MoM’s Our Word is Our Bond series continues with Tim Wickens searching for a plot in the Bond satire Casino Royale (1967), starring Peter Sellers, David Niven and Woody Allen.
Casino Royale, or, How Can A Movie With Six Different Directors And A Star Who Walked Off (Or Was Fired) Still Succeed? I may be in the minority on this point but, for me, Casino Royale is the epitome of the wild 1960s. It is a smorgasbord of stars and ideas, all set to the swinging sounds of Burt Bacharach.
The plot… let me see, what the hell is the plot of this one?
Oh yes I remember! Sit back, release your inner self to the void; can you dig that Bacharach sound, as patchouli incense gently scents the air?
An evil organization known as SMERSH is killing secret agents all over the globe. M (John Huston), as well as counterparts from the USA, France and Russia, come to the literally lion-filled grounds of retired super agent Sir James Bond (David Niven, who was one of Ian Fleming’s top choices to play the role in the Eon productions). Sir James is quite disgusted by the way some impostor is using his name (he is referring Sean Connery in the Eon series). He refuses to help, so M has his house destroyed (though M himself is inadvertently killed in the process).
Sir James heads off to McTarry Castle to let M’s widow (Deborah Kerr) know of her husband’s untimely demise. It transpires she is not really M’s widow at all but a SMERSH agent. Surrounded by beautiful redheads (which sure sounds like heaven to me), Sir James beats numerous ginger-bearded agents of SMERSH in some stone ball contest, which excites the widow and makes her decide to help him before retreating to a nunnery.
Sir James returns to London where he takes M’s position. He devises a plan to name all agents James Bond, the aim being to confuse SMERSH agents out to get him (and to confuse us, the viewers, too!) The daughter of Miss Moneypenny – also named Miss Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet) – helps select new agents, all named Bond. Sir James enlists Vesper Lynd’s help in recruiting Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers), who is needed for his skill at baccarat. His assignment is to defeat SMERSH agent Le Chiffre (Orson Welles), who is cheating at cards in an effort to repay money he embezzled from the organization. Tremble (who is known, naturally, as ‘James Bond’ once he is recruited) defeats Le Chiffre but is captured.
It is these casino scenes, plus the storyline in Germany with Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) (daughter of Sir James and Mata Hari!!!) which really make this film for me. The brainwashing sequence with Le Chiffre, Vesper, and Tremble is beyond description. It is a superimposed psychedelic vision, as seen through Tremble’s eyes. It is creatively weird, if not disjointed, probably due to Sellers’ premature exit from the movie. There follows an extraordinary dance routine as Sir James goes to Thailand to recruit Mata Bond. She goes to Berlin to an au-pair agency, which is actually a SMERSH extortion ring and looks like something out of a silent German expressionist film. It is run by Frau Hoffner (Anna Quayle) with her assistant Polo (Ronnie Corbett). Complete with twisted stairs, Hoffner in black, and Polo looking like a mechanized Renfield, this agency locale delivers a pleasing aesthetic look whilst paying homage to an earlier era.
Back in London, Mata is kidnapped by a ….FLYING SAUCER! (Yes, this movie really threw money around. At $12 million it was the biggest-budget Bond film at that time). Miss Moneypenny, Sir James, and The Detainer (the lovely Daliah Lavi) are all captured in SMERSH’S lair, which is underneath Casino Royale. Here we meet Dr. Noah (Woody Allen) – aka the head of SMERSH, not to mention Sir James’s nephew, Jimmy Bond. The Detainer slips Jimmy an explosive pill. At the film’s climax, we have the Frankenstein monster (David Prowse, in his screen debut), parachuting Native Americans, George Raft as a gangster, Jean Paul Belmondo as a legionnaire, gun fights, punches, explosions, etc etc. (Are you exhausted yet… because I sure am!?)
Producer Charles K.Feldman came into the rights to Fleming’s Casino Royale when the original rights owner, Gregory Ratoff, passed away. Feldman intended to make this an official Eon Bond production, but bickering with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman made this impossible. He struck out on his own with a script by Ben Hecht. Hecht is best remembered for the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), among others. Other hands were also involved in the writing, the credited ones being Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers. Mankowitz was no stranger to the world of James Bond. It is he who brought Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman together to make the Bond series. He also worked uncredited on the Dr.No (1962) script. One of his more notable screenplays was The Millionairess (1960), a film that starred Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren. John Law was primarily a writer of skits for TV, such as The Frost Report (1966–67). Sayers worked in TV with a few credits on Armchair Theatre (1956–74). It has been reported that Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, Billy Wilder, Val Guest, Joseph Heller and Terry Southern all contributed to the screenplay too in some form or other.
Feldman must have felt that if it was a case of the-more-the-merrier-(or-funnier) in the writing department, then the same approach would work for the directing duties. An incredible SIX directors are credited as working on the film. They are: Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and Richard Talmadge. If you’re keeping score, here is what each was responsible for: Guest was brought in mainly to fit the movie together, but he did direct Allen’s scenes and Niven’s scenes; Hughes did the Berlin scenes; Huston was responsible for the scenes at Sir James’s house and the Scottish castle; McGrath worked on scenes featuring Sellers, Welles and Ursula Andress; Parrish was brought in to do more casino scenes with Sellers and Welles; and Talmadge was responsible for the second-unit work, as well as the finale.
Peter Sellers was the star of the film, but caused so many problems for the production that, depending on which story you believe, he was either sacked or walked off. He refused to be on set with Orson Welles, even though the two share two key scenes together. This animosity supposedly came about because Princess Margaret visited the set, walked past Sellers (who she knew) and bee-lined straight for Welles. It is Sellers who actually brought Welles’ name up for the role. Welles insisted on having his magic incorporated into his scenes. The two men hated each other and their clashes caused considerable delays. Sellers also made attempts to play the role fairly straight, with most of his funnier moments actually lifted from the outtakes. Producer Feldman soldiered on amidst all this strife… and the price tag grew.
After looking at the astonishing list of creative talent credited, as well the whole controversy of Sellers leaving the film before it was completed, you may wonder: how can this be worthy of a positive review? As a fan of all things 60s this film, for me, epitomizes everything about the mid-to-late period of that decade. It is incredibly flashy and extravagant, with a carefree lack of cohesion. Burt Bacharach gives life to the proceedings, complementing the bevy of beauties and recognizable stars. His Casino Royale theme, performed by Herb Albert and The Tijuana Brass, as well as the hit song Look Of Love (sung by Dusty Springfield) make this an essential time-capsule film. It does not make much sense and frequently flies off the tracks, but it climbs back on only to become wilder as it progresses.
It is a ‘dividing-line’ kind of film: either you love it or hate it. I love it! Give me more Sellers and that Look Of Love any time!
MoM Rating: 7/10