“You can’t shoot me! I have a very low threshold of death. My doctor says I can’t have bullets enter my body at any time”.
When I decided I was going to do a James Bond theme week, there was one movie that intrigued me the most, one that I was most interested in seeing. Not because it has a reputation as being the best, but because it’s the black sheep, the red headed step child, the most often dismissed of the series. I don’t know if it’s even officially a part of the James Bond series. But from all reports, it’s the weirdest, silliest, and possibly worst entry in the franchise. It’s Casino Royale. Not the new millennium Daniel Craig Casino Royale that made the series more culturally relevant than it had been in decades. But the 60s Casino Royale that is, well, I’m not sure what it is.
David Niven is Sir James Bond, a long retired spy with no interest in abandoning that retirement. But when the heads of MI6, the CIA and the KGB realise they’re losing too many spies to sexcapades and general promiscuity, they beg the chaste Bond to return to the field. You see, in this version, James Bond is a prude. That’s a joke, ‘coz in the other Bond movies, he’s always on the job. Get it? Anywho, he’s eventually convinced to get back into the spy game and has so much success, he’s made head of MI6. His first decree as boss is to name all agents James Bond 007, and train them to resist the feminine wiles of the dolly birds they will inevitably face in the field.
So now we have Peter Sellers as Evelyn Tremble, a baccarat expert who has been recruited and renamed James Bond in an effort to take down Le Chiffe (Orson Welles) in a card game at the titular casino. We have Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd, also given the code name 007. We have martial arts expert Terence Cooper as “Cooper”, also dubbed James Bond, 007. Plus Niven’s still there as the original, and his daughter Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet). All this, and Woody Allen as Sir James’ nephew, Jimmy Bond. There are more Bonds and 007s in this thing than every other movie in the series pout together.
Episodic and basically a series of sketches, Casino Royale only makes the absolute minimum effort to tie its scenes together as a coherent story or arc. The story jumps all over the place, never giving itself, or the viewer, a chance to settle in. Which is kind of infuriating, but I also think the film makers realise it was the only way they had any chance of making this work. Because while Casino Royale has an obviously impressive cast, it’s even more obvious that that same cast was the biggest hurdle for the writers and director to overcome.
There’s the above mentioned Niven, Welles, Andress, Sellers, and Allen. Not to mention William Holden, John Huston, George Raft, Jacqueline Bisset, Ronnie Corbett, Anjelica Huston and Peter O’Toole. But it’s so clear that most of these actors were probably only available for a day or two of shooting each, so a lot of their cameos and roles are so short, there’s never a chance to work them into the continuity of the story in any natural way. That, plus stories about Sellers being so terrible to work with, writers decided it was easier to write him out of the story than shoot the original ending with him in it.
Casino Royale is a mess, but not an all together unentertaining mess. When it gets it right, and strikes the spoof tone in the sweet spot, it’s actually almost hilarious. It shines brightest when abandoning any attempts at story or reality, and goes for an ‘anything for the joke’ approach. And I’m sure these moments are thanks to the uncredited writing of Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. In the 60s, those two were masters of big, in your face jokes that worried about nothing more than being funny. If only Casino Royale indulged in that a little more.