Casino Royale opens with credits that just seem to keep going, and going, and going, which is a good benchmark for what this film will be. It lists a whopping five directors (plus an “additional sequences” credit) that include John Huston and Robert Parrish (better known for his editing work), three “official” writers, and eight uncredited ones—which include Ben Hecht (maybe), Billy Wilder, and Terry Southern. The cast is a who’s who of 1960s Britannica, led off by Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, David Niven, and Deborah Kerr, then rounded out by Orson Welles, Charles Boyer, William Holden, Huston himself, and even—ahem—Woody Allen. Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Raft, Peter O’Toole, Geraldine Chaplin, and Jacqueline Bisset all drop by. Everyone was in this film. I’m beginning to wonder if I was in this film.
The “plot” of Casino Royale, which gives a barely perceptible nod to Ian Fleming’s original novel, involves Sir James Bond (David Niven) coming out of retirement to take on the evil organization SMERSH. Sir James has been quietly retired while other agents use his moniker and wind up dead because they can’t resist gorgeous seductresses. The original Sir James is actually a relatively ascetic old gentleman who doesn’t approve of all the killing and sexy-times, but finally gives in when his old boss M (Huston) is blown up. So, off Sir James goes, running into M’s hardly distraught widow (Kerr), among others. The foundation of the story is decent for a spy spoof and if the film had actually kept to the damn idea, it might have been just fine. But much of the driving narrative is abandoned partway through, Sir James vanishes for most of the second act, and the focus shifts to Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers), a baccarat player recruited by Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress) to do battle with Le Chiffre (Orson Welles), a SMERSH agent with a penchant for magic, for some reason.
I really can’t go on. Go read the Wikipedia page, as it makes more sense than the film actually does. I usually check out sometime after the baccarat game, and come back for the final “madcap” scene in the casino where people who were supposed to be dead come back to life, there’s a crazy shootout, and Woody Allen blows up. Come to think of it, this film blows up pretty much anyone once their part of the script runs out.
This film is notorious for a lot of things. It has the biggest cast of any James Bond film, and actually includes a number of actors and actresses who appeared in the Bond franchise. It also has the most tales told on it, some of them likely, some of them undoubtedly apocryphal, most of them centering around Sellers and Welles. Did Peter Sellers really believe that he was being hired to do a “straight” Bond film, and balk when he discovered that he was supposed to be funny? Did Sellers and Welles dislike each other so intensely that the director filmed their scenes separately and then cut them together? Did Welles really insist that he be allowed to do magic as a condition of his appearing in the film? Did he punch one of the directors? How many scripts did this film go through? How in the hell did it make money?
Casino Royale is an original kind of spy-spoof, and you can actually see its influence in later, more successful send-ups (Austin Powers owes a debt of gratitude). It’s in that vague 1960s genre of the madcap sex comedy, with more cameos than actual laughs, and plays on the vague sexism of the era without totally sending it up. It does have a clever premise, but the execution is haphazard, the sudden and the shifts in plot and focus too random to make the barest amount of sense. The only possible reason to watch this film is to see just how such a great cast and a strong group of writers managed to cock up so dramatically.
But, Lauren, isn’t this column called “What I Did For Love”? Doesn’t that mean that you must have originally watched this film because someone you loved was in it? Well, yes, so here is the confessional part of this review, because this film, in fact, is representative of what I did for an actor I probably should not love.
I adore Peter Sellers. This adoration is not something I’m wholly proud of—I’m aware of his personal problems, of his meanness to his wives, and the issues he dealt with, badly, his whole life. But the man is undoubtedly a brilliant comedian and, at his best, is adorably geeky. His earlier British comedies like Two-Way Stretch and The Wrong Arm of the Law have him as a suave Cockney criminal; he makes a big impression as a teddy boy in The Ladykillers. He’s dorkily charming in The Mouse that Roared, and, of course, his early Pink Panther films are simply remarkable. He was also an excellent dramatic actor, as evidenced in Being There and Lolita. In fact, for such a versatile performer, it’s a shame he didn’t get to play more dramatic roles.
The bizarre thing about Sellers’s performance in Casino Royale – and probably what gave rise to the story about him thinking he was actually being hired to play Bond – is that, in a film so goddamn wild, he’s so subdued. While everyone else is playing things for laughs, probably the best comedian in the bunch is playing things straight. It’s a weird experience to watch Sellers in this part—he’s evidently not engaged with the film; more so than anyone else, he doesn’t want to be there. His lack of energy, so present in his films of this period, make his scenes drag. Even if he and Welles despised each other, one wishes that they’d powered through and used that in their scenes together, because that could’ve been electric. The failure of the film is hardly Sellers’s fault, but he does not seem comfortable in the part.
Casino Royale remains a benchmark for big budget critical failures—against all wisdom, the damn actually made money—but I have a weird affection for it. Watched as vignettes rather than as a complete film, it has a crazy camp value and an enjoyable 1960s aesthetic. The cast is excellent. And Peter Sellers…well, I continue to love him, in spite of myself.