CASINO ROYALE (1967 dir. Joe McGrath, et al)
I'd like to talk briefly about Casino Royale - not the new one (jolly enjoyable though it was) - but the film now forever damned to a fate as "that other Casino Royale". Off the stump, let me remind you that I'm fascinated with lost, missing or generally chopped up movies - and very few come as snipped and snapped as this one.
At the vanguard of the grab-bag extravaganzas that heralded the orgiastic fall of the Hollywood studio system, it's long held a reputation as a flop of the highest order, which is rather unfair considering it made a stack of cash, ranking third at the box office in 1967. The film itself is disjointed in the extreme, but amongst the debris lay scattered fragments of a highly promising start.
The back-story is this: At the height of the Bondmania two men owned the screen rights to every 007 novel except one - his first adventure, published in 1954. Those rights were held by Charles K. Feldman, producer of the Seven Year Itch, Streetcar Named Desire and What's New Pussycat. Rather than go toe to toe with the official series in an already stuffed spy-movie marketplace he decided to mock the whole thing with the ultimate secret agent spoof - starring none other than Peter Sellers - the biggest comedy star of the moment - as James Bond himself.
So far so good - in fact so good that I'd argue it's amongst Sellers' finest work on screen. The problem is - due to a series of still undetermined problems he left the picture with only a quarter of his scenes in the can. What little remains is gorgeously set, shot and scripted - full of perfectly placed one-liners and visual gags. Drolly underplaying his role, Sellers seems at the height of his powers with a sharp and witty performance.
Rumour pins Sellers frustration on being forced to play 007 as a comic character, but for me this simply doesn't ring true. For a start, he pretty much plays the role straight anyway, in a similar fashion to his initial interpretation of Inspector Clouseau. I reckon the problem came with the twist in this tale of Bond.
Whilst Casino Royale was being made Sellers was in a creative and personal meltdown - having survived an almost fatal series of heart attacks in 1964, he was embracing a counter culture lifestyle and acting more erratically than ever before. He had always been a bit of a fantasist who completely inhabited each role, taking it home with him, often to the detriment of his family life, and here was his chance to play the ultimate fantasy character.
Except, (and here’s the twist) he wasn't playing James Bond at all. He was Evelyn Tremble, a nebbish baccarat expert hired to impersonate 007 in a card game against gambling mad bad guy La Chiffe (played by Orson Welles). If Sellers' had insurmountable hang-ups over the role surely this was the key – his dream of playing a macho hero was just as far away as it had ever been.
And that is a terrible shame. The rest of the movie, a patchwork constructed around Sellers incomplete performance, has some lovely moments (the always impressive set design, Richard Williams' animation, Joanna Pettet's extended adventure in expressionist West-Germany, Woody Allen and Barbara Bouchet) among the complete dross (David Niven's god-awful opener in Scotland) but it’s like a film without a soul.