"Casino Royale" is unique in several respects. It was the first installment in writer Ian Fleming's James Bond saga. It was the first of the Bond novels to be filmed--for television in 1954 with Barry Nelson as Bond and Peter Lorre as the villain, Le Chiffre (the film included in the DVD special features). And its 1967 incarnation reviewed here was the first and so far the only Bond movie to be an outright spoof, rather than a tongue-in-cheek adventure.
The only word to adequately describe "Casino Royale," the movie, is bizarre. Despite a ton of stars, a flock of directors, and more Bonds than you can shake a martini at, the movie is close to a complete disaster. It tries mightily to be funny but comes off today like a seriously dated "Austin Powers" without the laughs.
So, what's the deal? Why an attempted parody instead of the real thing? Apparently, the filmmakers didn't want to try and compete with Broccoli and Saltzman's Connery productions. ("Casino Royale" was the only Bond novel Broccoli and Saltzman didn't have the rights to.) Thus, they went with an all-out lampoon, much to the audience's regret and, I'm sure, their own.
Five different directors (John Huston, Ken Hughes, Val Guest, Robert Parrish, and Joel McGrath) were called in to direct different segments of the film, each segment having little to do with the others. In the accompanying featurette, one of the directors, Val Guest, says he was asked at the last minute after filming to try to tie the whole thing together. He says he tried but that it was virtually impossible, and he was right. What little plot there is to the movie is almost impossible to follow, let alone explain.
The opening credits say the film was "suggested by the novel 'Casino Royale,'" and that's an understatement considering there's not much of the novel beyond the title and a few character names. The ever-elegant David Niven stars as a retired Sir James Bond, lured out of retirement by a quartet of the world's top espionage chiefs (played by John Huston, William Holden, Charles Boyer, and Kurt Kasznar) to find and destroy an indomitable scoundrel about to take over the planet. We're told on the featurette that the author had Niven in mind when he wrote "Casino Royale" in 1952 and even sent him a copy of the book to consider doing as a film. The idea went nowhere at the time, and it would be almost a decade before Bond hit the big screen in the person of Sean Connery.
According to this script, when the real Bond went into retirement, the British Secret Service perpetuated his myth by substituting in his place a fake Bond with a Scottish accent who uses a multitude of tricky gadgets to defeat his opponents and leaves a trail of lovely ladies behind. Sir James is shocked by the masquerade, but in any case has to be forcefully persuaded to join the team. From there on, the plot is every man for himself, with a bevy of imitation Bonds set loose, and Sir James himself chased high and low by beautiful women.
There are a couple of cute, if not very funny scenes early on, like a sequence in a Scottish castle; but they're few and far between. Woody Allen, as Sir James's nephew, Jimmy Bond, brings some small cheer to the affair, writing his own material (as did many of the other stars, apparently). Another segment uses German expressionist scenery and props, and finally there's a surreal, madcap finale, which goes on seemingly forever and involves flying saucers, bar fights, and wild Indians. It gets very silly very fast.
Orson Welles plays the notorious heavy (very heavy), Le Chiffre, this time out; and Welles, who loved magic, gets to perform a levitation trick for no discernable reason except that he wanted to. Among the other actors I haven't already mentioned are Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Joanna Pettet, Daliah Lavi, Deborah Kerr, George Raft, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Peter O'Toole, Anjelica Huston, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Bouchet, Ronnie Corbett, Graham Stark, Burt Kwouk, Terence Cooper, David Prowse (as the Frankenstein monster; don't ask), and grand prix racing driver Stirling Moss.
Among the credited writers, besides Ian Fleming, are Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers. Among the uncredited writers are Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, and Peter Sellers. Could so much talent have really gone to waste?
I smiled once: Ursula Andress asks Peter Sellers to come to a mirror and look out over the casino. Sellers is frightened, so she tells him, "Don't be afraid. It's a one-way mirror." Sellers responds, "Which way?" It's not quite enough to sell a movie 137 minutes long.
Take your choice of video ratings here; the movie's picture quality runs the gamut from stunning, sparkling, and beautiful to less than ordinary, depending on the scene or the shot. On the plus side, the widescreen presentation preserves most of the movie's Panavision dimensions in a 2.09:1 ratio anamorphic transfer. The colors are bright and deeply brilliant, perhaps too bright for real life but fitting the cartoonish nature of the story and the gaudy atmosphere of the late sixties. On the minus side, there is sometimes a modicum of grain, a few jittery lines, and an occasionally rough quality to object outlines.
The sound is available in monaural or in a newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 format. In DD 5.1 the front-channel stereo spread is usually quite narrow, with little rear-channel activity, taking off in all five channels only from time to time like during some musical interludes or during a car chase. The audio is somewhat hard sounding and slightly gritty, although the transient response is sharp and quick. There is a small degree of background hiss, but it's hardly noticeable. Burt Bacharach's soundtrack music comes across as simply loud most of the time, when it's not annoying. His tune "The Look of Love" was nominated for an Academy Award, and it's the only thing that may be musically of interest.
This is one of the few discs where the bonus items are worth more than the film itself. The first important item is a kinescope preservation of the live "Climax! Mystery Theater" production of "Casino Royale," made for TV in 1954. Yes, it's in black-and-white and it's pretty blurry and creaky looking, and, yes, Bond has been Americanized; but it's a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel. Certainly, it's more faithful than the 1967 spoof featured on this disc. Peter Lorre as the villain makes a person wish he had been in one of the regular motion picture adaptations. In addition, there is a new, twenty-minute featurette, "Psychedelic Cinema," about the making of "Casino Royale," the movie, hosted by one of its five directors, Val Guest. Then, there are twenty-four scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; spoken languages in English and Spanish; and subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
After Niven handles the first third of the movie, Sellers takes over in the middle. Then he disappears entirely. It seems he was fired for not showing up one day. Maybe he was better off, or maybe he realized something the rest of the crew didn't. "Casino Royale" is a poor relation to the other Bond films, including the old B&W kinescope.
The DVD presents a minor conundrum for potential buyers. Hardcore Bond fans who want an absolutely complete collection of their hero's screen adventures will buy the disc if for no other reason than to own the television production. But Bond fans who are serious about their hero's exploits will be sorely pressed ever to watch the motion picture. What's a guy to do?