The Cult Club: Casino Royale (1967)


[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]

Have you ever seen a movie fall apart as you’re watching it? Not simply a bad film, but one that completely and totally loses all cohesion as it rambles wildly towards its conclusion. Of course the only conclusion to a film that has completely lost its way is to have no conclusion at all. Have you ever seen a movie like that? A movie that seems like it’s made up of pieces for multiple puzzles?

If you answered yes than you’ve seen 1967’s Casino Royale. The film is based off of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel in that it’s called Casino Royale and the characters have some names you might remember. Otherwise it is quite possibly the biggest train wreck of a film ever put to screen… and it’s totally glorious because of it.

Casino Royale actually could have been a legit Bond film. Before Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman grabbed the rights to the Bond books and started producing them under their production company Eon, Ian Fleming had made a deal with two producers for Casino Royale. Eventually those rights were bought by producer Charles K. Feldman. After Bond became a mega hit Feldman obviously wanted in on the action so the original idea was that he would team up with Saltzman and Broccoli and make Casino Royale an official Bond film. However, as we’ll find out, Feldman was not an easy man to work with and the partnership did not work out for a variety of reasons (Broccoli and Saltzman had already been burned by co-producing Thunderball with Kevin McClory). So Feldman decided to make his own Bond film and set about doing it. But after Sean Connery, who had recently quit the Eon films, demanded $1 million to star in Feldman’s Bond, Feldman was convinced he couldn’t make a straight Bond film and would instead have to make a satire.

What ensued was a story of massive budgets, epic controversy and a lot of gigantic egos colliding. It is quite literally not a pretty picture. 

The cast of Casino Royale was made up of pretty much anyone who wanted to be in the movie. There are cameos so small that you wonder why the big name star even bothered to show up. But the main cast is beyond impressive including David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Ursula Andres, Woody Allen and Deborah Kerr. It all started out so promising too with Academy Award winning screenwriter Ben Hecth drafting up some more serious takes on the character until Feldman decided to satarize the story. Even then Billy Wilder was brought in and hope remained that a quality film could come out. After all, with everyone and their mother chomping at the bit to be in a Bond film and a proven screenwriter how could things go wrong. Of course that was not to be, and it was mostly Feldman’s fault.

No one got along with anyone on this film except David Niven, because everyone loves David Niven. Feldman seems to have been universally hated by everyone involved as he would constantly change the screenplay and goals of the film, Sellers, also dealing with personal issues, eventually walked off the set as he and Orson Welles didn’t get along, and the movie ended up with six different directors by the time the film was done. While the multiple director gag was eventually adopted as part of the whole concept of the film it hardly worked and left the sixth director Val Guest, who refused to be called a director of the film for fear that it would sully his name, with a big mess to piece together. Obviously things did not go well for this film, and you can read the full history elsewhere as it’s both long and I’ve only got so much space. The internet doesn’t go on forever, you know.

What’s most striking about Casino Royale is how completely separate the six director’s sections are. Despite all of them actually being accomplished directors (Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and Richard Talmadge) none of them seem to have any idea what is going on. There is almost no attempt to connect anything together. It’s almost as if they were working in a cocoon, which is entirely possible since most of them left the film upset. Take Ken Hughes’ work on the film, which involved most of the scenes shot in Berlin where James Bond’s daughter goes undercover. It’s shot and designed like a German Expressionist film and at no time even attempts to play nice with the rest of the directors. Huston on the other hand goes straightforward with his scenes with David Nevin, though by the time the screenplay got to him he was directing a story that made absolutely no sense. You can almost hear him wearily shouting cut every time the film changes scenes. And then there’s poor Val Guest who was handed the disconnected work of five other directors by Feldman and told to make a movie out of it. The fact that the film even has a a plot is a strong argument that Guest is actually the greatest director ever.

What’s really astonishing about Casino Royale is that it gets better with age. At the time of its opening it was universally panned (thought it made a tidy sum), but in hindsight it becomes far better. Part of this is simply because the back story makes it all the more fun to watch, but despite it’s incoherent rambling from one director to another it actually comes across as charming in a psychedelic sort of way. If you stop thinking about it as a Bond parody and start thinking of it as something completely different from anything else ever you start to get intrigued by what will come next. There’s also no arguing that Peter Sellers isn’t one of the greatest actors ever (despite what Orson Welles evidently thought). There are times in this movie where you seriously consider Sellers as a legitimate actor to play Bond, and other times where you seriously consider actually laughing at the absolutely horrendous jokes he’s forced to deliver just because he’s that good. 

No, really the jokes are terrible. Despite some of cinema’s funniest people working on the movie’s screenplay they almost all fall flat. They’re miss-timed and when they aren’t they’re just plain bad. Add to that the fact that Orson Welles demanded he do magic tricks for some reason and someone thought that was hilarious, and you can see how unfunny this movie gets. Want to take a guess as to whose fault that is? That’s right: Mr. Feldman. Evidently the man had the comic timing of an unconscious buffalo, but didn’t realize it. Many of the directors simply gave up trying to stop him from meddling and thus almost every joke in the film was reworked into an unfunny mess by the producer himself. It’s sad that Feldman’s life obsession was this film and yet he was the one who ended up ruining it. 

Casino Royale is a movie that needs to be experienced because there really is nothing else like it out there. No other movie has imploded on itself like it did and kept on going. That’s the crazy thing. It’s clearly falling apart and yet it keeps on going only to end in a giant, cameo-filled action sequence that obliterates the entire plot. It’s as if to say, “There’s no way to end this but to blow it up.” You don’t have to like Casino Royale, you don’t have to enjoy watching it, but if you like movies it’s just one of those movies you have to see. In the end you may wind up enjoying it anyway. 

Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Flixist. He has worked as a critic for more than a decade, reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and videogames. He will talk your ear off about James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.