Skyfall Countdown Day 19: Casino Royale (1967)

Peter Sellers and Orson Welles on the one day of shooting they were able to stand the sight of each other.

According to Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, the final advice given to her by her father Cubby before he turned over the reins was, “Don’t let them screw it up.”  Broccoli and her step-brother Michael G. Wilson, who have led the franchise’s Eon Productions since Goldeneye in 1995, are notorious in the movie industry for their unflinching control over Bond’s adventures, and scores of film critics have lamented this, wishing that A-list auteurs like Quentin Tarantino or the Wachowskis could be given a chance to put their own imprint on 007.  The Eon family steadfastly refuses, preferring to keep Bond a closed shop and handpick directors who will adhere to their vision of what they believe James Bond to be.  It’s difficult to argue with their approach given the ongoing success they’ve achieved, and even more difficult when one considers the first Bond movie made outside the official canon.  One cannot imagine more of an object lesson in “screwing Bond up” than 1967’s Casino Royale.

Although it was the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale was not included in the package of big screen rights purchased by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  Ian Fleming had originally sold them to a producer named Gregory Ratoff, who first made Casino Royale as a live one-hour TV special in the 1950’s, starring Barry Nelson as an American “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.  The rights were subsequently acquired by producer Charles K. Feldman, who, unable to come to terms with Broccoli and Saltzman, decided to strike out on his own with the world’s first feature James Bond parody.  With Peter Sellers signed to play Bond and Orson Welles as Le Chiffre, one might think something at the very least mildly entertaining might result; unfortunately, it didn’t (depending on how much entertainment one derives from watching cinematic train wrecks.)  Sellers walked off the movie before finishing his scenes, and a patchwork story featuring David Niven as a retired Sir James Bond was slapped together to try and pad the movie out to an acceptable running time.  Five directors, parades of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them stars and some unfunny surrealist attempts at comedy result in a goofy, incoherent yet oddly stylistic and unmistakably 60’s mess.

The plot, such as it is, is that with the “Connery” James Bond missing, a baccarat expert named Evelyn Tremble (Sellers) is recruited by the original Sir James Bond and Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, getting to use her real voice this time) to impersonate 007 and try to bankrupt Le Chiffre at the gaming table.  Though given plenty of opportunity to find laughs with the material, Sellers plays his part completely and stubbornly straight – he’s like that hilarious friend you have who refuses to crack wise for the rest of your guests because he had a bad day.  The problem is, the actors who are playing the movie for laughs, like Niven and Woody Allen (as Sir James’ hopeless nephew Jimmy Bond, who turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the entire affair because of his inferiority complex) aren’t the slightest bit funny.  Long stretches ooze by during which you’ll be hard pressed to crack a single smile while you wait for Sellers to return, since at least his story bares some resemblance to what Ian Fleming wrote.  After Sellers abandoned the production, the collective decision among the movie’s remaining creative team seems to have been to compensate by throwing in the kitchen sink, the dishwasher and a couple of refrigerators.  If Republicans want to complain about out of control spending, they should watch the last twenty minutes of this movie.  With Sellers and Welles long out of the picture, the casino floor erupts in a massive brawl that somehow manages to include Frankenstein’s monster, George Raft accidentally shooting himself, Jean-Paul Belmondo looking in a phrasebook to understand how to say “ouch” in English, clapping sea lions wearing “007” tags and a squadron of parachuting Apaches who proceed to hold a ceremonial war dance that turns into a mass performance of the mashed potato, before the entire building explodes from a bomb accidentally swallowed by Woody Allen.  I only wish I was making this up.

Amidst the outpouring of nonsense, the production did manage to sneak in some tremendously beautiful women:  Barbara Bouchet is simply luscious as Miss Moneypenny Jr., Daliah Lavi slinks vampily through two scenes for no apparent reason, and a yet-to-hit-it-big Jacqueline Bisset pops up briefly as a barely clothed spy who shares a brief romantic interlude with Sellers before slipping a mickey in his champagne.  Ursula Andress is her usual gorgeous self, if her part is regrettably cut short by Sellers’ departure.

Burt Bacharach handles scoring duties, assisted by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and contributes the movie’s singular lasting contribution to popular culture:  the song “The Look of Love,” performed by Dusty Springfield, which would go on to become something of a jazz standard and feature in the Austin Powers movies.  Otherwise, this movie is nothing more than a morbid curiosity – you can’t really call it a guilty pleasure, since there’s little pleasure to be gleaned from watching otherwise distinguished actors like Niven, Welles, Belmondo, William Holden and Peter O’Toole make utter asses of themselves in service of… nothing, really.  Perhaps if one were to consume a copious amount of acid prior to watching, some deeper revelation of the secrets of the universe might unfold, or at the very least, the plot might make sense.

Casino Royale would be something of a thorn in the side of Eon Productions for the decades that followed, with Michael G. Wilson often suggesting going back to it and showing Bond’s origins.  But it wouldn’t be until the rights were finally untangled in the mid-2000’s and returned to Eon that they’d get their chance and be able to adapt Ian Fleming’s groundbreaking first James Bond novel with the respect it deserved – and not screw it up.

Tomorrow:  George Lazenby becomes the George Lazenby of James Bond.

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