In a change to the scheduled James Bond birthday-fest, Hamish Crawford casts a fond eye over the much-derided/ignored/wiped from history Casino Royale movie from 1967, which starred David Niven, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles and a cast of many (actors, writers, directors…)
Last month something extraordinary happened: Starbucks released a CD, Music by Bacharach—and in stark contrast to their usual output, it was rather wonderful. But then, how could it not be: from well-known 60s classics such as “The Look of Love”, “What the World Needs Now is Love (Sweet Love)”, and “Say a Little Prayer” to lesser-known treasures “Don’t Make Me Over” and “Walk on By”, the incomparable Burt Bacharach wrote many an anthem to that most transitory, transcendental decade. It doesn’t hurt that they’re performed by some of the finest artists of the era, such as Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, the Shirelles, Ronald Isley, Sergio Mendes and others. Close your eyes and you can see beads, floral dresses, and Carnaby Street.
One track in particular got me jumping up and down: “Casino Royale”. A brassy number, played with the full swinging brass of (who else?) Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Before we go any farther, I should avoid confusion. Bacharach wrote the music for the 1967 film of Casino Royale, which—for complicated legal reasons—was made outside the official James Bond series as a starry spoof, with Peter Sellers, David Niven, Ursula Andress, Deborah Kerr, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, John Huston, and a cartload of British character actors, comedians, and general national treasures who should be familiar to readers of this site (just to get you started, Ronnie Corbett, Bernard Cribbins, Burt Kwouk, Anna Quayle, Duncan Macrae, Derek Nimmo, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him John Le Mesurier…).
James Bond orthodoxy—and my dad—will tell you that Casino Royale ’67 is a cinematic abomination, the ur-text of ungainly mega-budget disasters, and a betrayal of a classic Ian Fleming novel. The closest contemporary example I can envisage is if Will Ferrell, and, say, Hugh Grant and Quentin Tarantino did a spoof adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and chucked in a bunch of SNL players. It isn’t helped by recollections of Woody Allen (who insisted on taking his name off the committee-authored screenplay and judged it “a moronic enterprise from start to finish, that everything about it was a stupidity and a waste of celluloid and money”) and director Val Guest (one of five (!), who, when offered the title of “Co-Ordinating Director”, refused because he thought people would say, “This was co-ordinated?”).
When I mentioned the sublime Bacharach score, my dad asked incredulously, “Which Casino Royale are you talking about?” as though any suggestion of quality would be heresy compared to the obviously classic 2006 ‘proper’ adaptation starring Daniel ‘dead serious’ Craig. And with that rap sheet, it seems, only an idiot would try to reclaim Casino Royale as an underrated gem, a wistful snapshot into a beautiful moment of time, now both modern and historical, whose distance from today makes it seem funnier and more affecting.
So … let me convince you of exactly that!
It’s What Made 1967 Great!
It’s alright, I’m not insane. Evaluating Casino Royale as a James Bond film, or indeed a proper film with narrative and characters, is a waste of time. Indeed, so variable are sequences, and so meandering is the trip from joke to joke (quite a few of which are pretty weak), that I’ve always required two or three sittings to watch the thing. There are weird shreds of the Ian Fleming story, filtered like a game of Chinese whispers into comic sketches (Orson Welles plays villainous card sharp Le Chiffre, and between round of baccarat performs magic tricks while Peter Sellers’ faux-Bond runs through his repertoire of accents; the infamous ‘carpet beater’ scene is obliquely referred to before a dream sequence with Peter O’Toole in kilt and bagpipes, Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress) is some kind of international woman of mystery, and so on).
No advocate of the auteur theory will look favourably on a film with five directors and eight writers (none of whom even appear to have met each other, but whose numbers include Catch-22’s Joseph Heller, Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Ben Hecht, as well as Woody, Sellers, and Huston).
But there are moments that are so wonderfully, joyously hilarious, and so emblematic of the anarchic, surreal whimsy that made 1967 Britain so glorious, and so enchanting to revisit (take a look at “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band“, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or The Avengers if you don’t know what I mean). Whereas a serious Bond movie of the time opens with Sean Connery in a tense punch-up only leavened by his smirking departure and droll one-liner, Casino Royale opens with a gleefully mad-eyed Duncan Macrae sneaking up on Peter Sellers in a public urinal before showing his ‘credentials’. After such a silly innuendo, would you really expect a shadowy tale of Cold War deception and cynicism?