The Niven Story title,
it turns out, is just a cover.
What is really shooting is ... Casino Royale.
And from the looks of what's happening,
shooting may be too good for it.
- Time (May 1966)
Casino Royale (I)
The summary of this film in the book Bond Films begins "As simply as possible:" ... then takes a deep breath and goes on for nearly two pages. (Their average summary, like mine, is usually a paragraph.) If they couldn't do it, then what makes you think I'm going to try?
Book vs. Film
Yes, allegedly this is an adaptation, but there is little point in comparing the two. Bond is there (lots of Bonds); Vesper Lynd is there; the idea of bleeding Le Chiffre dry at the baccarat table to hurt Smersh is in there somewhere - and that's it. Fleming would recognize nothing else of his, and if he'd lived to have seen this film, it likely would have killed him.
We'll get to a real adaptation of this book eighteen pages and forty years from now. Patience.
Once again, this page is almost all backstory, so I've moved this first.
As noted back at Dr. No, EON could not buy the rights to all the books because the first book had already been bought. Casino Royale, published in 1953, is an okay book, with an unexpectedly downbeat ending and some very nice casino scenes. There isn't a lot of action in it except for one motor chase and an extremely nasty torture scene where Le Chiffre whips Bond in a delicate place with a carpet beater. We'll discuss its pros and cons in due time.
The film and television rights were purchased by a gent named Gregory Ratoff as a six-month option in 1954, which resulted in a (reportedly very bad) television version on CBS in that same year, the first time Bond was ever seen in a visual medium. Ratoff purchased full film rights from Fleming (for $6000) in 1955. On Ratoff's death the rights devolved to his widow, who put a gentleman named Charles Feldman in charge of them. Feldman produced a few notable films, such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Seven Year Itch, some of them for United Artists. But at the moment he was working with Columbia, who were desperate for an antidote to UA's Bond money machine. Feldman had already failed to interest EON in a partnership deal a la McClory (possibly partly because McClory had already poisoned that well).
This seems like a good place to talk a little about 1966-1967, when everybody who wasn't UA was trying to come up with something to compete with the Bond juggernaut. The two Flint films with James Coburn have probably held up best of the tongue-in-cheek ones, which might not be saying much. The Matt Helm films were also considered a direct response to Bond. On the more serious side, the three Harry Palmer films of the time might as well be cousins - despite deliberately taking the opposite tone to the Bond films. The Ipcress File was produced by Harry Saltzman, and Ken Adam, Peter Hunt, and John Barry all did their usual jobs for it.
There were also a lot of knockoffs, pastiches, et cetera, none of which approaches even the modest quality level of the ones I've mentioned above. The most notorious of the lot is an Italian cheapie from 1967 called Operation Kid Brother, which starred Sean's (non-actor) younger brother Neil Connery as ... 007's younger brother. Somehow the producers managed to get Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Adolfo Celi, Anthony Dent, and Daniela Bianchi to appear in this travesty. "It was a dreadful movie, but we needed the money," Maxwell said. Connery (the elder) was livid, although he eventually forgave them.
The version of events I read most often is that the film of Casino Royale was not conceived as a spoof from the beginning; it only became so when Feldman realized he could not get Connery to do it (Connery reportedly asked for a million dollars before he would even discuss the matter with EON), and that without Connery, treating it as a parody was the only way he could go.
However, screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz says that Feldman, furious at the money EON was making, had an axe to grind against the official series from the beginning. So who knows? What's clear is that this movie could actually have been something - a consistent, comprehensible satire - if everything that could have gone wrong didn't go wrong, beginning with the original director walking off the set and proceeding from there. Peter Sellers, the nominal star, was at his most unreliable, and some of the stunt-casting games in this film were to try to work around the fact that they had no idea how much they were going to get out of him at any given time. (For what it's worth, Sellers maintained that he left only when his original contract expired and was given mixed signals about how much work they expected thereafter.) Feldman could get people for piecemeal work due to his connections, but getting directors or a consistent script proved more difficult - and the film was hemorrhaging money all the while.
Eventually the tally stood at a reported four primary and two secondary directors, among them John Huston and Val Guest (who apparently was saddled with cleaning up everyone else's mess). Beyond the three credited screenwriters there are at least eight more who are rumored to have contributed to a script which literally changed with each shooting day, among them Huston and Guest and Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. (Allen specifically insisted that his name not appear in the screenplay credits - "Casino is a madhouse ... I think the film stinks as does my role ....")
Surprisingly, Casino Royale was not a flop. Bond-mania was so high at the time that it managed to make about seventeen million, more than covering the in-the-neighborhood-of-twelve-million it reportedly cost - double its original planned budget.
Which one? This film teems with 007s. Some of them are better than others. David Niven is good at keeping a brave face, but seeing him in this was what convinced me that he would have been wrong to play the real Bond. Others continue to disagree. At any rate, he is the only Bond in the film who can be said to establish any sort of character note at all, and for Bond it is an unbalanced one: extremely debonair, but not the least bit dangerous. Niven's Bond wouldn't punch anyone for fear he'd get his gloves dirty.
Most of them seem to run in and out of scenes just to provide British 1960's tee-hee sex gags of the Benny Hill school, and one really expects nothing more, but I agree with Bond Films that any scene with Barbara Bouchet (Moneypenny, the younger) or Joanna Pettet (Mata Bond) is worth watching.
There are no good pics of Charles Feldman,
so you get this instead.
I wonder how many people in 1966 were seduced by the brilliant opening titles and Bacharach score into thinking this was going to be a good film. It isn't, of course - it's the dreadful mess you'd expect - although there are some moments, mostly at the beginning before it all falls apart, where it actually is funny. It remains a monument to squandered potential, and an anomaly in this canon.
(Yet, unlike some other sources, I do consider it canonical, in its fashion. It is made from legitimately obtained rights to a genuine Fleming property, and in some ways has more claim to being a "Fleming adaptation" than, say, The Spy Who Loved Me - which see.)
The film is probably the most fun for people who watch a lot of British television from this period, because the character-actor spotting is choice - if they stay onscreen long enough for you to spot them. Look, there's Bernard Cribbins! There's Ronnie Corbett! Anna Quayle! John Hollis! And so forth. Everyone else will likely find it a long slog between "good bits."
There is a fairly persistent theory, helped along by Roger Lewis in his biography of Sellers, that one reason Sellers was so erratic about this film is that he was disappointed he wouldn't have a chance to play Bond straight, and his constant re-writing and improvising was an attempt to make the scenes play more seriously. On the other hand, Sellers' best comedy was always the completely deadpan material, so perhaps he was just trying to make the scenes funnier his way. It has been noted, though, that the scenes with Sellers and Welles are the ones that bear the most resemblance to the book - ironic, since one of Sellers' issues was that he was resentful of Welles (or intimidated by him, depending on who you ask), and shooting had to be restructured around his reluctance to film with Welles. In many of the scenes where they're in the same room, they're actually not.
EON was worried that this film would damage the take of You Only Live Twice, which opened two months after it. Whether their worries were justified is hard to say.
In a rather bizarre nod to the source material, a carpet beater hangs from the side of Le Chiffre's chair at the casino.
The man who is instructed to "follow that car" and then runs after it on foot is then-famous auto racer Stirling Moss. This is an example of a Joke That Does Not Date Well.
Spoiler alert! This film is (at least to date) the only time James Bond has actually died in the course of a James Bond film. Not counting any number of fakeouts and false alarms, of course.
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