't ever know now that all the principals are dead - leaving a film that could not be completed, but too far gone to start from scratch. Cue the storm of rewrites by God knows how many writers, the invention of whole new subplots and the removal of half-shot subplots, and somewhere along the line - it might very well have been part of the plan from the beginning, in which case, why? - the film was split up into five "chapters", of a sort, directed by five different men who didn't really communicate their ideas with one another, though Val Guest was sort of responsible for keeping everything knitted together.
In a happy story - even in a sort of ambivalent one - this is where we would trot out the statement "it is surprising and even gratifying that in the face of this much production chaos, Casino Royale still manages to hang together in any kind of coherent way." Except, this is not something that Casino Royale does. Oh, it starts out well enough, and for over half of its 131-minute running time, it makes sense: the John Huston-directed sequences with Sir James in his retirement and then squaring off with Agent Mimi are even pretty much a movie that you can watch and follow without even trying to, although it hurts matters that the John Huston of 1967 apparently had absolutely no trace of a sense of humor, and this left poor Deborah Kerr and her great big comic performance twisting in the wind.
But the movie takes an irrevocable turn into madness when Mata Bond visits that inexplicable Expressionist Berlin - the Ken Hughes sequence and amazingly, we can't call this even remotely the nadir of the career of the future director of Sextette - falling right into a mess of terrifying lines and colors and weird little sidekicks, canted angles, and geometry that is deliberately, and purposefully nonsensical: and for what reason? To demonstrate that Bond movies are meaningless and therefore all mainstream commercial cinema is meaningless and let's then destroy any possibility of coherence and linearity? How can a movie as expensive as Casino Royale possibly make that kind of descent into Dadaist anti-art? Absurdity, sure - it's groaning under the weight of all its late-'60s British absurdity. But this is something much more aggressive and unwatchable than that. And I say that as someone who flat-out loves German Expressionism.
Even then, it drifts back into plain sense with the 007 (Tremble) vs. Le Chiffre stuff, although owing to Sellers palpable irritation and Welles's obvious sense of superiority to the material, this might actually be the most unpleasant part of the movie to watch. But then, once Mata Bond is kidnapped, it all stops. Just, stops, in every way. Only Woody Allen being daffy remains comprehensible on any level as the plot gets increasingly convoluted before it disintegrates into an illogical ballet of slapstick fighting and weird cameos (George Raft! Jean-Paul Belmondo!) in which the sight of white guys dressed as Native Americans dancing spastically to Burt Bacharach music is the kind of thing you greet with "oh, that's happening now" rather than any sense of shock, confusion, or outrage.
It's so inscrutable that it becomes magnetic in its own private, ghastly way, and while I know that Casino Royale is almost certainly "worse" than any other James Bond film in every meaningful way, I have to confess that I can re-watch it more easily than a lot of them. It has this merit, anyway: every time you encounter it, the experience is different. Not better, necessarily, but it turns out that there are a lot of ways to be infuriated by an apparently straightforward bad comedy.