Light Bondage: Appendix 1: “Casino Royale” (Again?!)

Wait, what? How did we find ourselves here again? If you’ve been following my nearly year-long biweekly series thus far, you know that we spend a good amount of time every other Friday taking a look at the Bond movies in chronological order, mostly complaining about a lot of missed potential and how we wish Roger Moore would jump off a cliff. It was great fun, but we eventually ran out of Bond movies to talk about. The party was over. It was time to go home. Right?

Well, no. You see, we went and did all the movies by Eon Productions, established by producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman in 1961. They went and bought all the rights to the Bond novels, and had a pretty great career adapting them into the various movies we’ve covered all year. But unfortunately, some people beat them to the punch. You see, Fleming’s first novel Casino Royale, was purchased years ago for a CBS television episode. Those rights were then sold off to producer Charles K. Feldman, who tried to sell them back to Eon. Eon, who had already had a bunch of problems with the rights to Thunderball (we’ll get to that in our next [and last] installment), turned him down, leaving him a script he didn’t really want to make.

Typically a producer of madcap comedies, such as the Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole success What’s New, Pussycat? (notable also as Woody Allen’s film debut and first produced script), Feldman decided to make Casino Royale in the same vein. And oh lord, did he.

Casino Royale (1967)

Sir James Bond 007 (David Niven) is a legend. Retired from spywork for years, he’s settled far away from civilization. He’s visited by representatives from MI6, the CIA, KGB, and French Deuxième Bureau, who need him to come out of retirement. It seems that the evil organization SMERSH has been elimiting secret agents the world over, and the leaders of the world have nobody else to turn to. Bond is initially reluctant, tired of this new world they have created of crazy gadgets and sexed up sociopaths being given his namesake. M pleads understanding, saying that the British needed to keep the legend of James Bond alive. When Bond still doesn’t agree, M orders an air strike to destroy Bond’s house to force him to reconsider, killing M in the process.

Now Sir James takes on the role of leader of MI6, and realizes just how dire things are. His namesake James Bond (in theory the movie one) had dropped off the map. Even his loser nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) seems to be captured or killed. Sir James comes up with a foolproof plan: all of the remaining agents will be renamed James Bond 007 in order to confuse SMERSH and cause them to make a mistake that reveals themselves. He also begins a plan to create an irresistible male agent who is disinterested in women, hoping to emulate his own qualities of handsome magnetism and chastity. At the same time, he hires retired agent Vesper Lynd (original Bond girl Ursula Andress, this time with her own voice) to recruit baccarat player Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers). Tremble has a fool-proof method to winning baccarat, and they’re going to back him in order to beat SMERSH agent Le Chiffre, who is gambling with SMERSH funds and risking being murdered if he loses them.

Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress (James Bond and James Bond, respectively), in front of a crazy golden wall thing.

Sir James, still putting together his team, travels the world to uncover the whereabouts of his daughter Mata Bond, whose mother was the famous dancer and spy Mata Hari. She is used to infiltrate SMERSH, uncovering another scheme of Le Chiffre to blackmail the world’s leaders. By stealing the evidence, she flushes him out into the open at the famous Casino Royale, ready to stake his last money on the fateful baccarat game.

Let’s talk about Le Chiffre, played by the always amazing or amazingly crazy Orson Welles. Le Chiffre shows up and immediately begins stealing every scene he’s in. When one of the MI6 agents tries to stop him, he hypnotises her and then makes her disappear via levitating magic trick. When Tremble sits down to play baccarat, he starts pulling flags and doves out of thin air to try to fluster his opponent. Welles is amazing, and I had to hesitate not to fill this entire article with pictures of his absurd, small role. I can only assume he insisted on performing magic as a condition of him taking the role in the movie, but it’s perfectly in keeping with the man. In fact, his boisterousness makes the rather uneventful baccarat (a game I assume no real human alive today knows how to play) game into something really magical, with Sellers playing straight man against the biggest, bestest ego in movie history.

Mata Bond, daughter of Sir James Bond and Mata Hari, fresh out of the beginning of Temple of Doom.

Vesper and Tremble are both kidnapped by Le Chiffre and his agents as they exit the casino. Tremble is subjected to crazy hallucinogenic torture in order to get the check out of him. Vesper seemingly escapes and rescues Tremble, only to turn on him and kill him, revealed to be a SMERSH agent of her own. At the same time, SMERSH shows up via flying saucer and kidnaps Mata Bond, leaving Sir James to descend into SMERSH headquarters underneath the casino to rescue her from the leader of SMERSH, Dr. Noah, revealed nearly instantly to be Jimmy Bond, in an elaborate plan to bring his uncle out of retirement and show him up. His plan backfires, however, when he swallows a nuclear pill that causes him to hiccup multicolored clouds in a countdown to explosion.

In the meantime, everyone shows up, and I do mean everyone. American agents, represented by cowboys and indians; British agents, represented by black and white Keystone Cops; and all the surviving James Bonds (including a seal?) all have a giant fistfight that culminates in the countdown reaching zero and everyone exploding. No, no, seriously.

Apparently the bad guys hang out in a German Expressionist movie, also known as Tim Burton’s Idea Haus.

The worst part of writing up a summary is it forced me to make sense of what is essentially nonsense chaos. Yes, technically that’s what happens in the movie, but almost none of it is connected by logic in the movie itself. Scenes mostly just slam together with all the grace of a car crash, leaving the audience to mostly just hang on for dear life and hope that it all shakes out. Incoherence doesn’t even begin to apply to a movie that has six characters all named James Bond, that hops around through multiple story threads and sight gags and more subtle jokes at a pace best described as breathless.

The weird thing, though, is that is all kind of works. No, it’s not a good movie–it’s a mess, with a plot that barely holds together and absolutely zero character beats–but its sheer lunatic enthusiasm carries the day with aplomb. Maybe it’s that these kinds of huge, visually interesting, madcap comedies don’t really exist anymore; it’s a genre that had its era and all but disappeared. But in some ways, that’s what makes it work. With the tendency towards self-seriousness in movies today, it’s great to watch a movie that’s happy just being silly and ridiculous in every way, without being as uncomfortably offensive and awkward as the other famous Bond spoof (Austin Powers, if you haven’t been following along).

Apparently crytography training? As if codes every looked so cool.

And this is despite a movie collapses on its own weight. Apparently Sellers had wanted to play Bond straight, and was so furious at the attempt to turn it into broad parody that he stormed off the set, leading his part to go from lead to the B-plot for most of the movie. The rest of the movie is absolutely a bunch of style over substance, the jokes going too fast for most of them to hit but the whole thing being drenched in the kind of technicolor dreamland that films of the era had. It might not be smart, but it is incredibly easy on the eyes. So when things happen for little reason (honestly the flying saucer that lands to abduct Mata Bond comes at a point where it barely seems surprising anymore) it just seems to add to the fever pitch that the film races towards until it all does explode, both literally and figuratively, in a non-ending that is probably the only way out of the mess.

It’s more a cultural curiosity than a genuinely good movie, to be sure, but in trying to take on all of Bond it ends up being kind of a great Bond movie, silly and stupid but a lot of fun, the kind of thing that never takes itself or the property it’s taking on too seriously. I can appreciate that irreverence, carried off with style, more than I can appreciate even some of the ‘official’ movies’ attempts at self-referential lampooning. Give me an interesting mess over a boring calculated attempt anytime.

Orson Welles operating a periscope in a tux, whilst holding a cigar. It’s like every one of my dreams come true.

Theme Song/Opening Title:
There’s actually a pretty cool animated opening title here, as crazy and overwrought as the rest of the movie. But even more important than that is the music of the movie, composed and performed by one Burt Bacharach, and the soundtrack is pure 60s pop cheese. I adore every single song in the soundtrack, including Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” and a jangly vocal theme that plays over the end credits. It’s definitely of its time, but so is everything else, so it’s not as if it especially dates the film.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
Surprisingly it’s not the flying saucer, or the adorable pod the flying saucer shoots out. Nor is it the crazy periscope-computer Orson Welles uses to trigger psychedelic episodes. It’s not even the mechanical grouse-shaped bombs that I didn’t even get the chance to mention in my summary for fear I would never, ever be able to finish if I noted every dumb thing.

A UFO lands in London. No, really.

But instead I’m going to go with the crazy vest that Q (or the equivalent) fits Sellers-Bond with, a multi-zippered monstrosity that contains radios and weapons and poison gas and all multitude of things. None if it is ever actually used, mind, it’s just a gag about overcomplexity. But it is an ugly mess of an object, and perfectly in keeping with the extravagance of most of the Bond gadgets in any of the movies.

Also, honorable mention for noting that the television watch they use comes straight out of Dick Tracy, who is in many ways the closest America ever came to a Bond of their own.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
In actuality this is a pretty good movie for women roles, as everyone looks like a buffoon so nobody has time to be busy and thus wildly sexist, outside of the usual scantily clothed women that seemed to fill every possible scene of every piece of fiction in the 60s. Special mention goes to Ursula Andress, who has come a long way from her iconic role in Dr. Noto become almost the 2nd lead in this movie. She’s gorgeous and scheming and nearly as funny as Sellers, who she gets most of her screen time with. It’s a very vampy role, to be sure, but she carries it off with grace.

The eyeball door is the greatest architectural anything I have ever seen.

Best Bondickery:

Oh, there’s so much Bondickery in this movie, from all sides. Which Bond do I accuse of the worst of it? I have so many Bonds to choose from. I suppose the winner must, of course, be Sir James himself. It’s revealed early on that the only love of his life was Mata Hari, who he led to execution when she betrayed British forces. But not only did he cause her death, but he then allowed their daughter to end up in a crazy Buddhist monastery in some remote corner of the world, where she was brought up as a revered virgin priestess. Mata Bond at least has the guts to call her father out on his negligence, though he immediately ropes her into dangerous spy work. No late-life parental obligation for James Bond, no matter who might be playing him.

Everyone’s dead! THE END!

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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