Only three movies in and I’m already starting to back-pedal. Sitting through Casino Royale, I found myself thinking that maybe I was too hard on What’s New Pussycat. After all, it was funny on a fairly frequent basis, and occasionally it was very funny. Even What’s Up, Tiger Lily? was a relatively painless way to spend 78 minutes. I especially regret criticizing What’s Up, Tiger Lily? for being so short. A 78-minute running time seems ingenious after having endured Casino Royale’s 2 hours and 17 endless minutes.
Casino Royale is theoretically a James Bond satire, based on (or “suggested by” as it says in the opening credits) the novel of the same name by Bond creator and author Ian Fleming. I haven’t read the book, although I have read a Wikipedia summary, and I think it’s safe to say 2006’s adaptation with Daniel Craig is a bit more faithful. In fact, apart from the character names and a handful of scenes, there’s nothing in this movie that aligns it with the other incarnations.
The movie begins with representatives from MI5, the CIA and the KGB all driving up together to recruit James Bond out of retirement. On the road up to his secluded estate, which is in the English countryside, their car gets attacked by lions. This gag is inexplicable, not very funny, and it goes on at least twice as long as it should, making it perfectly representative of most of this movie’s jokes. It’s also typical of the movie’s tendency to wrongfully equate humor with absurdity. When James Bond (David Niven) declines their offer to un-retire, they blow up his house with mortars. This sequence is equally unfunny as the lion joke, but doubles-down in terms of volume and budgetary excess.
This film’s star, David Niven, is someone I’m not that familiar with. Google tells me that he is an Academy Award winning actor and esteemed novelist. All I know about him is that he looks like Errol Flynn and was the jewel thief in The Pink Panther (sorry, Pink Panther spoiler alert). Here he mostly does the flustered, up-tight Brit routine that all British comedies in the ‘60s seemed to require. He’s fine, I suppose, although he’s no John Cleese. His version of James Bond, deviating slightly from the common conception of the character, is proudly celibate and prefers jasmine tea to martinis. In fact, the first sequence has the evil organization S.M.E.R.S.H. (a spoof of Dr. No’s S.P.E.C.T.R.E., I suppose) trying to sully his clean image by tempting him with a mansion full of randy co-eds. What S.M.E.R.S.H. stands to gain from seducing James Bond (an unmarried spy, not a public figure, keep in mind) as opposed to just killing him is not explained. I suppose this could be read as a satirical commentary on the sexually promiscuous portrayal of spies (namely James Bond) in popular fiction, but I suspect it’s primarily a set-up for a lot of scenes where Niven’s Bond is ever-so-flustered as he tries to resist the come-ons of the nubile S.M.E.R.S.H. operatives.
Following that, the movie meanders from scene to scene, jet-setting from London to West Berlin to France to an unspecified south-Asian country, making a couple geography-specific jokes at each location. The actual plot, I have to admit, I could not follow. There are a lot of extraneous characters and lengthy set-pieces that seem to stand alone. The most important part is that James Bond and his recruited network of spies (all of whom, once recruited, are re-named James Bond in order to confuse the enemy) are trying to bankrupt arch-criminal Le Chiffre in a high-stakes round of Baccarat and thwart criminal empire S.M.E.R.S.H.
The former is accomplished by enlisting gambling expert Evelyn Tremble. Tremble is played by Peter Sellers in a bland, lifeless performance. According to Peter Sellers’ biography, Sellers had a deep respect for the James Bond franchise, and while he wanted to be involved in it, he didn’t like the idea of the film being a silly comedy. He felt so strongly about this he went so far as to strong-arm the director(s) into letting him play his own scenes as if this was a serious film. It’s a seemingly ridiculous claim, although it gains a lot of traction when you watch Sellers’ performance, which is resigned and bored in a movie desperately crying out for his trademark wit and energy.
Anyway, his character is allegedly a genius, a man who has written books on the statistics of gaming, a fact which makes him irresistible to the mysterious Vesper Lynd (played by actual Bond girl Ursala Andress of Dr. No). Lynd (who’s connection to James Bond is unclear) plans to give Tremble the money needed to enter a high-stakes game of Baccarat against the villain Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) in the hopes of bankrupting him and putting an end to his villainy (this is one of the few plot strands I remembered from 2006’s Casino Royale — except it was Poker instead of Baccarat, and there was no Evelyn Tremble).
On a personal note, I would just like to briefly mention the sadness that I felt watching Orson Welles in his role as Le Chiffre. In so many movies, especially The Third Man and of course Citizen Kane, Welles was the living personification of dignity, with menace and vulnerability seeming to lurk just below the surface. Here he is stunningly obese, and while he seems to be having some fun with the role, his performance is incredibly resigned. His character in this movie also does magic tricks. Elaborate magic tricks that the movie leaves in fully uninterrupted. Quoth IMDb: “Orson Welles reportedly insisted on including magic tricks into his scenes.” This is interesting, because it reveals that Welles, in addition to becoming fat, had also become profoundly egotistical and possibly insane. What sort of absurd demand is that? It makes Marlon Brando’s insistence on having his lines read to him via ear-piece seem relatively reasonable. Still, given the stature of Welles’ accomplishments, I’m forever tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt. For example, I will continue to assume the below was simply a misunderstood, satirical work of performance art:
The other plot thread, getting back to the actual movie, involves the sinister organization S.M.E.R.S.H., headed by the mysterious Dr. Noah. At first, it’s unclear what this organization does. Mostly, it seems, they harass and occasionally try to murder James Bond. At the end of the film, in a big showdown in a secret underground lair, it’s revealed that Dr. Noah is actually [spoiler alert] Jimmy Bond, James’ neurotic nephew, played by Woody Allen.
The IMDb credits page lists Woody Allen has an “uncredited” writer. It’s quite obvious that he wrote all his own scenes, which are also (at the risk of sounding like a fanboy) the only funny parts in the film. Despite playing a pivotal character, Allen’s screen time is very limited, but his few moments are alive with humor that greatly contrasts with the surrounding movie. After being revealed as Dr. Noah, Allen unveils his sinister plan to release a dangerous gas that makes all women beautiful and kills any man over 4’6". If the fixation on sexual frustration and height-based inferiority complexes isn’t enough to make it clear this is an Allen contribution, the degree of wit certainly is. Ian Fleming’s villains have always had undertones of compensation and inferiority, and Allen cleverly ups the explicitness and specificity. In his only other scene, where he is facing execution from an un-named Caribbean armed force (don’t ask), his plea for release is “I have a very low threshold of death. My doctor says I can’t have bullets enter my body at any time.” Allen takes the prospect of being shot in the face by militants and frames it in the context of a hypochondriac anxiety. Not the funniest line of all time, but it served me well as a refreshing glass of water in a wasteland of laughlessness.
Allen’s evil lair is a huge and elaborate set, one of many in the movie. This movie may be bad, but it is not due to a lack of money or ambition. In addition to the S.M.E.R.S.H. lair, there’s also a large, elaborately decorated Scottish castle, a German expressionist spy school and a flying saucer that lands in London and looks, by 1967 standards, amazingly convincing. But all these impressive sets and special effects just end up as back-drops for strained jokes and sped-up action set to Yakety Sax.
In the review of What’s New Pussycat I said that the only way it could be any more ‘60s was if it had a psychedelic drug sequence or a dance number. Well, Casino Royale has both. It also has enough forced wackiness to make What’s New Pussycat look like Cries and Whispers. In a conclusion that outdoes Pussycat’s in every way other than humor, endless slapstick pandemonium reuniting the cast and refreshing our memory of Yakety Sax (which, at that point, the audience might not have heard for upwards of 20 minutes) breaks out in the titular casino. Also featured are cowboys, Indians, the French legion, chimpanzees, donkeys, sea lions, semi-nude women, laughing gas, pyrotechnics and endless goofy violence.
Roger Ebert called this the most indulgent movie ever made, and I think he’s right. Woody Allen clearly had an invitation to write all of his own scenes. Sellers was indulged in his desire to not be funny. Orson Welles got to do his little magic tricks. Who knows who else was given the same privileges?
This is the second movie in a row to feature ominous opening credits. What’s Up, Tiger Lily? listed 6 “additional writers” after Allen’s name appears, and here, even more damningly, we get 5 directors listed, plus 3 writers (and 7 more uncredited writers listed on IMDb). Sellers and Welles both reportedly stormed out multiple times. Sellers was also fired eventually, and his remaining scenes were written out. There are mixed accounts as to how five different directors got involved, and what their jobs were. As a movie, Casino Royale lacks any sort of cohesion, but from a project management point of view, maybe it’s a miracle that it got made at all.
From a Woody Allen fan perspective, the movie is an important part of the historical chronology for a number of reasons. While Allen’s role is small, it’s significant in that it’s the flashiest role of the movie — an over-the-top villain with a big reveal — suggesting a certain amount of star power. Also notable, this movie gives a glimpse into a potential alternate future, where Allen never made it as a director and carved out a career as a comic actor, like Peter Sellers or Bill Murray. His performances so far, not amounting to much in terms of screen time, have been consistently enjoyable. And while Allen is not typically known as a master thespian, it’s impressive that he’s able to fit in so seamlessly into slapstick comedies but still be able to convincingly portray college professors and novelists in later years.
I typically feel a twinge of guilt criticizing any works of art. Even when it comes to goofy and unambiguously bad movies such as this, most of the people associated with it are more talented and accomplished than I could ever dream of, so who am I to take shots at such Gods from my laughably pathetic little soap box? Therefore, it was of great comfort to find that most of the people associated with this movie agreed with me. David Niven, Peter Sellers and Orson Welles all disowned it. As for Woody Allen, he found the chaos and disorganization so frustrating it’s alleged to have motivated him to start directing his own films, starting with his next movie, Take the Money and Run. Having just seen Take the Money and Run, I’m thankful for the motivational value of Casino Royale, and fully forgive its theft of 2:17 of my time (which I probably just would have wasted anyway).
- “People called Einstein crazy.”
“That’s not true. No one ever called Einstein crazy.”
“Well, they would, if he carried on like this.”
- “Do you treat ALL the girls you desire this way?”
“Yes, I remove their clothing and tie them up. I learned that in the Boy Scouts.”
- Despite getting terrible reviews, this movie was still a big hit. In fact, if you adjust for inflation, it’s the biggest thing that Woody Allen’s ever been in.
- This was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time, costing more than any of the real James Bond movies. Lesson: egos are expensive.
- Producer Charles K. Feldman bought the rights to the book with the intention of starting a rival Bond franchise, but when he decided he could not compete with the “official” EON/Broccoli franchise, he decided to make a comedy instead. EON finally got the rights to the film in 1999, when they traded it to Sony for the rights to Spider-Man, which doesn’t quite seem like a fair deal.
- In addition to Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Ursala Andress, David Niven and Woody Allen, this movie also stars Deborah Kerr (From Here to Eternity, An Affair to Remember), William Holden (Wild Bunch, Network, Sunset Blvd.), pin-up Jaqueline Bisset (The Deep) and Charles Boyer (Gaslight, Algiers). There is probably no moment where there is not at least one Oscar-nominee on screen.
- John Huston (Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) was among the directors and the list of writers includes Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment) and Terry Southern (Easy Rider, Dr. Strangelove).
- Peter Sellers and Orson Welles reportedly hated each other, to the degree that their scenes together were actually filmed on different days.
- Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” was an original song written for this movie.
- David Prowse (the body of Darth Vader) has a small role as Frankenstein (again, don’t ask).