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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1967) Part 1

4.5. Casino Royale

By 1967, only five years into the series’ history, James Bond was already so popular, successful, and widely beloved that the character became a target for parody. Yet an unusual set of circumstances lent the parody that followed a quasi-official status. In the early sixties, before the EON Bond series got rolling, producer Charles K. Feldman acquired the rights to “Casino Royale,” Ian Fleming’s original Bond novel. After attempts to partner with Eon on a real adaptation fell through, Feldman went ahead on his own. Realizing an attempt at a serious Bond film would be unflatteringly compared to the official series, the producer decided to make his “Royale” a farce. The production was chaotic, cycling through six different directors, a baker’s dozen of combative stars, countless incoherent rewrites, and a ballooning budget. This is all-too-obvious in the final product, which is surely the strangest James Bond movie ever made.

Spies from all over the world are being killed by SMERSH, a villainous organization. The British spymasters try to lure legendary secret agent James Bond out of retirement. He refuses at first but, following the sudden death of M, Bond takes up leadership of MI6 anyway. He cooks up several plans to confuse and defeat SMERSH. All of the Royal Crown’s agents will be named James Bond 007. A baccarat expert is sent to beat Le Chiffre, a SMERSH operative, at his own game. Bond’s daughter investigates a spy-training school in Berlin. A karate expert is trained to resist the charms of women. All the chaos cumulates at a massive shoot-out at the Casino Royale.

“Casino Royale” is a massive mess of a film. However, it at least starts with an interesting idea. One of the most persistent ideas in the James Bond fandom is that “James Bond”  is simply a codename. The identity is passed on to every agent with the 007 designation. (I don’t personally apply to this theory though it does neatly explain Bond changing his face every decade and staying generally the same age for fifty years.) That concept originates in this movie. I doubt if most of the internet folks who espouse this theory are aware of its origins in this incredibly silly film.

Playing the original Bond is David Niven. Niven was reportedly Ian Fleming's choice to play Bond in “Dr. No,” so it’s appropriate that he should end up in this one. One of the few aspects of the film that genuinely parodies the Bond series is Niven’s characterization of the spy. Niven’s James Bond is asexual and refrains from smoking and alcohol. He refuses the advances of all the women that come onto him. Despite his chaste nature, this Bond is still irresistible to the ladies. He rejects them all, causing seemingly all the women to end up as nuns. Despite his advanced age, Niven is still a great choice for Bond. He’s incredibly British but also refined and suave. He’s still capable of being a man of action though, which Niven gets to briefly display with some Judo chops and a machine gun. Unfortunately, Niven’s decision to play the part with an exaggerated stutter is incredibly annoying. A long sequence, where a Scottish palace of young women attempt to seduce him, climaxing with an attack from exploding robotic ducks, drags horribly and is totally devoid of laughter.

The second-billed actor in the film’s sprawling cast is Peter Sellers. Sellers was presumably hired to deliver his usual cut-up routine of broad comedy. Instead, Sellers took the part seriously, deciding to play James Bond as earnestly as possible. Even in this mostly serious mode, Sellers proves a weirdly creditable Bond. He has decent chemistry with Ursula Andress, this film’s wildly different version of Vesper Lynd. The romantic scenes the two have together are some of the few effective ones in the film. Sellers also does well opposite Jacquline Bisset as Miss Goodthigns, the film’s briefly appearing femme fatale. Whether or not Sellers intended to play the part seriously or not, he still winds up providing some of the film’s few laughs. He gets some decent chuckles during a scene parodying the Q gadget equipping sequences, which otherwise goes on too long. Even Sellers’ scenes are full of bizarre, unrelated moments. He dresses up as Napoleon, Hitler, and Toulouse-Lautrec for no reason. Later on, he has a musical dream sequence about cards and girls.

Sellers also contributes to the only part of the film referencing Fleming’s original novel. Posing as Bond, Sellers goes to the baccarat table to best Le Chiffre. The baccarat scene is decently composed. You can imagine Welles, in a much better film, doing a decent job as Le Chiffre. However, Welles threw his considerable weight around, so the villain does magic tricks for no reason. Sellers and Wells despised each other so much that they never, quite obviously, actually share screen time together. As decent as the baccarat scene is, it completely collapses in chaos and madness too. Instead of beating his balls with a carpet-beater, Le Chiffre exposes the agent to psychedelic torture. Colors flash on screen, girls in bathing suits walk around, Sellers’ voice echos, and footage plays both sped up and reverse. The sequence climaxes with a squad of bag pipe players and Orson Welles being shot through a computer screen.

If my rambling attempts to explain the plot didn’t make it clear, 1967’s “Casino Royale” is an exceedingly strange movie. The weirdest part of the flick – no small feat – revolves around Mata Bond, the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari. Played by the lovely and hyper-active Joanna Pettet, Mata is sent to infiltrate a Berlin school for training spies. For no particular reason, the school is patterned after “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Black, expressionistic slants dominate the scene. The headmistress, played by Anna Quayle, dresses in all black like Cesare. Okay, sure. However, that doesn’t explain the other weird shit that happens. Like Quayle’s cyborg assistant, an old man with a robotic heart that frequently needs recharging. Or the red room full of people shouting code. Or the old German soldier sitting in a rocking chair, waiting to shoot someone. Or “What’s New, Pussycat?” blaring out of a sewer. Yes, there’s a plot to this sequence. Compromising photos of world leaders are being auctioned off to opposing countries. Que offensive ethnic stereotypes of the Chinese and the Russians. However, this sequence is most notable for how bizarre it is.

In the last act, “Casino Royale” completely collapses. Le Chiffre is foiled which means the story is over. Instead, the film continues on for another forty minutes. Mata is kidnapped by a flying saucer and taken to the casino. Niven’s Bond and Moneypenny – Did I mention Moneypenny? – go to rescue her. The real villain is revealed, as is his incoherent plot to create robotic doubles of heads of state and releases a shrink bomb. Vesper Lynd attempts to betray Bond for no reason. Cowboys, sky-diving Indians, dancing seals, Frankenstien’s monster, William Holden and Jean-Paul Belmondo suddenly appear. The villain is tricked into swallowing his own bomb. The entire casino goes up in a massive fireball and everybody dies. “What the fuck?” is the appropriate response to all of that.

The worst thing about 1967’s “Casino Royale” is that it has no conception of pacing at all. The film is over two hours long, which is far longer then any comedy should be. Sequences drag on, well pass the point of being funny or amusing. Meanwhile, moments that advance the plot in no way are focused on. Before Mata Bond is introduced, we are greeted to an Eastern-flavored song and dance number. The meeting between Vesper Lynd and Evelyn also stretches on far pass the point of necessity. Then there’s the complete clusterfuck of a finale, where new plot points are raised and dropped without any further noticed.

So is there anything to like about “Casino Royale?” There are a handful of funny moments. This is mostly thanks to Woody Allen. When forced in front of a firing squad, Allen’s typically neurotic stuttering provides some humor. Allen’s late reappearance into the film provides a little energy to the dire affair. Niven remains committed throughout. His bemused reaction to some of the insanity around him gets a chuckle or two. The random appearance of a dwarf dressed as a lawn gnome made me chuckle. Sellers gets a few decent one-liners. Aside from that, there’s plenty of beautiful women on displayed here. Ursula Andress parades around in various revealing outfits. Barbara Bouchet, as Moneypenny, appears in some very tight dresses. Joanna Pettet looks fantastic in her belly-dancing outfits. Daliah Lavi is maybe the sexiest of all, spending half of her screen time partially nude. So if you care about that sort of thing…

The ladies aren’t the only lovely things on display in “Casino Royale.” The production design in this movie is out of control. There’s a crazy underground lair, where women stand in the center of a giant map. Bond walks through a giant eyeball centered in a wall, everything in bright colors. A platform opens up, revealing four singers. There are psychedelic swirls and black-and-white spirals. Does any of it have any purpose? No, of course not. It’s an impressive visual though.

Another element I genuinely enjoy about “Casino Royale” is the music. If you’re a fan of sixties pop-jazz, this movie is a feast for the ears. Herb Alpert’s opening theme song is incredibly catchy and always puts a smile on my face. Burt Bacharach’s score is constantly fun, light-hearted, and incredibly well-orchestrated. Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” originated in this film. The song is beautiful and sensual, Springfield’s husky vocals supported by Bacharach’s chuckling trumpets. In other words, buy the soundtrack, skip the Blu-Ray.

That “Casino Royale” would be a hot mess was inevitable. This is what a movie looks with six directors, a script with no ending, an out-of-control budget, and actors who don’t like what they’re doing. What’s more surprising is that the film was a big hit in its day, grossing more then its considerable 12 million dollar budget. I guess people in the sixties would watch anything. When fans talk about the worst James Bond movie ever made, they usually pick something from the official series. Those guys don’t know what they’re talking about. “Casino Royale ‘67” is the worst James Bond movie almost by default. It’s barely a movie at all. It’s more like a collection of irritating, overly long gags that barely connect. [Grade: D]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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