Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Casino Royale (1966)

I have no cinematic guilty pleasures, so when I enjoy a movie like the absurd James Bond burlesque Casino Royale, I don't feel guilty about it. I feel stupid, sure, but not guilty.

Cooked up by six directors (Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Richard Talmadge, led by Val Guest), and with three credited and seven uncredited writers — including such heavyweights as Ben Hecht, Woody Allen, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern and Billy Wilder — there's no way this could be anything but a train wreck, and that's what it is. But who ever said train wrecks weren't fun to watch? It's like that old Dennis the Menace cartoon in which the kid mixes root beer, ketchup, peanut butter, and assorted other gastronomic favorites into one concoction on the theory that if each one of them tastes good alone, blended together they must be super yummy. Sure.

Based on Ian Fleming's first 007 novel — yeah, like The Origin of Species is based on the Book of Genesis — the comedic premise is that Sir James Bond is called out of retirement to best SMERSH's financier, Le Chiffre (Orson Welles), at cards. Why? What, you're expecting a plot? Okay, if you insist: Le Chiffre has been gambling with SMERSH's money and British Intelligence wants to break him. Happy, now?

To confuse the enemy — not to mention the audience — just about everyone on the side of the good guys is called "James Bond," so David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen, among others, are all JBs. Sir James (Niven) also enlists the aid of his love-child daughter, Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet), and sexy spy Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress).

Hating each other, Welles and Sellers refused to be on set at the same time, so their scenes had to be shot separately and then welded together. It must have been pure hell. The enmity, at its core, seems to have been the result of Princess Margaret (the Queen's sister) visiting the set one day and fawning over Welles while ignoring Sellers, who would hold up filming by disappearing for days at a time and was finally fired before filming completed. He was replaced by a cardboard cutout.

If only the whole movie could have been welded together. It's truly a near-incomprehensible catastrophe, but it's saved by being so stupefyingly mid-1960s. Watch for a cartload of cameo appearances, including ones from Peter O'Toole and William Holden, and the score by Burt Bacharach fits the idiocy perfectly, especially in the Berlin section.

It's the Berlin sequence, directed b y Ken Hughes (who would soon do penance by directing the film of Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang two years later), that holds together best. In Berlin, Sir James visits the Mata Hari Dance and Spy School to see his daughter. The set design in the school is a pitch perfect parody of German Expressionism, as are costumes, makeup and (over) acting styles. Bacharach's bouncy Berlin theme sounds as if it would be right at home in a production of The Three Penny Opera. Such spot-on satire seems out of place in the middle of all this silliness, but it is a welcome moment of genuine comic filmmaking.

Maybe you had to be there in the mid-1960s to dig this psychedelic zaniness (one reviewer at the time called the film "an electronic vaudeville show") and if you were, you'll probably have fun going back for a couple of hours.

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