Friday, July 16, 2010

Casino Royale (1967)

Sometimes, when I watch movies, there will be a sequence that makes me stop the picture, rewind and play it again.  This is done out disbelief, which can be either good or bad.  A sweet line of dialogue or an absolutely ridiculous stunt gets good disbelief.  Absolutely random or stupid things get the bad disbelief.  The entire running time for Casino Royale gets the bad kind.

While Casino Royale is based on Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel of the same name, don't confuse it with the 2006 version.  This is not an official Bond movie, but a British spoof of Bond and a bunch of other spy movies.  The film has five (!) directors, with each making their own vignette that is tied together at the very end.  John Huston, Val Guest, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, and Robert Parrish all acted as director.  Each vignette has its own style and feel, and spoofs different things.  Likewise, the story is very segmented and disjointed.  It should be no surprise that the story is not the main focus for the film.  Instead, the emphasis seems to be on several small moments that, when they work, are extremely funny.

The story begins with an attempt to coax Sir James Bond (David Niven) out of retirement by his old boss, M (John Huston), a CIA guy (William Holden), someone from the KGB, and a French guy.  Predicting Bond's refusal, M arranged for the British government to bomb Bond's home and have it blamed on the evil international organization SMERSH.  The house crumbles,convincing Bond to come out of retirement, but sadly, M dies in the bombing.  Way to plan ahead, genius.  Bond's first act is to return M's body to his family in Scotland.  Sir James is a very prim and proper man who despises the seductive film versions that have had success in recent years; SMERSH seeks to discredit him by ruining his chaste image.  To do so, they replaced all of M's family with sexy SMERSH female agents, all intent on seducing Sir James.  Despite their best efforts, he resists their charms and wins over the operations leader (Deborah Kerr).  From there, Bond returns to England as the head of MI6.  He has his secretary, Miss Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet) assign the code name "James Bond 007" to all remaining secret agents, in an attempt to confuse both SMERSH and the audience. 

I could go on in detail, but that's as clear as the plot ever gets, so it's probably not worth it.  There are only two other important story lines, in my opinion.  The first involves the recruitment of Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) into a "James Bond 007" identity by fellow "James Bond," Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress).  Tremble-Bond's mission, like in the 2006 version, is to defeat the villainous Le Chiffe (Orson Welles) at cards.  The other story line involves Sir James Bond facing off against the head of SMERSH, who also happens to be his clumsy nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen).  Jimmy is very intimidated by his uncle, so he has trouble speaking in his presence, but if his evil plan succeeds, he won't have to.  All men over 4'6" will die, leaving Jimmy as the big man in the world for all women to adore.  The rest of the film has a smorgasbord of movie stars in bit parts and plot sequences that make little to no sense, leading up to a finale that involves cowboys, Indians, and Woody Allen hiccuping illustrated clouds of smoke and eventually exploding.

The supporting cast is very good, even if they only are given a few lines.  Aside from those already mentioned (who give the best performances), George Raft, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jacqueline Bisset, Anna Quale, Tracy Reed, Peter O'Toole, and Jack Gwillim all have bit parts.  The main acting, though, is not as good.  I realize that David Niven is as British as they come, so his humor is probably going to be very British (read: dry and peculiar, with a weakness for men wearing dresses).  This movie has a ton of slapstick in it, though, which doesn't match his style at all.  He seems uncomfortable throughout.  Peter Sellers is better, but at least half of his screen time is painfully awkward; the other half is pretty funny, though, which makes up for quite a bit.  It's Woody Allen that gets the most laughs with a great show of physical comedy near the end of the film.

The frustrating thing about this movie is that it should be far better than it is.  Seriously, who would have thought that a Peter Sellers/Woody Allen movie wouldn't be very funny?  The problems are myriad, but they boil down to a lack of vision.  Just because the movie is split into several sub-stories doesn't mean that the film as a whole has to suffer; Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Grindhouse, and Kentucky Fried Movie are all choppy and mashed together, but their segments share a similar tone.  Casino Royale can't decide what type of comedy it is.  There's an entire sequence that appears to be a satire of contemporary German films, but then finishes with a Benny Hill-type ending.  Huh?  That's okay, Mr. Random Ending, Peter Sellers outdoes you by being physically missing from the final third of his scenes (he either quit or was fired, depending on who you ask).  David Niven's scenes work better as a whole, but they feel like they came out of a British sitcom.  They're cheap, cheeky, and pretty lame.  Basically, there are too many styles at work, and none compliment each other.  I will give director Val Guest credit for trying to tie these disparate strands of story together, but he never truly succeeds; he apparently realized this and turned down a "Supervising Director" credit after he saw the final cut of the film.  Disappointing movies don't come easily or quickly, it seems, and this mess takes over two hours to wind down.

Despite all the bad (two hours!), this movie is not without its charms.  As a James Bond aficionado, it's fun to see the series lampooned.  Personally, I thought David Niven's turn as a celibate Bond was clever, even if it wasn't very funny.  As I mentioned before, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen are entertaining, although Allen was criminally underused.  Many of the other scenes would have worked better if they were shorter, or if the vignettes were edited together as a united film.  But, for what it is, Casino Royale isn't terrible.  It's a product of its time, filled with clean-cut men, sexy women, surreal randomness, and painfully British humor.

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