Casino Royale (1967) – By Matt Singer

In the mid-1960s, producer Charles K. Feldman
assembled a hugely talented cast including Peter
Sellers and Woody Allen for a wild, chaotic shoot and
wound up with one of the most popular comedies of the
decade, What’s New Pussycat? Two years later, using
the exact same formula and many of the same actors he
produced Casino Royale, one of the most notorious
bombs of all time.

Very loosely based on the first James Bond novel by
Ian Fleming, this psychotically psychedelic spy spoof
would surely be considered for any award offered to
the best cast ever wasted on a bad movie. The list of
actors in Royale is an embarrassment of riches; there
are so many great performers vying for our attention,
there isn’t enough for most of them to do. Peter
Sellers receives top billing, and takes part in the
single most important scene to the film’s plot, but
David Niven is technically the main character, though
even he disappears from the screen for long stretches
of the 130 minute runtime. Orson Welles, the piece’s
villain, doesn’t even appear until the hour-and-a-half
mark, and don’t expect more than a glimpse of Woody
Allen until the climax. William Holden, John Huston,
Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Peter O’Toole all pop up in
small cameo appearances.

Niven plays Sir James Bond, the famous spy, now
retired after a long and proud career. He is stirred
back into action by a delegation of espionage
officials, including M (Huston). Agents are being
murdered all over the world — including the inheritor
of the James Bond 007 monicker — and only the real
Bond can stop them. The key to the scheme hinges (in
one of Royale’s many unclear plot points) on the
activities of a fiend name Le Chiffre (Welles), a
master baccarat player. Bond and his agents (who are
all renamed James Bond, “to confuse the enemy” and, no
doubt, the audience) enlist the aid of Sellers, the
world’s greatest baccarat player, to defeat and shame
Le Chiffre and undermine his plot.

Fine and good if the focus had truly been on Niven and
Sellers (or just one of them — these are already two
distinct stories unto themselves), but the film keep
veering off into unrelated, unrewarding subplots.
Terence Cooper plays a spy groomed to resist the
charms of women (since the enemy is using Bond’s love
of the ladies to charm him into his own death). Sir
James’ daughter Mata (Joanna Pettet) is recruited and
assigned to infiltrate a SMERSH front. Characters
come and go without motivation or explanation, and
whole sections could have been removed without any
negative impact to the story, and, arguably, with a
positive impact to the film’s success as a coherent
comedy. This is likely do to Feldman’s
out-of-control-production, credited to five (!)
different directors.

If Casino Royale wasn’t so oppressively long, it could
be described as uneven, since it does feature some
significant bright spots. In only his third cinematic
appearance, Woody Allen gives one of his career’s
great forgotten performances as Sir James’ nephew,
Jimmy Bond. Combining his trademark rapid-fire wit
with impressive physical comedy, Allen barely
resembles the man who would eventually redefine the
romantic comedy with Annie Hall, let alone become an
American Bergman. Royale is only funny in his brief
appearances, yet his scenes are so funny, you
nearly forgive its mistakes. Niven is well-cast in
his largely thankless role; in a more disciplined film
this could have easily been a career-definer. And
Burt Bacharach’s bouncy score, performed by Herb
Alpert and the Tijuana Brass manages to liven up even
the deadliest scene.

Feldman was lucky with Pussycat, but lightning did not
strike twice. Ironically, though MGM now owns the
rights to this incoherent Bond parody, it has yet to
remake the film into an official Bond production. I’d
strongly urge that when they do, there is only one
James Bond, there are no hallucinated bagpipers, and
no more than three directors.