Saturday, June 25, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Casino Royale (1967)

** special note to Between the Seats readers:  The Definitive marathon will contain two things that either do not appear in our typical reviews, or that have been forsaken since late last year.
The first: spoilers. We are going to dig pretty deep into most of these films. That is not to say that every single review will feature an abundance of spoilers, but readers should be aware that certain specific pot points may be discussed at any time in the reviews.
The second: grades. We have not issued grades to films since December of 2010. I figured that thorough analysis carried more weight than grades, and while I still do believe such, grades will be issued to each individual film for the sake of continuity. That is how I proceeded last summer at Filmspotting, and so the practice will continue, if solely for the films reviewed within the Definitive Bond Marathon

This special Bond film is non-canonical. It was through the tireless, if decidedly wrong-headed efforts of producer Charles K. Feldman, who was determined bring his own James Bond project to life. Efforts were made to have the producers of the official EON cannon, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, as partners in this endeavour. Feldman even thought of having none other than the Bond ‘on record’ at the time, Sean Connery, as the hero. Negotiations led to nothing, and so Feldman engaged in the project at Columbia without Broccoli and Saltzman.  After working with multiple screenwriters, paying a bunch of famous actors who wanted cameos, rising production costs (the film’s budget rose from the original 6$ million to a whopping 12$ million), constant delays, it was finally released to world, but received a cold reception from critics and movie goers even though it made a hefty profit. Hey, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made a hefty profit too, so profit is clearly not the best tool to measure quality.
It is ironic in how Feldman, by acquiring the rights to develop a film based on the original Ian Fleming novel, created a movie that had nothing to do with said source material. Granted, it has to the same title as the novel, and some of the characters from the book make appearances, such as James Bond, Le Chiffre (Orson Welles), Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress), René Mathis , but overall it has little to nothing to do with the book. In essence, Casino Royale, which actually competed against the legit 007 film You Only Live Twice in 1967 (and I’m sorry, but even if you do not enjoy YOLT, it still rightfully crushed Casino Royale at the box office), sees Sir James Bond (David Niven) come out of retirement at the behest of M (John Huston), a CIA representative (William Holden), as well as representative from the Deuxième Bureau and the KGB. Spies are being slaughtered all over the world by enemies. One of the reasons why the modern spies are so ineffective is their lack of tact and professionalism: they have adopted the ways of the sexed-up lifestyle and are constantly seduced by enemy spies in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Following M’s untimely demise (which we don’t even witness on screen. More on that later...), 007 inherits the mantle of chief of MI6, expressing as his first two orders the necessity of having every single agent named James Bond 007 in order to confuse the enemy and to train agents to resist the charms of beautiful women. A bunch of crazy shit ensues which involves plenty of other James Bonds, like Peter Sellers, Woody Allen and Joanna Pettet (who is also the Niven Bond’s daughter).
I have a strong disliking for stating the obvious, or reiterating what others have said or written before, many in far more eloquent and effective ways than myself. However, one should not attempt to hide or camouflage one’s feelings towards a film simply to appear unique or whatnot, and so let us get the most important element of the review out of the way immediately: I do not like Casino Royale (1967). I think it is a gargantuan, steaming pile of dung. Do some personal reasons come into play when I contemplate on this movie, such as my devout affinity towards the official franchise and the annoyance that someone tried to go ahead and make a buck with their own version without really knowing what it was that they were doing (which is something that shall come up again but in a different manner when we discuss Never Say Never Again)? To be honest, only in the smallest degree, because what I want, just as any movie lover wants, is a good movie, even when it comes to James Bond. I know that thus far in the marathon I have awarded decent-to-high marks to all the movies, but there are some clunkers in the official franchise, trust me on this one. Casino Royale (1967) is just not a good movie. Production troubles, such as Peter Sellers and Orson Welles not getting along to the point where neither would want to be in the same room as the other (Welles reportedly referred to Sellers as an ‘amateur’), out of control cameos resulting, partly, in out of control costs, a gazillion directors like John Huston, Joe McGrath (whom Sellers had fired), Val Guest, Robert Parrish, Ken Hughes and Richard Talmadge who helmed the action sequences, all played their part in destroying what could have been a fun movie. Heaven knows that spoofs are often a sure fire bet for box-office success, especially if one beats the iron while it is hot. What better time to create a James Bond spoof than in the late 1960s, while the franchise was reaching the absolutely insane heights of popularity. 

It was not meant to be however. It is one of those rare cases for which, even after some time of reflection, I am unsure where the analysis should begin. I mean, this thing is a complete train wreck of a movie. Well, how about we keep things simple, so as to not indulge too much in hyperbole. Casino Royale (1967) presents itself as a spoof, and spoofs are, unless I am getting my genres mixed up, supposed to be comedies. This movie is as far removed from ‘funny’ as can be. Would I be lying if I said I did not laugh once? Yes, that would be a lie. I chuckled twice. The first is in the very opening scene of the movie when Bond (Sellers) and Mathis meet up in a pissoir. Mathis shows Bond his ‘credentials’ but the shot is angled to make the audience believe that instead of papers, Mathis is showing off his cock. The second time I chuckled was when Bond is engaged, for no legitimate reason, in a game of... I don’t know what the game is called, but Bond and a bunch of burly bagpipe players are tossing heavy stone balls to one another. One of the bagpipers, in strenuous attempt to lift the stone, pops his backbones. Those were funny. Nothing else in the movie is funny.
Casino Royale (1967) goes for a very zany style of comedy, where nothing really has to make much sense. Throw something on the wall and see if it sticks, if you know what I mean. For comparative purposes, I would liken Casino Royale (1967) to the recent Scary Movie franchise, whose plots were inconsequential, but for which the laughs could come from just about anything, literally, even if it had nothing to do with anything the audience had seen before in the movie or what they would see after. I recall a couple of years ago when I was more active the Far East bracket matchups and kept on choosing martial arts slapstick comedies. Not that those films have much in common with the film under review now, but they are similar in the sense that a lot of attempted stabs at humour had me wondering what the joke had to do with anything. So much of what happens in Casino Royale (1967), both from a storytelling perspective and from a joke telling perspective, is poorly chosen and poorly paced. It makes me wonder that at some point the studio must have thought that the audiences would still come and maybe enjoy the movie because so many familiar faces were appearing, not because anything in the movie was actually any good. This was not a case of the humour not appealing to me, which was the case with 2009’s The Hangover. Nay, this is a case which I honestly could not fathom why such or such scene would be considered funny enough to be used in the final print of the film. Who exactly was making these decisions?

If we are to venture from the failed comedic aspects of the film to, say, the story, things do not like any brighter. Now, I can hear and predict what the potential replies to a criticism of Casino Royale’s (1967) story might sound and read like: ‘Edgar, what are you talking about? The movie is a spoof, and therefore is making fun of how silly and complex the plots of official James Bond movies are!’ I can appreciate that, I really can, even as a die-hard Bond fan. Those plots can be overly silly and needlessly complex at times. That being said, I fail to see how that is an excuse to concoct to story as confused and ill-focused as the one featured in this film. There are plot threads that lead to absolutely nothing, while others appear out of no reason. I swear, some of these plot threads exist only because more and more big name actors came on board as the production was fast losing its wheels. Why is there time spent on developing a James Bond immune to the charms of women? That guy does not appear again until the very end. Why is there time spent on recruiting Bond’s daughter, he could have done the investigating himself? Why does he even have a daughter? What is the point of the 15-20 minutes spent at the McTarry castle for M’s wake? It does not lead to anything! And none if it is funny! What was up with Vesper Lynd suddenly being a traitor to all the Bonds? I simply could not figure out why the movie was doing any of this. Well, hold on now, there is in fact a half-plausible explanation: the preposterous number of screenwriters who had a hand in the script. It ends up being unfocused it just a terrible slog to get through.
Arguably the most embarrassing result of all the issues that hampered the creation of the film (as if I hadn’t blasted this movie enough already), are some of the more visually recognizable hiccups. Peter Sellers apparently walked off the set of the movie before all of his scenes had been shot, which leads to some strikingly bizarre moments of editing, like when Bond (Sellers) is just about to race after Le Chiffre to rescue Vesper...and the film cuts to Bond strapped to a chair in Le Chiffre lair. What Hell just happened? Or when we don’t even see M die in the bombing of Sir James’ (Niven) private estate. Their a bombing, M’s wig flies off, cut to Niven, with a huge grin on his face, driving up to Scotland to pay his respects to M’s wife and children. Wha...? 

Almost no one gives a credible performance in the film, which is an absolute shame when one considers that this behemoth of a project has David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and Orson Welles in it, and that is just to name a few of the actors who show up. Barbara Bouchet is there as Miss Moneypenny’s daughter, Jean-Paul Belmondo appears as a French légionaire, Jacqueline Bisset is a SMERSH agent (SMERSH being the supposed villains of the movie. They are also the terrorist organization in the original Fleming novels), freaking Deborah Kerr as M’s widow, John Huston as M himself, etc. Fine, Barbara Bouchet is smoking hot and has a sexy voice, and Woody Allen’s is alright in the scene where he is about to be killed by firing squad (I have a low threshold for death. M doctor says I can’t have any bullets in me!), but for the most part this cast is utterly wasted. How do you make Peter Sellers unfunny?

If there is a single beacon of light in this mess of a project, it is Burt Bacharach's score, which is pretty catchy, I won't deny that. I just wish it was playing in a good movie.
Grade: F

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