Revisiting the Reviled — Psychedelic Confusion and Opportunism Run Through ‘Casino Royale’

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

The first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, was published in 1954. Fleming then sold the film rights to Gary Ratoff for a marginal sum of money. When Ratoff died in 1960, producer Charles K. Feldman was able to secure the rights to the inaugural Bond tale. In the intervening time, Albert R. Broccoli was able to secure the film rights to every other Bond novel not called Casino Royale, and in 1962 the world was introduced to Sean Connery as Agent 007, James Bond. Undeterred, Feldman tried to co-produce Casino Royale with Broccoli, and when that fell through he tried to produce it independently starring Sean Connery, but balked at the actor’s salary demands. Then, somehow, the idea struck that Casino Royale didn’t have to be a James Bond movie, it could merely be a spoof that had a legal right to use the character’s name. The resulting is film is comedy that isn’t funny, a film full of psychedelic flourishes and nonsensical storytelling.

Casino Royale has an astonishing five credited directors – Kenneth Hughes, Val Guest, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, and John Huston (yes, that John Huston), with others rumored to have done uncredited work. The film also has three writers – Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers, but with Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, and Joseph Heller among the long list of writers who did uncredited work on the screenplay. As if that weren’t enough, one of the film’s stars, Peter Sellers, was either fired or walked off set after feuding with co-star Orson Welles among other – the causes and fault of the feud are now subject to legend with contradictory accusations floating the ether.

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Under most circumstances the production troubles of a film like Casino Royale would result in an abbreviated film, likely running under the 90-minute mark. However, that’s not the direction that Charles K. Feldman went, allowing the film’s running time to bloat beyond two hours. Even with that obnoxiously long running time for an unfunny spoof, Feldman and his bevy of directors and writers were unable to form Casino Royale into anything that might be considered coherent. It also doesn’t help that the tropes of the James Bond series were in their infancy, not that the multiple filmmakers were overly concerned with anything but the Bond’s name.

The story is a loose assemblage of stories that intertwine yet make little sense on their own or in the whole of the film. It opens with members from various spy agencies – MI5, KGB, CIA – and featuring John Huston and William Holden likely making good on a drunken promise to a friend. They’re a united front trying to get the original James Bond (David Niven) out of retirement because a secret organization is killing numerous agents on both sides of the Iron Curtain. You see, James Bond retired but the British have always had an Agent 007 under the pseudonym James Bond as symbol to strike fear in their enemies, kind of like Christopher Nolan’s Batman. After a bit of time to mull over their offer, a bomb strikes Bond’s estate. The film then cuts and shows Bond driving into Scotland – the effects of the blast are only revealed later when Bond arrives at the funeral for John Huston’s M. It’s a baffling chain of events that I had to rewind the film to understand exactly what was going on. As the film progressed I abandoned that futile notion. Just to be clear, this was about 15 minutes in.

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After a lengthy and pointless sequence in Scotland, about 40 minutes into the movie, it is revealed that Niven’s Bond is taking over MI5, and decrees that all agents will now be known as James Bond, 007. That way the enemy will always be confused. This, I tell you, is what the film considers a joke. Niven’s Bond recruits Vesper Lynd, played by the inaugural Bond Girl Ursula Andress, to seduce and recruit Evelyn Tremble (Sellers) to become James Bond and use his baccarat expertise against Le Chiffre (Welles), the mastermind behind the evil organization SMERSH. Before that showdown, James Bond’s illegitimate daughter – I’m not making this up – Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) is recruited by the father that neglected her all her life and asks her to spy on a school of espionage housed right along the Berlin Wall. After that we’re taken back to the baccarat showdown between Peter Sellers’ James Bond and Orson Welles. When that concludes, Welles’ Le Chiffre is suddenly assassinated and the original James Bond, David Niven in case you’ve lost track, must escape the nefarious grasps of the true villain – Dr. Noah, Woody Allen’s Jimmy Bond who appears in a one-note scene of a one-note comedic gag before being dramatically (?) revealed as the evil mastermind. The film ends with Dr. Noah destroyed by his own creation, and killing everyone around him, including James Bond. It all concludes in a special effects shot where the rest of the film’s population watch Woody Allen slowly descend into Hell. I’m sure for many there might be a bit of catharsis in that final shot.

Casino Royale plays out like 4 extended vignettes of little to no coherence randomly assembled by a freshman film student. Making the unfunny comedy even more painful is the soundtrack by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band. For two hours the viewers are bombarded with nonsensical plotting and jokes that don’t work while the saccharine, inoffensive horns that provided The Dating Game with its music quirkily chirping the action along.

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All is not bleak within Casino Royale, though any redeeming moments occur at a point in the movie when anyone without massive masochistic tendencies in their viewing would’ve turned the movie off. Peter Sellers is able to coax a laugh or two from his abbreviated screen time. There’s a bit of fun with Orson Welles hamming it up at the baccarat table, performing magic tricks because he’s Orson Welles and can do stuff like that. Most impressive is the wonderfully designed sets in the Berlin spy school. The interior of the school is styled like German Expressionism. The film may not have a lot in the way of jokes or plot or anything else, but in these scenes it at least looks good. Later on, the film still has some wonderful psychedelic sets but they’re in service of an irredeemable film.

It can be argued that Casino Royale had a bigger influence on the overall look of the first Austin Powers more than any particular Bond film. Therein lies the legacy of Casino Royale – no matter what the film’s legacy is entirely tied to the popularity of other movies. This is a film with no real personality of its own, like loose ends of ‘60s pop culture tossed into a blender and projected on the screen. Despite its production and quality issues, the film still went on to be a financial success. It would, however, be the last film produced by Charles K. Feldman, who would die a year later. For decades, the film has survived and been seen as this weird curiosity of a movie, perhaps the first time that many films gained a passing knowledge over filming rights issues. Watching Casino Royale not unlike going to an actual casino – you’ll see a few impressive things, stay longer than you should, and leave a hell of lot poorer.

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