1962 was the year that saw James Bond explode onto our screens as the suave and sophisticated, but hard-hitting international spy in Dr. No. It was after it's huge success that the rights to all but one of the original Ian Fleming books were snapped up, the one that got away? Casino Royale. This was largely because it had been optioned several years previous for an hour long TV show featuring Barry Nelson as the international man of mystery. It would be five years, each punctuated with another of Fleming's original stories turned into a successful movie, before Casino Royale would see the light of day, and when it did, it would feature a cast to die for, no less than six directors, on-set feuding bested by none since, and a plot so chaotic that attempting to keep up with it bears similarities to attempting to hold a conversation about politics underwater, with an egg.
The secret agencies of the world have united in an attempt to bring James Bond 007, the greatest ever secret agent, out of retirement. Bond, having grown tired of the international secret agent life, decided to don his smoking jacket and buy himself a beautiful mansion in the English Countryside. Each evening, dedicating a few moments of the afternoon to playing Debussy's Clair de Lune on the piano, the quiet life is what now appeals to him. The heads of the organisations need him to investigate the mysterious disappearances of secret agents all over the globe. The super-villain organization SMERSH is suspected to be behind the disappearances. In order to confuse the bad guys, James Bond formulates a ruse in which all secret agents must use the name James Bond, thus allowing the real 007 to work freely and unhindered. After finally unearthing the location of the evil villains, Casino Royale, 007 agents, both real and imposter alike, face the evil forces of the SMERSH organization and it's terrifying leader.
Firstly, a little history on why Casino Royale came out the way it did. Charles K. Feldman, the movie's producer, acquired the rights several years after Eon productions had optioned every other Ian Fleming book. Feldman had attempted to bring the book to picture in line with Eon's already extremely successful adaptations that all featured Sean Connery as 007, and had held talks with Eon about signing over the rights for the movie. A deal could not be reached, sadly. Believing that he could not compete with Eon's gritty and serious portrayal of Fleming's character, Feldman decided to produce the movie as Satire. The result, is a mixed bag of comedy and lunacy, with at least 6 directors attached and a cast that holds more weight than Orson Welles' braces.
As far as plot goes, it's a chaotic mess. Doubtless at one point or another there was a script, but it's existence was for the sole purpose that it could be tossed aside and replaced with ad-lib lines delivered on set in front of the camera. It's entirely feasible that there was a shooting schedule at one point too, but of course with six directors, coordination between them was negligible, each shooting their segments pretty much in isolation. Couple this with the fact that there are six different actors playing James Bond, at least three of whom are female, it's a jumble of ridiculous, farcical but very tongue in cheek humour. Despite all this, the movie does manage to remain quite amusing to watch.
It's to be expected that it became an editing mess when trying to combine each directors segments to make something even vaguely coherent, but throw into the mix the on-set bust ups between actors Peter Sellers and Orson Welles, some of which were reported to have been quite explosive, and what you have is a tinderbox of a situation where two principle actors cannot be in the room together. Despite this insolvable feud, the two needed to film several scenes together. This proved to be a logistical nightmare, and would ultimately lead to Peter Sellers abandoning the production and walking off set, never to return. This posed yet another problem in the editing room, as he was required to feature in the final scene. The magic of photography prevailed, and the shoot went ahead, with Sellers, though not there in person, appearing as he was supposed to in the final Benny-Hill-esque Casino Royale melee.
So to the cast.
David Niven plays his role as the real James Bond almost seriously. Bar the occasional moment where he cannot avoid the slapstick, such as the giant stone tossing event in the hallway of the mansion with the faux Scottish family of siren-like young girls, or his somewhat inexplicable stammer; his approach to being the real 007 is pretty dead pan. Being the main axel of the movie's chassis, Niven does well to not fall into the ridiculous and nonsensical humour that Sellers so often found unavoidable.
Sellers, at first is utterly captivating as the suave and sophisticated secret agent. Demonstrating a devastating charm as Bond, whilst also looking remarkably like he's just stepped out of a Beatles tribute. With a voice like silk, exuding an all too brief confidence before falling into utter and complete madness. It's my understanding that each director was not aware of the other directors intentions, or how they were shooting their segments, and for a time, Sellers believed he should be playing Bond seriously. This shows, and leads me to believe that he would, in fact, have made a rather good James Bond, given the opportunity. However it was not meant to be, and it's not long before he's rolling around in Pyjamas and camping it up for the camera – at times appearing almost resentful of his performance.
Ursula Andress is as seductive and beautiful as ever as Vesper Lynd, orchestrating the real James Bond's movements from afar through their video watches (a nod to Q and his inventive gadgets). Woody Allen plays... well, the same role he plays in absolutely everything – a neurotic dweeb with a penchant for jewish stereotypical humour that is as infuriating as it is obnoxious. Here, however, his character is that of James Bond's nephew. Orson Welles is outstanding as the evil villain Le Chiffre. There's no sign's of malfunctioning tear ducts here, just a giant personality and a booming voice, and a game of Baccarat that is peppered with magic tricks by way of a distraction from his obvious X-Ray Spectacles, allowing him to cheat. Welles and Sellers share one amazing scene together, in which neither was shot at the same time. This results in a quite absurd but hugely amusing exchange between the two over the Baccarat table - “You amuse me Mr. Bond” says Welles, “I'm glad you're enjoying me,” replies Sellers.
With a cameo from Peter O'Tool as a Scottish Piper shortly after the real James Bond blows open a door with an LSD bomb, and a disturbingly creepy appearance from Ronnie Corbit, it's easy to say that the cast for Casino Royale is reason enough to watch the movie, even if the plot is virtually non existent. Not to mention the fact that Burt Bacharach provided a score that is to this day outstanding, and featured the Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, lending a sense of authenticity for the movie, and adding occasionally to the absurdity of what's going on on screen.
Casino Royale is not a Bond movie by any reckoning. It's the scattered pieces of an idea that may have seemed reasonable on paper, but in effect proved to be a bit of a disaster. Lessons can be learned from the multi-directorial approach, and from the distinct lack of communication between the directors, resulting in a virtually non existent narrative. However, for all its failings, it's not without its moments of quality. At the time of its release, receiving more than its fair share of unhealthy criticism, it's easy to understand why it wasn't a success, but looking back we can find some moments of enjoyment in the utterly insane plot and the flagrant disregard for conforming to the rules of cinema. If you've never seen it, you probably should – if only for the cast. Perhaps a rental prior to diving in for the purchase.
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