Casino Royale was actually the second James Bond film I ever saw, after GoldenEye. Of course, series fans know it’s an oddity in the franchise, as it’s not one of the canonical films. Due to the film rights to Ian Fleming’s novel of the same title being part of a different deal (as a result of the Climax! episode reviewed at the beginning of this series), a different company than EON productions and MGM had the rights to film it. Knowing that a straight “unofficial” James Bond wouldn’t stand a chance, they opted to make it a parody.
I was looking forward to rewatching this film in its proper place in series chronology, to see if it made the film better. While I get some of the jokes better, it’s still something of an uneven film.
It’s still very early in the series, but I’m going to bet that Napoleon doesn’t show up in any of the canonical films.
The reason for the film’s unevenness can be seen in the summary above — there were six different directors on the film. Val Guest had the responsibility for stitching it together, but otherwise each director was responsible for their own individual segment. There were reportedly an equal number of uncredited writers, in addition to the three credited for the screenplay. The result is a film which barely has any coherence to its plot at all. Like the earlier Casino Royale (and I presume the latter one), the basic plot involves James Bond attempting to drive Russian spy Le Chiffre bankrupt in baccarat so as to derail the plans of Le Chiffre’s superiors. But this is buried among a series of digressions and side plots.
James Bond in this film is played by David Niven… primarily. See, in this version, Sir James Bond has been retired for some time, but MI6 gave his name and number to another agent (“that sexual acrobat”) in order to keep his legend going. But now, with his successor and numerous other agents from both MI6 and around the world falling prey to SMERSH, the original has been called back to head up MI6 and take down SMERSH. After a few scenes in which female SMERSH agents try to seduce him to bring him low — the original Bond is chaste, having loved only Mata Hari — Sir James comes upon a novel plan to confuse the enemy. Every active agent, even the women, are now designated James Bond, 007. (Amusingly, this film was released just a few years before the first canonical non-Connery James Bond film.)
It’ll be interesting to see if any of the canonical films directly refute the “assigned name” theory.
The film is filled with colorful characters and familiar actors. Evelyn Trumble, the main replacement Bond — the one who is sent to take down Le Chiffre — is played by Peter Sellers with his usual deft skill. Le Chiffre is played by Orson Welles, and he cheerfully hams it up at the baccarat table. However, there isn’t much interaction between the two characters; reportedly Sellers and Welles didn’t get along, so the scene was shot with them one at a time. Woody Allen plays Sir James’ nephew, little Jimmy Bond. But it often seems as if the actors, as great as they are, aren’t given a lot to work with. It’s mildly amusing, and definitely surreal, but the lack of narrative cohesion keeps the film from being as great as it might otherwise be. (I’ll also note that’s interesting that out of two non-canonical Casino Royale films, there have been two great choices for Le Chiffre that don’t get to really put in great Bond villain performances.)
The problem with the film is that its different directed segments are almost completely unrelated to one another, and when they are related, there isn’t much of a transition. We are told, not shown, that Major McTarry — M — has been killed, despite the scene in question immediately preceding it. We’re told he was blown up in the cannon attack, but although the cannon attack is shown, his death is not implied, giving the impression that it was a decision by a later writer-director team. Similarly, there’s a later incident when Trumble-Bond goes off to rescue Vesper Lynd (played by veteran Bond girl Ursula Andress), and the next scene shows Trumble captured. How? We don’t know. It happened during the jump cut. Perhaps it was ninjas.
Curse those jump-cut ninjas.
Then, there are some segments that have little to do with anything else. Sir James Bond recruits his daughter by Mata Hari, Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) to spy for him. Her infiltration seems to have nothing to do with the main plot. One surrogate James Bond is specifically trained to be a “weapon against the opposite sex”, in light of the number of agents who were seduced and killed; nothing ever comes of this sequence or this character. Even the sequence in McTarry Castle has little to do with the preceding scene or anything to come after.
That’s not to say these scenes aren’t entertaining. They are funny. It’s just that the work as a whole doesn’t seem, well, whole. It’s not so much a film with a singular plot as it is a series of vaguely-sequential James Bond comedy sketches. It’s fun enough, but it’s hard not to imagine how much better it could have been had it been a more unified piece of film.