15*. CASINO ROYALE (1967)

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DIRECTED BY: , , , , , (uncredited)

FEATURING: , David Niven, Ursula Andress, , , , Joanna Pettet, Deborah Kerr

PLOT: The “real” James Bond is recalled from retirement to fight agents of SMERSH. To help his cover, MI6 decides to re-name all their agents “James Bond.” The story loosely follows the maneuvers and misadventures of these various Bonds.

Still from Casino Royale (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • This movie is based on author Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel of the same title. The rights were originally sold to producer Gregory Ratoff, then resold to agent/producer Charles K. Feldman upon Ratoff’s passing.
  • Eon Productions was the chief source of the James Bond franchise, but deals between Eon and Feldman to adapt Casino Royale fell through. After several false starts at producing a straight version of the Bond story (with both Cary Grant and Sean Connery considered for the starring role), Feldman struck a deal with Columbia Pictures, opting to make his Bond movie a spoof of the genre instead.
  • Amid an already-troubled production, Peter Sellers and Orson Welles famously quarreled, resulting in the former storming off the set, which required some re-shoots using body doubles.
  • It is alleged that Peter Sellers was eager to play James Bond for real and was disappointed to find out this was a spoof.
  • Dusty Springfield’s rendition of “The Look of Love” got an Oscar nomination. Later versions of the song made the Billboard Hot 100 at #22 in November of 1967, and cover versions have since appeared in everything from Catch Me If You Can (2002) to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) (which was partly inspired by Casino Royale).
  • Despite this movie’s reputation as a flop, it still made $41.7 million back on a $12 million budget.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Eenie meenie miney moe: we’ll pick the scene where Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) has taken Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress) hostage, Bond-villain style. As Andress is restrained naked under barely-concealing metal bands, Allen menaces her in his groovy ’60s dungeon by playing a piano, socking a punching bag with the “real” James Bond’s face on it, and riding on a mechanical bull.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Duck decoy missiles; bagpipe machine gun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In the same vein as Skidoo (1968) and North (1994), Casino Royale is a star-studded parable teaching us that shoveling big-name talent and money into a movie won’t necessarily make it any better. Before you even approach the jaw-dropping cast, you already have too many cooks (six directors and a veritable army of writers) spoiling the stew. The 131 minute run-time is overstuffed with everything the producers could cram in, whether it works or not. Saturated with weirdness, viewers will be burned out from the endless blathering nonsense long before this silly excess ends.

Original trailer for Casino Royale (1967)

COMMENTS: “What were they thinking?” That’s a query repeated in the majority of reviews of this movie. It’s actually an easy question to answer.

The makers of Casino Royale were thinking about: the US TV sitcom Get Smart (1965-1970), the UK TV shows The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) and The Prisoner (1967-1968), and Eurospy parodies like Carry on Spying (UK, 1964, featuring “James Bind, Agent 006½”), Hot Enough For June (UK, 1964, featuring “Agent 8¾”), Agent 077: Mission Bloody Mary and Agent 077: From the Orient with Fury (both Italy, 1965). Thanks to Cold War panic, the 1960s were a spy-happy time, and the movies above treated the genre with varying shades of humor, from the campy to the surreal to the outright comedic. Indeed, one of the founding films of the genre, North by Northwest (1959) already established a tongue-in-cheek tone.

If you’re going to come along after all that and do a James Bond parody in the middle of a late-60s screwball comedy trend, there is nowhere to go but “even more over the top!” So they retained the services of several people from the then-popular comedy What’s New, Pussycat? (1965) and the ongoing Pink Panther film franchise, together with basically every big name with whom producer Feldman had previously worked. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, where do you wanna start? Initially the plan was to have five directors each make a segment of the film featuring each of the major cast members playing a Bond role, but we end up with David Niven and Peter Sellers each with about 40% of the screen time, and the rest of the cast amounting to support and extended cameos. Everything else that went wrong can be summarized as “complete lack of editorial control,” which is fitting with the “anything goes” style of big-budget ’60s comedies.

The “original” James Bond (David Niven) is called out of retirement by British intelligence to fight “SMERSH,” whose over-riding evil plot is barely explained in a throw-away line near the end. Since Bond is targeted by femme fatales who intend to seduce and assassinate him, they come up with the gimmick of appointing several decoy “James Bonds,” testing them to make sure they can withstand seduction attempts. Niven-Bond still falls for Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress), who is then kidnapped by Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) while Sellers-Bond (Peter Sellers) dodges being seduced by SMERSH agent Miss Goodthighs and subsequently has a casino baccarat showdown with alternate villain Le Chiffre (Orson Welles), who later captures and tortures Sellers-Bond with some kind of psychedelic mind control. Meanwhile MI6 leader “M” (John Huston) is killed in a duck decoy bomb incident meant for Niven-Bond, so Niven-Bond returns M’s toupee to M’s widow, but she’s actually SMERSH agent Mimi (Deborah Kerr), who commands an army of deadly seductresses trying to compromise any-Bond. Niven-Bond will later dig up his estranged daughter Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) to go to West Berlin to infiltrate SMERSH at a spy training center using a dance school as cover.

Sound silly? You don’t know the half of it! On top of all of the above, this movie includes a flying saucer used to kidnap agents; a Frankenstein monster wandering through the set; a pride of lions explained only by M’s line “I forgot to mention lions”; barking seals; an invasion of horseback cowboys and tomahawk-swinging Native Americans; an extended car chase orchestrated by SMERSH agents who remotely control the action via a giant slot-car racing track laid out around them; Peter Sellers trying on costumes themed after Napoleon, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Adolf Hitler; a security detail in a Santa’s elf costume; a Buddhist-themed stage dance number; a spy-training center themed after the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Orson Welles doing his “sim sim salabim” magician routine levitating a volunteer over the baccarat table; and a million more miles of gibbering lunacy. You could send an entire circus parade into 1967’s Casino Royale and they’d get lost in there, never to be heard from again.

As this exploding colostomy bag of indulgent excess drips down the screen, actual humor is the only sparse ingredient. It is a great time capsule museum of big name talent, whimsical sets, forced sight gags, and, indeed, plenty of parodies of James Bond and the spy thriller genre in general. It’s just not all that funny, even though a few clever bits manage to get through (Woody Allen’s initial scene is a fan favorite). The movie is at its best when it allows itself enough of a breather to toss in an underhanded witty line. It is at its worst—for the majority of its runtime—when contrived, elaborate gags drag out for for longer than needed. Of the cast, Peter Sellers makes the most of it, possibly looking forward to his next Pink Panther installment. David Niven is nearly excruciating; the movie could start improving just by cutting out his entire part. The remaining cast turns in competent, if baffling, performances at best. Even the film’s main theme, courtesy of Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, becomes painfully tiresome as it’s played at repeated intervals.

Lest we fail to award credit where due, as a parody of Bond Casino Royale turned out to be vindicated by later movies. The James Bond franchise would eventually give us equally silly moments, particularly once the reins were passed to Roger Moore. Who can forget the slide-whistle sound effect accompanying the car jumping over the river in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), the villain killed by balloon inflation in Live and Let Die (1973), or… every other scene in Moonraker (1979)? Diehard James Bond purists will choke into their napkin and deny that this movie exists, but for weird movie fans, 1967’s Casino Royale is simply the sole canonical James Bond movie, with all the others an unsatisfying follow-up. If only they’d had the sense to go ahead with Johnny Cash’s theme to Thunderball (1965), Eon Productions might have elevated the rest of the series to its proper level of weirdness.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…all of Mr. Feldman’s scriptwriters and fortune tellers have so cluttered the rest of the film with wild and haphazard injections of ‘in’ jokes and outlandish gags — such as having Joanna Pettet play the illegitimate daughter of Mata Hari and Sir James, or Woody Allen come on as Sir James’s nephew, Jimmy Bond, for one of his interminable surrealistic monologues—that it becomes repetitious and tedious.”–Bosely Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“At one time or another, Casino Royale undoubtedly had a shooting schedule, a script and a plot. If any one of the three ever turns up, it might be the making of a good movie. In the meantime, the present version is a definitive example of what can happen when everybody working on a film goes simultaneously berserk.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Casino Royale (1967)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Casino Royale (1967) – The James Bond wiki’s entry for the film

Casino Royale (1967) – Turner Classic Movies’ page for the film includes notes, four film clips, and an essay by James Stafford

CASINO ROYALE 1967 – James Bond Revisited – JoBlo video history/review of the film

All 26 James Bond Movies Ranked by Tomatometer – guess who ranked last?

The Completists – Casino Royale guests on Shane Wilson and Ted Price’s podcast series about Bond films

CAPSULE: CASINO ROYALE (1967)Scott Sentinella‘s original capsule review of Casino Royale

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Casino Royale” – The original Ian Fleming novel on which the movie is very, very loosely based

HOME VIDEO INFO: Over the years, rights to Casino Royale have passed through many distributors, resulting in multiple releases. The last DVD release was from MGM in 2002 (buy). It was later issued in a now out-of-print (and prohibitively expensive) “Collector’s Edition” with unspecified bonus features (buy). More reasonably-priced Blu-rays are available for international viewers (or Americans with multi-region players).

Casino Royale has also been on and off streaming platforms, and can currently be purchased on VOD (buy).

At the time of this writing, Casino Royale is streaming free on tubi.tv.

9 thoughts on “15*. CASINO ROYALE (1967)”

  1. The ‘unspecified bonus features’ on the Collectors Edition release include a audio commentary with film historians Steven Jay Rubin & John Cork, and a 5 part documentary The Making Of Casino Royale.

    The original DVD had a making-of featurette with director Val Guest and the earliest adaptation of CR as a live television episode of CLIMAX! with Barry Nelson & Peter Lorre.

  2. Like they always say: You either die a reviewer or live long enough to become an Other Link of Interest in someone else’s review.

    Couldn’t be prouder to see this very strange movie get its due.

    1. Shane, I’ve always felt that you’re so much more than a Link Of Interest, and it’s time I told you that.

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