Casino Royale is the bastard step-child of the James Bond franchise. When Ian Fleming sold the rights to the first Bond novel, leading to its use on the TV show Climax! (where Barry Nelson was the first actor to portray the famous spy), he couldn’t have guessed that this would be one of the resulting effects. Columbia Pictures, knowing that Sean Connery was feeling burned out working for United Artists, tried to pull him away to play Bond for them in a straightforward film adaptation. When it became apparent that he didn’t want to continue in the role beyond You Only Live Twice (though he would, ironically, return to the role twice), Columbia decided, instead, to rush a comedy into production that they would release in direct competition to Twice.
What eventually emerged from a very troubled production (five credited directors!) is a film that Woody Allen stated taught him everything he needed to know about how not to make a film. It is a film that doesn’t really know what kind of movie it wants to be and that is death for a comedy. It is, however, saved to a certain extent by the over-the-top performances and the sheer ballsiness of Columbia to dare release a movie that is this much of a train wreck.
First of all, they did a pretty good job of casting for a comedic James Bond film. David Niven plays the “real” Sir James Bond as a retired teetotaler with a stammer and an aversion to women. M (co-director John Huston), Q (Geoffrey Bayldon) and Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet) are valid, if humorous, takes on the characters. Woody Allen has an odd little role as Bond’s nephew Jimmy who has a secret. There’s even a more traditional Bond-type in the part of Cooper (Terence Cooper), one of several characters who take on the persona of James Bond as part of Sir James’ plans. Another extension to the character list is to be found in the persona of Mata Bond, the daughter of Sir James and the classic spy Mata Hari.
And smack in the middle of the film is an honest-to-goodness adaptation of the book. The Bond stand-in for this sequence is baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble, played by Peter Sellers. His is the only character given real depth and he plays the part with conviction. The Vesper Lynd of this film (played by original Bond girl Ursula Andress) is more openly ruthless, but is, again, a valid adaptation. And Orson Welles was a great choice for Le Chiffre, even if he never portrays the real menace shown by the (still) definitive take on the character done by Peter Lorre for the TV adaptation.
But all this star power can’t really hold up a film that creaks painfully at the seams. As we shift from one scene to the next, we are also often shifting from one director to another and one primary cast to another. The film fails to flow in any reasonable sense. By the time you get to the ultimate climax, it’s hard to keep straight in one’s mind that you’re still watching the same film you started with.
The one area where Casino Royale easily stands up to any “proper” Bond film (and vastly outclasses the 2006 remake) is the music. The score is by Burt Bacharach and oozes 1960s cool. “The Look of Love” became a standard and “Casino Royale” is also a great track. It’s easy to see from the music alone why Mike Myers cites this film as a major influence on the Austin Powers series.
Is Casino Royale a bad movie? Oh, yeah. But it’s still fun and as long as you aren’t looking for a logical storyline (or even just one you can follow) and just want some slick, cool-looking 60s wackiness, you can still find lots to enjoy.