“Casino Royale is the Star Wars Holiday Special of James Bond films.” — 007 historian John Cork
The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of Casino Royale, the James Bond comedy spoof starring Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, David Niven, Orson Welles and Woody Allen.
Our previous celebratory 007 articles include Tomorrow Never Dies, Die Another Day, Dr. No, The Living Daylights, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Casino Royale, For Your Eyes Only, Thunderball, GoldenEye, A View to a Kill, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Goldfinger, and 007… Fifty Years Strong.
The Bits continues the series with this retrospective featuring a Q&A with an esteemed group of James Bond historians who discuss the virtues, shortcomings and legacy of Casino Royale (1967). [Read on here...]
The participants for this segment are (in alphabetical order)….
Jon Burlingame is the author of The Music of James Bond (Oxford University Press, 2012). He also authored Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks (Watson-Guptill, 2000) and TV’s Biggest Hits: The Story of Television Themes from Dragnet to Friends (Schirmer, 1996). He writes regularly for the entertainment industry trade Variety and has also been published in The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He started writing about spy music for the 1970s fanzine File Forty and has since produced seven CDs of original music from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for the Film Score Monthly label. His website is www.jonburlingame.com.
John Cork is featured on the Casino Royale Blu-ray Disc audio commentary track and is the author (with Collin Stutz) of James Bond Encyclopedia (DK, 2007) and (with Bruce Scivally) James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002) and (with Maryam d’Abo) Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond (Abrams, 2003). He is the president of Cloverland, a multi-media production company, producing documentaries and supplemental material for movies on DVD and Blu-ray, including material for Chariots of Fire, The Hustler, and several James Bond and Pink Panther titles. Cork also wrote the screenplay to The Long Walk Home (1990), starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek. He wrote and directed the feature documentary You Belong to Me: Sex, Race and Murder on the Suwannee River for producers Jude Hagin and Hillary Saltzman (daughter of original Bond producer, Harry Saltzman). He has recently contributed articles on the literary history of James Bond for ianfleming.com and The Book Collector.
Lee Pfeiffer is the author (with Dave Worrall) of The Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007 (Boxtree, 1998/Harper Collins, 1999) and (with Philip Lisa) The Incredible World of 007: An Authorized Celebration of James Bond (Citadel, 1992) and The Films of Sean Connery (Citadel, 2001). Lee was a producer on the Goldfinger and Thunderball Special Edition LaserDisc sets and is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Cinema Retro magazine, which celebrates films of the 1960s and 1970s and is “the Essential Guide to Cult and Classic Movies.”
The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
And now that the participants have been introduced, might I suggest preparing a martini (shaken, not stirred, of course) and cueing up the soundtrack album to Casino Royale, and then enjoy the conversation with these James Bond authorities.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): Should Casino Royale be considered a James Bond movie?
Jon Burlingame: Yes, but with an asterisk! Fleming had long ago sold the rights to his first novel, and those rights eventually fell to agent-turned-producer Charles K. Feldman. With the enormous success of the Broccoli-Saltzman “official” 007 films, Feldman went the spoof route and tried to send up the Connery films with an all-star, big-budget, pull-out-all-the-stops movie that would make its own splash at the box-office.
Aside from the 1954 Casino Royale done for CBS television, there had been no film adaptation of the first James Bond adventure and so, yes, we need to consider this as a Bond film. Of sorts.
John Cork: Casino Royale is what happens when you make a James Bond movie without James Bond. In 1967, as any billboard or newspaper ad would tell you, “Sean Connery is James Bond.” Here is this producer, Charles K. Feldman, who has ended up with the rights to one James Bond film. He can’t get Sean Connery. He can’t make the deal he wants with Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and he’s just had a hit with a film that made absolutely no sense, What’s New, Pussycat? He decides that if he can’t get Sean Connery, he’ll make the What’s New Pussycat? of James Bond movies. Woody Allen wrote that what Charlie Feldman was “really trying to do is eliminate the Bond pictures forever.” So, in a lot of ways, one can argue that it isn’t a “James Bond” movie. It certainly misses much of the cinematic trademarks of Bond as well as the iconography. There is no gunbarrel opening, no James Bond Theme, no “James Bond will return…” at the end. And the plot itself does not focus on the character of James Bond. In fact, the film intentionally confounds the very notion of there being any single character named James Bond that the audience can follow. Even more audacious, and often overlooked, this is a film where the villain’s plot to destroy the world accidentally works. Spoiler alert: James Bond dies in the end!
On the other hand, the film has all the right ingredients. There are beautiful women, fantastic sets, more genuine Ian Fleming content from the novel than in You Only Live Twice (which is not actually saying much at all), an amazing score, action and daring-do, and jokes that would later end up in other “real” James Bond films. Watched back-to-back with Moonraker, A View to a Kill, or Die Another Day, Casino Royale ‘67 fairs pretty well.
It is also a film that holds such an amazing place in the history of James Bond that it should not be discounted or ignored.
Lee Pfeiffer: Casino Royale should not be considered to be a “James Bond” movie except in the legal sense. It is ostensibly derived from elements of Ian Fleming’s novel but those elements are few and far between. Nevertheless, the screen rights to the book, which was Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, had an erratic history. Initially, Fleming sold the rights for virtually nothing so that the novel could be adapted to a one-hour live television drama. It was broadcast in 1954 on CBS in America as part of the Climax! Mystery Theater program that presented a different story with a different cast every week. Barry Nelson was cast as Bond and is referred to in one scene as “Card Sense Jimmy Bond.” That makes a Bond purist cringe today but as Nelson once told me, the character was virtually unknown and thus, the absurdity of casting an American with a crew cut didn’t strike anyone as abnormal — nor did the attempt to portray him as a Bogart-like American tough guy. The show was an admirable attempt to follow Fleming’s plot but was hampered by a meager production budget and the fact that it was telecast live meant there were no exterior shots — it all had to be presented on sound stages. The program had no impact and Bond lingered for years until producer Charles K. Feldman obtained the screen rights. By the early 1960s producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman formed a partnership that gave them the screen rights to every other Fleming Bond novel — and United Artists’ production head David Picker agreed to distribute the films.
Feldman hadn’t seen the potential in Bond until the UA series became a blockbuster. He approached Broccoli and Saltzman with a proposition to film Casino Royale starring Sean Connery — but Broccoli and Saltzman weren’t interested. They had just had to take on Kevin McClory as a third-wheel producer on Thunderball because he controlled the screen rights, which was part of a complex legal settlement between McClory and Fleming that compromised the rights Broccoli and Saltzman thought they had obtained outright. They didn’t want another partner on the next film, which turned out to be You Only Live Twice. Feldman had a valuable property but felt he couldn’t compete with the makers of the Connery Bond films so he went in another direction. Having recently produced the hit, mod comedy What’s New Pussycat?, he turned Casino Royale into a similarly-themed big budget, star-packed madcap spoof. Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress and Woody Allen all reunited from the Pussycat team but this time the results were not as favorable. Feldman had four directors (including the esteemed John Huston) shooting simultaneously in different British studios — though none of them consulted each other. The script was written on the fly and the budget soared out of control. In the midst of it all, Feldman fired Peter Sellers before he could shoot his scenes for the climax of the movie. The filming was utter chaos.
Coate: How do you think Casino Royale should be remembered on its 50th anniversary?
Burlingame: As a product of its time. Today, fifty years later, I am able to enjoy it for what it is. An incomprehensible mess, of course, but with so many amusing asides along the way. For every cringe-worthy moment involving Woody Allen or Peter Sellers, there are compensations: I love Orson Welles as Le Chiffre, who came in and did it as a lark (probably to make enough money to invest in his next film); and Joanna Pettet as the love child of Bond and Mata Hari — well, even if you shake your head at the concept you must admit she is spectacular in the part.
There is, however, one unassailable, brilliant, contribution, and that is Burt Bacharach’s score. I had the pleasure of reviewing Bacharach’s original sketches and orchestrations while I was writing my book five years ago. As terrible as the film is, Bacharach’s score is a work of genius. He knew precisely what to do despite the madness, and even if you only consider The Look of Love (his romantic theme for Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress, with its incredible Hal David lyrics and unforgettable Dusty Springfield vocal), well, that was worth the entire effort. Even Leslie Bricusse, who won the best-song Oscar that year for Talk to the Animals from Doctor Dolittle, later admitted that he thinks The Look of Love (also nominated) should have won because it’s “ten times better” than what he wrote.
Cork: I think Casino Royale should be celebrated. The film is a classic, a monument to everything that was right and everything that was wrong with cinema in the mid-1960s. It is baffling, audacious, a pop-art masterpiece as much as any Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein work, at times brilliantly funny, and yet completely infuriating. It was a huge middle finger to its intended audience. On one hand, it is the Star Wars Holiday Special of James Bond films. On the other, it is a movie whose brilliance could not be seen by many Bond fans until they saw so much of it re-digested through the eyes of Mike Myers and Jay Roach in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. It is a James Bond film produced by a man who had grown to hate James Bond. And he recruits some of the most talented names in cinema to make this film: Woody Allen, Orson Welles, John Huston are some of the greatest filmmakers ever, and they all contributed their creative talents. Woody Allen is brilliant in the film. So is Welles.
And that score! Ah, that Bacharach score is some of the most wonderful music ever written for a film. This American Life used to use needle drops from Casino Royale all the time. The Look of Love still raises goosebumps for me every time I hear it. This is a song that charted three times! The single version by Sérgio Mendes & Brasil ‘66 charts in 1968 after they performed it at the Oscars. Isaac Hayes does a fantastically trippy version in 1970, and Diana Krall charts with it on the Adult Contemporary charts in 2001! The original sung by Dusty Springfield, and produced by Phil Ramone, is worshiped by music professionals. The song itself is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. It is one of my favorite scores of all time.
The film is brilliantly shot. Jack Hildyard, who had shot Bridge on the River Kwai for David Lean was the main man behind the camera. He had just come off the similarly insane Modesty Blaise, setting the bar for marrying studio style and Pop Art sensibilities. But Hildyard was supplemented with another cinematographer who had a huge influence on Casino Royale, and that was Nicholas Roeg. So many of the brilliant shots in the film belong to Roeg, including the claustrophobic close-ups and surreal sequences.
The fantastic supporting actors provide amazing moments of comedy. As does Peter Sellers and so many other members of the cast.
It is much better to watch this film as if one were watching a couple of episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Don’t expect it to make sense. Don’t expect to care about any of the characters. Just roll with it. Watch the film for what it is: a celebration and parody of popular culture in the year 1967.
Pfeiffer: The film was often loathed by Bond fans because they felt it represented a waste of a great Fleming novel. However, MGM and Eon Productions obtained all screen rights to the novel — and Feldman’s film version — in the 1990s, leaving them free to make a “real” version of the book. That marked Daniel Craig’s debut as Bond in 2006 and the movie was met with international acclaim. Since then, I’ve noticed that people have taken a more benign view of the spoof version of Casino Royale.
Cinema Retro covered the making of the movie exhaustively way back in issue #6 and in researching the article, I remembered the things I liked most about it. There is a superb score and title theme by Burt Bacharach and some of the best production design work in any film of the period. Much of it is also very funny thanks to the inspired cast and some uncredited jokes by Woody Allen. So for my taste, there is much to love about the movie even if I’m in a distinct minority. My co-publisher Dave Worrall loathes it. It makes for some fun arguments if we’re sitting around a pub.
Coate: Can you describe what it was like seeing Casino Royale for the first time?
Burlingame: Oh, Lord, I was appalled. It must have been on television in the ‘70s, because I certainly didn’t see it in the theaters at the time of its release. Yes, there is an all-star cast that includes David Niven, Sellers, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Deborah Kerr and Andress; but with six directors and something like ten screenwriters (three credited, most not), it was like passing a multi-car wreck on the freeway — terrible, but you couldn’t look away. I watched and thought to myself, how can anyone not be embarrassed by this disaster?
Cork: My aunt Lois took me to see Casino Royale at the drive-in in Montgomery, Alabama, in the summer of 1967. I was five years old. It’s likely I fell asleep in the car watching the film. I actually remember seeing the trailer for the film (again with my aunt) at some movie prior to that, and I recall shots from the end of the film in the trailer, but not from seeing it at the drive-in. My main memory of seeing the film that time was thinking, even at the age of five, that Deborah Kerr swinging around on the drain pipes was not nearly as funny as the filmmakers must have thought it would be. That opinion still holds. But the remote control car chase that followed? I loved that and still do! The very next day, my aunt drove us out to a local record store where she bought the soundtrack. When I became a James Bond fan, she let me have it, and I still have it to this day.
Pfeiffer: I saw it at the grand old Stanley Theatre in Jersey City, New Jersey, where I grew up. I was ten years old and went to see it with my parents. I was already a big Bond fan but was too young to realize that this film would seem to preclude a serious version of the story ever being brought to the screen. I remember liking it very much and going to see it several times, a not uncommon experience for a kid in an era where a children’s ticket cost fifty cents. I still have my original vinyl soundtrack that I played quite a bit.
Coate: Where do you think Casino Royale ranks among the James Bond movie series?
Burlingame: I have wrestled with this for years, especially when writing my book. When the issue arose about whether to include Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again, the two unofficial Bond releases, I quickly came to the conclusion that Bond fans would be curious about both even if they were not considered canon by 007 fans. And when Eon declined to cooperate with my book that made it even easier to include them.
That being said, I have to say I’d rank the ‘67 Casino Royale at the very bottom of all Bond films. If you’re a Fleming fan you can easily do without it. Especially considering the 2006 version with Daniel Craig, which certainly ranks among the greatest Bond films ever.
Cork: In 2012, my son and I watched all the Bond film in order and ranked them. That’s five years ago, but I’m going with them. Everyone can clutch their pearls, but I rank the 1967 Casino Royale at number nine. Here’s why: I enjoy the film. In many ways it is a big stinking mess. But I had a friend who has now passed away, James Burkart Jr. He and I would watch the film together late at night and laugh ourselves silly. He could quote dialogue and I would quote other bits and parts of the film became shorthand for us. “We stand, we bid! We no stand, we no bid!” “My goodness this is strong shampoo.” So I greatly enjoy the film. Even the ending, which for years, I winced at, found a way into my heart.
Terry Southern, who had poked fun at Bond in his script for The Loved One and who was just about to help make Easy Rider a phenomenon, was brought in as one of an innumerable list of writers, and the absurd fight at the end was his doing. He had already written a version of that scene before, a scene where everyone fights for no reason as the world comes to an end. That was the pie fight in Dr. Strangelove, a scene cut out at the last minute. The chaotic ending of Casino Royale is a version of that scene where idiotic comedic violence takes place as the seconds tick down to the end of everything. Watching it again and thinking of Woody Allen as Slim Pickens working to release the bomb, and the fight in the casino as the pie fight in the war room, always makes me smile.
Pfeiffer: It doesn’t rank anywhere in the Bond series. It stands alone in its own universe. It simply can’t be compared to any other movie in the series, although I’d still rather watch it than a couple of the weakest “real” Bonds.
Coate: What is the legacy of Casino Royale?
Burlingame: That’s a difficult question. I’m tempted to use that wildly overused phrase, “it is what it is” — meaning, it’s a one-of-a-kind movie that can’t really be considered a Bond film in the classic sense, yet it is based (however loosely) on the Fleming novel. And it is from the ‘60s, when we were all so immersed in spy movies; this was just one more, although a departure from what we may have expected or even wanted.
I come back to the Burt Bacharach angle: His score is a masterpiece, a remarkable work considering what inspired it. I remember finding the LP in the 1970s and then learning, many years later, that it was considered the apex of audiophile recordings, one of the greatest-sounding albums ever recorded (The New York Times even extolled its sonic merits in a 1991 story). And as much as I love Burt’s Casino Royale theme with its Herb Alpert trumpet against those equally brilliant Richard Williams titles (I find something new every time I watch them!), the Look of Love song is so great that it’s worth everything you have to sit through to hear it.
Cork: Did you ever laugh at the Austin Powers films? They wouldn’t exist without Casino Royale. Did you ever slow dance to The Look of Love? Casino Royale is part of some strange continuum that stretches from Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon through to Walkabout, Annie Hall, Midnight in Paris and the Harry Potter films. Stuart Craig who did such amazing work bringing the Harry Potter universe to life as the production designer on those films worked on Casino Royale. There is probably no film before or since that gathered so much talent in front of and behind the cameras. It is completely absurdist, devoid of a plot, but for me it is a joy to watch.
Pfeiffer: When the film opened in 1967, it grossed quite a bit of money but the soaring production costs compromised any chance of major profits. Feldman had a nervous breakdown from making it and retired from the industry. The film’s prospects were also compromised by the release of You Only Live Twice shortly thereafter. Both films probably ended up cannibalizing each other’s grosses but the Connery movie was much better received for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, Casino has grown in stature. Its greatest legacy is that Mike Myers is a major fan of the movie and I doubt Austin Powers would exist if it wasn’t for Casino Royale. The first Powers movie took so much of its inspiration from the Feldman production. The movie also inspired Woody Allen to take control of his film career. Having witnessed the chaos and waste of money on the Casino production, he became determined to have total say over all of his future movies. So the debacle of the film helped bring us an American comedy genius’s best movies.
Casino Royale is finally getting some much-deserved respect in recent years. I went this summer to see a big screen presentation of it at The Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a John Huston festival and was surprised at how well-attended it was and how receptive the audience was to the gags. Huston himself disowned the movie but it seems there are still plenty of us who are willing to embrace it. If nothing else, everyone agrees that Bacharach score is great.
Coate: Thank you — Jon, John, and Lee — for participating and sharing your thoughts about Casino Royale on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
The James Bond roundtable discussion will return in Remembering “Octopussy” on its 35th Anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, Danjaq LLC, Famous Artists Productions, MGM Home Entertainment, United Artists Corporation.
- Michael Coate