When it comes to the movies, everyone has their guilty pleasures. You know, those movies we’re ashamed to like but have no shame in admitting we like. For whatever reason – psychological baggage, wish fulfillment or just plain self-imposed ignorance – certain movies lacking in technological or narrative capability somehow reach inside and unlock something so personal that we can’t help but enjoy the mediocrity unfolding before us. At the top of my guilty pleasures list -- by a good twelve parsecs – is the 1967 mega bomb "Casino Royale."
For the uninitiated, "Casino Royale" was the brainchild of producer Charles K. Feldman. Possessing the rights to Ian Fleming’s first novel of the suave super spy James Bond but unable to capitalize on it due to the success of the "serious" Bond films by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, Feldman decided that his version would be the ultimate Bond spoof. He signed on multiple directors, including John Huston and Hammer vet Val Guest, with the idea of taking all things Bond – the babes, the gadgets, the implausible plots and fashions – and making one giant laugh fest, a kind of "It’s a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World." Ah, the best laid plans of mice and producers… The resulting film barely resembles anything espionage with the humor teetering between feeble parody, "Playboy"-style sex jokes and, occasionally, a belly laugh. Or two. Or three. "Casino Royale" for me is like devouring a banana split. I should know better, but after that first gooey, sweet bite, I’m hooked for the entire dessert.
The plot, if one could accuse the film of such trappings, revolves around the infiltration of enemy spies within the top ranks of the spy organizations in the civilized world. Weary British, American, French and Soviet spy heads appear before a retired (and stuttering) James Bond (David Niven), pleading for his return to active service to ferret out the covert corruption and return the world to glorious détente. Disgusted with how "secret agent has become synonymous with sex maniac," Bond prefers to tend his rose garden and play Debussy every afternoon. But, as Michael Corleone once pontificated, "just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." Bond is back!
From there, there’s roughly five subplots, ranging from how all agents are renamed 007, to a showdown between super criminal and gambler Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) playing high-stakes baccarat against James Bond/Evelyn Trimble (Peter Sellers, given sporadic free reign for his brand of lunacy) to Bond undergoing a test of morals at "M’s" Scottish castle, now littered with comely agents of SMERSH. (The Bond/Le Chiffre subplot is the only element left from the original novel.) Needing further intelligence, Bond presses his goddaughter Marta Bond (Joanna Pettet) into service, infiltrating an East German spy school cross-pollinated with German Expressionism and Three Stooges slapstick. Somehow, a thin thread of continuity ties the dangling storylines. Oh, did I forget to say that Woody Allen is in "Casino Royale?" Yes, Alvy Singer himself plays Jimmy Bond, the super spy’s nephew who cannot speak in his father’s presence yet hatches a fiendish plot to…well, you’ll just have to see the movie to find out.
Despite the contributions of John Huston, Robert McGrath, Ken Hughes and Robert Parrish, the real guiding hand to "Casino Royale" was director Val Guest. Val had the Herculean task of taking everybody’s footage (in some cases, finishing what one director had already started) and giving it structure and form. In some ways, one could almost see Val about halfway through the shoot saying, "Oh what the hell, if you can’t beat them, join them." That might explain the kitchen sink finale at the casino. For fifteen minutes, we are subjected to a climatic brawl stuffed with spies, cowboys, go-go dancing Indians, laughing gas, seals, chimps, Keystone Kops and George Raft flipping a coin in the air.
Watching it again with a more critical eye, I really couldn’t explain why I so enjoy watching this movie again and again. Part of it is that for some strange reason, I associate this film more than any other with the 1960s. Perhaps in some far-off alternate reality, the 1960s was nothing more than a drunken bacchanal with every woman looking like an eager-to-please Swedish model and men in tuxedoes saving the world every fortnight. It would take another thirty-five years of the sexual revolution, the end of the Cold War, and the "Austin Powers" films to expose the ultimate shortcoming of "Casino Royale:" it’s a satire without a point. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying one of the most anarchic films ever made.
Columbia Pictures originally released the film and held the rights until an agreement two years ago released the rights to MGM/UA, the result of a legal dispute regarding Columbia producing a new Bond film based on the "Royale" title. While Columbia released a decent laserdisc of the title a few years ago, it just withers when matched to MGM Home Entertainment’s new DVD edition.
The 2.35 anamorphic transfer looks smashing, with a smooth, detailed image throughout. Colors are solid, slightly saturated and completely pleasing. The source print looks clean, with some wear and tear (and in one part actual celluloid damage) evident. This is not a criticism, since this is the cleanest rendition of the film I have seen, just an FYI for the tweakers out there. Some film grain pops up, mostly during the process shots, but again nothing to be alarmed about. For scenes where there are lots of red, I saw no bleed or break-up. I saw no digital or compression artifacts and only slight edge enhancement in a few instances. Otherwise, the picture is a clean, clear winner.
The audio got some goosing as well, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the original mono soundtrack. The most apparent sonic benefits was the widening of the front soundstage, the inclusion of some directionality and sound effects and, most importantly, a digital platform for Burt Bacharach’s completely cool-for-its-time music score (performed in cahoots with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass). My only nudge regarding the remix is that it sounds inconsistent overall. Some passages replicate with better than expected dynamic range and other scenes there’s almost a drain on the center channel volume. Even after re-tweaking the surround levels, the phenomena persisted. Again, something noticed but not to frustration. The original mono soundtrack is also included. After switching between the two, I found l like the remix better, if only to better hear Bacharach’s groovy notes.
I would have been happy simply with a clean picture and clear sound. Happily, MGM found a few extras to include and even created a new one. Chief among the supplements is another version of "Casino Royale," this one being the first dramatization of James Bond. Airing on CBS in 1954 on the "Climax Mystery Theater" program, this hour-long adaptation starred Barry Nelson as James Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. Played completely straight, it has the rudimentary elements of the Bond formula: intrigue, well-dressed characters and exotic locales. Preserved on Kinescope, the source print looks a little washed out but otherwise fine.
Witty remembrances from director Val Guest can be found in the twenty-minute retrospective documentary "Psychedelic Cinema." Newly produced video interviews with Guest are interspersed with letterboxed clips and production snapshots. Guest seems quite fond of the film, and tells quite a few juicy anecdotes, from Orson Welles barely tolerating Peter Sellers to how his promised eight week shoot turned into eight months of "coping with chaos."
A non-anamorphic letterboxed trailer rounds out the goodies. Like the feature, it looks sharp and clean too, demonstrating how the film "is too much for one James Bond."
"Casino Royale" will always be a paradox to me: a movie where nothing goes right, yet everything seems right precisely because of it. What surprised me is that apparently I am not alone in my adoration for the film. Thanks MGM for giving us fans a terrific DVD edition. Oh behave!