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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Casino Royale (1967) - Birth of the Modern Satire, in True British Style

Films that start genres usually get a lot more respect than this one does. Modern science fiction films all flow from the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still," modern spy films from "Dr. No" or, really, from "North By Northwest," films about cheeky bands derive from "A Hard Day's Night," and so on. All revered, all loved, all fondly remembered. Then, you have "Casino Royale." What, you say? How dare I lump this forgotten film in with those classics? Well, "Casino Royale" absolutely belongs in that elite company. As the first modern farcical satire, it led directly to classic films such as "Blazing Saddles," "Airplane," "Caddyshack" and just about everything Leslie Nielsen has been in since 1980. And, if you can look past its quirky flaws, it holds up quite nicely beside any of those films.

I don't see anything wrong with this....

David Niven plays the original James Bond 007 (that's how the name is given throughout, just to hammer the point home that he's James Bond THE SPY and not just some ordinary joker by that name), now a contented recluse. Because somebody is wiping out all his successors, he is recalled into service and coerced into restoring the natural order of things.

Orson staring down James Bond

Well, so far, so good. The balance of the film follows not only the Niven 007, but also a bunch of other British spies also known as 007 - because that has become the brand name for "top spy." And ultimately there are half a dozen or more James Bond 007s floating around, all slowly closing in on the source of all the problems being suffered by British Intelligence. And so the satire unfolds.

Who was the real star of this film?  In Italy, it was Orson Welles

The truly defining quality of this film is that it is undeniably British. Indeed, that is how it should be, Bond is a British agent and he works for the Queen. With all the "official" films, Bond instead is portrayed as a kind of stateless archetype. There are all sorts of sly digs at the "official" films, not the least being the interchangeable Bonds and the fact that, while he is an identifiable individual, he is portrayed as more of a symbol of invincibility than anything else. While Bond is quite at home with the Americans in the "official" films, here he is defiantly British, and the Americans (and everyone else) are caricatures written as broad stereotypes.
Watch those hands, Mister!

Besides being the birth of the modern satire, "Casino Royale" also introduced stunt casting. George Raft is billed as a lead, despite having exactly one line of dialog and about 20 seconds of screen time, solely because he can stand there and flip his coin. Woody Allen is present to do his neurotic American Jew bit, Jean-Paul Belmondo to represent the French, and so forth.

Aside from everything else, the score is a treasure. Herb Alpert and Burt Bacharach are at the tops of their games, the crown jewel being the hit "The Look of Love." You'll probably enjoy the film just because of that tune's sudden introduction midway through.

I always thought David Niven was the REAL James Bond

Full of all sorts of marvelous send-ups of the Bond franchise, the real drawback to "Royale" is simply that it is disjointed and difficult to follow. The film opens with Peter Sellers being identified as Bond, but then we abruptly get the Niven character as Bond, and it all gets confusing. There are also huge holes in the script - one second Bond is chasing the villain Le Chiffre (Orson Welles in an awesome turn), the next he is being tortured by Le Chiffre.  The story really ignites every time Orson is on the screen, each appearance memorable.

A few times, improv moments by Sellers that are absolutely unrelated to anything else in the film are thrown in simply because they are mildly amusing in a droll way.  As you've probably heard, the problem was because Sellers left the production while on some kind of ego trip and they had trouble fitting his scenes together in any kind of coherent fashion. You really need to view this several times to sort everything out and enjoy all the references. Not everybody will have the patience to do that.

But, if you put in the effort, you will appreciate why this was one of the top box office hits of 1967. It is a wildly amusing spoof of the pompous "official" Bond franchise and well worth your time.

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