Psych! You thought we were heading for “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, didn’t you? Well, we will get there but as Craggus’ Bond Voyage makes its way through the movie history of the world’s most famous secret agent, there are a couple of stops off the main highway that are worth taking a look at. One of them is the psychedelic cinematic clusterfuck that is “Casino Royale”, a sprawling, star-studded spy spoof whose tumultuous production is probably more worthy of a feature film than the finished product itself. Archly marketed as ‘Too much…for ONE James Bond!’ it also proved too much for just one director, with no less than six contributing to a film that’s not so much assembled into a final cut as stitched together in a way that Victor Frankenstein would by impressed by. So by all means, let’s ‘join the Casino Royale fun movement’!
There’s no escaping the fact “Casino Royale” is a bad movie. One of the truly, epically bad movies of history; fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. It’s nigh on impossible to give a decent synopsis of the story because the film never decides what story it’s actually telling. There’s a thread about somebody killing off British secret agents across the world and eventually the movie even remembers to bring in the casino itself, along with Le Chiffre and the high stakes card game which ruins him. There may, at one point, have been a coherent plot in play here but the successive changes of directors and writers coupled with the outrageous behaviour of key cast members mean that it’s a miracle the movie ever got finished at all. What ends up on screen is weird, messy, sporadically funny, occasionally inventive and even once or twice, recognisably Bond-esque. But where is should be dragged down by its problematic production and desperation, it somehow manages to be buoyantly cheerful, silly and utterly devoid of any pretence to common sense.
With the source novel (not included in Eon Productions’ purchase of the film rights from Ian Fleming) plundered for material by the official productions, the producer, directors and writers plumped for a throw everything into the mix and see what sticks approach. It’s obvious nobody was trying to craft a genuine adaptation of the novel and instead came up with jokes, sketches and skits extrapolated from the slightest idea which were then shoe-horned into place and duct taped together. The cast – or at least most of them – seem like they’re enjoying themselves by indulging in a multi-million dollar party at studio’s expense and “Casino Royale” stands as a monument to the trendy, cool, swinging sixties era of psychedelic indulgence and excess.
The cast is a heady mix of who’s who, who was and a smattering of who-will-be and a Venn diagram of this movie and the official Bond films would have a remarkably big overlap. Ursula Andress plays Vesper Lynd (and is again dubbed by Nikki Van Der Zyl as she was in “Dr. No”); there are cameos from Bond actors Vladek Sheybal (Kronsteen in “From Russia With Love”), Burt Kwouk (“Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice”) while many of the cast would go on to appear in a proper Bond film in the years to come (Angela Scoular, Caroline Munro, John Hollis, John Wells to name but a few). In an enormous cast, arguably the four biggest stars are David Niven, Woody Allen, Orson Welles and Peter Sellers. A combustible mix of past their prime Hollywood legends and Sellers in his pomp and a cusp-of-megastardom Woody Allen inevitably ignited most ferociously in a bitter feud between Sellers and Welles.
By all accounts, David Niven was the perfect professional throughout his filming and Woody Allen was mainly astonished at the productions cavalier approach to spending money but it would be Sellers’ behaviour and antipathy towards the eccentrically demanding Welles that would have the most impact on the film. Although the two shared several pivotal scenes in the movie, these eventually had to be shot on separate days after Sellers refused to work with Welles, even going so far as to appoint his own writer to polish his – and only his – dialogue so he would outshine Welles and Woody Allen. The reason Sellers’ character of Evelyn Tremble disappears so abruptly from the film is mainly due to the fact he left the production before it was finished and the intended plot of his capture and torture were cobbled together with some filmed scenes, some B-roll footage, trick photography and, on one occasion, a cardboard cut-out.
In amongst all this absurd iron pyrite there are actually a few nuggets of 24 carat gold. The early scenes of Niven’s veteran James Bond taking on a bevy of beautiful assassins at M’s Scottish Castle feel like they come from a better, different movie, one you wish had continued after we return to London. The film also has some fun with the idea that James Bond can be more than just one man and indeed can be anyone, maybe even everyone. It’s a dumb set-up for a number of gags in the movie but in the wider context of the official Bond series having to deal with Connery’s departure it develops a sharper satirical edge. Terence Cooper, appearing here as another agent given the code name James Bond probably would have made a very good official James Bond, but appearing in this movie probably cost him that opportunity (to George Lazenby’s benefit). Although much of the film has dated badly, it still retains much of its sex appeal, thanks to outrageously flirtatious performances from Daliah Lavi, Barbara Bouchet and Joanna Petter. Andress has never looked better but she’s clearly phoning it in, giving the impression she believes the whole circus is beneath her. And when you reach the farcical, explosively slapstick finale, you might begin to think she has a point.
If you approach “Casino Royale” with any expectations of a coherent, well-crafted starry screwball comedy you’ll end up baffled, disappointed and probably a little bit cross. But if you can clear your mind of any preconceptions and just let the ludicrous, freeform, chaotic spectacle of it all just wash over you, you might just appreciate how astonishingly unfeasible it is that this film actually exists. If the official Bond series could survive this, it was never in any real danger from the likes of Austin Powers.