Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Fever Dream That Was Casino Royale

Peter Sellers as Evelyn Tremble/James Bond 007. He was by far the most
charismatic actor in Casino Royale, so it's a shame he didn't shoot his
entire role. In this scene he is playing Baccarat with Le Chiffre
(Orson Welles), despite the fact they were never on the set at the same time.
I do not believe I have ever before seen the 1967 version of Casino Royale all the way through. That is, I thought I did not see this film until I watched it last night in pretty HD. Then I realized I had seen it, probably several times: it was such a mess of a film that my young mind probably couldn't coherently file it away. So this movie somehow fooled me into thinking I never saw it.

And now I know why.

Like I said, Casino Royale (which Daniel adores, for many reasons now very obvious) is a mess of a film-- a glorious tribute to the excesses of producers who believe they have such a hot property that, like a hyperactive dog with a soup bone, they don't know what to do with it. The hot property here was the film rights to "Casino Royale," the first Ian Fleming 007 novel from 1953. These rights eluded Cubby Broccoli and EON Productions, ending up in the hands of Charles K. Feldman and Columbia Pictures.

Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond / Mr. Noah. I'm guessing Charles Feldman
Owed him a solid for writing What's New, Pussycat? and gave him the
juicy Villain role. He was not as funny as you'd expect in this film.
What do you DO with a legally usable character of such as James Bond, Agent 007, in the absolute height of his popularity? Feldman couldn't compete with Cubby Broccoli in terms of making a straight action film. So he made a spoof out of it. And boy, did he lay it on thick. You don't get one James Bond here: you get at least six. Every girl in the film is a Bond Girl (or will eventually be). It's a work of reactionary cinema: almost every scene refers in some way to the main Bond series.

And, like I said, it's a mess. There were six directors and even more screenwriters. Peter Sellers walked off the production, leaving huge holes of missing footage. Orson Welles insisted on doing magic tricks in his scenes. In the end, the filmmakers got so desperate they literally hung the numbers "007" on everything: seals, monkeys and on a plane full of awful Native American stereotypes (who parachute while saying "Geronimo!" Get it?)

Joanna Pettet as Mata Bond. She was a very pleasant surprise: exeedingly
beautiful and quite funny, the best Bond Girl in the film. Yes,
Ursula Andress was also in Casino Royale, but she's a dud:
thanks to HD, It's plain Ursula read her dialog off dummy cards.
All this being said and well-documented (really, this is one of those films where the making of is more interesting than the film itself), I'd have to say it is still a very funny, very unusual film. If you were looking for insight into the mid-1960s, particularly into the slim moment in history when the early 60s James Bond Space Age aesthetic was about to be eclipsed by the psychedelic, Op Art late 60s, this is the touchstone.

The jumpy, scattered storyline is in some ways ahead of its time. Movies of this era were often plodding and linear: it took breakthroughs like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider to move Hollywood cinema to a more punctuated style of narrative. In Casino Royale this evolution happened accidentally: The very effort to salvage this movie -- missing stars, unshot footage, plainly overindulgent style-- into releasable form created a weird dreamlike flow to the story. This interpretation makes quite a bit of sense: If you were dreaming about, say, James Bond, and his appearance shifts from David Niven to Terence Cooper to Peter Sellers, that would seem to the dreamer as a perfectly normal development. Locations shift nonsensically: characters are carefully established, disappear, then re-appear: To the dreamer, none of this seems out of place. So now you know why I didn't remember seeing this film as a kid: can anyone really remember dreams?

It's about as insane as any Terence Malick or David Lynch movie, but much funnier.

2 comments:

  1. I hate-watch this movie every chance I get. Sometimes it's just to discover new gags - it's not they're funny but they were so poorly executed in such chaotic surroundings that I literally didn't know they were even trying to be jokes.

    Plus, Deborah Kerr was way, WAY funnier than you'd expect.

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