BOND, JAMES BOND: Casino Royale (1967)

Directed by Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parish, Val Guest
Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, Michael Sayers
Suggested by the novel by Ian Fleming
Original Release Date: 13th April 1967 (U.K), 28th April 1967 (U.S)

What is excess? It’s a question you might find yourself pondering when watching 1967’s Casino Royale. The rights landing in the hands of producer Charles K. Feldman meant that Eon Productions were unable to produce a film based on Fleming’s first Bond novel, but an overture was made towards Broccoli and Saltzman that eventually came to nought. Unlike Thunderball and McClory, when Casino Royale made it to the silver screen, it would be as non-Eon production, and a rival film to that year’s You Only Live Twice, beating it to the screen by two months.

It would be the first, but not the last, ‘Battle of the Bonds’, although things would get a touch more personal when two competing Bond films were released within months of each other sixteen years later.

As for Casino Royale, alarm bells should probably have been going off when it was revealed that five directors would be credited for working on the film, and that while three writers were credited for writing the screenplay there were many more that weren’t, including Woody Allen (who also starred in the film), Terry Southern and Billy Wilder. If there was a film that could be seen as evidence of a film out of control, it was Casino Royale, and the evidence is there on the screen, because chaos is all there is.

History has it that the film is terrible, and while it’s not great, there is still something strangely compelling about the insanity that is being unleashed before your very eyes. Where Eon’s films were backed up illustrious John Barry music scores with a very brassy overtone, Casino Royale opts for an equally jazzy, but more lounge feeling series of compositions from Burt Bacharach.

As for the theme song, Dusty Springfield’s ‘The Look of Love’ comes in perfectly for the film’s love scenes between Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress, one of many casting links with Eon films, with the film having several actors who had appeared in previous Eon Bond movies, and several others who would do so later on.

The credit sequence backed by the Bacharach score would suggest something laid back and chilled, but the film that plays before your eyes is anything but; it’s an increasingly surreal descent into farce, with incoherent plotting, transitions to sub-plots that sometimes seemingly come out of nowhere and even has one central character kidnapped without any set-up simply because the actor in question was unavailable to film the scenes required.

By 1967, Spymania had been fuelled by the success of Bond. Like the influx of comic book movies in the 21st Century, or in the 1990s when every television series was an X-Files style descent into the supernatural or narratives about UFOs, every facet of popular culture wanted a piece of the espionage cake that was fuelling the pop cultural landscape by the mid-to-late 1960s.

While Dr. No and From Russia with Love had done well at the box office, it was Goldfinger that pushed the series into the stratosphere, meaning that the budgets for Thunderball and You Only Live Twice would be substantially larger with stories that were considerably more epic in scope. While Eon had injected considerably more humour into the films than Fleming’s novels, the Bond formula was still one ripe for pastiche from other sources, as well as being influential on more serious-minded spy fare.

While other movies and television shows such Our Man Flint and The Man from UNCLE were more than eager to deliver their own versions of the Bond formula, the latter actually having some uncredited help from Fleming, while the former tailored a Bond-style character for an American character played by James Coburn, there was also works such as The Prisoner, a creation from Danger Man’s Patrick McGoohan, that took a Bond-style secret agent, albeit one also similar to Danger Man’s John Drake (a character that also had some input from Fleming) and placed him into an increasingly surreal narrative that played like a Bond film if Samuel Beckett wrote it.

Also airing during the decade was The Avengers. No, not the Marvel one, but the Sydney Newman-created television series that starred Patrick MacNee and initially Ian Hendry, who was then replaced by Honor Blackman, and who then left the series to star in Goldfinger before being replaced by future Bond Woman Diana Rigg. The series actually launched in 1961, a year before Dr.No’s premiere, but the peak of its popularity occurred during the Rigg seasons which aired during the height of Spymania and which had a frothy, surreal touch of its own.

All the while John Le Carre, who similarly to Fleming had worked in the British security services, would craft spy thrillers that played in a more downbeat realistic setting which actively rejected the heightened Bond formula of sex, explosions, gadgets and violence.

Many other countries and their film industries had also tried to gain a piece of the Bond pie in their own way, none more overt than Italy who released a bunch of lower budgeted spy movies, the most notorious of which was Operation Kid Brother, also known as O.K Connery, and which starred Neil Connery, Sean’s brother, as a 007-style agent. What made the film even more notorious, yet intriguing, was that it managed to cast Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell as variations of their own Bond characters, with Maxwell playing a Moneypenny-style character was got involved into the action, while the likes of Daniela Bianchi, Adolfo Celi and Anthony Dawson also showed up.

Casino Royale makes fun of the Bond tropes right away by casting David Niven, someone that Fleming originally wanted to play the role in Dr. No, and having him be Sir James Bond, referred to as the ‘real’ James Bond, having retired from active service but whose name and number, 007, have been taken up by someone who Niven’s Bond describes as someone who is sexed up and leaves a trail of carnage and bodies behind him, obviously a joke about Connery’s character.

The Bond series’ reliance on over the top action and a heightened sense of reality all come in for spoof treatment here, not to mention the use of attractive female characters, and yet the film also revels in some of those tropes and clichés, with illustrious production design that has the flair of Ken Adam’s work, and a clearly high budget and production values.

David Niven had been Ian Fleming’s ideal choice for James Bond prior to the production of Dr.No.

Fleming’s novel was a dark and serious affair, centred around a card game, a complex relationship at the heart of it and a notorious torture sequence, elements that would be given a more serious treatment come 2006 when Eon would finally get their hands on the rights.

Some of those story elements are present here, although the film is so scattershot at times it makes one wonder how the film gets from Sir James Bond’s adventures in the Scottish highlands, to Evelyn Tremble (Sellers) taking on Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) at Baccarat with the help Vesper Lynd (Andress). There is a torture scene, although of a more psychedelic variety than the novel, although we do see a chair with a hole in it and an accompanying carpet beater.

That sequence is indicative of the overbearing mess the film became as it turns into a fantasy sequence involving a Peter O’ Toole cameo where the actor is playing bagpipes and asks Tremble if he is Richard Burton to which Sellers’ character replies ‘No, I’m Peter O’ Toole.’ When Sellers bolted from the production and never came back, a scene was hastily added of Vesper killing Evelyn, although since this is a dream sequence it’s hard to fathom how it is that Tremble dies here other than the film having to make do since its biggest star had abandoned the film halfway through.

Producer Charles K. Feldman had previously produced What’s New Pussycat, and it was the farcical tone of that film that he sought to replicate for Casino Royale. The film throws everyone and everything at the screen as best it can. With the Bond series itself starting to become glossier and even more expensive affairs, and that year’s film was going to see Ken Adam create some of the most impressive sets for the series yet, Feldman’s production took a similar approach of ‘more is more’.

Where Broccoli and Saltzman kept things under tight control with well-constructed screenplays and a production team that was working like a well oiled machine, Casino Royale is sprawling and all over the place, losing sight of itself at various points and going on narrative detours that really serve no function to the rest of the film.

It’s a film with its budget clearly reflected on screen, being very much of its time and having a cool 60’s aesthetic that makes it a joy to look at, but it also has one of the messiest screenplays of any film ever made. Yet, despite the negative reviews, it was a box office hit, actually making money for Columbia Pictures.

Spymania was such a thing that even a James Bond film not affiliated with the Eon series could make bank on the basis that it was, well, a James Bond film.

The history of Hollywood cinema is littered with big budget follies that make you wonder how in the hell it happened. Casino Royale is one of those films, but on top of trying to cash in on the success of what was becoming one of the biggest movie series of all time, it was also reflective of Hollywood’s emerging taste in bigger budgeted comedies, films that meant scope and scale, although not necessarily laughs or legitimate comedy.

Filled with style, even when the film segues into narrative strands that make you wonder how it is the film has gotten to that point, you are still somewhat wowed by the production, the biggest example being when Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet, playing the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari and your guess is as good as mine) goes to a SMERH operated spy school where the film suddenly becomes a work inspired by German Expressionism.

The spy genre itself was aiming higher and higher towards a realm of not so much science fiction, but a type of fantasy that is sometimes best described as spy-fi and Eon’s 007 himself was no exception. Two months after Casino Royale, Eon would release the biggest budgeted film to date from their series, and with it a heightened narrative that had very little to do with the Fleming novel it was itself adapting.

The difference being that Eon knew what it was doing, and where the excessive qualities of Casino Royale made for one hell of a mess, You Only Live Twice, while a million miles away from the likes of From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, was indicative that when Eon opted for a excessive approach, they actually knew how to pull it off.

James Bond will return in You Only Live Twice.

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