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 exclusively to my aesthetic sweet tooth. These are usually films of wholly superficial virtues, all surface gloss and totally devoid of substance, yet, for one reason or another, they occupy a place of fondness in my heart that is sometimes at complete odds with their actual merit as films. 
Broadcasting and flaunting their artifice in every glamorous, glossily art-directed, production-designed frame, these movies are proudly escapist, assertively entertaining, and unashamedly lightweight. They transport me back to the days when going to the movies was like entering a waking dream.
David Niven as Sir James Bond
Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynde
peter Sellers as Evelyn Tremble
Joanna Pettet as Mata Bond
Orson Welles as Le Chiffre
Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond
Daliah Lavi as The Detainer
A particular favorite of mine is the 1967 psychedelic spy spoof Casino Royale, a film that required the participation of five directors, at least nine writers, and over 12 million- dollars to become a convoluted, barely coherent, sixties happening. Disjointed, nonsensical, and never-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is, Casino Royale is nevertheless 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 non-reality. Released during the overkill phase of 60s spy-mania, Casino Royale has the stylish, over-the-top, gadget-heavy look of a serious James Bond film (and some of the action sequences, particularly an early car chase scene, are very well done), but given that TVs Get Smart had been poking fun of the spy genre since 1965 - with considerably more laughs - much of what may have seemed like fresh targets when the screenplay was written, felt old-hat by the time it reached the screen.
In one of many sequences that were shot but never made it into the final film, Joanna Pettet wanders through a pop-art, psychedelic mind trap devised by the Soviet counterintelligence agency known as   S.M.E.R.S.H. 
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. 
Miss Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet) and Sir James Bond (Niven)
in danger of being upstaged by the groovy '60s decor
The plot, such as it is, involves the original, knighted James Bond (Niven in starchy British mode) being forced out of retirement when SMERSH takes to utilizing beautiful female spies to strike at the oversexed heart of Her Majesty's Finest. 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 of James Bond 007.  Ok….
A cadre of distinguished fellow agents (and former David Niven co-stars) converge at Sir James' country estate in hopes of  persuading him to come out of retirement
To keep questions concerning logic at bay (and there are many), Casino Royale wisely distracts with ceaseless scenes of gunplay, car chases, karate battles, and very photogenic 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 all happens so fast and with so little connection to what else is going on, it’s a little like watching a celebrity flip-book, but somehow it all seems to come together.
Only 34 years old at the time, an already wizened-looking Peter O'Toole stops by to show Peter Sellers he still has the pipes. Sellers and O'Toole appeared together in the Woody Allen-penned 1965 comedy What's New, Pussycat?, whose popularity the stylistically similar Casino Royale  hoped to duplicate

I'm unable to separate Casino Royale from its musical score. The two are one and the same. To listen to the soundtrack album is virtually like experiencing the film. Scored by the then-untouchable Burt Bacharach, I don’t think there’s a musical score out there better suited to a movie. 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 indubitably '60s yet 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 for me 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 which she later trades in for finishing-school posh, Pettet exudes so much freshness and sexy star quality that one wishes she had worked more.
Mata makes an entrance
For the most part, the elder members of the cast coast along on a kind of game goodwill. You're less impressed by their performances than you are by their being such good sports about taking part in such silliness. The younger players, for the most part, barely make any impression at all, what with having to compete with spaceships, Frankenstein monsters, and seriously eye-popping art direction.
Career low-point for classy actress Deborah Kerr as the evil agent Mimi: the bedroom scene where she's called upon to beseech the celibate 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 and is photographed accordingly, 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.
And, as this was the late '60s, the boom era of pop-arty, futuristic, and mod fashion, Casino Royale doesn't disappoint in showcasing what must have been an enormous costume budget. Iconic designer Paco Rabanne contributes metallic Roman-inspired military wear, but elsewhere you'll see what looks to be the entire '60s fashion catalog parade before your very eyes.
I know this looks like a 1976 edition of RuPaul's Drag Race, but Casino Royale was heavily promoted in Playboy magazine and in its ad campaign for boasting "A Bondwagon of the most beautiful girls you ever saw!"

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
SMERSH Operations Center
The German Expressionist Lobby of Frau Hoffner's Spy Academy
The behind-the-scenes troubles in 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, last-minute rewrites, money thrown away on sets and sequences never filmed, etc.) and contribute to its scrambled narrative. It's rather something of a miracle that anyone was able to assemble even a remotely coherent film from the acres of footage shot. That the film proved a modest success at all has a lot to do with the timbre of the times: movies that made no sense were becoming all the rage.
Casino Royale, like BarbarellaMyra Breckinridge, and The Magic Christian, was fashioned as a "head film": 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. As it was also a film fashioned largely by middle-aged men, Casino Royale may have looked very hip, but was VERY old-fashioned in almost every department.
Jaqueline Bissett as Giovanna Goodthighs
Although possessed of a beautiful British accent, it was Bissett's curious fate to have
 her voice dubbed in both this film and Two for the Road (1967)
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 can't argue with that, after all, Casino Royale is definitely the kind of movie I enjoy much more when I keep my brain out of it entirely.
Miss Moneypenny and Sir James in The Fingerprint Room

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2010


  1. I've always enjoyed this flick, too, but my real guilty pleasure in this genre is "Modesty Blaise" - love the design and the leads despite a ridiculous plot.
    And what was up with dubbing Ms. Bisset in her early roles? Just watched 'Two for the Road' recently and noticed she was dubbed in that one too. (And she has a such a great voice!)

    1. Hi Joe
      "Casino Royale" has charms that mitigate its not making a lick of sense...almost all of them visual.
      Given how much I like Dirk Bogarde, I'm surprised that I have never taken the time to check out "Modesty Blaise." Having just this month got around to the exquisite film "Petulia", I think I'm overdue to re-visit my 60s youth.
      And yes, that's odd about Bisset being dubbed in those early roles. Especially, as you point out,since she has such a marvelous voice.

  2. I like your take on this film as a 60s psychelic artifact. I recall seeing bits and pieces of this film on TV when I was much younger and not being able to make sense of it - I'm relieved to discover it was the film and not me! I confess, I'm not a James Bond fan; I've seen 2 Bond films, Dr No and Goldfinger, and I was actually bored. The gadgetry and girls didn't do a thing for me (though I was amused by Sean Connery's lewd pronunciation of "Pussy Galore"). Yet the Bond films' impact on the 60s and beyond seems incalculable - how much of 60s films' psychedelic, druggy atmosphere and wafting plots were influenced by the incomprehensible storylines and dreamy hi-tech gizmos in Bond? I think my problem was that I couldn't just sit back and enjoy the flow of whatever in front of me (I was searching for *meaning*, damn it!).

    The one story I recall reading about Casino Royale is the infamous hatred between Orson Welles and Peter Sellers. Seems the 2 disliked each other so much that when it came time to film their scene together, they refused to do it--so each had to do his lines separately with a stand-in, and then the bits were spliced together. I think that a really savvy, self-referential film might have tried to work that into the film's setting or plot; it so outrageous it's almost unbelievable. From what I've read, Sellers was NOTORIOUSLY difficult to work with (not that Welles was a walk in the park himself), and caused misery for many of the directors he collaborated with.

    1. I kind of understand what you mean about James Bond films. As influential as they are (were) they are not easy going for the non-fan. I have yet to see one of the Sean Connery ones all the way through (and yes, his pronunciation of "Pussy Galore" makes it sound infinitely filthier!), and of the modern ones, I'm afraid I always find the plots incomprehensible as well. What gets me is that it never seems to matter. Each film is a glossy parade of explosions, fights, chases, and beautiful women.

      I've always wished someone would write a book about this troubled production. I too have heard all the stories of the Welles/Sellers fraud and the general atmosphere of tossing any and everything into the pot. As scrambled as the results are, just hearing about the behind the scenes nuttiness makes me wonder how ANYTHING ever wound up on the screen.

  3. I realize this is an ancient article, but I want to wish you and all a bonne année. Ken, your fabulous work here I only just discovered recently, and I wish to show my appreciation. My entry point was your essay on 'A Delicate Balance'--my favorite alternative to 'Who's Afraid'.

    'Casino Royale' deserves a bumping up again, if you don't mind. In the all the madness in all this world, I return to this movie again and again for the comforting nihilism and fantastic sets. It makes no sense because this world doesn't. I first saw 'Casino Royale' on Encore in the early '90s and instantly biked to the mall to buy a VHS copy like a bizarre little twit. The rest is/was history. Touches of the art direction have infected my home.

    Contrary to most, I love Deborah Kerr's loony Scottish fantasy, even if it isn't her best role (ahem); as her character even says, it can only be regarded as a 'hair"loom. Mata Bond's Vegas/Lido de Paris entrance is regular viewing (that acre of scarf reveal!), and Frau Hoffner's theater of the mind, from German expressionism to swinging karate, is right out of the ending of 'Steppenwolf'.

    Nothing sums up this film better than Urusula Andress descending in a motorized and literally sunken living room with Peter Sellers into her love lair with Martinis and Burt Bacharach.

    It is the stuff of dreams, indeed

    1. Happy New Year, Postmodern Recycler (love that handle!) - Can’t think of a nicer 1st day of 2023 greeting than your cheery and enlivening comments about my blog (Thank you!) and one of my favorite films of the much-maligned curiosities that came out of the late-’60s.

      It’s always a thrill to hear how young people respond to this movie (first time seeing it in the 90s!) and in reading your take on it, I can’t imagine it being very different than my own. It sounds as though you appreciate what I always saw as its principal asset… its visual pizazz.
      When you say touches of CASINO ROYALE’s art direction have infected home, my mind leaped to the highly appealing but improbable notion that you painted your foyer to look like the “fingerprint room” Sir James and Moneypenny find their way into.

      Just reading your enthusiastic appreciation of the film’s varied assets makes me want to revisit it again myself. And I think you have come up with perhaps the best description of why this movie has remained such a favorite after all these years: “It makes no sense because this world doesn't.” Beautiful! And spot on the nose.
      CASINO ROYALE was released at a seriously chaotic time in history, an unmoored period in history that pales in comparison to the lunacy of today. Any 60 seconds of the absolute, full-nutter craziness of CASINO ROYALE makes infinitely more sense than a single day of America newsfeed today.

      I think you were onto something when you biked to the mall so that you could keep revisiting the outrageous fun of this movie (you even make me want to reexamine my reaction to Deborah Kerr here)and you’ve certainly found the key to CASINO ROYALE that only the passage of time would come to reveal…it IS comforting in its excesses, and its dismissal of logic is liberating. Thank you for a most entertaining read.

    2. Gosh, Ken. Thanks! You are so right to underscore a younger person's appreciation of these old films. For me, movies like 'Casino Royale' were my invitation to a more interesting world beyond the suburbs (I wasn't exactly channeling Bette Davis). You better believe my husband vehemently talked me out of doing the fingerprint room in our den. I was, however, allowed to get a photograph of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" blown up floor-to-ceiling for the bedroom wall in homage to Ursula's passion pit.

      Anyway, if I may, I'd like to drop in on future posts and comment when I have something to say. As far as Kerr's performance here, I'd just say it's as close to camp as she ever got, which is an unexpected treat. Bad jokes done even more badly can be an astonishing thing!