In which Sir James Bond is coaxed out of retirement after M has been assassinated (by himself) and Agent Mimi has taken the place of M’s widow and fallen in love with Bond’s robust strength and physical magnificence. In order to defeat SMERSH, all British agents take on the name James Bond, but the real Bond finally meets his love child from his relationship with superspy Mata Hari (Mata Bond), and, with assistance from more Bond girls than you can shake a stick at, overthrows the evil plans of Dr Noah, before each and every one of them dies in a massive conflagration. And to think that some of the actors involved in this film actually thought it was going to be serious.
But no. This is the spoof Casino Royale, and not to be confused with the Eon Casino Royale that hit the screens in 2006. Back in 1955, Ian Fleming sold the film rights to producer Gregory Ratoff, but Ratoff failed to secure the funding before he died in 1960. Charles K Feldman then obtained the rights from Ratoff’s widow. Cubby Broccoli offered to buy the rights from him, but Feldman refused, as he had plans to make the film, with Howard Hawks directing and starring Cary Grant as Bond. But with the great success of Dr No, Feldman realised he couldn’t compete with the Eon/Connery/Broccoli/Saltzman team and had to think again. In 1964 further negotiations were underway with Eon Productions to make the film but personal disagreements between the producers made things difficult and, anyway, Connery was looking for a million dollars to make the film – which was outside Feldman’s budget. Eventually Feldman offered it to Columbia, and, as the Bond movies had made the whole idea of spy films popular, decided to make it as a satirical, comedy spoof.
The screenplay was to be written by Ben Hecht, of Scarface and The Front Page fame. However, he died two days before his final version was ready to be presented to Feldman. It was subsequently re-written by Billy Wilder, and then re-worked by the credited writers, Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers. In addition, and for reasons that will become clear, it is said that Peter Sellers commissioned Terry Southern (with whom he had worked on Dr Strangelove) to re-write all the scenes in which Sellers appeared. So, clearly, the script went through several hands before achieving its final version. If that wasn’t confusing enough, the film eventually benefited (if that’s the word) from having no fewer than six directors. Val Guest directed the scenes with Woody Allen and David Niven, and was in charge of stitching the whole thing together at the end. Kenneth Hughes directed the Berlin scenes, John Huston directed the early scenes at Bond’s mansion and the Scottish castle, Joseph McGrath directed the scenes with Peter Sellers, Orson Welles and Ursula Andress, Robert Parrish directed other scenes with Sellers and Welles, and finally, Richard Talmadge, with his speciality in stunt work, directed the final scenes at the casino. Too many cooks? If you watch the film and think it’s unconnected, episodic, bitty and completely out of control, that’s why.
It doesn’t stop there though. Peter Sellers and Orson Welles had a huge on-set falling-out, primarily because Princess Margaret (a friend of Sellers) visited the set and Sellers expected to bathe in her glamour and attention; however, by all accounts she cut Sellers and spent the whole time fangirling Welles. Not for the first time, nor the last, Sellers stomped off the set. That’s why he engaged Terry Southern to write his lines, in order to get the better of Welles and make himself look more important. Sellers refused to be in Welles’ presence, so their baccarat game scenes were filmed separately, with a double standing in for Sellers. There are two versions of the following tale; one is that, eventually, Sellers walked off the set, never to return; the other is that he was fired by Val Guest before the end of filming for being so unreasonable. Either way, it left a whole number of unresolved plot lines hanging, requiring some imaginative deep thinking from the directors as to what to do. No wonder the end of the film just feels like a mindless mish-mash of ideas and lines.
Casino Royale’s original budget was a relatively modest $6 million, but after the rewrites, the stormings-out and all the other tensions and costs, the eventual cost to make it more than doubled to over $12 million. That made it unquestionably the most expensive Bond movie at the time. Its box office take of $41.7 million was nothing like as much as the regular Eon Production films – but at least it was still a profit. Apparently, there was a lot of wastage. Woody Allen spoke of being brought over from America way ahead of when he was required on set, spending weeks in luxury hotels totally needlessly; although, whilst he was waiting, it did give him the time to write the screenplay for Take the Money and Run. And, despite his leaving the production in the lurch a few times, Peter Sellers had negotiated a resounding 3% of gross profits. That’s quite some fee.
The book of Casino Royale was published in 1953 and was the first in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. There’s very little crossover between the content of the book and this film. In the book, Bond plays baccarat with SMERSH agent Le Chiffre in order to deprive the enemy of funds. Eventually, with a little help from Felix Leiter, he wins, and Le Chiffre is murdered by one of his own agents. Bond and his Soviet assistant Vesper Lynd become lovers; but she takes her own life when it’s revealed she’s a Russian double agent. In the film, of course, it’s Evelyn Tremble who plays baccarat with Le Chiffre, and it’s Tremble with whom Vesper becomes enamoured. Leiter doesn’t appear in the film – and all the other film characters don’t appear in the book!
Despite its very obvious failings, I have a very soft spot for this film. It was one of the first times that I was taken to the cinema as a child – I would have been seven or eight – and of course most of it would have gone completely over my head. However, I do remember laughing at some of the slapstick elements – particularly the out of control milk van. And I absolutely loved the score – more of which later.
Most of the critics at the time weren’t impressed. The Chicago Sun-Times said “this is possibly the most indulgent film ever made”; Variety said it was “a conglomeration of frenzied situations, ‘in’ gags and special effects, lacking discipline and cohesion”, and the New York Times called the ending “reckless, disconnected nonsense”. With the benefit of hindsight, some of today’s commentators have been a little kinder. Cinema historian Robert von Dassanowsky said “like Casablanca, Casino Royale is a film of momentary vision, collaboration, adaption, pastiche, and accident. It is the anti-auteur work of all time, a film shaped by the very zeitgeist it took on.” AllMovie called it “the original ultimate spy spoof”, and “a satire to the highest degree”. My own personal opinion is that it is crammed with excess, a delightful sense of parody, some extremely funny scenes and lines, and it’s 60s Retro of the highest order. Sadly, nothing can cover up its immensely manic, tedious and stupid ending, but you can’t have everything.
As this is nothing to do with the Eon Production films, don’t expect the opening credits to begin with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen. This is pure parody, so we start with a saucy visual joke. Bond – as played by Peter Sellers – meets Mathis of the Special Police in a Parisian pissoir. We can only see them from the chest up. “These are my credentials”, says Mathis, as Bond gazes down towards his nether regions. “They appear to be in order” replies Bond. And it’s straight into the opening titles and the magnificent Casino Royale theme, written by Burt Bacharach and performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
The titles feature the names of the lead performers with an embellished (and animated) capital letter at the beginning of their first name – rather like one might see in a lavish old book. However, the animation that we can see inside the letter shows many of the characters strumming on a heavenly lyre – so we know, before it starts, that they die! Peter Sellers, of course, gets top billing, followed by Ursula Andress and David Niven; so, interestingly, James Bond is given third billing in this film. The anarchic animation of the opening credits is pure swinging sixties.
And the locations? Unlike the other Bond films so far, this is a very British-based story. The scenes depicting Trafalgar Square and 10 Downing Street were indeed shot at those esteemed locations. Sir James Bond’s stately pile was filmed at Mereworth Castle in Kent, M’s Scottish castle was filmed at Killeen Castle in Co Meath, in Ireland; other scenes were shot in Killin in Perthshire and Windsor in Berkshire. In the book, the Casino Royale itself is located in the fictional French town of Royale-les-Eaux. However, I can only presume that the casino in the film was on the set of Pinewood, Shepperton or Twickenham Studios, where the majority of the film was shot.
Bond, James Bond. David Niven has a damn good stab at creating what James Bond might have become in retirement (tongue firmly in cheek, of course). Prudish, dedicated to Debussy, and with a disconcerting stammer, all that womanising is way behind him now, and he loves to live a comfortable but reclusive life, with lions on his front drive and a black rose in his garden. Once he’s back in the saddle as head of MI6, he’s self-assured, debonair and really quite mischievous. I haven’t really seen David Niven in many films, but I think he’s terrific in this. He was, of course, a much lauded and experienced actor, having appeared in almost one hundred films between 1932 and his death in 1983. His two volumes of autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon, and Bring on the Empty Horses were massively successful, and he was something of a war hero too, joining the army on the day the Second World War started, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Boo-boos. Continuity errors and mistakes don’t feel quite so important in an anarchic comedy like this, but there are a few moments worth noting. In the scene where Le Chiffre, who is obsessed with magic, levitates a woman over the baccarat table, you can actually see the steel bar that’s holding her up; and when M’s widow enters Bond’s bedroom, you can see the reflection of the cameraman in a mirror on the wall. When the remotely operated milk van is chugging its merry way around the roads of Berkshire, in one scene it swerves and loses half its milk crates into the street; seconds later, it’s fully laden again. Maybe Le Chiffre was working his magic.
The Bond Girl. If it’s a Bond film, it’s got to have a Bond girl, right? This one, as befits its excessive status, has at least four. Agent Mimi is first up – she’s a SMERSH agent pretending to be M’s widow, the Lady Fiona McTarry. She’s desperate to seduce and discredit the very upright Bond – and encourages all M’s “daughters” (eleven of them, aged between 16 and 19 – we are on very shaky ground here) to do the same. But when she sees how successfully Bond “pays the piper” by handling those cannonballs, she can’t hide her genuine love for the man. Superbe! Formidable! Splendide! Bravo! Magnifique!!!! she moans. Agent Mimi was played by Deborah Kerr, a fine, experienced actress, best known for her appearances in The King and I, and on stage in many plays.
Then there’s Mata Bond, his estranged daughter following an intimate liaison with the famous spy Mata Hari. She’s full of spirit but a bit annoyed with him for being an absentee father. But she’s up for a fine piece of espionage as she’s driven to Berlin to infiltrate International Mothers’ Help, an au pair service that is a cover for a SMERSH training centre. Later, she’s captured in a giant flying saucer – it happens; and it’s while on their mission to rescue her that the Bonds all get trapped in the Casino Royale. Mata was played by Joanna Pettet, whose film career started promisingly with a number of good roles in the 1960s, and then she migrated to small roles in dozens of TV series.
Another Bond Girl that Bond really oughtn’t to be attracted by is Miss Moneypenny – in fact, she’s Miss Moneypenny’s daughter, and we probably oughtn’t to ask who her father is. Unlike the traditional Moneypenny, this one’s more prepared to get her hands dirty out in the field. Her finest hour is when she samples all the contenders for a new Bond to be trained to resist the attractions of women; as I say, getting dirty in the field. Moneypenny was played by Barbara Bouchet, who has appeared in dozens of films, mainly in Italy, and who branched out into fitness books and videos and still has a successful fitness studio in Rome.
Certainly not to go unmentioned is The Detainer; the British spy who tricks Dr Noah into taking his own atomic pill. She’s not really a Bond Girl though – because she hardly has anything to do with Bond. She was played by Daliah Lavi, an Israeli actress, singer and model, who appeared in a few films and also found fame as a Schlager singer in Germany. She died in 2017 at the age of 74. Also not to go unmentioned, and also not a Bond Girl, is Miss Goodthighs. She’s a SMERSH agent who attempts to kill Evelyn Tremble at the Casino; so as she’s not working with Bond, but working against him, she’s a baddie. She was played by Jacqueline Bisset, whose film career hasn’t stopped since she appeared in her first movie in 1965.
But we definitely have to include Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd. Ms Andress, of course, played Honey Ryder in Dr No, and so was already a Bond Girl before Casino Royale came along. Vesper Lynd has been tempted back into espionage in return for writing off her tax arrears. She approaches Evelyn Tremble to get him to play baccarat against Le Chiffre (almost a part of the original novel emerging there!) Whilst she and Tremble have a definite dalliance, at the end she betrays him because she is a double agent after all. But, anyway, everyone dies, so what’s the difference?
The Villain. Dr Noah – no real clue necessary to guess where his name came from – has a plan to use biological warfare to make all women beautiful and kill all men over 4 foot 6 inches tall. Much to everyone’s dismay, Dr Noah turns out to be little Jimmy Bond, James’ nephew, who cannot speak in his presence because he’s so overawed. But he is hoist by his own petard when he’s tricked into swallowing his own atomic pill – which causes the grand explosion at Casino Royale and the subsequent death of all and sundry. He was played by Woody Allen, who needs no introduction in the world of cinema. It is said, though, that he was so aghast at the awful management of this film – the on-set arguments, the wasted time, the six directors, and so on – that he vowed never to let anyone else direct a film that he was involved in. So it did contribute something significant to the world of cinema!
Other memorable characters? Casino Royale is so full of tiny roles played by significant actors, that, to be honest, I don’t know where to begin? I suppose first up must be Orson Welles’ Le Chiffre, the SMERSH agent who loves his baccarat not quite as much as his magic. Orson Welles, of course, had an extraordinary career in all the arts – and I believe the feelings between him and Peter Sellers were mutual.
Ah yes, Peter Sellers, who played Evelyn Tremble. A man of amazing talent, and some (obviously) difficult problems. He punched director Joseph McGrath who said he would never work with him again. Some of the frustration in making the film must have come from the fact that Sellers thought this was going to be a relatively straight film, and that he would take a relatively straight and serious role. This was never going to happen.
I doubt if I’ll name all the significant performers in this film. Peter O’Toole, Jean-Paul Belmondo (at the time, Ursula Andress’ other half) and George Raft all make brief cameo appearances with a couple of lines at the most. Racing Driver Stirling Moss doesn’t say a word, nor does M’s driver, John le Mesurier. Flavour of the month at the time, Anna Quayle is a terrifying Frau Hoffner, accompanied by the battery-driven, sex-mad Polo played by Ronnie Corbett. John Huston directed himself playing M; Charles Boyer and William Holden are the other two Intelligence Men in the opening scene. Bernard Cribbins drives a taxi all the way to Berlin; Derek Nimmo is Bond’s new office assistant, Hadley; Geoffrey Bayldon (aka Catweazle) is Q, with John Wells as his simpering assistant, Fordyce. Alexandra Bastedo, she of The Champions, features as M’s “daughter” Meg. Richard Wattis is the British Army officer present at the auction that was to be chaired by Vladek Sheybal (Kronsteen in From Russia with Love). The list goes on, but I’ll stop there.
And what about the music? Now we’re talking. Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack is a sheer joy throughout – and the CD has long been one of my favourite Easy Listening collections. Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass’ rendition of the main theme was a smash hit single, reaching No 1 in the United States, although only No 27 in the UK. Dusty Springfield’s exquisite performance of The Look of Love, whilst never a single success by itself, remains one of her finest recordings and it’s impossible to hear it without all your extremities tingling with joy. The remainder of the incidental music is full of hilarious motifs, sexy arrangements, period pastiches and sheer musical madness. Although they’re not on the soundtrack album, it’s also fun to hear the musical salutes in the film – a brief snatch of Born Free (written by regular Bond composer John Barry) when M is driving past Bond’s lions; a moment from the theme to Moulin Rouge when Peter Sellers’ Evelyn Tremble is pretending to be Toulouse-Lautrec; even the echo of What’s New Pussycat emerging from a manhole cover, a 1965 film which had previously united the talents of Sellers, Allen, O’Toole, Andress, Bacharach and producer Charles Feldman.
There are plenty of opportunities for comedy from the complicated and unlikely gadgets in use – the scene with Q and his assistant is a perfect parody of all those genuine Bond scenes, where army types are trying out the new gadgets, some with greater success than others. And as Sir James points out, early in the film, as he’s discrediting his guests with their feeble spy accoutrements: “You, Ransome, with your trick carnation that spits cyanide. You ought to be ashamed. And you, Smernov, with an armoury concealed in your grotesque boots. Listen to them tinkle. And you, Le Grand, with a different deadly poison in each of your fly buttons. And you, M, with your flame-throwing fountain pens. You’re joke-shop spies, gentlemen.” However, I do like the magnetic buttons that attract the artificial grouse with their built-in machine guns. Very clever.
There’s no point examining the death count on this film as it’s all pure pantomime, everyone dies and, in a sense, no one dies, as we see them in Heaven. However, I do want to share with you some of my favourite lines from the film.
“I present you with the levitation of the Princess Ayisha, an illusion taught to me by an ancient vegetarian in the mountain fastnesses of Tibet.”
“It’s the first john I’ve ever gone around with.”
“Which side do you dress, sir?” “I usually dress away from the window”.
“Listen. You can’t shoot me. I have a very low threshold of death. My doctor says I can’t have bullets enter my body at any time. What if I said I was pregnant?”
“I’m the new secret weapon. I’ve just been perfected.” “Yes, haven’t you?” “They’ve kept me under wraps.” “Lucky them.” “What do you do that’s so secret?” “I don’t do anything. But unless you’re one of them, you do […] You’re really learning to put up quite a resistance.” “It goes against my nature.” “I sense that too. What are you doing after the exercise?” “Getting my head examined.”
“Call me Coop.” “Like something for keeping birds.” “That’s me.”
“What a charming outfit that is. Do you often wear that in the office?” “If I wore it in the street, people might stare.”
“Just how personal is a toupee?” “It can only be regarded as a “hairloom”.
Iffy Material: There’s no doubt that there’s quite a lot of material that has dated badly in a post-Operation Yewtree world. A man of David Niven’s age getting into the bath with a girl of (allegedly) 17 years makes one feel a little squeamish today. And consider this conversation between Agent Mimi masquerading as Lady Fiona and James Bond, describing a portrait hanging on the wall: “To your right, Sir James – Lady Mary, daughter of Lord Douglas McTarry, raped by the Campbells in 1662, in retaliation of which, Lord Douglas sent his only son Hamish out to rape twa Campbell lassies.” “At the same time?” “Eldest first, of course. As prescribed by scripture.” It has an Ortonesque naughtiness to it, but it’s really not acceptable in this day and age.
Awards: The Look of Love was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, losing to Talk to the Animals from Doctor Dolittle. Burt Bacharach’s score also earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Show. Julie Harris was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design.
To sum up: In so many ways, this film is a complete oddity; one of those star-strangled indulgences that no doubt looked great on paper but had a lot of difficulty reaching the screen. For me it has some serious highlights but also a lot of longueurs; but it’s part of my childhood and I love it for that. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions of Casino Royale – and whether you agree with me! Please leave a comment below. Next, we’re going to be returning to the classic Bond films and You Only Live Twice, released just two months after Casino Royale. I’m sure the diehard fans couldn’t wait!
My rating: 4 Sparkles
All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.