"Charlie Feldman said, 'You've done so much on this picture for me, I'm going to give you an extra credit title: Coordinating Director.' And I said, well, if you do that, Charlie, I'll sue you! 'What do you mean?' I said, people are going to look at this and say, 'This was coordinated?'"
--Val Guest, one of Casino Royale's numerous co-directors
If you think we have movie fads now -- Indiana Jones, Batman, Harry Potter -- they're nothing like the Bond mania that swept the world in the 1960s. The Beatles may have been the number one sensation, but from approximately 1964 to 1969 Ian Fleming's James Bond reshaped the film landscape into big letters reading "007." As embodied by Sean Connery, a handsome bruiser with a lady-killing smile, Her Majesty's dashing Cold Warrior held the center of international attention. Spies were suddenly big business. Dozens of filmic imitators rushed to compete with the four or five official Bond movies: serious espionage stories, cartoonish escapism, silly comedies, and knock-offs from every country with a film industry. Even after television got into the act, the market stayed bullish for secret agents.
The absolutely craziest Bond was a bona fide production with a strange pedigree. The film rights to Ian Fleming's first 007 novel Casino Royale had been sold very soon after publication, and several years later they were acquired by the legendary agent-turned-producer Charles K. Feldman. But what could Feldman do with them? The public image of James Bond was Sean Connery, and competing directly with Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli's official United Artists series was seen as an unwise move. Yet the ability to make an authorized 007 movie from an official Ian Fleming book made it easy for Feldman to raise money -- a LOT of money.
"All remaining agents and trainees will be known as James Bond 007, including the girls. The enemy won't know which way to turn."
-- Sir James Bond (David Niven)
MGM's Casino Royale Collector's Edition is an update of the 2002 DVD release, but with extras that tell the full story of perhaps the most out-of-control production of the Mod Sixties. Feldman's Bond spoof cost eleven million 1967 dollars, enough to produce an epic like Doctor Zhivago. The film was begun without a complete script, with pieces being added as it went along. Producer Feldman signed enough big stars to float eight or nine pictures, and none of them knew exactly what they were getting into.
Writer Wolf Mankowitz's first script was more or less abandoned in the rush to make Casino Royale more like a free-form party than an organized film. Feldman fired director Joseph McGrath in an attempt to placate million-dollar star Peter Sellers, who often disappeared from the set and refused to act with Orson Welles. Replacement director Robert Parrish lasted all of two weeks, while director and actor John Huston blew the budget by moving his episode (one of the few from the original script) to his home base of Ireland, and filming for months instead of weeks.
The movie is less an adventure than a collection of wild characters. David Niven is Sir James Bond, who must be forced out of retirement to once again deal with SMERSH. Peter Sellers is baccarat cardsharp Evelyn Tremble, hired to win against enemy gambler Le Chiffre (Orson Welles). First among the femmes fatales is Vesper Lind (Ursula Andress), a millionaire with a habit of murdering her lovers. Woody Allen plays Little Jimmy Bond, a neurotic klutz (surprise!) who proves to be hiding a diabolical secret identity.
Instead of reining in the costs, Charles Feldman encouraged the film to get bigger, wilder, and more far-out (a sixties term interchangeable with "groovy"). Roles and scenes were expanded to accommodate more actors, more special effects, more gags invented on the set. Feldman wanted a crazy circus with an "anything goes" atmosphere that hadn't been seen since the wild 1941 comedy Hellzapoppin'. Any star within reach was recruited for a cameo -- William Holden, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Boyer, George Raft, Peter O'Toole.
Fourth director Ken Hughes filmed an elaborate East German spy school sequence in full-on expressionist mode, with crazy shadows and distorted sets. As Mata Bond, the illegitimate daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari, Joanna Pettet dances in an elaborate musical number to Burt Bacharach's musical score.
Famed second unit director Richard Talmadge directed 1001 gags for the casino battle finale, that includes Keystone Kops, cowboys and Indians and trained seals wearing "007" medallions. Woody Allen was brought on to play Little Jimmy Bond, 007's neurotic nephew. Having seen his screenplay for Feldman's What's New Pussycat? altered beyond recognition, Allen refused invitations to do rewrites, preferring to just maintain control over his own scenes.
"Oh. You're going to nothing me to death."
-- Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers)
Somewhere along the line Feldman finally realized that a bunch of lavish but uncoordinated scenes do not a movie make, and asked director Val Guest to invent new connective scenes to unify the unwieldy story. The original main star Peter Sellers had been fired before completing his role, leaving a big hole in the story arc. Guest fashioned a series of interstitial London scenes with David Niven, and put things together the best he could. Characters disappear (Ursula Andress) or make ridiculously arbitrary entrances and exits (Daliah Lavi). A flying saucer lands in Trafalgar Square. Expensive scenes dropped for time are re-purposed as material for psychedelic montages.
Coming out at the perfect time in the Bond craze, Casino Royale was a film one had to see. It's a hugely enjoyable mess, one of those movies where one strains to catch the in-jokes and identify all of the guest stars, like Jacqueline Bisset playing a seductress named "Miss Goodthighs." Silly slapstick alternates with rapturous visuals, like a view through a tropical fish aquarium as Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress walk in slow-motion to Dusty Springfield's vocal The Look of Love. The Tijuana Brass title theme became an inescapable radio hit. Critics scoffed at the overblown movie but it made plenty of money. Charles Feldman's business acumen was vindicated, if not his crazy production method.
The Bond craze did wane, and rather quickly. By 1969 the public had had its fill of super-spies, with films like Dean Martin's raunchy Matt Helm series devolving into cheap exploitation pix. The official Bonds remained very popular, but the wanna-be imitators quickly disappeared. Nothing in today's industry can compare with the grandiose madness of the original Casino Royale and its galaxy of dazzling film stars.
Agent Cooper (Terence Cooper): "Beauty is only skin deep."
Lorelei: "How about some skin diving?"
Weirdly, this renegade Ian Fleming property was "reunited" with the official Broccoli-Danjaq Bond series in the late 1990s, as part of a court settlement between Sony and MGM. Note that certain Bond trademarks have apparently been reserved for official series entries only. The tattooed Bond Girl figure on the Casino Royale disc cover is not the original artwork, which proudly displayed a psychedelic "007" logo. The disc packaging does not use the 007 designation, either.
"This germ, when distributed in the atmosphere, will make all women beautiful and destroy all men over four-foot-six."
-- Doctor Noah, alias Little Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen)
This Collector's Edition of Casino Royale has apparently undergone a last-minute name change. It's still being listed at Amazon as a "40th Anniversary Edition" even though that anniversary passed a year ago. The beautiful transfer is not appreciably improved over the 2002 disc, but the extras are very different.
The 2002 disc offered a short interview with director Val Guest. This new edition comes with a lengthy, five-part making-of documentary. Surviving crewmembers share their memories along with stars Jacqueline Bisset and Joanna Pettet, assembling a mosaic portrait of the larger-than-life Charles K. Feldman and the absolute chaos of his production. Loud music and distracting graphics -- lots of images flipping and flopping -- make the docu difficult to follow, but its content is always good.
Bond craze authors Steven Jay Rubin and John Cork are kept busy on the feature commentary just identifying all the noted actors. They explain who filmed what -- no easy task -- and draw the connections between Casino Royale and shows like What's New Pussycat? and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Rubin and Cork also offer insights on several filmed but unused scenes, telling us that Peter Sellers' visit to the 007 "gadget room" is supposed to be taking place in the basement of Harrod's department store in London.
The disc includes the original trailer -- which uses the original 007-tattooed Bond Girl graphic, and a still photo gallery. Not listed among the extras but included in the package is a set of miniature character cards, which are derived from artwork used as "door panel posters" to decorate the glass doors of theaters showing Casino Royale.
Should you already own the original 2002 disc edition, don't throw it away. It contains the entire original 1954 Climax Theater TV presentation of Casino Royale featuring Barry Nelson as an Americanized Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. It's an early live TV production: when cues are missed, we get to watch Lorre do some fast-thinking improv work. Perhaps when MGM gets around to releasing a Blu-ray disc of Casino Royale, the extras of both editions can be combined.
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