Saturday, August 21, 2010


Despite pretensions to the contrary, this man can’t live by serious, thoughtful films alone. More often than I’d like to admit my soul cries out for movies that appeal to what I like to call my aesthetic sweet tooth. These are films of wholly superficial appeal, totally devoid of substance, which nonetheless number among my favorite, most re-watched DVDs. They are often films that scream "MOVIE!" at me from every frame: glamorous, glossily artificial worlds populated by beautifully lacquered denizens known as movie stars. Starkly and lavishly synthetic, these films transport me to a time when going to the movies was like entering a waking dream.

Joanna Pettet as Mata Bond wanders through a S.M.E.R.S.H. mind trap in one of the many scenes shot that never made it into the final film

One particular guilty pleasure is the 1967 psychedelic spy spoof Casino Royale, a film that required five directors, at least nine writers and over 12 million dollars to become an incoherent Sixties happening. Disjointed, nonsensical and never-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is, Casino Royale is a candy-colored, mini-skirted, jewel box of a film that is really a lot of escapist fun if you surrender yourself to its loopy, druggy reality.
Miss Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet) and Sir James Bond (David Niven)
in danger of being upstaged by great 60's decor

The stars of Casino Royale are a multinational horn of plenty. There's David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, Woody Allen and Joanna Pettet...and that's just for starters. The plot, such as it is, involves the original, knighted James Bond (Niven in starchy British mode) brought out of retirement to do battle with SMERSH: an evil organization of beautiful female spies intent on world domination. To combat this evil Sir James does just what anyone else would do under the circumstances; he assembles an army of sexually irresistible male and female agents and bestows upon each the name James Bond 007. Ok…
Sir James meets with a distinguished cadre of fellow agents and former co-stars

To keep questions concerning logic at bay (and there are many) Casino Royale wisely distracts with ceaseless scenes of gunplay, chases and explosions while throwing beautiful starlets and cameo guest stars at the screen at regular intervals. Look! There’s William Holden and drinking pal John Houston! Look! There’s George Raft flipping a coin! Look! There's Jean Paul Belmondo being all French and everything! Listen! That’s someone else’s voice coming out of Jacqueline Bisset’s mouth! It’s a little like watching a comic flip-book, but somehow it all works.
An already-wizened 34 year-old Peter O'Toole shows Peter Sellers he still has the pipes

This movie is unimaginable without the music of Burt Bacharach. I don’t think there’s a musical score out there better suited to a film. From the classic title tune (Herb Alpert so seriously nails this song it FLOORS me!) that simultaneously spoofs and pays tribute to the great John Barry James Bond themes, Bacharach’s timeless score is really the best of his career. A Columbia Record Club selection of the month back in 1967, I wore out the stylus endlessly replaying this lp. More than 40 years later, it still sounds just as groovy.

David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen are all great, but nothing they do here is markedly different from what you’ve seen them do in countless other films. The big surprise is the gorgeous Joanna Pettet. As Mata Bond, the illegitimate daughter of Mata Hari and you-know-who, Pettet shows a surprising flair for comedy light years away from her serious work in The Group (1966). Making the most of a comically cockney accent that she later trades in for finishing-school posh, Pettet exudes so much freshness and sexy star quality that one wishes she had worked more.
Joanna Pettet makes her entrance

Career low-point for classy actress Deborah Kerr as the evil agent Mimi:
The bedroom scene where she beseeches of Sir James, “Doodle me!”

The women in Casino Royale are all major foxes. Just gorgeous. This in spite of (or because of) the outrageous extremes of late-60s high-fashion and makeup tended to make women look like glamorous drag queens. The hairstyles and costumes on display in this film would make Lady Gaga weep with joy.
Ursula Andress (she of the aristocratic forehead) looks like a goddess, but my personal favorite is the darkly exotic Daliah Lavi. They sure don’t make 'em like her anymore. Graceful and sexy with helmet hair and a smoky voice, she is a special effect all unto herself.

Rupaul's Drag Race 1967 or, as the ads promised, a Bondwagon of
the most beautiful girls you ever saw?

Sultry agent Daliah Lavi (on the table) watched over by Woody Allen and an army of guards dressed in metallic chic by Paco Rabanne
Daliah Lavi as The Detainer

I just love everything about how this film looks. Casino Royale is like a natural history museum exhibit of the best and worst of the most ostentatious pop fads of the 60s. The space-glam costumes, the enormous hairstyles, the futuristic sets, the plastic Playboy magazine sexuality. Everything is amped up to surreal levels of overstatement and the result borders on the epic. The directors and writers may not have known what they were doing, but the production designer, art director and costume designers all hit home runs.

Samples of Casino Royale's great set design:
The Decoding Room at Frau Hoffner's Spy Academy

S.M.E.R.S.H. Operations Center

German Expressionist Lobby of Frau Hoffner's Spy Academy

The troubles behind the making of Casino Royale are legendary (Sellers was fired/quit before filming was completed, scenes were written and filmed with no knowledge of what other directors were doing...) and contribute to its scrambled narrative. But it must also be said that Casino Royale like BarbarellaMyra Breckinridge, and The Magic Christian, was fashioned as a "head film" from the start. A head film being a movie that either courted young, college-age audiences by attempting to cinematically replicate the psychedelic drug experience, or one that was best appreciated in an altered mind state.

None of this was obvious to me when I first saw Casino Royale at age ten at the Embassy Theater in San Francisco. All I knew then was that the film looked like a live-action cartoon. Today when I look at it, its kaleidoscopic charms come back as vividly to me as they did then. As for it being a "head film," I guess I have to agree with it. I find I enjoy Casino Royale much more if my keep my brain out of it entirely.
The production design of Casino Royale has more than left its thumbprint on my imagination

Copyright © Ken Anderson