Favorite Title Theater: Casino Royale (1967)

With the release of the 40TH Anniversary Edition of the infamous 007 spoof, CASINO ROYALE, I have another excuse to sing the praises of this premier example of 1960’s cinematic excess. Produced by Charles Feldman after his huge success with WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965), he owned the rights to Ian Fleming’s first — and best — James Bond novel. Unable to compete with Connery and Company, Feldman wisely decided to satire the series. Of course, by 1967, the Bond films were on their way to becoming parodies and Feldman’s approach was scattershot to say the least. Set to star Peter Sellers as a milquetoast card expert who is enlisted to be James Bond for one night, Sellers walked off the production after a few weeks due to his manic nature and refusal to actually shoot any scenes opposite Orson Welles, playing villain Le Chiffre. Sellers was killed off in the new script and no less than five directors, John Huston, Ken Hughes, Val Guest, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish with a dozen uncredited writers including Billy Wilder, Terry Southern, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, and Woody Allen, were charged with the prospect of making IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD for James Bond.

casinoroyale1967coolThe film’s budget ballooned from six million dollars to twelve million, as Feldman spared no expense to bring his outrageous film plans to fruition. A multi-million dollar budget for a camp parody shows you how serious the Bond phenomenon was in the mid-60’s. And reveals how desperate Feldman was to recapture the mod energy of WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? When CASINO ROYALE was finally released in April, 1967, critics savaged the international pop gloss over a limp story and kitchen-sink humor, but audiences made it the third biggest grossing film of the year. Again, a testament to the power of Bond. Plus, the film is so massive, so decadent, filled with star wattage, and populated with a “Bondwagon” of the most beautiful women ever gathered for a major motion picture. Orson Welles claimed the sexy marketing (with the awesome Robert McGinnis poster) made the film a hit. Yet it also benefitted from two hit singles, the instrumental title track above by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass; and the Oscar nominated, “The Look Of Love” sung by Dusty Springfield and written by Burt Bacharach. This Bond clone also pulled off one of the greatest soundtracks ever. Instead of a Barry-esque approach, the hip lounge combo of Albert and Bacharach reflected the comedy cocktail vibe of the era.

casino_3So in some ways, Feldman’s spaghetti on the wall approach paid off, and what stuck is what we love about CASINO ROYALE,  which makes it dear to Bond cultist’s hearts, along with any fan of bloated psychedelic 60’s cinema. The film is a narrative mess, but the idea of making every character Bond to confuse the enemy is a sound one and allows for the flow of disparate stars and sequences. Peter Sellers would have been fun to watch through the whole movie, but he was apparently under the illusion that he was playing a serious romantic hero, and his Evelyn Tremble character is therefore diluted. Sellers has good moments, particularly when he plays a more awkward Bond, and the scene where he is outfiited with gadgets in a “Q” style bunker is damn funny and plays like Monty Python, Mel Brooks and MAD Magazine. There are witty lines and moments throughout CASINO ROYALE (no wonder given the smart-ass scribe pedigree) and it’s one of the small pleasures of the film. Of course, Woody Allen saves the day by nailing every second of his role as nervous Jimmy Bond, cousin to David Niven’s more foppish take on the character (Fleming had envisioned Niven as Bond). It’s still one of my favorite Allen performances.

cinema_retro3_3What buffers CASINO ROYALE from a total celluloid crash is the dazzling Ken Hughes segment featuring Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) and her journey into Cold War Berlin for plot reasons unknown. This entire sequence is the best in the movie, a wonderful distillation of satirical hijinks and expressionist set design. Joanna Pettet simply rocks as Mata Bond, and it’s a shame Feldman didn’t take advantage of what could have been a whole film. Pettet is smart, gorgeous and funny, snapping out every line like the crack of a velvet whip. She’s utterly believable as an action heroine, and her enthusiasm as a super spy is infectious. The supporting cast is also terrific, especially Anna Quayle as Frau Hoffner, definitely an inspiration for Mike Myer’s “Dieter” character on SNL. I think Hughes’ direction is comedically adroit and visually stunning (the camera work here is pure Nicholas Roeg, one of the film’s three cinematographers) and the music/editing  all come together for a steady comic rhythm. I’m always sad when this pop-art 007 fantasia section ends.

By the climax, with cowboys and indians shooting and frugging out in the casino, there’s nowhere to go but up and the film ends abruptly with a deus ex-plosion machina and all our Bonds in Heaven. I grew up on the movie and its soundtrack, so I’ll always have a soft spot in my head and heart for this epic mess. For me, CASINO ROYALE represents the best and worst of the swinging 60’s cultural landscape. I’m such a fan I’m dying to see the many minutes of shorn footage featuring more guest stars and manic chaos. Sadly, the new DVD does not include any of the excised footage. Get Mata Bond on the case!

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8 Responses to “Favorite Title Theater: Casino Royale (1967)”

  1. Great piece.

    It’s more coherent than Quantum of Solace, in any case.

  2. I finally watched “Casino Royale” in all its widescreen glory this week. You really hit it right on the head, though you were a lot kinder than I would have been. The “Mata Hari” section is very good while the remainder ranges from curiously entertaining to outright hair-pulling annoyance. Still, the music, the cinematography and the women (ooh la la!) are astounding. I must have watched the credit sequence ten times in the last few days (& just watched it again right here). Oh yeah, Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet)…woof!

  3. Thanks all. I haven’t watched the new dvd version but I will this week.
    And yes, Barbara Bouchet might be one of the sexiest women in 60’s film history in her few moments onscreen here.

  4. Fine write-up, christian. And this has one of my fave Herb Alpert and the TJB instrumentals as the theme song!

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