Reel Talk

The Maddening Farce of Casino Royale

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That’s right! We aren’t done yet folks! We may have conquered the EON films, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t enough James Bond media to round out the month. Which means I’m going to be touching in on some really weird stuff. Such as today’s entry in the Bondathon, the indescribably strange 1967 film Casino Royale. In case you aren’t familiar with this movie, I apologize for bringing it into your life. Because this movie is a goddamn trainwreck. I had actually managed to stay away from this film my entire life up until now, finally experiencing it for the first time for this project. And let me tell you, it is a rough watch. And for a variety of reasons. It’s not just a terrible comedy, it doesn’t just have an incredibly specific and weird issue with the James Bond movie, it’s not just because it’s somehow more than two hours long, it’s a whole smorgasbord of horrible choices. You kind of have to see this movie to believe it. But, that would require seeing it, which I don’t recommend.

Now, in case you’re wondering how such a bizarre movie came to pass, it’s due to the James Bond franchise’s greatest foe. Weird legal battles. See, back before Dr. No Ian Fleming sold the rights to his first novel, Casino Royale, to a man named Gregory Ratoff. He never managed to do anything with the adaptation, and when he died the rights went to an associate named Charles Feldman. By this time Cubby Broccoli and EON were gearing up for their Bond franchise, and Broccoli really wanted the rights to Casino Royale. Feldman refused, and tried working on his own adaptation of the film, hoping it would become a secondary Bond franchise. And this never took off. So, eventually, Feldman changed his mind and tried to work with Broccoli to make a joint-production that would have been part of the real franchise. Once again, this never panned out, and Feldman was left out on his own again. And, seemingly full of a bitterness that Broccoli wouldn’t play ball with him, he decided to turn his Casino Royale into a satire of the Bond franchise, becoming a weird farce that specifically seemed to hate the James Bond franchise. And once that decision was made he somehow convinced a litany of actors, including Ursula Andress, to play along and create one of the weirdest and least enjoyable films I’ve ever seen.

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The film begins with the leaders of several intelligence agencies, including M, heading to a house in the English countryside. They’ve all been dealing with an organization known as SMERSH that is trying to kill spies, regardless of country of origin. All organizations have faced massive losses, and now they need to bring back the greatest spy of all time, James Bond.Bong has been retired for years, and his name and identifier have since been used by several other agents. They want him to come back and take care of SMERSH, unfortunately while struggling to convince him his home is attacked, and M is killed. Bond briefly has to go deal with M’s widow, who has been replaced  by a SMERSH agent, but that mainly just leads to Bond being seduced by a bunch of female SMERSH agents and throwing canon-balls around with some Scotsmen. After which Bond returns to London and learns that he’s been made the new head of MI6, in charge of taking down SMERSH. And to do that he’s going to have to assemble a crew of agents, which he decides will all be named James Bond in order to confuse SMERSH and the viewer.

First up Bond and Moneypenny meet a man named Cooper, who they train to be the ultimate killer, and immune to feminine wiles. Which mainly consists of sending wave after wave of beautiful women to seduce him, which he has to refuse. Next Bond goes to recruit a former flame of his, Vesper Lynd. But he doesn’t actually want Vesper to be an agent for him, he wants her to recruit a man named Evelyn Tremble, a world-renowned baccarat player. And they want him as part of the team so that they can have him play a game of baccarat against a SMERSH agent known as Le Chiffre so that they can take advantage of his financial woes to get information. Yeah, this part is just Casino Royale. Vesper manages to seduce Tremble, and he eventually comes on board, ready to be a spy. But in order to get more information on Le Chiffre they also need to get some information on the man, and that requires another helper. So Bond goes to recruit his own daughter, fathered with famous spy Mata Hari, who he sends to Germany to infiltrate a famous spy academy. Mata Bond manages to get the information they needed, and Tremble is ready to show up for his big match.

Tremble and Vesper head to the Casino Royale in France, and meet Le Chiffre, the magic-loving and gregarious terrorist who loves gambling. He and Tremble have some choice words for each other, and then play a couple games of baccarat, which quickly results in Le Chiffre losing all of his money, and Bond getting it. Le Chiffre then immediately has Vesper and Bond kidnapped, and brings them to a secret base underneath the casino. Tremble is then psychologically tortured for a while, until SMERSH shows up to kill Le Chiffre. Oh, and Vesper then shows up and kills Tremble, because she was a double agent the whole time. Meanwhile, Mata Bond has also been kidnapped and taken to the Casino, causing Bond, Cooper, and Moneypenny to give chase. And once they’re inside the Casino and find themselves in SMERSH’s secret base, they find out that the leader of SMERSH, Dr. Noah, is actually Bond’s nephew Jimmy. Jimmy has apparently created this organization to screw over his famous uncle, and has devised a pill that turns a person into a bomb. They then easily trick Noah into eating the pill at the same time that several Allied armies show up to storm the Casino. Unfortunately in the chaos they lose Noah, who ends up exploding, destroying the Casino and killing the entire cast.

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This movie is a goddamn mess. Which shouldnt be surprising since it featured six directors and potentially up to ten writers. No one had any idea what was going on in this movie, and it was essentially filmed like four movies that were then edited together. And it shows. The film has absolutely no consistency, and vacillates wildly in tone, style, and production value. Also, the acting is all over the place. The film really wants to be some sort of screwball farce, but not everyone is on the same page. Hell, apparently Peter Sellers actually really wanted to play things seriously, and kept trying to make Tremble more and more serious. Which must have been hard when Orson Wells was hamming it up as Le Chiffre, smoking giant novelty cigars and doing stage magic. I remember reading at some point that when Fleming was first envisioning his famous character he thought David Niven would have been a good choice to portray him, but based on this film that was not correct. He was certainly acting in a goofball movie though, I’ll give him that.

And it all just boils down to the fact that this movie was a parody that wasn’t really that funny. In parts it reminded me of the Pink Panther and that film’s comedic sensibilities, but it just got weirder and weirder as the film went on. I suppose that I understand why this film specifically wanted to take the piss out of the James Bond franchise, but it just never stops feeling weird. They take every opportunity to mock Bond, and try to make Niven’s character everything that Bond isn’t. He’s a tea-totaling celibate who seems to abhor committing violence himself. It’s bizarre. The film tries to do everything it can to mock James Bond while also being one of the most incompetent comedies I’ve ever seen. Honestly, the most interesting thing about this movie was that I realized that Austin Powers makes so many references to this garbage movie. Yeah, once again, I don’t recommend watching this movie, but if you do you’ll be stunned at how many scenes in this movie seem to be almost directly lifted into Austin Powers. The thing is though, Austin Powers doesn’t feel like you’re rapidly changing the channels between four terrible movies. So it does a far better job at being a narrative.

 

Casino Royale was written by Wolf Makowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers, directed by Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Val Guest, and Richard Talmadge, and released by Columbia Pictures, 1967.

 

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