The art of not writing stories
I’ve got to be honest. I must come clean. it’s not a crime. But…
I’m not a big fan of stories.
I know. It’s sacrilege. It’s crazy. Everyone likes stories, right? Everyone wants to know the who and the why and the what happened next and the happily ever after.
I could rephrase it another way; a more palatable way. But it remains the case that, after fifty odd years of watching, reading and even writing I just don’t care about stories. I much prefer a meandering piece of directionless prose (and meandering directionless films) to a perfectly organised story that begins as stories are supposed to begin and ends as stories are supposed to end. Such pieces fill my heart with joy while endings carry within them the inevitability of disappointment. The looming final page or final scene is like a policeman sealing the scene off with tape. This story is over, done, leave it, go away, nothing more to see here. Go on, clear off! Get out of the cinema! Take the book back to the library! Turn the radio off! You’ve had your ending. That’s your lot… Are you still here? What do you want, a sequel? Go on… Sling your hook. Buzz off. Take a hike. Etc.
Endings seem so uncivilized.
The joy of a great book or film is that they don’t end. You can dip into them at your leisure. You don’t want to take them back to the library because you read the final page. You want to own the book so you can read chapter three again. And then chapter two. The order doesn’t matter.
And just as the joy of a book, for me, isn’t in being told a story, the joy of a film, for me, is in moments, meetings, scenes, set-pieces, funny dialogue, the sublime. It’s always disappointing to see that a character has become little more than a chess piece whose destiny has been organised by the player/writer to move the film towards its inevitable conclusion.
‘The enemy has penetrated our most secret inner circles’
Ian Fleming was the consummate novelist. Nobody could really accuse him of not writing stories. He knew how to immediately engage the reader throwing them into the middle of the action: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” The opening chapter of Casino Royale starts halfway through the narrative with James Bond facing his adversary Le Chiffre across the gambling table. This, his first novel, can be read virtually in one sitting. Bond doesn’t come across as a particularly likeable or smart character. He doesn’t yet know which way is up and can be fooled by the split loyalties of a woman he thinks he can trust with his life. Over the relatively brief length of the novel, however, we walk in Bond’s shoes for a while. We see the world from inside his head and when we put the book down, we may feel closer to him.
It was once said of Ian Fleming that he did not know how to write a boring sentence. This is why he is always worth reading. This is why his travel book Thrilling Cities is just as exciting as any of his fiction. He just writes of the world, intoxicated with the flavours of life. While reading Fleming, you are breathing the same air, smelling the same smells, tasting the food, feeling the pain and the pleasure. But, while Fleming always made sure that he had villains who would be taken care of by the end of each book (I hope that’s not a spoiler for anyone), James Bond never changes. Bond is, in that sense, the ultimate picaresque character, a roguish sensualist who gets by through ingenuity in the heat of the moment. It is hard to read Ian Fleming without feeling immediately in the heart of life.
It might be a mistake to reference Fleming’s book and character when talking about the 1967 film, Casino Royale because although part of the film is based upon events in Fleming’s book, they don’t happen to James Bond. Stylistically the film deviates in every imaginable way from the character created on the page. And yet… There is, in Casino Royale something of a flavour of the world, a sensuality of a different type.
Everything Or Nothing
When EON Productions, the company started by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, developed their successful series of films based on the James Bond books, Casino Royale was the one book they couldn’t get the rights to. Those rights belonged already to someone else. Harry Saltzman had acquired everything else but Casino Royale, which had already been adapted for television (with the British James Bond being an American called Jimmy Bond) and by the time EON started their roster of films, it belonged to the producer and agent Charles K. Feldman (one of Cubby Broccoli’s closest friends).
In addition to setting Bond across that table from Le Chiffre, the book Casino Royale also establishes his cynicism after an unfortunate encounter with the book’s heroine, Vesper Lynd, and an even more unfortunate encounter with a carpet beater. The film series, lacking the rights to this novel, however, started with Bond as a well-established agent in an adaptation of the sixth Bond novel, Dr No. This film not only introduced the world to the working-class-and-hiding-it-well performance of Sean Connery moving like a panther across the frame but also to Ursula Andress emerging from the sea like Venus on a Half Shell with a white bikini and dagger. The film was an instant hit.
Dr No had exoticism and colour of the West Indies setting in a plot whose violence was gripping enough for the most jaded viewers. For British audiences in 1962, that colour must have felt like the final nail in the coffin of the austerity of the post-war years. Rationing had only ended in 1954, a year after Casino Royale had first appeared in bookshops. Holidays to the West Indies or anywhere with beaches and a bit of sun would have been an impossibility for the average denizen of these rainy isles. Seeing the azure sky gleaming over aquamarine seas, the island life pulsing with a calypso beat, sophisticated gambling clubs, beautiful women with treacherous natures and Sean Connery’s permanent-looking tan (impressive for someone coming from Edinburgh), must have been intoxicating. Within a few years, the Bond films along with The Beatles and a number of other pop culture marvels would make Britain seem colourful for a little while, but at the beginning, it seemed almost impossible that Dr No was a film that came from here. Britain wasn’t supposed to be colorful or sexy or exciting so it was odd to think of James Bond being a fundamentally British character.
All the EON Bond films had plots. But the plot barely ever mattered. Nobody ever came out of a James Bond film saying what a great story it had. The key to Bond was in the intensity and exoticism of its moments. A ruthless seduction here and there. A man killed in a cold-blooded way. A stunt that risked life and limb for some poor chap. And then there were the cars which growled along winding roads with hairpin turns on mountainside roads taken way too fast. Life, for James Bond seemed like life would be for us all if only we lived it perfectly and with absolute courage and confidence. That he occasionally got hit or tortured or that so many of his girlfriends got killed was neither here nor there. Bond was living the life.
This was the key to EON’s success in the 60s. Moments that you wanted to see again and again. Moments that sold a movie and moments that you came back to see again just because you enjoyed living them so much. Once a story is done, if the story is all that there is, you have no need to go back to that book or that film. James Bond films were the kind of films that got seen over and over. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with telling great stories. That they’re still being shown today and selling blu-rays 50 years letter is testament to this.
But Charles K. Feldman couldn’t just replicate what EON were doing. The story of how the movie came to the screen is extremely well chronicled in Michael Richardson’s The Making of Casino Royale and I won’t go over the ground covered in that book (although I might resort to the odd reference here and there). Suffice to say that the difficulty of having such a hot property lay in just how hot a property it was and what was and was not possible to do. Money was spent with what might seem a kind of reckless abandon. Indecision hovering over what the film was intended to be causing even more money to be spent. Treatment followed treatment. Screenplay followed screenplay. There’s almost a decade between the first treatment and the final version of the film arriving on the screen (just a a couple of months ahead of the fifth EON film You Only Live Twice). Feldman decided, in the end, to make his Bond film a kind of anti-Bond Bond film. Producer, Harry Saltzman had also produced an anti-Bond film in the adaptation of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File. But where the Harry Palmer films were anti-Bond by eschewing the fast cars, glamorous locations and high life of Fleming’s hero, Feldman’s film would be a James Bond film based on the first James Bond book and it would be a big lavish film in every way except, maybe, having James Bond in it.
Feldman had been one of the biggest talent agents in the world; a beloved figure in the industry who could get hold of just about any of the world’s biggest stars at a moment’s notice. By the mid-sixties he was flying high as a producer due to the massive successes of the 1965 film What’s New Pussycat? Starring Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. This was a comedy about a man who had so many girlfriends that, however much he might try, he just couldn’t remain faithful to one woman (shades of Bond already). The story of that film begins absurdly enough, escalating from semi-sophisticated farce into a riotous romp with a lot of bed-hopping and ending with its characters chasing around France in go-karts. Sellers’ role in the film was as a psychiatrist who has to listen to the confessions of O’Toole suffering from the fact that women seem to find him handsome when the light hits him in a certain way. Sellers’ psychiatrist had the opposite problem being completely in love with a woman (not his wife) who had no interest in him at all. The rising levels of insanity to the point of absurdity in Pussycat would be mirrored in Casino Royale. Feldman saw Sellers as someone who would make a great anti-Bond. Sellers had other ideas. The confusion of the first and second and third and fourth drafts led Feldman to decide, at some point, that the best way to make Casino Royale a success would be by making it a film of many parts with many stories. He was going to sew all the pieces together somehow. There were other films which had been made with a group of directors coming together on the same project (especially in Europe with films like RoGoPaG and The Oldest Profession)… What could possibly go wrong? He had different directors working on different scenes with different actors at the same time. He had half the cast playing versions of James Bond and maybe, just maybe, he lost control of the film a little bit. Maybe it wasn’t what it was initially intended to be. But the result, critically derided at the time, is not only a watchable movie. It’s one of the most glorious and dreamlike experiences in cinematic history.
For many people, not just critics but also hardcore Bond fans who expect their Bond to be a plausibly tough hero, Feldman’s film is an aberration. And it is the pinnacle of cinematic excess. Intended as a comedy, only some of the comic scenes are funny, but it’s so beautiful. An almost textbook example of why sometimes it’s good not to have the faintest idea what’s going on. Directed by John Huston, Val Guest, Ken Hughes, Joe McGrath, Robert Parrish and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all, Casino Royale is often spoken of as one of those bloated studio films that lost millions and opened the way for the wonderful downbeat and realistic films of the 70s. In fact, Casino Royale was a huge box office hit that did a lot to revive the fortunes of Columbia studios. Critically lambasted as a misfire and an over-indulgence, was one of the biggest hits of its time and remains the 19th most successful of the 26 James Bond films having made more money, when adjusted for inflation than Dr No, Never Say Never Again, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, The Man with the Golden Gun or Licence to Kill. It is almost certainly the most financially successful surrealist movie ever made.
‘These are my credentials’
The pre-credits sequence of the film is already odd. Taken from quite a late point in the film with Peter Sellers’ character Evelyn Tremble already standing in for Bond. The camera pans across the exterior of a pissoir. There is a chalk-like graffiti image of a naked woman with torpedo breasts pointing at “Les Beatles”. The Bowler hatted face of Mathis (played by the comic Scottish actor Duncan Macrae) bobs sideways from behind the worn iron and he says, “Bond?”. Peter Sellers sharing the pissoir and looking insouciant in his crisp grey suit and black tie says, “Yes?”
“I’m Lieutenant Mathis of the Special Police,” says Mathis walking around the central pillar.
Behind Sellers is a poster advertising “Le Monde Sans Soleil”, a Jacques Cousteau film which won the Oscar for best documentary in 1964. There is also a poster for the Perrier based soft drink, Pschit, the name of which (intended as onomatopoeia for the sound made by the opening of the bottle) used to make me laugh hysterically when I was a child. On the outside of the pissoir, more graffiti, including the classic “Kilroy woz ere”.
“These are my credentials,” Says Mathis showing something hidden by the outer wall of the pissoir.
Sellers looks down in the direction of Mathis’s crotch giving the impression of a cottage pick up and says, “They appear to be in order.”
“Come with me!” Says Mathis.
And then with a blast of horns Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass plays Burt Bacharach’s theme. According to Richardson’s book, it probably wasn’t really the Tijuana Brass but, whoever it was, the sound is sublime in its joyfulness.
Sellers’ character shall not return for another 40 minutes or so. That he is heralded in the opening titles as the star of the film we don’t see a lot of him. There are many reasons for this, some of it can be laid at the feet of the well-publicised difficulty of Sellers who may have inflated the budget of the film by almost 10% by phoning in sick and taking days off here and there. But much of the episodic flavour was due to Feldman’s choices. This is a film whose tone shifts every few minutes creating the impression of watched dozens of films instead of just one.
Richard Williams’ animated titles give us a much more accurate sense of the patchwork film that follows. Williams was one of the giants of animation at the time. He had produced the animation for the beginning of What’s New Pussycat and he would go on to work on the titles for Return of the Pink Panther and the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Thief and the Cobbler. Here, however, the look is reminiscent of the kind of animation which would soon be seen in the film Yellow Submarine. Each illuminated capital letter decorated with baroque golden figures with large breasts and guns and arrows and wings. There is even an early spoiler in having Woody Allen’s giant W decorated with sinister faces. There is something wonderful in the number of films made in the 60s that had animated titles. Before the film starts we are already enjoying it. And Bacharach’s jaunty comic opening theme played by Alpert sets the film up for the tone of all that follows. It could be said that Bacharach’s score gives the film greater continuity than the script.
‘Vocationally devoted, sublimely disinterested’
After the titles, there is another thrilling piece of music which combines the underscore of threat with the lightness of Bacharach’s tone. M and the heads of the various secret services from around the world are shown in sleek black chauffeur driven cars arriving in a sheep-filled field. The light gleaming as John Le Mesurier waits for them. The vista is spectacular and the actors have that touch of Hollywood royalty. John Huston, director of much of this opening sequence of the film, plays M (although the role was initially offered to Robert Morley) and William Holden as a CIA executive and Charles Boyer representing Le Duexieme Bureau. They join together in a single vehicle and drive through the lions of Longleat to get to the mansion belonging to Sir James Bond. M talks of how a good spy is a pure spy, the man they are going to see plays Debussy every day until it is too dark to read the music. “He stands on his head a lot and eats royal jelly. Lets his intestines down and washes them by hand, something he learned in his sojourn in Tibet.” This is a man who is closer, in many respects, to Derek Flint (played as a master of esoteric self control by James Coburn in the films Our Man Flint and In Like Flint)
Sir James Bond, dressed in an olive smoking jacket with a silk turban, does his exercises while his ancient retainer walks by with a rattling tray. The four heads of the secret service point out the threat that the world is now facing but Bond, again like Flint, wants no more to do with espionage. He has turned his back on the vulgarity of the modern world having no interest in erotic liaisons or the gadgets which now characterise the game. He has particular contempt for the sexual indulgence of the man who has taken his name. The real Bond loves his life and has been training a rose with exquisitely black petals in his garden. As he shows the joined chiefs this rose, he has undergone a costume change, now wearing a cream suit with cravat and trilby. Boyer reveals that the reason he has set aside the world of espionage is due to the love of his life, Mata Hari for whose James himself was responsible. After playing Debussy, now dressed in a black velvet frock coat Bond declines even a personal request from Her Majesty the Queen. So, on M’s signal, Bond’s mansion is destroyed. The comfortable life that Bond has made for himself must be destroyed if Bond is going to be lured back into service.
Sir James Bond, as played by Niven, is a man of high culture. He doesn’t just offer his guests tea. He offers them tea in golden cups even while he knows full well he is going to turn them away. But they can use no other means to persuade him than to destroy the world he has made for himself. It is not clear whether they intend to fool him into thinking that this destruction is the work of Smersh or if they feel that destroying his mansion is enough. It is also not clear that M is killed in the blast even though the next section of the story assumes that he has been. The disappearance of a character with the claim that he has been killed in a bomb attack when we have seen him survive the same bomb attack is typical of the cryptic nature of Casino Royale. This kind of thing will happen throughout the film.
Without any linking sequence, other than Dr Noah (voiced by Man-in-Black Valentine Dyall in his sonorous tones) telling us that Bond is back with his morals, his vows and his celibate image. An image that must be destroyed for reasons that are not altogether clear. Bond is under observation by spies, most of whom seem to be very beautiful women. Wherever he goes there will be someone communicating his progress and direction into a radio transmitter. Under such observation Bond drives his green Bentley, the very same make and model that Bond is said to have driven in the first books, through an idyllic village beside a lake and then to a castle where men in red hair, red beards and bagpipes guard all. This is Scotland… Actually, it’s Ireland but Ireland is standing in for Scotland.
Lady Fiona McTarry (who is in reality a Smersh spy called Agent Mimi played by Deborah Kerr) is mourning her husband’s death. Agent Mimi has been picked to impersonate Lady Fiona for no other reason than that she has the best Scottish accent. And during this sequence Scottish-isms abound. So much so that you may find yourself fancying a tappit-hen of usquebaugh.
When Bond presents the fake Lady Fiona with M’s red wig he is uncertain whether it should be regarded as an anatomical feature or an article of apparel. Lady Fiona replies that it can only be regarded as a “hairloom”. There’s nothing like a pun. A struggling goat, tied to a stick and being carried by some young women passes by the doorway. Lady Fiona tells Bond that when a McTarry dies a black he-goat must be taken alive off Ben Tarry by six barefoot virgins. Then Lady Fiona must slaughter it herself. The daughters, of whom there are many, must wrest the stomach out and stuff it with entrails. The resulting feast must be taken with whisky that adds fire to the blood for dancing. Bond takes all this at face value. After all, the vision of this castle with its red and blonde-haired virgin daughters of M has a nice folk horror feel to it. That Bond trying to maintain his sexual purity while beautiful young girls flirt with him from half-open doorways while others take his trousers off causing him some indelicate moments foreshadows Edward Woodward desperate to maintain his own purity in The Wicker Man before being part of a wicker man. It’s a significant contrast to the sequence where George Lazenby, as Bond, immediately blows his cover by seducing all the young girls in a specialist clinic that he can in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The contrast with that later Bond film is made all the more acute when the girl that Bond finds himself being bathed by is Angela Scoular, who would later play one of the main girls seduced by Lazenby.
Bond maintains his purity despite all the obvious temptation. The entire castle is decorated with erotic art of one kind or another. Deborah Kerr, the grieving widow, breaks character in an effort to seduce Bond who seemed to be having a very comfortable time sitting in bed with a nightshirt. Having failed to tempt him, Smersh opts for the second best thing, to kill him. This is prefigured by the idea of dishonouring Bond in the book of From Russia With Love. It’s not enough just to kill an agent. He must be made to seem an absolute cad as well.
The scenes of Niven’s Bond (Niven being in his late-fifties at the time of filming) avoiding the various attempts at seduction may not be laugh out loud funny but it’s an interesting reversal of the Bond character. It’s maintained to an extent but when, after a couple of attempted assassinations, Bond returns to M’s office in London (tasked with taking over from M) he immediately launches into a clinch with the woman he believes to be Miss Moneypenny but who is actually Moneypenny’s daughter. Barbara Bouchet, the actress who would become one of the key faces of the Italian Gialli as the 70s progressed, plays Moneypenny as a wide-eyed fun-loving character who isn’t just relegated to a few flirtatious exchanges with Bond as Lois Maxwell’s character had been in the EON films. She gets to play a role in the action of the film. At this stage, however, she is busy changing the union jack flags on a map of the world to black pins. Derek Nimmo’s Hadley informs Bond that the agents have either disappeared or been killed. One has been ‘burnt in a blazing bordello’, another ‘garotted in a geisha house’. Worst of all, his namesake, the Bond of the ‘other’ movies, has had to be taken off the board as he is now doing television. One of the main reasons for this high body count is that Smersh has been using mainly female agents who the mostly male agents of MI5 have proved particularly susceptible to. The answer to this is to start using more female agents and male agents trained to resist them (while themselves being irresistible to women).
Moneypenny Is tasked with the testing of candidates for the kind of man all women want as all the other wantable agents of MI5 have disappeared. Cue Moneypenny in a transparent lilac nightdress kissing a line-up of male candidates to see which one sets her senses tingling. It’s a wonderful game to her and yet she is never portrayed in a negative light for enjoying this task. In it’s own unique way Casino Royale is very positive in the way it depicts the women in central roles. Not that it makes a point of this. It’s just keying into the emerging spirit of the time. The one candidate who makes the world tingle and the lighting scheme to turn scarlet for Moneypenny is Terence Cooper, whose character is named, rather unimaginatively, Cooper. Cooper was an actor who had been on contract with Feldman to play the role of Bond when there was still a chance that Casino Royale might have been a straight James Bond film. He’s solid enough but isn’t really given enough screen time for us to see if he would have been a good choice. It is to Cooper that Sir James Bond reveals that from now on, all agents will be known by the name of James Bond.
“Won’t that be rather confusing, Sir?”
“Exactly. The enemy won’t know which way to turn.”
And neither will the audience. And maybe this was the point. Casino Royale is all about confusion. The production was confusing. Multiple directors shooting multiple scenes in multiple styles. Few of the crew were allowed to see a version of the screenplay in its entirety. The problem being that Feldman admitted that he often lost track of what scenes were supposed to go where. It is from this point in the film that these different storylines emerge and splinter off. After a short encounter with some girls and Daliah Lavi who looks like she is going to become a major character in the film and then doesn’t, Coop’s Bond disappears from the film for a while. The effect of this on some viewers, myself included, simply makes the world and the plot of Casino Royale feel richly populated with incident. The fact that around this time, in a small cutaway scene, we are also introduced to James Bond’s nephew, Jimmy Bond (played by Woody Allen who wrote most of his own dialogue), as he cunningly escapes from a central American firing squad only to find himself, almost immediately, in front of another firing squad. Woody Allen is billed as one of the major stars of the film and, at this point, was emerging as one of the most famous comics in the world, but like Cooper, he then disappears from the film for a good hour or so.
The Look of Love
The next sequence introduces Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd in an office with reel to reel computers and operatives looking very industrious as she wanders among them. She is dressed, in a quite astounding jewelled pink outfit with an ostrich feathered turban as she rules over her multi-million dollar business. In the novel Vesper Lynd was a woman used by Smersh. Here she is nobody’s fool but a businesswoman who buys Nelson’s column for her personal collection of objet d’art. She is only persuaded by the loveable Sir James to undertake a mission for MI5 after he promises to help with her $5 million in tax arrears. As if having Bond preferring Lapsang Souchong to Martini’s weren’t enough, now he’s working in cahoots with Inland Revenue.
The camera always loves Andress. She has an indefinable glamour about her. Her almond eyes always catching a glint of light, always looking like she’s about to smile or laugh but never quite doing it. Some of her appeal here has to be laid at the lighting. Cinematographer Jack Hildyard is one of those sure hands who knew how to exploit an actor’s looks by perfectly highlighting them, but Andress, even without this help, knew how to illuminate the screen. As the first woman to have their career given a stratospheric boost by being a ‘Bond girl’ she is a natural here. Few can forget her in Dr No stepping out of the sea in a white bikini to collect rare and valuable shells on Crab Key Island pulling a knife on Bond as he sings to her; which he really has coming. Having played the ageless Ayesha (She who must be obeyed) in Hammer’s 1965 adaptation of Rider Haggard’s She and in that same year appearing in Feldman’s own What’s New Pussycat as “a personal friend of James Bond” she will forever be linked to that period of European glamour that had that little touch of sophistication no matter what she was playing. She had been dubbed in many of her other films (including Dr No) to cover her Swiss accent but in Casino Royale she gets to deliver her own lines and the effect is notable. Sir James using the aforementioned IR blackmail enlists her help to seduce Evelyn Tremble, the writer of a book on how to win at Baccarat, into becoming another James Bond and playing to win against Smersh operative Le Chiffre at Casino Royale.
The scenes that follow introduce Peter Sellers, the famously difficult star of the movie who had been paid a million dollars for his role, as Tremble. We see him playing the fruit machines in a small gambling club in a dinner jacket and bow tie. Only his glasses set him apart from being a Bond-like figure. Andress approaches him, her dress and diamond earrings sparkling under the lights, her white-gloved fingers caressing the ball tip of the arm on one of the other fruit machines close to him. Quite close to him she says, “Mr Evelyn Tremble?”
Sellers turns and faces her, their faces are inches apart. Softly he says, “Yes, that’s right.” This is not the Sellers of Clousseau or Strangelove. Suave and understanded he is alive in this place and this part.
Lynd tells us that she has studied his book very closely, at night, in her bed. The words trip from her lips, her tongue tripping and caressing each syllable. She would like him to explain some of the passes in his book on baccarat but she doesn’t have it with her. They would have to study it together. It is in her bed. As she says this she pulls the arm of the fruit machine and, as they look in each other’s eyes as if in the middle of some unstoppable intimacy, we hear the tinkling of coins like a climax between them. She doesn’t gather her winnings, she has money enough. She simply walks away and tells him she’ll send her car for him. Sellers’ eyes follow her as if he cannot believe his luck.
The scene might be easy to overlook lasting just a few seconds but it’s a minor masterpiece of eroticism. A few lightly spoken words, just spoken more closely and intimately than they would ever be in reality. The moment is perfect. It’s a dream of what could never happen. Of course, being that this is a spy thriller, it isn’t all that it seems.
The following scene has Lynd disposing of the body of one of her previous victims. In an earlier version of the film, this had been Agent 006 and it would have shown that while working for Bond and MI5 in recruiting Tremble, Lynd was already an independent agent working just as much for the enemy. Tremble appears on the intercom and she tells him to wait a minute, pressing a button that ejects the body from her room into her deep freeze. She will have it emptied the following morning.
As Tremble enters, she welcomes him into her opulent apartment. Dusty Springfield’s sweet voice sings “The Look of Love” as the camera views the couple in slow motion through a fish tank, multicoloured fish swimming between us and the stars moving languidly as if they too were underwater. The long white feathers on Lynd’s sleeves flow upwards in the air like the fins of an angelfish as she beckons Tremble to follow her more closely. He stares at the fish as if trying to slow his desire.
The camera pans around the artworks of the room eventually resting on the recently acquired statue of Lord Nelson through her window. Lynd signals to Sellers with a silk handkerchief from a sunken lounge. Even though his character has just been introduced, it is hard not to feel for Sellers in the domain of this temptress who we have just seen disposing of the body of another agent. This is, after all, Peter Sellers and even if this Peter Sellers is playing it straight and has acquired a veneer of self-confidence and sophistication, it is still Peter Sellers. We don’t want to see him eaten for breakfast by piranhas but she is in complete control of him. She tells him, quoting Nelson, that England expects every man to do his duty and his duty is to be with her right now. Tremble is never really a particularly interesting character. In this seduction scene, he looks like a man trying to pretend that he does this kind of thing all the time whereas this is a one-off. The thing is that, while we might complain that Sellers isn’t too interesting unless he is playing a funny or interesting character but his being so out of his depth that he could never really keep up with it is the point of these scenes.
Sellers had lost a great deal of weight to play the role of Bond. After a while, however, he decided that he would not be comfortable playing James Bond per se and might be better suited to the part of a man forced to impersonate Bond. Sellers is one of the greatest actors who ever lived, although at this point in his life and career he was not the most professional. As a chameleon who could become almost anyone by getting under their skin, he was almost insanely gifted. He could find the funny in anything (and there are countless out-takes of him being unable to complete scenes because he found them too funny and collapsed into giggles) and there is some wit in his portrayal of Tremble. It’s just several layers too deep at times. It is tempting to see the role of Tremble as one quite close to Sellers in reality but despite speaking more in Sellers’ natural voice he is just as much an impersonation as Clousseau, Fred Kite or Dr Strangelove. The discomfort that emerges in some of these scenes with Andress and those later on in the film with Jacqueline Bisset emerges from the very fact that Tremble is a gambling nerd who is trying to convincingly play the kind of man who can take these kinds of amorous encounters in his stride.
As Tremble joins Lynd, the sunken lounge sinks even further into a basement area. The image fades into Lynd in a pink chiffon nightgown twirling and jumping up and down in slow motion as pink feathers float through the air. This is intercut with Tremble in striped underwear doing awkward-looking press-ups in a kind of parody of the sex that has already taken place. She invites him to try on several different costumes, something that will help her see what kind of man he is. She’s already had her way with him and made him putty in her hands. Now she will see how he looks in the characters of Toulouse Lautrec, Napoleon and Hitler. Having seen him in these different facets convinces her that he is the man who can beat Le Chiffre… Although, given what we know about her, she probably doesn’t want him to beat Le Chiffre… Or Maybe she does. The true intentions of Lynd will always remain a mystery to us.
There follows a scene with Q which is only a little broader in its comedy than similar scenes in the EON films. Q, here, is played by Geoffrey Bayldon, best known to people of my generation for playing Catweazle (a medieval wizard who found himself escaping from persecutors into the 1970s). The sequence has a karate expert accidentally knocking himself out when saluting an officer and a man with an exploding bowler hat who, when his hat explodes, hears birds sing. In the background, while Q is briefing Tremble about a video watch, a man is being brutally interrogated up by two officers using a baton. At the tea break, they all take tea together because it doesn’t matter what side of the beating you are on when it’s time for tea. In Britain, tea breaks are sacred; something often complained about by American directors working with British crews.
The film then takes a break from Tremble and Lynd to enter another storyline. Sir James Bond decides that someone really reliable is needed to infiltrate an organisation training female spies (used by Smersh) so he takes off into the deepest jungles of Borneo or Thailand to re-establish contact with his daughter, Mata Bond (the love child of himself and Mata Hari) who, for reasons that remain a little vague, he hasn’t seen since she was a baby. She will be vital in infiltrating a spy school in Berlin.
We are then treated to a musical number in what looks like a mock Buddhist temple complete with temple dancers. The scene feels transported from an MGM musical with bold colours and the screen filled with dancing.
Huge bronze doors open onto other huge bronze doors and then other huge bronze doors with a huge bronze guard. A giant Buddha sits against a glowing red wall at the end of a vast ornate hall with a reflective floor. Sir James sits, white-suited and resplendent on a golden stool and watches as a huge production number unfolds in front of him. Temple dancers in matching Thai-style golden costumes emerge as Bacharach’s sumptuous music seduces the audience. Vast sheets of silk float into the air, held at each corner by the dancers, as confetti fills the air. The dancers disappear behind the sheet of silk leaving one solitary figure silhouetted against the Buddha, a gold head-dress shaped like flames on her head. She moves, jingling, toward the camera and we catch sight of her face. Mata Bond, as played by Joanna Pettet, golden blonde, demure spinning around and joined by the other dancers. The heart breaking key changes in Bacharach’s music combined with the colour and dancing is a striking way of introducing a character in a spy film.
All Bond films have an element of tableaux about them. You aren’t so much watching a movie as watching a circus with stunts and set-pieces, familiar moments, beautiful women, handsome men, stunning locations etc.. Casino Royale, abandoning even the normal semblance of adherence to structure, dials its set pieces to a different level. It’s odd, also, to keep talking about sets and costumes but this is a film where Julie Harris and Anna Duse, who designed the costumes, often take centre stage. Michael Stringer’s production design is also one of the film’s biggest bonuses. While this is one of the most extravagantly costly films in the history of cinema, it looks the part. While there is some location work, so much of the film was shot on standing sets and every one of them is impressive in different ways. the temple sets feel very old Hollywood.
After the fantasy dance sequence, Mata Bond gets to meet her dad and her dialogue is down-to-earth giving the film its major of-the-time feel youthful angle. As the Celestial Virgin of the Sacred Altar, she gets to tell her more obsequious underlings to “hop it” before offering Bond a cup of tea made from poppy seeds. “Two cups of this and you’re stoned out of your mind.” That her accent shifts between finishing school perfection and London (but not cockney) colloquialisms gives the film that unmistakeable sense of Carnaby Street Swinging London. Pettet, like many of the other actresses in the film, owns her scenes. She is never playing second fiddle or arm candy. She breathes an optimistic air.
The Berlin sequence, which she is like a spin-off movie within the movie, is the one that is most uniquely surprising to find in the middle of a James Bond film. Even more unique and surprising than the musical production number preceding it.
When she asks Derek Nimmo’s Hadley how she is going to get to Berlin he stops a taxi driven by Bernard Cribbins (who’d only just been one of the leads in another spy spoof, Carry On Spying). When asked to take her to Berlin he simply asks, “East or West?” as if there could be no other possible problem. In two shakes of a lambs tail, the taxi pulls up in a Berlin full of sin and music and laughter. Naturally the wall is to one side, a massive studio set used for mere moments of screen time. West of the wall we can see Der Blauer Angel and numerous other striptease bars and brasseries. There is the constant sound of laughter. Women dance on tables. Prostitutes line the streets being chatted up by GIs. At the end of the street, ahead of us, is the allied checkpoint. A red jeep drives through the checkpoint and emerges into a red world. The buildings are red, the street lights are red, only a couple of guards in green prevent the whole thing looking like an optical effect. Nobody is out on the street on the red side. The West may be full of decadence and frivolity and exploitation but the East is austere and miserable. That’s about as far as the film comes to a political statement. It sees both sides of the ideology as equally corrupt but nobody is trying to get over the Berlin Wall in that direction.
Mata’s taxi fare from London to Berlin is “Four hundred and eighty-two pounds, Fifteen and Ninepence” £482 15s and 9d (ah… How I miss old money). She tells him she can’t pay him right now as she doesn’t have any change. We will discover, later on, that this cabby is no ordinary cabby. He is Carleton Towers of the FO. Lucky thing that this is just a cover. Few cabbies would take someone skipping out on such a massive fare with such a half hearted complaint.
Mata, in a headscarf and trenchcoat, slips on a pair of sunglasses, eyeing a couple of prostitutes in a half interested manner before taking a step into the school for spies.
One inside we are in a vastly different kind of set. The door is at a peculiar angle to the floor. Paintbrush marks drag along the wall. A sinister accordion tune plays as we see the twisted horror film interior of the school. All blacks and whites and greys with similarly monochrome paintings on the walls. The angles intersect each other in an impossible geometry for a building. The windows lean one way. The staircase leans another. The paintings are not set in rectangular frames but trapezoids. The set is straight from the kind of expressionist world of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The pink of Mata’s headscarf makes her stand out like a creature from another world. We see her framed through the bars of the balustrade investigating the paintings: A two necked woman, a man with a gas mask for a face, a man with a suit whose beard and glasses are read items stuck on to the canvas.
Opening another door, she is confronted with a painting of her mother, Mata Hari, in a revealing pink outfit fringed with gold with a gold headdress. The room is completely black other than the small spotlight picking out the portrait. Mata seems hypnotised by the picture and following the eye line of Hari’s vision sees Frau Hoffner (played by Anna Quayle) and Polo (played by Ronnie Corbett) picked out from their black background in blue and red lights. “Who are you? What do you want?” barks Hoffner in a piercing accent. The background lightens as Mata tells them that she is the daughter of Mata Hari and that she is there to enrol as a student. The blue-tinted Hoffner is suddenly thrown into an extreme close-up with Polo tiny in the background as her eyes widen and she calls Mata a “liar” dragging the word out deliciously. To prove that she is not a liar Mata removes her trench-coat and scarf to show herself looking exactly as Mata Hari does in her portrait. Polo starts whimpering and laughing in a manner more creepy than funny “My little Mata Hari… I told you she’d come back.”
“Silence!” says Hoffner “Or I will switch you off.”
Polo is only alive due to being attached to a stuttering battery.
Hoffner caresses a scar on her face and says, “you’re even more fascinating than your mother.”
They give her a tour of the house as they are passed by numerous girls with identically styled black hair and identical black skin-tight uniforms (like the female spies of Dr Crow in Carry On Spying).
“The Mara Hari School of Dancing is the only international school of espionage in the world. There is no political prejudice here. We train Russian spies for America und American spies for Russia. Some of the greatest spies in the world have graduated from this institution. Von Grudendorf, Malenvosky.”
Polo adds, “Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi.”
She shows Mata the decoding and cypher class. The door opens and the room is entirely red with identically styled blonde-haired spies in red, waving semaphore bats, typing, talking on the telephone, crossing and uncrossing their legs in fast motion.
The light spills out illuminating Mata, Polo and Hoffner in red as if they had strayed into a Dario Argento film.
Polo takes her aside and says, “We are even training animals as espionage agents. At this moment, we have in the Kremlin a Russian speaking parrot in constant radio communication with the pentagon.”
After some trouble on the uneven stairway due to a battery that needs recharging, Polo shows Mata to her room, a baroque looking bedroom, which has a four-poster patchwork bed as its centrepiece. Murky pictures from World War One on the walls, candelabras draped with cobwebs. Mata picks up a sky-blue feather boa and walks coquettishly towards Polo whose weakness for her she senses. She asks him about the conference that Hoffner has headed off to.
His face half-buried in the feathers, Polo tells her that a representative of Le Chiffre is coming.
“Who is Le Chiffre?” asks Mata.
“Nobody knows,” replies Polo. “Not even Le Chiffre knows.”
“What’s the conference about then?”
“Le Chiffre is trying to raise money by selling his unique art collection.”
Here we get a little backstory that ties into Fleming’s book. Le Chiffre is a compulsive gambler who has been using organisation funds for his gambling. If he doesn’t pay off his debts, he will be liquidated.
Once alone, Mata wipes the cobwebs from her hands and throws the tissue she has used down the toilet in the en-suite bathroom. Pulling the chain causes the wall to spin around thrusting and she finds herself in another monochromatic Caligari corridor which leads to the auction room where Vladek Sheybal, of just about every spy film ever made in the UK, plays the auctioneer selling compromising photographs of generals from various countries caught with their pants down and bras over their heads. It’s quite pleasant to see that in the brothels, Americans and Russians have nothing dividing them. Maybe the worst that Le Chiffre would actually have done is to embarrass all heads of government equally.
The German sequence is a masterpiece of design with Anna Quayle and Ronnie Corbett playing their eccentric characters to the max. Directed by Ken Hughes, the world created is somewhere between the gothic fun of Charles Addams and the German Expressionists such as Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang and Murnau. The quick fire comic dialogue is beautifully judged. This is really about the modern Mata in conflict with the image of her mother in that strange cobwebbed and dusty world of the past. Mata Bond is often dwarfed by these huge and beautiful sets but her mockery of everything she sees establishes her as belonging to a better world. The optimism and freshness of the 1960s seem to thrive in Pettet who can play the seductress when she needs to but would sooner fight off her enemies with a fire extinguisher. Nevertheless, there are moments of strange nightmarish distortion. The tipping of the sets to one side or the other making the characters struggle to stand up. This sequence in the film seems a stroll through the subconscious; symbols and myths from an earlier age like the image of Mata Hari play more of a role here than do the symbols of Ian Fleming’s decidedly post-war hero.
As Feldman only owned the rights to Casino Royale, he couldn’t use SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) even though that had played such a major role in the EON series. Instead, he returns Smersh to the centre of his story but this Smersh has little in common with the one referenced by Fleming. Smersh in Fleming is the real life Soviet anti-spy network with Le Chiffre as a fundraiser keeping brothels all over Europe. The script of Casino Royale plays with the cold war as a dream demon lurking in the background but Le Chiffre isn’t a part of it (that he’s working for an organisation that will render all men under a certain height and all women beautiful doesn’t make much sense given that Orson Welles, who plays Le Chiffre was not a small man). The idea of various generals arriving at an auction in West Germany to bid on candid snaps of the embarrassing peccadilloes of their superiors rather than doing the business that generals are supposed to be occupied with maintains the idea that East or West, all are equally self-serving and corrupt.
Meanwhile in another part of the movie, Bond, sorry, Evelyn Tremble playing the part of Bond enters France, knocks out a passport official, meets Mathis and goes through a carwash where women dressed in black PVC drape themselves for no discernible reason across his car. Back in his hotel, Tremble is greeted by a young Jacqueline Bisset dressed in nothing but a rainbow striped shirt and holding a bottle of champagne.
“I’m Miss Goodthighs,” she says.
He needs her to hold out the bottle of Champagne and put his glasses on to be able to shoot the cork out from the bottle.
“The management of the Hotel Tropicale present their compliments. I hope you will enjoy your stay with us.” She pours him a glass of champagne and places the bottle next to the open suitcase with a hundred thousand pounds inside before lying on the bed in front of him and talks flatteringly about his sexy trousers. As the two embrace, in that manner of instant gratification that is a hallmark of Bond films, she drops a fizzing pill into his champagne (which is next to a book called “How to Speak Japanese”, a reference to EON’s upcoming You Only Live Twice perhaps). Bond/Tremble drops another pill, the antidote, into the glass. All will be well. But it is not all well. He goes to the bathroom telling Goodthighs that if he is not back in five minutes she should start without him. As soon as he closes the door we hear a great thud of him hitting the floor.
After a short journey into Tremble’s psyche in which we see playing cards flying through the air and him playing Vesper Lynd’s corseted body like a piano, we see him waking up with Lynd there. As she pushes him into the shower, he asks what happened to Miss Goodthighs.
“Don’t worry,” says Lynd, “I took care of her.”
And we know that he should be worried.
‘Look me in the eyes’
Orson Welles had a face that somehow held all the wisdom and the intelligence of the world. His ability to tell a story by putting exactly the right cadence in the right place, dropping the right names at the right times and carrying behind each tale he told, such easy laughter made him one of the greatest raconteurs to have graced a chat show or documentary. It also made him a fascinating actor to watch and listen to. His size rooted in his appetite for fine living did nothing to diminish his attractiveness on screen and as soon as he appears on screen as Le Chiffre, his presence dominates his scenes. It’s hardly surprising that Peter Sellers, a great admirer of Welles, was concerned about appearing in scenes together with him. Imagined slights and anxieties plagued Sellers at the best of times. There are shots with both Welles and Sellers together but the majority of their dialogue was shot separately giving the conversation between before the card game them a slightly unreal flavour.
Welles’ introduction involves him bewitching not just the audience at home but the audience at the Casino. He levitates a woman. Flanked by his beautiful operatives he enjoys playing the conjurer. When Tremble arrives, Le Chiffre continues this act, and the resulting exchanges between the two characters and the two actors feel like two giant egos playing their particular games of one-upmanship.
Before their meeting at the Casino, Tremble is taken to a room where the game can be observed by the owners of the Casino. Lynd, affronted at the idea of Le Chiffre cheating suddenly seems very eager to see Tremble win. With enthusiasm in her voice, she says, “You win and Le Chiffre will almost certainly be killed by his organisation.”
Tremble responds, “But he’d try and avoid that wouldn’t he?”
“If you win, yes.”
“By trying to kill you.”
“As in dead?”
“Yes,” says Lynd. “But don’t worry about that now. Let’s go down there and you play the game of your life.”
“Yes.” Says Tremble filled with anxiety. “I better had. There may not be too much more of it left.”
“Vesper,” he starts nervously.
“Don’t worry,” she says, with a consoling soft confidence in her voice. “I’ll take care of you.” And when she says this, it is hard not to recall that those are the words she chose to refer to getting rid of Miss Goodthighs.
Sellers shows the fear and conflicted nature of Tremble. This is a character who is not particularly well drawn. We don’t have any story about his past other than that he wrote a book about winning at baccarat. That Sellers makes us feel what he feels in this and later scenes is testament to his abilities. His trust in Vesper is based on nothing more than her beauty and the time they have spent together. We know that Vesper is not to be trusted and yet how can he resist her. He allows himself to be encouraged by her.
When Tremble arrives at the baccarat table he murmurs the name “Bond, James Bond,” and has to repeat it to be heard. The exchanges between Bond and Le Chiffre occasionally seem awkward and unreal but when the card game begins and Tremble is coming up to the killing hand, the tension, for all the shenanigans that have led up to this moment, is palpable. Each glance, each subtle gesture, each concealment of emotion rises to a crescendo. This is what Casino Royale does so well. However weak the overall pacing of the story might be, in the traditional sense, individual scenes such as this one sparkle.
Torture of the Mind
A few minutes later, the film drifts back into the world of dream when, after Lynd is kidnapped (as in the book and the later film), Tremble suddenly dressed as a racing driver, gets into a lotus and drives after her.
Cut to him as a prisoner of Le Chiffre in an ornate and strangely leafy cell while being overseen by Le Chiffre in a control room filled with monitors and electronic equipment of one kind or another. This sequence, being made in 1967, was never going to be as explicit about testicular trauma as Fleming’s book or Martin Campbell’s later film but it does have Tremble sitting in a hollow seated chair with a carpet beater visible just behind him as a reference to the book that a good proportion of the audience have probably read. Le Chiffre remarks, with an agreeable chuckle, “don’t worry about that chair with the hole in the middle. It’s merely waiting to be reupholstered. My methods are much more subtle. They have to be.” (because of the censors perhaps).
“What are you going to do?”
“Physically, I’m not going to do anything.”
“Oh. You’re going to nothing me to death.”
“Torture of the mind. The most exquisite torture is all in the mind.”
Le Chiffre throws a switch and suddenly the film shifts gear once more. Using the psychedelic visuals popular at the time, the sequence, as directed by Joe McGrath takes Tremble and us into a different world. Quick flashing multicoloured images of Sellers, his face divided and kaleidoscopic, negative and multiplied, superimposed over itself as the repeated sounds of a question a snatch of laughter and a disturbing unidentifiable sound fill the soundtrack. Looking back to the torture sequence of The Ipcress File and forward to the many mind manipulations of The Prisoner it may not be clear what Le Chiffre has done to achieve these effects but it’s hard not to see it as the result of some kind of psychotropic compound that he was drugged with. Something that made him see himself as a racing driver perhaps. We have dizzying sequences of Tremble’s brain divided into sections occupied by laughing images of Le Chiffre. Flashing images. Sellers’s face in sections imposed upon a scene of beautiful women in bikinis becoming soulless dolls. It feels like a huge budgeted version of a Peter Tscherkassky short.
Then another button is pressed and we hear the sound of Highland Pipers on the soundtrack. Tremble tries to shut the sound out but he is now dressed in the regalia of a highlander. He looks through the bars of his cell to see nothing but mist. Then the mist clears enough for us to see a highland pipe regiment marching through. From his cell, he sees another version of himself among the pipers yelling for help (although we cannot hear anything above the sound of the pipers so we simply see the animated words “help” appearing on the screen as he screams). No longer the man in the cell but out there among the pipers. He meets Peter O’Toole for a fourth-wall-breaking in-joke and then the pipers start to beat him with drumsticks. Vesper Lynd appears among the pipers as if she has been able to infiltrate the dream and ruthlessly shoots all the pipers with her bagpipe machine gun.
“Mr Tremble,” Lynd shouts across the mists. “Never trust a rich spy!” And then, she shoots him, the star of the film, dead.
The fact that the star of the film ends up being killed by the one person he trusts the most and is then gone from the film has always struck me as a memorable and unusual moment. The kind of moment that seems most common in those films destined to be demolished by the critics who just don’t get the way films leave lasting impressions. That this scene would have played differently if Sellers had finished filming all his scenes before leaving the film, doesn’t mean much to the viewer. Sellers has won the game. As in the book, his winning of the game compels his enemy to try, by whatever means possible to get his money back, but unlike the book, this Bond, or Bond impersonator, is killed by Lynd.
Le Chiffre is then killed because he has failed to get the money back. The way he is killed fits the nightmarish quality of the sequence. A man on his monitor breaks through the monitor to shoot him like a strange 60s antecedent of Sadako.
Anyway, the film suggests, never mind all that. Another director is going to come along and end the film on a lighter note… Kind of.
‘What is it, a film?’ ‘Must be a commercial.’
Back in a blue-skied London with horse guards and green parks and Bacharach’s jauntiest notes, Bond’s green Bentley drives up Whitehall and into Downing Street, where Bond is due to drop in for tea with the PM. Mata is with him, now sporting a Mary Quant style dress and short hair. There is a sense of a lot of time having passed since we last saw the two of them. This is another episode in their lives. Le Chiffre out of the picture, Bond sends his daughter off to watch the changing of the guard refusing to take her in to see the Prime Minister even though she so longs to meet him because he turns her on. This would be Harold Wilson; the man with the mac and pipe. Harold Wilson turns her on.
We then see her being watched by the same red-haired and red-bearded men who were at the McTarry Castle in the first section of the film. One in a workman’s hut phones another on a crane and as she is taking pictures like a tourist one of the horse-guards breaks rank and gallops towards her, picking her up and taking her down the mall through Admiralty Arch and into a UFO that has landed in Trafalgar Square where Nelson’s column used to be before Vesper Lynd bought it for her personal collection. A passer-by witnessing Mata’s kidnapping suggests that it must be for a commercial. They probably think the same about the gigantic Thunderbirds type object that after taking off from Trafalgar Square flies across the Thames.
Moneypenny is watching the object flying across the sky as Bond marches into his office and tells her that Mata’s been kidnapped. Deborah Kerr makes another appearance as a nun collecting for needy girls and leaves Bond with the information that his daughter is being taken to Casino Royale.
Back to Casino Royale
After a quick word with the PM to let him know what’s what, Bond and Moneypenny arrive at the casino. He’s elegantly kitted out in an evening coat and cravat while she is wearing a sparkling lilac dress so flimsy that it looks like someone one might sleep in. Taking in the room Bond tells her that the place looks like a “Smersh convention”. Sinister looking men watch them and step up as if about to manhandle them before one of the staff approaches them and informs them that they are expected in Le directeur’s office. As soon as they set foot in the office they are set upon by the usual red-bearded Scots guards. One presses a tiger’s eye and the room starts to descend like Lynd’s sunken lounge. There’s a bit of argy-bargy but Bond and Moneypenny end up being marched through a Ken Adam-esque shiny corridor. They escape their captors through the cunning plan of tripping them up and running for it. Alarms go off as Bond and Moneypenny run run through one beautifully creative set after another. Swirling spiral floors, corridors with alternating colour schemes, a green room that looks like a massive fingerprint and then variations on the theme of a human eye.
Bond is greeted during this by Valentine Dyall’s voice again. Dr Noah, behind an eye-like window, watches the two. “A historic day in our saga. The day Smersh finally eliminated the original James Bond. His world will soon follow.” After a mishap with one of the many stunt doubles, Sir James gets hold of a machine gun, shoots the window and the truth behind the lie remains. Like the Wizard of Oz, Dr Noah is just an impressive smokescreen behind which a less impressive reality lies. Dr Noah, Smersh and the whole operation is the brainchild of none other than Sir James Bond’s nephew, Jimmy.
The whole story has been one of a son-like figure being so intimidated by his uncle, a perfect figure, that he needs to rise up, destroy him and take over the world. Here, taking over the world seems almost secondary to taking care of Uncle James. Jimmy cannot even speak in Sir James’s presence and is reduced to miming his threats. He will release a bacillus, germ warfare, that will make all women beautiful and destroy all men over four foot six.
“All this trouble just to make up for your sexual inferiority,” says Sir James.
‘I’m beginning to think you’re a trifle neurotic’
After Bond and Moneypenny are marched away by the usual machine gun toting fashion models, we see Jimmy dealing with his greatest prize and obvious downfall, Israeli actress Daliah Lavi who he has tied, naked to what looks uncomfortably like a dentist’s chair. Lavi was in the earlier scene with Cooper but we haven’t seen her since. She asks him why she is there.
Jimmy replies, “Because of all Uncle James’s 007s, you are the most beautiful and the most desirable.”
“Do you treat all the girls you desire this way?” she asks.
“Yes. Oh yes. I undress them and tie them up. I learned that in the boy scouts. “
After a few minutes of insanity where Jimmy tries to show how he is better than his uncle at bronco riding and piano playing, and failing miserably, Lavi says, “You’re crazy. You’re absolutely crazy.”
“They called Einstein crazy,” says Jimmy.
“That’s not true. Nobody ever called Einstein crazy.”
“Well… They would have if he carried on like this.”
In order to show her how superior he is, not only to Sir James but also to Einstein, he shows her a capsule that if swallowed, erupts four hundred times before finally going off turning the person who has taken it into a walking atom bomb.
Seeing an opportunity, she pretends to suddenly be in love with him. He immediately releases her telling her that they will rule together and run amok. If she’s too tired they’ll walk amok.
Having been released, Noah shows Lavi his plans to replace all the world leaders with doubles so he can put his plan into action. She somewhat foolishly tricks him into taking his own pill thus, putting into effect, one of the strangest endings for any film ever made.
‘Have a real bomb of an evening’
It might be worth noting that, prior to this scene Bond, Moneypenny, Mata and Cooper had just been tinkering with a device filled with highly explosive vaporised Lysurgic acid. They use this device to blow the door of the area, strangely lined with cushions, where Jimmy had been holding them. I mention this because it might offer an alternative reading of the film’s ending. Maybe everything that happens after that point is a mass acid trip hallucinatory dream. That might make more sense than anything that we see. Dave Prowse, as the Frankenstein Monster, indicates the way they could get back into the casino. Guards are running manically around (which, to be fair, is what happened in the last scenes of every other James Bond film from Dr No onwards).
Cooper asks Sir James what the strategy is.
“Get out of the bloody place before it blows up.”
He’s about to call for back up when Vesper stops him pointing a gun at his heart claiming that she isn’t doing this for money but for love. We don’t find out who she loves because, before we have time to process anything, American aid arrives in the form of cowboys riding into the casino on horseback.
From this point, the film becomes a complete free for all fight with myriad incarnations of James Bond fighting myriad agents of Smersh in a world filled with bubbles, laughing gas and guest stars ranging from Jean-Paul Belmondo to George Raft. The Casino Royale turns from an elegant gambling club into a major slapstick set-piece. William Holden comes back to help with the fighting. There’s a chimpanzee in a tuxedo with a red wig. There are a group of gold-painted naked women. Belmondo says “merde” a lot showing that it hurts almost as much to punch someone as it does to get punched before Jackie Chan made this one of his trademarks. Native Americans skydive into the casino all painted with 007 insignia but they find it impossible to resist a bit of disco dancing. The keystone cops get involved. Sea lions get involved. George Raft accidentally shoots himself with a gun that fires backwards. And, Woody Allen walks around hiccoughing animated clouds counting down before he gets to one and the entire casino blows up.
In most Bond films, there is a scene in which the enemy base is set to self destruction but Bond and the girl and some of the good guys will escape. Here, everyone is blown to smithereens only to end up playing their harps in heaven.
Nobody gets out of there alive. Nobody at all… Unless they are all just lying on the ground stricken into imagining this absurdity due to all that lysurgic acid.
And yet, the feeling at the end, isn’t frustrating. After all, even if they do all end up dead, what a great time they all had getting here.
According to Michael Richardson’s book, Charles K. Feldman’s initial cut of the film had been around 3 hours long. He was forced to cut it back to 131 minutes by Columbia and while it is altogether possible that the film might have made more sense in the longer 3-hour version, it is unlikely that it would have pleased the critics any better or pleased the public any less.
Casino Royale was a huge success. The critics didn’t like it much but if I’ve learned anything in my 58 years on this planet, film critics really don’t have a clue about large scale movies. I have read so many times that this film was a huge box office failure that until looking at the facts for this blog, I believed it myself. Casino Royale is a confusing film to watch for anyone who expects their films to behave in a neat and orderly way. It was almost as confusing and disastrous for the people involved in it. The major stars involved in the film avoided the premiere. But, precisely because it doesn’t make neat and orderly sense, it is a film which is never boring and which people can enjoy however they want to.
Casino Royale is a work of surprising beauty. Colours swirl. Sets amaze the eye. There are scenes that are exciting and funny and sexy. The whole film is suffused with a feeling of freedom and innovation. Even where the jokes fall flat (and they often do) I laugh and feel happy simply because the whole thing is so good natured.
Niven looks like a man from the (mythical) time where men wore a white cravat for breakfast and drank tea from golden tea sets. There is more tea drunk in Casino Royale than Martini. Fleming would have hated this, feeling as he did that tea was responsible for the downfall of the British Empire but this is not a film extolling the virtues of empire but the virtues of beauty, fun and elegance.
Is it picaresque? No… Not really. It could be seen as such but I don’t want to stretch the meaning. Mata Bond, smoking what is probably hashish in her temple sojourn while playing the role of celestial virgin, could be a picaresque character. It would have been nice to see more of her.
Vesper, too, could be seen as a picaresque character. A financial wizard having played both sides for her own gain. Her telling Tremble that she’ll take care of him showing her absolute disregard for anyone but herself… But who is it that she loves?
In the end, I suppose, how much one loves or is bothered by Casino Royale might depend on how seriously one sees the world. if one likes those stories with clear beginnings, middles and ends. There’s no right or wrong way. But for me, a couple of hours of colourful joy with a soundtrack by Burt Bacharach. Splendidly constructed sequences that rarely last more than a few minutes. The characters that I love in this film go on forever. They have little in common with characters created by Ian Fleming. What interests me, however, is how close in tone the film You Only Live Twice feels to Casino Royale. Maybe it’s the whole mid-sixties thing of not taking any of this stuff too seriously. After all, that was the Bond film with Ninjas abseiling into a volcano to stop a spaceship from eating more spaceships.
As for Charles K. Feldman, the man who was really behind all of this, he didn’t live to make another film. His health declined over the next year, perhaps impacted by the stresses of this production. He died of Pancreatic cancer in May 1968. It is a shame his final legacy couldn’t have been better received by the in-crowd and critics but… I think of this:
What’s New Pussycat and Casino Royale are two of the most joy-filled films ever made. They’re the kind of films that many associated with them feel the need to dismiss. And maybe if I was taking myself seriously as an actor or writer etc. I would feel the same. But how many lives have been cheered up by seeing them playing on TV late at night. When I think of Casino Royale, in particular, I feel happy. Looking at that last scene, before the world blows up, on a colourful set surrounded by bubbles, the extras laughing and, in that moment, the world seems to be full of laughter and happiness. And even if that bomb that Woody Allen has so foolishly swallowed is about to go off then, in this moment, how great it is to have been alive.
As usual, all images belong to the copyright holders of the film.
I deeply recommend Michael Richardson’s book The Making of Casino Royale whether you like the film or not. It’s available here The Making of Casino Royale (1967): Amazon.co.uk: Richardson, Michael: Books
And the information about the box office placement of Casino Royale among the other James Bond films comes from here: