WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: British secret agents are being decimated by the forces of SMERSH, causing ‘M’ to plead with Sir James Bond to come out of retirement and save the day once more. Initially reluctant, James is drawn back into the intrigue-filled arena of spies, where he supervises a phalanx of would-be Bonds who attempt to foil both SMERSH’s moneyman Le Chiffre and the power behind the throne, the mysterious Doctor Noah.
The world of espionage is in turmoil. British spies aren’t what they used to be since Sir James Bond (David Niven) called it a day, and a spate of deaths amongst superpower spies causes a delegation including ‘M’ (John Huston) to lure the former 007 out of retirement, though he’s implacable until his luxurious pile – and M – are blown up. Escaping disgrace and death whilst returning ‘M’’s toupee to Deborah Kerr’s amorous fake widow and her beautiful fake daughters, Sir James assumes M’s role and sets about recruiting a new set of spies, all called ‘James Bond, 007’ to bamboozle the enemy. There’s little Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen), last seen causing havoc in Central America; Coop (Terence Cooper), a lothario American who makes a big impression on Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet); and Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers), the gauche writer of a book on winning at baccarat which makes him interesting to rich girl Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress). Finally, the original James seeks out his estranged daughter Mata (Joanna Pettet), who proves to be a chip off the old block when she travels to Berlin and foils a scheme by hard-gambling SMERSH agent Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) to sell incriminating pictures for millions, forcing him into a showdown with Tremble at Casino Royale. Strange though Bond’s/the Bonds’ plans appear, the madness is just beginning as the doughty spies track down SMERSH’s big boss, Dr Noah.
Whatever the shenanigans that resulted in Casino Royale being made, Sean Connery’s irresistible lady magnet was ripe for parody; and as the Daniel Craig film would eventually prove, the outline of Ian Fleming’s novel has plenty going for it anyway. Unfortunately, this treatment of Casino Royale is precisely as chopped-up and nonsensical as you would expect from a film with (at least) five directors and God knows how many writers, all working around the truculence and/or absence of their leading man. The difficulties surrounding Peter Sellers, director Joe McGrath and the production as a whole make for a fascinating read, and explain why the film is such a disjointed mess; they don’t, however, excuse the final product. Left (by Sellers) with half a film at most, Casino Royale pads out its running time with plot strands which take approximately forever and go exactly nowhere. For example, Niven’s adventures in Scotland go on far, far too long to little effect, his escape from the milk float is dull, while Pettet’s exotic dance routine is also needlessly protracted. Don’t get me wrong, I like beautiful women parading around in light clothing as much as the next man; but you can’t build an entire movie around them, some indifferent slapstick, a few gentle pokes at the ‘official’ Bond movies and far-out visual effects that fail the test of time. It’s as though the filmmakers’ efforts (and money) were spent getting big names and dozens of beautiful women on board, but when they turned up nobody had a clue what to do with them. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that this is exactly what happened: Welles’ Le Chiffre is allowed to do daft conjuring tricks, while the film’s closing scenes – complete with a flying saucer, sea lions, cowboys and Indians, George Raft and anything/anyone else you care to name – is not so much an embarrassment of riches as an over-rich embarrassment. Worse still, all the dollybirds, cameos, bells and whistles in the world can’t distract the viewer from the fact that the production dramas cause great yawning gaps in the plot – one second Sellers is mugging to the camera after bantering with Stirling Moss, the next he is Le Chiffre’s captive. Even a caption would have helped.
Casino Royale has to score poorly because, watched in a single bout of two hours’ incoherence, it’s a long haul with few highlights and an utterly dismal climax. It does, however, have a few things going for it, mostly in terms of performances: Niven doesn’t exert himself but is, as ever, drily entertaining, while Kerr is game, Woody Allen has fun with what sounds like his own material, Sellers – when present – displays his talents for mimicry and comic timing and (dancing aside) Joanna Pettet is an engaging, sparky Mata Bond. There are also worthwhile contributions from the cream of British comic talent, including Bernard Cribbins, John Wells, Derek Nimmo, Ronnie Corbett and Anna Quayle, who is just wonderful as the stern Frau Hoffner. Then there’s Burt Bacharach’s groovy music, including his and Hal David’s The Look of Love, which helps to cement the impression that Austin Powers leans on this film as much as it does the real Bond movies.
There’s no doubt that Casino Royale is a folly, an unholy mess stuck together with star names, scantily-clad ladies, parlour tricks and sticky tape which inevitably collapses completely in its chaotic final moments. Any fun Charles K. Feldman tries to have at the expense of Cubby Broccoli’s Bond backfires spectacularly since (the neglected Coop excepted) none of the 007s on show bear any similarity whatsoever to Connery’s take on the spy, and any fun the viewer takes from the movie comes from individual moments of class rather than the silly, sprawling storyline. If you’re particularly keen on a particular actor or actress, I recommend using the fast-forward button to get to the scene(s) they’re in: it’ll save you a lot of time and you’ll miss nothing of value.