Hildebrandt Rarity?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Casino Royale (1967)

Alternate universe #5Peter Sellers. David Niven. Orson Welles. Woody Allen. William Holden. Deborah Kerr. John Huston. Charles Boyer. George Raft. Jacqueline Bisset. Peter O'Toole. Ursula Andress.

How in the name of all that is holy could this film be such a disaster??

Internet movie critic James Berardinelli recently wrote:

The thing about comedies is that you can't trust anyone's recommendations unless you have a thorough understanding of how their sense of humor is constructed. Everyone laughs at different things. Of all movie types, comedies are the most subjective. The equation is simple: Unless the movie offers something else (like the love story of a romantic comedy), those who laugh during a movie will like it and those who don't laugh will think it's a dud. The term "unfunny" means little if taken out of context...

Even the "best" comedies (This Is Spinal Tap, the Monty Python movies) have their detractors and the "worst" (Freddy Got Fingered, The Hottie and the Nottie) have their supporters, indicating that humor truly comes in all flavors.
Which is all a way to delay my having to say: Casino Royale (1967) isn't funny. In fact, it's aggressively non-funny. Re-watching this movie has probably been the most painful thing I have done this year (which, I guess, means I've had a pretty good year so far...but still...).

Which isn't to say that, if you like it, there's something wrong with you. I know people who like this film, and I know of people who love it to pieces. And just as with someone who rates Moonraker higher than I do, or Thunderball lower, I don't question their taste, or intelligence. I simply say, "More power to you. Glad you enjoyed it."

But honestly compels me to also say, "I just don't get it." And as I explain how and why I really, really, really disliked this movie, I want to emphasize that I'm not calling anyone who does like it nuts or stupid or tasteless. But I also don't want to have to append "In my opinion" or "Of course, you may feel differently" at the front of each paragraph. So please, just assume I've got those qualifiers liberally peppered throughout this essay, as I examine the pathetic failure of this dungheap of a movie (of course, you may feel differently).

As Berardinelli notes, nothing fails quite as completely as a failed comedy. In other genres, even if the movie is a complete turd, you usually have some semblance of plot, perhaps some action or special effects, maybe even a performance or two to admire. And as fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 know, even when a non-comedy completely fails even on those levels, at least you can laugh at those failures. But when a comedy fails, you don't even have that refuge, because how can you laugh at something that was trying to be funny but wasn't??

And the kind of things I'd normally critique in a Bond film--the plot, the editing, the production values--well, the producers and writers and directors just didn't give a freakin' rip about that kind of thing. So how valid is my criticism that nothing in the movie makes sense, when the people who made the movie didn't care if it made sense?!?

How did this happen? After CBS made the TV version of Casino Royale back in 1954, the rights passed from person until they came into the possession of producer Charles Feldman. And suddenly, after Goldfinger and Thunderball, anything James Bond was a hot property. And after the Thunderball lawsuit was settled, Casino Royale was the only Bond property whose rights didn't belong to Eon.

Feldman tried to sell those right to Broccoli & Saltzman, but rejected their offer of half a million as too low. So Feldman decided to make the film himself. But without Sean Connery and the Eon team, he didn't think a "straight" competitor could succeed. So he decided instead to make a Bond spoof.

But wait--that's not all. He decided to have 4 different directors--each of whom would direct their own section of the film, giving that section their own "tone." I know, it sounds like a brilliant idea...but wait, it gets better.

There was no communication between the directors--some say that they were deliberately kept in the dark about what the others were working on--so there was absolutely no uniformity or cohesion between the various sections. With people leaving the project abruptly, and other misfortunes, the list grew to 6 different directors. Val Guest was specifically brought in to try and film "splicing" sequences to try to somehow connect everything together.

There were 3 writers credited with the screenplay, but unconfirmed reports have as many as 7 others contributing to the script. And again, none of these people were apparently communicating with each other. Many of the actors were aggressively ad-libbing and adding their own material, resulting in more radical tone-shifting. Some actors refused to work with others, and some either left the production or were fired midway through, so entire character arcs (such as they were) vanish.

Are we groovy enough for you? ARE WE??The result of this chaos?? I think even the movie's most ardent defenders have to admit that what resulted was an incoherent mess. If I gave you an infinite supply of dry-erase markers and a galaxy-sized white board, you couldn't hope to diagram what happens to whom or why in CR 1967. Characters die off-screen, other characters disappear from the movie for hours at a time, only to turn up with different haircuts later in places where they couldn't possibly be and with no explanation. Spies change sides at random...entire plot lines simply vanish into the ether. Despite the noblest efforts, nothing in one section of the movie links to anything else. Actors who got top billing turn up in 20-second cameos. There are no plot holes, because that phrase suggests that there was an actual plot to have a hole. This movie is all hole, with strands of plot strewn about it haphazardly.

It's unclear how much of the insensibility comes from inept editing, and how much from unfinished segments that were just impossible to link together. There's no bonus or deleted footage on the most recent DVD, and no commentary tracks, so we're left to ponder how something so Bizarro could have happened.

This is what Ian Fleming had in mindFor those who haven't seen this, let me attempt some synopsis. Someone is killing all of the top agents for all of the superpowers. So M and the head of the French, Russian and U.S. intelligence agencies go to find the one, true James Bond. The original Bond (David Niven) had retired after WWI, but MI-6 didn't want to let the world know their best agent was out of action, so they passed the title onto others. Well, this Bond, dedicated to a life of purity and contemplation at his own personal Xanadu, refuses to come out of retirement. So M orders the British army to blow up Bond's house, to force him out of retirement.

Which works, except that M himself is somehow killed in the attack (even though no one else gets a scratch). So Bond takes M's remains to his estate where 12 sexy SMERSH agents (no, this has nothing to do with the SMERSH from the real Bond stories...these guys aren't Russian) are posing as M's widow and daughters. Their goal...seduce James, and thus end the myth of his purity and virtue. Why? Look, questions aren't going to get you anywhere with this movie. So after about a half an hour of tediously unfunny non-titillating smirkfest, Bond causes Deborah Kerr to fall in love with him by acts of manliness, so she helps him kill off the other SMERSH ladies, and then joins a nunnery.

So M goes back to London town to take over MI-6, and decides that henceforth, ALL MI-6 agents will be called James Bond--yes, the females as well--to confuse the enemy. Furthermore, because the enemy is using so many female agents, Bond-Niven sets Bond-Moneypenny on the task of finding an agent who is irresistible to women yet can completely resist them himself. We spend more than 10 minutes finding and training Terence-Cooper Bond, only to have him vanish AND NEVER HAVE ANOTHER LINE OF DIALOGUE IN THE WHOLE MOVIE!! He shows up somehow in captivity at the movie's climax, with no explanation...

Thank God the Pink Panther movies will save my baconThe next random plot thread has Niven-Bond seeking out Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress). He recruits her by offering her a plea bargain on a tax default charge...there's the James Bond we want, Her Majesty's tax collector!! Anyway, her job is to recruit Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers), baccarat expert, to take down Le Chiffre (why? Because, dammit!!). To the sultry tune of "The Look of Love," she seduces him to undertake this dangerous mission. For reasons completely unclear, this includes about 5 minutes of her watching Peter Sellers put on funny costumes and do funny voices, which is nowhere near as amusing as it sounds. She sends Tremble-Bond to Q and his assistant, who, in this movie, are gay haberdashers, which probably wasn't even funny in 1967.

Meanwhile, the next pinball plot development sends Niven-Bond to India to recruit Mata Bond, his illegitimate daughter from Mata Hari (which would have to make her at least 50, even though Joanna Pettet was 23 when this was filmed...STOP ASKING QUESTIONS, DAMMIT!!). After a 5-minute Busby Berkeley dance number (why? WHY?!?), he sends her to Berlin, to break up Le Chiffre's auction of various incriminating photographs to various military groups. I won't say how silly this sequence is...but at one point we break into Benny Hill music. Really.

Hey, Kronsteen!!

I will play no baccarat before its timeGiven that the credits say the film was "suggested by" the Ian Fleming novel, we do eventually get Tremble-Bond to Monte Carlo, were, after being seduced by Miss Goodthighs (Jacqueline Bisset!!), she drugs him. The result...an crazy dream sequence, and the disappearance of Miss Goodthighs from the rest of the movie. We get to the casino, where Orson Welles plays Le Chiffre. And I've got to say, it's too damn bad the Orson never got to play the villain in a real Bond movie, because he's really, really good here. Yeah, it's overly indulgent, as he forced the director to let him do all sorts of magic tricks on screen(!!!), but this piece is the best thing in the movie. You might almost say that Sellers and Welles had a great chemistry....

...Except they didn't. There are many versions of the story, and I'm not here to say which is right. But Sellers and Welles apparently couldn't stand each other, and one (or both?) refused to appear on camera together, so almost the whole baccarat showdown is shot showing only one at a time (although there are 3 wide shots that show them both). Because of his antipathy for Welles (or maybe for some other reason, as I say there are many versions of this tale), Sellers walked off the set and/or was fired. Regardless, I give a few of my sparse plaudits to this scene. It's tense, it's well directed given the ridiculous circumstances, and I actually laughed.

And it plays almost like the book. Bond wins, Le Chiffre kidnaps Vesper, Bond pursues. Then, with no explanation or transition, he's suddenly in Le Chiffe's captivity...missing footage, or just not filmed because Sellers was gone?? We then get a scene with Le Chiffre torturing Tremble-Bond with some funky mind machine, resulting in a crazy 60's psychedelic mind-freak scene, turning into a bizarre scene with Bond menaced by a band of Scottish bagpipers, when Vesper Lynd shows up in Scottish drag and shoots them all with her machine-gun bagpipes, and then she shoots Tremble-Bond. Oy, my head hurts...

Really, there aren't enough drugs...Then a flying saucer lands in Trafalgar Square (really) to kidnap Mata, and whatever sanity there was goes straight out the window. After a lot of doodling around and a surprise reveal of the real villain, we end the way most 60s comedies did (and Blazing Saddles, too--shame on you, Mel Brooks), with a nonsenseical melee involving laughing gas, flying roulette wheels, skydiving native Americans who yell "Geronimo", the French Foreign Legion, and a nuclear explosion.

Straight out of a Toho movie...Did I mention that this move makes no sense?

So what, exactly, was wrong with this movie? The first problem was too little, too late. Feldman
was way behind everybody else in the spy spoof/pastiche department. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had already been running for years, as had Get Smart. He was behind the Matt Helm movies, and the Flint movies. The idea to spoof Bond wasn't terribly new or innovative at this point.

And the bizarre decision to make the movie in the way they did resulted in a film with no through-line, no structure. Even a spoof movie needs some kind of plot thread the audience can hang onto. The Helm movies, Austin Powers...they were spoofs, but were still legitimate movies in their own right, too, with stories and characters. Casino Royale '67 is just "throw as many things at the wall as you can and we'll sort it out in the editing room." That's not a movie. That's a 2 hour plus episode of Laugh-In without as high a quality of jokes. It's one of those damn Meet the Spartans or Scary Movie IX joints, not worried about being about anything contest just to be.

And finally, on the level of parody, this movie fails as well. Not to sound catty, but there's not a lot of evidence that anybody involved with this picture had actually SEEN a James Bond movie. It's as if they had a tenuous idea of what a spy movie was, and they knew the names Q and M and Moneypenny, and just decided to tell a lot of generic jokes in that framework. By contrast, whatever you think of Austin Powers, there's no doubt that Mike Meyers and Jay Roach have seen and worshipped every Bond film. I could spend a week annotating all of the Bond references in those films (hmmm). Plus, they actually parody the Bond movies. The ridiculous plans, the ludicrous outfits, the insane death traps...Austin Powers actually mocks them, explains why they're ridiculous, and, you know, parodies the Bond films. Casino Royale, never really tries to actually parody the Bond films. It merely apes the same set pieces and expects you to laugh because, well, because the filmmakers tell you how wacky they are.

I applaud your fortitude in surviving this movieThere are some good things in this film. The actors, by and large, give good performances within the constraints of this type of thing. Peters Sellers vacillates being playing it straight and going off-the-wall nuts (gee, Peter Sellers?!?! Who would have thought that??). Ursula Andress is actually fairly good, far outdoing her Honey Rider performance in Dr. No. Deborah Kerr makes something out of the Agent Mimi role. Everyone is trying their best, and no one seems to be sleepwalking (although that doesn't mean they weren't out of control at times).

The music, written by Burt Bacharach and largely performed by Herp Alpert, provides a pretty fun and memorable score. It would be completely wrong for a serious Bond movie, but in this context it works pretty well.

The art direction is surprisingly good, as well. Despite the incompetence of much of the writing and directing, most of the sets are actually pretty cool, although obviously not Ken Adam level. The costumes are all outrageously mod in an early-late-60s way. This movie actually had a larger budget than Thunderball, and a lot of it does turn up on screen.

OK, this is actually good!In summary, even for a Bond completist, it's tough for me to recommend this film, because it almost completely fails even on the level of a Bond take-off. As a cultural artifact of the 60's it has some interest. I won't tell you not to see it, but I will warn you: if this doesn't happen to hit your funny bone, you're in for a long, 2 hour and eleven minute slog.

Charles Feldman had a fairly distinguished career, both as an agent and as a producer. Hell, in one stretch in the 50's he produced The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Seven Year Itch consecutively. But after this disaster, he never produced another movie, and died only a year later. If only he had sold the Casino Royale rights to Eon, we might have gotten a serious, hard-hitting movie version. But now, we'll never know...

Next week, off to Japan!!


  1. I was thinking that you should totally do Austin Powers annotations even before you mentioned it, so yeah, consider it 1 vote for. Hey, you need something to do once all the Bond films are done, right?

  2. Re: the "nonsensical melee"

    For about 5 years, it seems like this sort of scene was considered the height of comedy, for reasons unfathomable to me. All I can figure is drugs and/or shellshock of the culture war of the time greatly degrading the free world's comedic sensibilities....

  3. Didn't the interviews on this disc talk about this being a 'Psychedelic Movie' on top of the ill-considered experiment of having so many directors and such?
    I got the impression that it was never really meant to make sense, and that even on those terms the producers figured it to stil be a FAIl.

    I mean, no one says it's any good but I'm surprised you left that part out of the review.

  4. Re: the "nonsensical melee"

    The Prisoner series ends that way too, although in that case I think that might have been an intentional attempt by McGoohan to kill it for good and/or flip the bird to the network.

  5. I liked both Thunderball and Moonraker. Sue me :-/

    Great site, by the way!

  6. I also vote for the austin powers annotation.