It’s been almost five decades since Charles Feldman produced the near-forgotten James Bond spoof, which boasts an interesting mix of good writing, bad writing, over-indulgence, non-indulgence, allusiveness, meta-fiction, and visual techniques that were, at the very least, more revolutionary than they’ve been given credit for. Woody Allen — who in fact appears as an arch-villain — has famously called it “wasteful” and “idiotic,” but while his evaluation is not THAT far from the truth, it still misses what’s happened to the film in the interim. In short, it’s changed, or rather, Casino Royale has started to reveal itself a bit more, albeit in ways that were impossible to conceptualize in 1967. So, after a little bit of prompting, I’ve decided to revisit this old ‘classic’ (for not every classic is a good film, merely an enduring one), if only to take it on its own terms, after it’s been interpreted for so long on others’.
To repeat: Casino Royale is not a very good film. It bloats at around 130 minutes, many scenes go on too long, thus losing their own threads, there is too much comedy — especially physical comedy — without jokes, and a few sections need to be re-watched in one sitting, not as a means to get at something ‘deeper’ that might be missed the first time around, but to plug up plot-holes or guess at various characters’ thinking. (For instance, when does the faux Scot’s husband die, if the violence to that point is merely a joke? Was Evelyn Tremble REALLY killed in action, or is this a mere dream within a dream?) This is not good, since these are not poetic elisions that offer new layers of meaning — in fact, the film answers most of these questions, sometimes absolutely — and therefore make for a more difficult watch, but without the payoff of better films. And unlike, say, the straight James Bond films, Casino Royale is not a work that subsists on action (which is more forgiving when things go on too long), but comedy (which can easily die if the timing is not right). Too often, a comedic moment is lost within some digressive haze when a little paring might have brought it to the center, while other gags — such as Bond’s mansion being destroyed to ‘prod’ him out of retirement — are memorable only for being odd.
Yet these flaws are well-known, easily enumerated, and attested to even by the film’s fans. It currently holds a 27% on RottenTomatoes, with the predictable derision, and very little to no nuance. But while rehashing a (minor) curio’s issues is pointless, re-evaluating it on other, less qualitative grounds can be more interesting, especially in terms of why middling or even downright BAD art can still have some longevity, as Chaucer’s poetry, or the depth of Greek and Roman cliches — extant even in 400 BCE — might reveal.
In Casino Royale, part of the answer lies in what the film skewers: a 50+ year cultural icon that, for all of the possible good in the films, themselves, is popular PRECISELY because he can be so campy and ridiculous, subsisting, as James Bond does, on an archetypal male fantasy, exaggerated for exaggeration’s sake. No, this is not really a knock on the Bond films, just a comment on their provenance, as well as pretensions that, while indubitably good pretensions, and memorable, well-executed pretentions, are there nonetheless, and ripe for Casino Royale to have some fun with.
So, while the James Bond films often have symbols to move things forward (such as the 3 old men at the excellent start of Dr. No), Casino Royale is awash in anti-symbols: characters meeting amidst graffiti and small, singing children, the sudden appearance of lions or sheep, the faux import of this or that speech by supporting characters, or — my personal favorite — the use of religious tropes that really signify nothing. And they signify nothing because Casino Royale doesn’t allow for much else, working, as it does, within the narrows of a few fairly limited genre films (there were only 4 major Bonds prior to Casino). This is Casino’s context, then, wherein it is allowed to be more ambitious than even the best Bonds, such as Goldfinger, despite the fact that, within the realm of THAT genre, those films are more accomplished, as they want less, aim lower, and therefore hit their far more limited objectives with more surety.
Paradoxically, however, these anti-symbols are often even more alluring than the real thing. In short, they often put one’s attention to incongruent elements that, while not making sense in the particulars of a moment, make sense in the context of this and other films. The little girls’ singing at the beginning of Casino, for instance, is well-shot, as are the accompanying, somewhat jarring images, and therefore set the viewer up for an expectation of some deeper comment or revelation. Yet after this initial meeting, one merely sees the agents in the car, well, bullshitting, with their words derided by even more anti-symbols, both via the sheep, as well as the lions — patrolling, it seems, Bond’s mansion — which set James Bond up to be a larger-than-life figure that, in the guise of David Niven, the viewer KNOWS he cannot be. Yes, the film is a cult classic, and therefore gets its fair share of boosters and over-imbuement within such details. But what of it? Robert von Dassonowsky, for instance, seems to take the ‘monarchical’ lion image at face value, but clearly, this anti-symbol — like other anti-symbols in the film — is more of a ‘what the hell?’ moment, works to ultimately deflate Niven’s Bond, and is played off more to this effect than anything else. Thus, most interpretations that try to put the film on more sure, qualitatively sounder footing do it a disservice because, first of all, it just ain’t so, no matter how well-loved Casino Royale may be in some circles, and second, the film really draws its allure from elsewhere. This place may not be art, exactly, but is nonetheless one of those tangents that give things — even some less deserving things — much of their longevity.
As Casino goes on, the other Bond films are skewered for what they are, whether that’s through the faux Scottish agents (French girls, really) who demand the offending Bond go “pay the piper!” — replete with a stuffed dog under glass to further show their fairy-like roots — or through the re-emergence of Miss Moneypenny via Moneypenny’s daughter (also called Moneypenny, as if they’re completely interchangeable), since Moneypenny Sr. left for a convent due to Bond’s retirement and subsequent erasure from her life, or the ascension of Dr. Noah (Woody Allen), who, far from being the film’s chief antagonist, is in fact a mere cipher, for he is simply a humorous comment on what sort of person might become ‘pure evil’ (as Dr. Noah is shown to be), at least to a comic mind. This is why he’s able to be off-screen for so long, and why his eventual presence, in a deeper sense, really changes nothing, and neither clarifies, hurts, nor amplifies the film’s trajectory.
And, yes, while Dr. Noah is sort-of behind this latest scuffle with SMERSH, this does not make him the antagonist to the film’s protagonist (who, himself, gets a little re-defined midway), as is often claimed. I called him a “cipher,” above, because Dr. Noah doesn’t really appear until the film’s end, at which point he becomes a humorous capstone rather than the film’s inner reason. In short, he could have been ANYONE, here, and is Noah — in the deeper sense of ‘Noah,’ as an entity and personage — purely for the comedic effect of transplanting a short, odd-looking nebbish into the role of James Bond’s nephew, who has an inferiority complex with respect to Bond. In fact, the typical Bond villain is either a puppeteer (Goldfinger), or a powerful yet very flawed tool (Donald “Red” Grant). Noah, however, is a puppeteer in name only, for David Niven’s Bond — and his ‘double,’ Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) — is too busy with all the digressions and subplots for this to ever really matter.
Moreover, the fact that Dr. Noah is played by Woody Allen gives Casino Royale yet another layer, even if it doesn’t really affect the film’s sum. It is clear, for instance, that Allen wrote his own lines, co-wrote them, or had his material written FOR him, specifically, as a kind of ‘guest of honor’ due to the popularity of What’s New Pussycat? just two years prior. This is not only because the delivery is so, well, Allenesque, but also because the writing might as well have come from his stand-up routines. “I’ll untie you immediately, and we’ll run amok,” he tells a pretty agent at one point. “And if you’re too tired, we can walk amok.” In fact, this does little to dispel Woody’s claims that, in the midst of filming, he was paid to be in London for a total of 6 months — hotel, food, and other expenses — despite the fact that Woody has, at best, only a few minutes of screen time, total, spread over 3 or 4 short scenes, mostly of them at the end of the film. Indeed, for while Woody Allen was busy with his own tight comedies, produced on tiny budgets that always seemed to gross at least double, Charles Feldman (among others) was wasteful, merely throwing money at his problems, and it grated the young filmmaker. Thus, while Woody Allen would go on to make great films, cutting across genres and subjects, all done on a shoestring, Charles K. Feldman presaged the super-budgets and all-star casts that followed in Hollywood, even as he’d do it better and more interestingly than most.
Nor is the film lacking in some deeper respects, even if the ideas are occluded by some fluff. It is hard, for instance, to divorce Peter Sellers, here, from his presence in Dr. Strangelove just 3 years prior, for while he, himself, does not engage in too much satire, Casino Royale does, to the point of having a few similar scenes. For instance, when Le Chiffre (Orson Welles — notice a pattern here?) holds an art auction to pay off his gambling debt to SMERSH, the Russians, Brits, and Chinese cynically shout their numerical offers, then get into a ridiculous fight, which ends only when they detect a common enemy who might foil their deeper monetary aims. Then there’s the film’s opening, wherein an agent of the USSR claims the real Bond is no friend of the proletariat, followed by an American bemoaning how little he seems to care for ‘democracy’ — more manipulation, that, and a pretty accurate take on political theater, as a whole.
Yet the film’s best and most vivid scene is when Le Chiffre kidnaps Evelyn Tremble, and tortures him via hallucination. One sees, for example, some well-shot kaleidoscopic images, followed by the sudden intrusion of a Scottish marching band, obscured by fog, as Tremble walks around confused as if mid-dream. Asked who he is, Tremble answers: “Peter Sellers.” It’s a wonderful little moment of meta-fiction, for this is Casino Royale in concentrate — in the mist, in Le Chiffre’s puppeteering, and the fact that we know Tremble, even prior to his admission, is NOT Bond, nor even a very good stand-in. ‘Reality’ wins out, and even Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress), as if on cue, and moving fatalistically via the path of previous Bond films, shows herself to be a double agent, thus killing Tremble in a pretty shocking moment that, while commenting on the Bond universe, on the one hand, turns away from Bond, as well, by way of this surprise. In short, here is a strong, poetic moment that rises above the film’s remainders, as if it’s on the cusp of tipping things into a kind of break from the smaller, less ambitious narrative. Unfortunately, however, it is not a break from, but a break down, in the end, as things devolve to mere slapstick, thus mirroring the messy sort of end in Woody Allen’s What’s New Pussycat? And if the earlier film tried to milk an all-star cast for what it couldn’t do by its lonesome, Casino Royale mis-uses its talent on mere ideas, as opposed to ideas that could have been made to live on-screen.
Yet the particulars of the scene, above, reveal twists and machinations that other Bond films couldn’t even conceptualize ca. 1967, much less execute them, thus putting a unique spin on Casino Royale as both inferior and — despite this fact — nonetheless more interesting. Indeed, for the film is always on the margins of something better, deeper, but only sometimes reaches for it, and rarely (if ever) truly gets it. Perhaps, in some ways, Casino can be construed as a negative force, given how quickly the studios wished to follow in its poor budgetary and mostly-wasted casting decisions. And perhaps Woody Allen was right to shake his head at something that is NOT, in the deeper sense, a success. But Casino Royale is also a hint — no matter how minor, or how bare — of some possibilities within the medium. It’s just that, after trying to do it all, on the one hand, it forgot what needed to get done in the first place. A lesson? Just think of how quick people are to say goodbye to the art of the old century, yet have such trouble welcoming the worlds in the new one.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=http://www.amazon.com/Casino-Royale-Blu-ray-David-Niven/dp/B0055OG2BC]