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Weird Watch: ‘Casino Royale’ (1967)

Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Star Wars, there is a Garzey’s Wing. For every Batman, there is the Spirit. Here at Fandom, we like to go hunting for some offbeat and off-the-wall films and television shows that might just become your own secret treasures.Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is the 1967 spy comedy Casino Royale. (Last week: The Visitor)

One of the great things about Weird Watches is that recurring thumping question: “what were they thinking??” There are movies like Southland Tales which simply refuse to make sense. You watch that jaw-dropped, utterly lost by what director Richard Kelly was going for. There’s plenty of weird to be found in the arthouse genre. Those movies go out of their way to be as inscrutable and fascinating as possible. Nobody will ever figure out Richard Kelly except Richard Kelly, that’s what makes him so interesting, and his movies so confounding.

But this week’s Weird Watch is not at all mysterious, the filmmaker’s goals were obvious. Casino Royale was a major studio release, probably the most mainstream movie we’ve ever covered. It was the 13th most popular film of 1967 in fact. Columbia Pictures poured millions into this production, getting stars like Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, and Ursula Andress to appear. Plus it’s a James Bond movie! You cannot get further from standard commercial filmmaking than 007, can you?

And yet despite trying to be only a spoof the 1967 Casino Royale is as bizarre and experimental as anything you will find in the Indie scene. It’s more jarring than Jodorowsky, it’s madder than Malick, it’s trippier than Von Trier. Yet while all those directors go out with their singular vision to create the Weird, Casino Royale was an accident.

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For those used to the 2006 gritty serious Casino Royale starring Daniel Craig, you should know that the 1967 version has almost nothing in common with that movie. Grit was the last thing on anybody’s mind in the ’60s, when Adam West’s Batman ruled the airwaves. Producer Charles K. Feldman was the closest thing to a leader to that this circus of a movie would ever have. He happened upon the rights to Ian Fleming’s book Casino Royale in 1960. Knowing he could not compete with the EON Productions Sean Connery series, which by the mid-’60s was already a massive landmark of cinema, Feldman wanted to make a spoof of the 007 films. Simply take the EON movies, make them silly, that was all he wanted.

That could have easily been done. The 1967 Casino Royale should have been simply a mediocre ’60s predecessor to today’s lazy parody films such as The Starving Games and A Haunted House 2. However, production went wrong, forcing Feldman to shove together whatever he had into the utterly inexplicable mess of a movie we have today.

The core script of the film was to be set around Peter Sellers’ character. He played Evelyn Tremble, a normal guy who is accidentally thrown into a James Bond adventure thanks to a case of mistaken identity. The Tremble portions of the film vaguely follow the actual story of Casino Royale: he meets the beautiful Vesper Lynd, he plays cards against the evil Le Chiffre (Orson Welles), he gets kidnapped. But that plotline never finishes and both Evelyn Tremble and Le Chiffre are killed off inexplicably. Why? Because Sellers was playing his role too straight and got into arguments with his director. He was not being funny enough, they thought. Sellers’ scenes were then spliced almost randomly around Casino Royale, often out-of-order. Missing scenes were then filled-in with obvious outtakes and B-roll filler.

In fact, nearly all of Casino Royale is filler. That’s assuming you can call something filler in a movie that actively does not have a plot.

So with the main James Bond gone, Charles K. Feldman came up with a new idea:  instead of just one Bond, why not tons of Bonds? A new star was found in David Niven, who would play an older British gentleman named ‘Sir James Bond’. Sir James is horrified by the slutty behavior of his successor, who is implied to be the Sean Connery 007. (This is never outright stated for obvious legal reasons.) A new strategy for MI:6 to fight SMERSH is invented: rename every one of their agents ‘James Bond’ to confused the enemy, even the female ones. This allowed Feldman to order his half dozen separate directors to film basically whatever scenes they felt like. Then it was all edited together into some kind of amorphous last-minute attempt at a storyline.

With this kind of structure there was no way Casino Royale was going to make any sense. And it doesn’t. Characters go off on their own little mini-plots to eventually return to the “main” story. Then we switch gears to another character doing an unrelated adventure. Often enough both side-adventures add up to nothing and you realize you spent the last twenty minutes watching something utterly pointless. Casino Royale feels like a hack-job of three or four different Bond satires squeezed together crudely, leaving plotholes everywhere.

Contradictions and mistakes riddle the movie. MI:6 boss M is featured in a gag involving mortar shells. Then we’re told he actually died in the pratfall. Woody Allen’s character, Jimmy Bond, is featured briefly as a spy in Cuba, then disappears. Allen returns later as SMERSH’s evil mastermind with no explanation how this fit into what we saw earlier. Peter Sellers talks normally until he randomly does a bad Pakistani accent in a racecar which is clearly a stand-in for a chase scene they never filmed. Lines of dialog do not connect to each other. Peter Sellers was obviously rarely in the same room as Orson Welles. Their dialog runs past each other as they read from completely different scripts. It’s Sir James’ daughter who the villain kidnaps in a spaceship (which never reappears), yet in the climax, Jimmy Bond wants more time out of a minor character.

Unsurprisingly the comedy tone is all over the place. Some scenes are bawdy, some are bad ’60s slap-stick, some aim for meta-humor, a lot of scenes follow tired cliches, and then a lot of jokes are so abstract that it’s hard to find the line between the ‘gag’ and the joke on the audience. Peter Sellers spends a non-comedy romantic scene dressing up in weird costumes. Orson Welles does magic at the poker table because… Orson Welles really liked doing magic. The director just let the actor do whatever he wanted. Most of Casino Royale, to nobody’s shock, is not very funny on the intended level. But in a weird Adult Swim ironic way the movie is hilariously strange. The gags fail but the production’s incoherence becomes the real joke.

Ultimately the main artistic motivation for Casino Royale seems to be simply indulgence. Then movie continues onward for over two hours before finally going for broke with the loudest, zaniest climax ever put to the screen. Cowboys, Indians, French legionnaires, monkeys, bubbles, Frankenstein’s monster, and god only knows what else all cavort on the screen in a dance party of an action scene, until the titular Casino Royale is blown up by a nuclear bomb and everybody dies. Good guys go to heaven, Jimmy Bond goes to Hell, Peter Sellers is crudely spliced into the final shot, and the movie just ends.

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Now is Casino Royale any good? Not entirely. David Niven is the only thing that seems to hold the movie together in any way. He was enough of a professional to walk through the madness of the movie and remain a rock of sanity for the audience. Niven plays his character straight enough but still is emotive with expressions to add comedy. He has a captivating warmth, and can even add dramatic weight to his scenes. A bad actor can come off Oscar-worthy in a great movie but it takes a great actor like David Niven to remain solid in a movie that has no substance of any kind. But even with Niven Casino Royale suffers through dull stretches. Total unpredictability can only get a movie so far.

In aiming for typical ’60s camp Charles K. Feldman had in fact veered his movie off into an avant garde postmodern satire of itself. He wound up getting closer to the Monkees’ Head, a metafictional act of career suicide, than he did to the crowd-pleasing comedy he intended. Then again, it is hard to say that this is the work of any single artistic vision. Rather, it was the complete lack of vision that created Casino Royale. There is no author to this curious piece of art. It simply appeared on its own as the collage of random bits of other things.

Read more in our regular Weird Watch series here.


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