Casino Royale (1966)

It didn’t take them long to start making fun of the Bond series. A measly four years after Dr. No introduced moviegoers to Mr. Bond, an extravagant satire of Britain’s finest spy make its way to the silver screen. But is the Bond series in need of ridicule so fast? Goldfinger already had more than its fair share of jabs towards the Bond character and how much material can be made fun of after only four films?

Therefore, Casino Royale must try to be more of a film in its own rights and what a film it is. It might be the most fascinating Bond film of them all. This is far from saying this is a good film, most of the time it’s nowhere near good, but it’s audacious in the bold disparity of its scenes, an absurdly structured, incongruent and completely postmodern film experience.

This is a film that has scenes that involve an entire room full of girls getting drunk, one of the most bizarre dream sequences ever made and a climax that involves hobbling together several completely unrelated film worlds. If nothing else, almost every moment in this film is a surprise. Just when the film feels like it might be dragging, it throws in another character, another plot point, another extravagant film moment.

It’s a cast that boasts the talents of Peter Sellers, David Niven, Woody Allen, William Holden, Orson Welles, Ursula Andress, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Peter O’Toole and John Huston. Not all are especially memorable or well-used. At some point, it feels like the film is just trying to thrown in every conceivable actor that might impress its audience.

That being said, two of these actors make the film. The first is, of all people, Woody Allen who plays Jimmy Bond, the nephew of James Bond. He’s doing his usual neurotic stich, but in the context of being a spy, it’s a hilarious gag that makes him a much more suitable spoof of James Bond than Peter Sellers. He’s not in the film too much, but every time he is, hilarity quickly ensues.

Orson Welles as the mysterious Le Chiffre actually ends up being an awesome Bond villain. His penchant for cheap magic tricks and self-important pretense makes him a bold satire of the Bond villain formula. It’s an act he’d repeat in his documentary F for Fake years later, showing he could also pull off the magician in a more serious and straightforward manner.

These two performances work the best because they remind the audience that this is indeed a comedy. A lot of sequences around them simply aren’t funny in the least. Watching David Niven take on a group of Scotsmen in a spectacle of strength or go out for an explosive hunting expedition are miscalculated, extravagant gags that lack any punch-line.

The failed attempts at comedy stem from an attempt to craft something so extravagant it can’t be taken too seriously, but more often than not, it’s not nearly extravagant or smart enough to be funny. There are a few moments that prophesy the completely uncomedic epic that would be Steven Spielberg’s 1941.

And that’s a shame because the setup has the potential to actually be funny. Far from being the suave lady’s man of From Russia with Love, this Bond is well known for his celibacy and is trying to get out of the spy business. From here, the film should have simply slipped Bond in situations similar to the first few movies, but the film instead opts to craft a lot of scenes that have little resemblance to any Bond film thus far.

There’s still the occasional funny gag. One of the new agents being trained to resist advances from all women is the closest this film comes to making the setup of this Bond resulting in any funny punchline. The other hilarious gag is a little bit by Peter Sellers where he slips into a number of disguises while also carrying on a conversation with Ursula Andress.

If this film had any sense of discipline, structure or pacing, it might find a way to make some gags that had some solid timing and strong payoffs. Instead, it’s an unruly rabble of ridiculous gags prancing about in the hopes the audience will find them funny. It’s fascinating to watch, much like a train wreck, but after a while, it actually becomes engaging of just because of how unexpected and bizarre this film is.

That on its own shouldn’t make it better than the likes of Thunderball or You Only Live Twice, but it at least makes it more entertaining and easier to watch. There are moments where Casino Royale seems on the verge of some sort of brilliant absurdist comedy, but then it’s hardly ever funny, which is the greatest indication that a comedy has failed.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing