1.5 of 5 stars
Casino Royale had the potential to be one of the best comedies of all time. Its all-star cast included David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress. It had a winning soundtrack by Burt Bacharach. It had a budget of 12 million 1967 dollars ($87 million adjusted for 2017). On top of all that, the source material itself, the James Bond series, provided a wealth of material that was easy to satire. So what went wrong?
A little background provides insight. Way back before James Bond was famous, creator Ian Fleming sold the film rights to his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, to producer Charles K. Feldman (A Streetcar Named Desire). MGM later acquired the rights to the Bond character and created the series starring Sean Connery. Feldman originally envisioned making a serious Bond film, but after Connery turned down a $1 million offer to play the role, a sum that would make even Dr. Evil raise an eyebrow, Feldman decided to make a parody instead.
The production was a mess, and the final product is as well. Five *credited* directors, including John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)—one of the greatest filmmakers of all time—filmed separate sequences. Each director reportedly didn’t know what the other four were up to. Val Guest shot some scenes to tie together the other four directors’ disparate sequences. The project went months over schedule and millions of dollars over budget. Peter Sellers walked off the set after a dispute with Orson Welles.
The movie has two story lines taken from Fleming’s book that are barely connected in the film. A secretive organization known as SMERSH (which was a real Soviet Cold War super-secret spy operation) has been killing spies from the U.K., the U.S., France and the U.S.S.R. M (Huston) and the heads of the other countries’ spy agencies travel to James Bond’s country estate, which is guarded by real lions, to lure the legendary spy (Niven) out of retirement to head a counter-operation against SMERSH. This operation involves recruiting a number of spies, male and female, and giving them all the name and number James Bond 007 to confuse the enemy. The other story line follows one of these operatives, Evelyn Tremble (Sellers), a world-famous card shark, who is recruited to go up against SMERSH bad guy/magician Le Chiffre (Welles) in a game of baccarat, for a reason that is only partially explained later. All this culminates in a zany showdown at Casino Royale involving a flying saucer, cowboys and Indians (with “007” painted on their faces), a chimp and a pair of sea lions.
The movie does have its moments. Those are mainly the ones that involve Woody Allen as Bond’s scheming nephew, Jimmy Bond/Dr. Noah. Allen is his typical self and delivers the laughs. While this is ostensibly a comedy, the rest of the movie is mostly devoid of laughs. There are some in-jokes that might have appealed to 1967 audiences, such as a brief run-in with Peter O’Toole, but the comedy is usually so over-the-top it grates on the nerves.
That’s not to say the movie has no redeeming value. It contains some psychedelic scenes that are good on their own, and provide fodder for the later, better Bond spoof, Austin Powers.
The film is also graced with a soundtrack by Burt Bacharach that belongs in a better film. I’ve heard tale “The Look of Love” was originally an instrumental piece, but lyricist Hal David added the lyrics after seeing this cut with Ursula Andress:
The movie also has plenty of Easter eggs for Bond fans. For example, David Niven, who plays the aging Bond in this film, was actually Fleming’s first choice to play his gentleman spy. In fact, Kissy Suzuki’s pet duck in the novel You Only Live Twice was named after Niven. Burt Kwouk, who appeared in both Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, is the Chinese general in this movie. Ursula Andress, the first official Bond girl (Honey Ryder) plays Vesper Lynd. Angela Scoular plays Buttercup, a SMERSH agent posing as M’s daughter. She would later go on to appear in an official Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Vladek Sheybal, who played the chess master/SPECTRE mastermind Kronsteen in From Russia with Love, displays his comedic chops as Le Chiffre’s art dealer. Also, Peter Sellers’s real-life wife, Britt Ekland, went on to play a Bond girl in The Man with the Golden Gun. The notion of anyone and everyone becoming James Bond 007 may be seen as prophetic as five actors would go on to don the name and number after Connery.
All that’s to say this movie is best viewed for historical purposes only. As a comedy/coherent story, this movie fails on all levels. Luckily, MGM would eventually regain the rights to Casino Royale after trading the rights for Spider-Man with Sony, which enabled them to make the inspired reboot with Daniel Craig in 2006.