The production and release of Casino Royale must be one of the weirder episodes in the history of film.
According to Wikipedia, the producer, Charles K. Feldman, had acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel Casino Royale in 1960. That would have been a few months before Harry Saltzman made his move to secure the rights for the James Bond character and franchise. Feldman held on to the rights to Casino Royale while Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli produced the first four Connery Bond films. Unable to come to an agreement with Saltzman and Broccoli to have Casino Royale produced as an official entry into the Bond franchise, and fearing he would not be able to compete with the Connery Bond films if challenging them on their home turf, Feldman decided to produce a James Bond spoof loosely based on Casino Royale, and this is how we ended up with this film as it is.
+++ The “real” James Bond (Sir James Bond, played by David Niven), we learn, retired from the world of spying a long time ago. MI-6, in order to benefit from Bond’s name and reputation, gave his name (along with his 007 badge number) to another man. Sir James Bond is a cultured man who lives the life of a recluse on a large estate, devoting his time to playing the piano and drinking tea. Although he is surrounded by luxury, he lives a rather ascetic life and is a man devoid of passions. And so he is deeply troubled by the fact that a “sexual acrobat” (Connery’s Bond) has usurped his name and place.
Now he is being forced out of retirement in order to help the world’s spy agencies (including the KGB) to face a common foe, a mysterious man who has been targeting spies all over the planet. Running this operation, Sir James employs the help of a number of specialists who try to help him get closer to his target. +++
This film has an episodic structure combined with a fairly large cast, something it has in common with certain other films of its era. There can be an advantage in this episodic structure, as it allows for a number of well-known actors to have their specific moment(s) to shine on screen without being bound to a large production for months. The downside is that it can push the plot into the background and damage plot cohesion; which hits Casino Royale all the more as the plot is already buried under all sorts of clutter and is incoherent at the best of times.
Feldman engaged five directors for this film (Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish), with the intention that each should give their part of the film a unique style and tone. (Stunt-coordinator Richard Talmadge would later co-direct the complex action scenes of the hurly-burly finale.) Feldman also rented space in three different UK studios, building sets in all of them, thus making production even more complicated.
Apart from a senseless sneak-peek scene in the beginning, the film can be roughly sorted into 13 segments (not counting the occasional short office scene). And only after principal shooting was finished did it occur to Feldman that the film might need a bit of a throughline, so he tasked Guest with writing and filming small scenes that could somehow draw the whole affair together into something coherent. Needless to say, the film went months over schedule and the already large budget went over by 100%. In the end, the film cost 12 million to make, more than any regular Bond movie, making it one of the most expensive films of its day.
Between the decision to make this film a James Bond spoof, the decision to hire a host of different directors, and plenty of behind-the-scene drama and cast dissatisfaction, the film’s different parts vary not only in tone, but also in quality. When the film is at its best, you have scenes that rival that of any James Bond film, like the car chase David Niven is involved in early on in the film, or the appearance of Orson Welles at the casino. When it is at its worst, you have unfunny sex-romps, or apparently missing scenes, not to mention the film’s abysmal finale which looks like an example of cinematic self-sabotage.
The biggest setback was the firing of Peter Sellers, who had grown weary of the film (and possibly of Orson Welles’s hostile attitude) and had stopped appearing on set. A number of his scenes were not shot as a result of his dismissal, so many sequences involving him end abruptly, lack continuity, or had to be tweaked considerably to force them to fit the story somehow.
Even before the film was finished, everyone was trying to wash their hands off it. And yet, when it was finally released (to poor reviews) it was rather successful at the box office. And this despite the fact that its many delays led to this film being released just two months before You Only Live Twice.
So, as you can see, Casino Royale is a very flawed film. And yet, whatever one may think about this film, there is no denying the fact that it has a unique style and looks very good for the most part. In general terms, this is a very lavish production, with excellent locations, costumes, and props, and anything else that is connected to production design and art direction.
Many of the segments have absurdist elements and psychedelic effects. Most of these are visually interesting and feel like a “win” for the film. But they are also the elements that take the film the furthest away from the Bond franchise and into territory that was more at home in TV shows like The Avengers and that would become a feature of The Prisoner later that same year.
Some of the lines of dialogue and a handful of the jokes in the film are quite good. The performances are generally good, with Niven revelling in his role as the snobbish, aloof Sir James. And Orson Welles plays a convincing Bond villain.
As I pointed out earlier, there is a whole army of famous names and well-known faces in this film, ranging from major supporting roles to mere cameos. There is no way to list them all here, but apart from Niven, Sellers, and Welles, this film has Woody Allen, Ronnie Corbett, Derek Nimmo, Vladek Sheybal, Jacqueline Bisset, Duncan Macrae, Geoffrey Bayldon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Daliah Lavi, Deborah Kerr, Chic Murray, and Bernard Cribbins. One of the directors, John Huston, took over the role of M because the actor he wanted for the role was not available. And Richard Wattis is in this film, three years after he had starred in Carry On Spying, which already had its fair share of Bond spoofing going on as well. Among the appearances even shorter than Belmondo’s are blink-and-you-miss-it cameos by John Le Mesurier, Peter O’Toole, and by RSM Brittain (in what would turn out to be his final film); and you have a young David Prowse walking around as a clone of Frankenstein’s Monster.
Two of Peter Sellers’s frequent collaborators can also be spotted in this film: Graham Stark (Simon Simon) and Burt Kwouk (Pink Panther franchise). And because life is funny that way, Kwouk would appear only two months later in You Only Live Twice as well.
As this film lays particular focus on James Bond’s obsession with beautiful women (or, by contrast, Sir James’s self-discipline in their presence), the film is overflowing with female beauty only held in check by silly 1960s haircuts. Apart from Lavi, Kerr, and Bisset, the more prominent female roles are filled by Ursula Andress, Joanna Pettet, and Barbara Bouchet. But as I said, there is a whole host of actresses here, often in brief, non-speaking parts. MI-6, for example, has a lot of female agents used in “training” to steel a newly chosen 007 against female allure. And the evil organisation carrying out the villain’s fiendish plot (whatever that is) is in fact entirely female, so you have a lot of female guards and cannon fodder. One scene was reportedly shot in the basement of London’s Playboy Club, so the production conveniently had a lot of young, female extras at hand. One has to wonder to what degree this large assembly of beautiful young women contributed to the film’s box office success, especially in the US where Hollywood releases where probably still more conservative in that reagrd.
With this film being shot in the UK in the same era as Broccoli’s Bond films, and given these films’ excess use of young beautiful women, it will come as no surprise that there is a certain overlap between Casino Royale and the “real” Bond films. Ursula Andress was, of course, the female lead in Dr. No. Angela Scoular, who has a small supporting roles in this film, appeared also in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Jeanne Roland, an extra in this film, would also appear in You Only Live Twice two months later, just like Burt Kwouk. Finally, Caroline Munro, who is an extra in this film, would go on to become a very famous B-movie actress but also appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me.
While the aforementioned “psychedelic” and absurdist scenes (which include an extended scene inside a Picasso-esque house in Cold War Berlin) are very interesting, maybe the film’s strongest asset is actually the critically acclaimed soundtrack by Burt Bacharach, especially the opening number.
All-in-all you have to take this film for what it is. Is it worth watching? Probably not. But between the “psychedelic” scenes and Bacharach’s music, it might be a good choice to have running in the background at a party, for example.
I’ll rate this film at 3.5 out of 10. And none of those points are for story, plot or humour. They are all for some of the performances, the production values, the soundtrack, and the visually interesting scenes.