Sub-Cult

Does 1967's Casino Royale Deserve Cult Status?

Sub-Cult is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of movies that have quietly attracted devoted followings and are on the verge of becoming full-on cult sensations.

by | November 4, 2015 | Comments

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Like similarly Texas-sized opuses It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Cleopatra, and 1941, the 1967 James Bond spy spoof Casino Royale is notable primarily for its magnitude. It’s distinguished by its Spruce Goose-like size as well as its Spruce Goose-level sleekness and effectiveness. It was less a film than a universe unto itself. Nearly a half century later, it’s still remarkable that enough money and willpower existed in the world to get such a gaudy, endless parade of star power, production values, and dizzying, dazzling eye candy onscreen in one ridiculously overstuffed extravaganza. This is true even if Casino Royale often feels like a one-joke movie whose single gag is, “Isn’t it crazy how much money we’re wasting?”

But Casino Royale also took up a lot of cultural space because it was, and remains, inextricably linked to the James Bond franchise, an institution that has ferociously held on to its central place in the pop culture landscape longer than just about any ongoing franchise. It was the first big cinematic adaptation of the Bond series released without the participation of producer Albert R. Broccoli, although it was less a straight adaptation than a spoof that used the bare bones of Ian Fleming’s story as the springboard for a terminally dated goof.

The 2006 Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale, which reinvented and reimagined the series, stood out in part because it swung as hard in the direction of grim, grounded seriousness as its quasi-predecessor did in the loopy realm of anything-goes screwball comedy. It benefited from a clear-cut authorial vision, one much bolder and more distinctive than had ever been associated with director Martin Campbell before. But the 1967 Casino Royale feels like it was assembled by an international team of highly paid, highly confused professionals who had no idea what anybody else was doing and precious little interest in how their jagged, weird little contributions would serve a whole that seemed to be steadily slipping away from the filmmakers even before production began.

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Casino Royale feels like it was assembled by an international team of highly paid, highly confused professionals.”

Casino Royale feels like an anthology film comprised of four or five discrete segments from different filmmakers with different aesthetics that were frantically refashioned into a narrative film at the last minute. That’s not too far from the truth, as the film has a starting basketball team’s worth of credited directors and an army of uncredited script doctors. It’s as if the producers decided the way to create the greatest, most decadent feast in cinematic history would be to invite the greatest chefs in the world all to collaborate on one massive meal, conveniently forgetting the old cliche about too many cooks spoiling the broth.

But on to the film itself. In one of Casino Royales many intriguing-in-theory, hopelessly muddled-in-execution conceits, its primary James Bond is actually a very proper English gentleman (a Sir, even, in his majesty’s secret service) played by David Niven, who has retired from active duty following a career of extraordinary achievement to enjoy a peaceful existence ruled by classical music, gardening and extreme propriety.

Sir James Bond reluctantly agreed to let the Queen use his name and number (and license to kill, it would follow) for the sex fiend immortalized by Ian Fleming in his novels and the Broccoli-produced films, and is none too happy about being associated with someone of such low moral character.

In this case, casting is destiny; Sir James Bond is essentially the persona Niven perfected over the course of his career: droll, wry, the very picture of bone-dry British wit. He stutters and stammers but he’s a wiz in a pinch, as evidenced by the fact that an international coterie of bigwigs, including characters played by William Holden, John Huston and Charles Boyer, seek him out when the sinister entity known as SMERSH is liquidating top secret agents from around the world.

Niven’s Bond is initially reluctant, but he ultimately ends up spearheading MI6’s campaign against SMERSH. To confuse the enemy, Bond seizes upon the novel notion of renaming all of the agency’s operatives in the field “James Bond” and assigning them all the code number “007,” even the women. For the purposes of Casino Royale, David Niven is James Bond, and Peter Sellers is James Bond as well, and even Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet), Bond’s daughter with legendary female spy and seductress Mata Hari, enters the family profession as another James Bond in an endless sequence rich in exotic, lush sensuality yet almost utterly devoid of jokes.

Sellers plays world-famous baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble, who is recruited to square off against Le Chiffre, a sinister heavy (no pun intended) played by Orson Welles, in a high stakes battle of wills at the card table. In a somewhat curious strategy, the famously prickly and unpleasant Sellers decided that the way for him to stand out opposite the high-powered likes of Welles and Woody Allen (who previously tangled with Sellers on the set of What’s New Pussycat and engendered his eternal contempt and hatred by being funnier than him) would be to eschew comedy altogether and deliver a straight-faced performance, where he’d show Niven a thing or two about what it meant to play a dashing continental gentleman of action. So a popular favorite for funniest man alive decided to buck expectations and play it completely straight in one of the biggest comedies of all time. It was a bold, if perverse, choice, but Sellers compounded the curiousness of his involvement with the film by bolting before his scenes were finished, leaving the filmmakers to scramble and figure out a way to coherently end their film without the participation of a man who, with the possible exception of Niven, could rightly be said to be its star.

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“Sellers seems to make a deliberate choice not to be funny.”

Sellers at least seems to make a deliberate choice not to be funny; the rest of the cast arrives in the same place by accident, and often through furious and furiously wasted exertion. For a film committed to excess in all its forms, Casino Royale is peculiarly short on actual gags. Because the James Bond movies delight in winking at audiences as they lovingly recycle the franchise’s tropes, a parody of James Bond almost by definition would come across as a parody of a parody, a spoof of a spoof, a goof of a slightly different, slightly more straight-faced kind of goof. Accordingly, Casino Royale feels like a Mad Magazine parody of itself. It’s not an encouraging sign that the film’s idea of a risque Bond girl name (“Giovanna Goodthighs,” played by a young, pre-stardom Jaqueline Bisset) is less outrageous than actual Bond girl names like Pussy Galore.

For all of the smart and talented people who worked on Casino Royale, there is no animating intelligence uniting its disparate strains. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster whose stitches fall apart, leaving behind only a surreal tangle of severed limbs on the ground. The actors and filmmakers all seem to have their own conception of who James Bond is and how he functions in the world, and these conceptions clash violently with each other when they engage with the others at all. And the behind-the-scenes craziness bleeds onto the screen constantly. Characters are introduced then abandoned for endless stretches of time, only to come back just as nonsensically. Sellers’ Tremble simply disappears late in the film, at which point Woody Allen (who is entertaining because he’s a young Woody Allen, albeit not as entertaining as he’d be in just about any other context around this time) takes over as a manic evil genius with a diabolical plan to kill all men taller than him so he can turn the world into his harem.

All of this barely controlled chaos climaxes with an endless fight involving the main characters, and Native Americans, and cowboys, and just about everyone else in the world (including George Raft for some reason), which suggests that the filmmakers ultimately gave up on providing any kind of coherent, satisfying ending at all, and simply gave themselves over to the random insanity of the movie. The ending plays out as if the best single stage direction the film’s world-class brain trust could come up with was: “Craziness ensues.”

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“The behind-the-scenes craziness bleeds onto the screen constantly.”

Casino Royale is rich in all of the qualities that do not make comedies funny. It has enough sexy women to stock Playboy clubs in the major cities of the world and substantially more stars than there are in the heavens. It has enormous sets that would look better lovingly photographed and collected into a coffee table book on a surrealistic 1960s go-go set design than relegated to the background of a comedy whose laugh-per-dollar-spent ratio rivals 1941 for sheer waste in pursuit of non-comedy. I would rather admire that coffee table book while listening to Burt Bacharach’s score than have to endure this clattering contraption’s screaming psychedelic sound and frenetic motion.

Casino Royale is a lush opus full of Oscar-worthy production values, particularly a costume department whose gorgeous get-ups for exotic lovelies dazzle the eye even as they leave the funny bone untouched. It’s paradoxically way, way too much in every sense, and not much of anything at all. It’s a whole lot of movie, and one big cinematic headache.

There is a tendency in our culture to honor things disproportionately just for hanging around. In a world full of fleeting and ephemeral phenomena, we honor resilience. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it sometimes breeds affection as well.

In that respect, Casino Royale is like a crappy version of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree that has always been there for me at various points in my life to let me down. When I was a kid obsessed with James Bond, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, crazy comedies and sexy girls in revealing outfits, I was disappointed to discover that Casino Royale somehow managed to combine these irresistible elements in an eminently resistible package. As a teenaged cinephile I was intrigued to see how the fascinating sensibilities of Welles, Allen, Sellers, Huston and behind-the-scenes (and uncredited) contributors Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, Joseph Heller and Terry Southern came together, and I was frustrated to see that when these incredibly distinctive entertainers collaborated, they did so in a way that negated both their personalities and their brilliance.

Finally, I re-watched Casino Royale for this piece through the prism of both the mania for Spectre and my own childhood and adolescent nostalgia for this big, dumb, Day-Glo burst of uber-kitsch; I was disappointed yet again. This elephantine curio stubbornly refuses to transcend the muddled, mercenary nature of its creation and evolve from an ugly and confused duckling (albeit one with great clothes) into a beautiful cult swan.


My Original Certification: Rotten
My Re-Certification: Rotten
Tomatometer: 29 percent


Follow Nathan Rabin on Twitter: @NathanRabin

  • JW Pepper

    You can’t watch Casino Royale as a traditional film. You can’t watch it alone. You need to watch it with others, preferably way too late at night and it a mood to have fun. It works as an interactive experience. “We stand, we bid! We sit, we no bid!” The visual jokes are wonderful: The Berlin Wall set, Woody Allen’s execution by firing squad, Orson’s magic trick. The self-driving milk float chase is far better made than the car chases in many Bond films. By the end of the film, it is best to be drunk or high, but if you are in the right mood with the right company, it is every bit as delightful as any comedy out there.

    • TheAverageGuyTAG

      I tried doing that with friends after we saw how deliciously insane the finale was, but we eventually got bored and just shut it off.

      • JohnnyCNote

        Ironically, I was discussing CR1 with an associate yesterday. I was explaining how someone had recorded it off of TV and incredibly tedious it was to watch. I finally asked the guy who’d recorded it to take it home and never to bring it back. On the other hand, CR2 is the first Bond movie I’ve ever liked…

  • I’m a bit surprised that Mr. Rabin didn’t point out the parallel with Monty Python. In their original TV series, Python had the running gag of ending sketch with the entrance of a policeman. This device was a nod and a wink to the audience that the writers couldn’t think of a way out of the sketch. In Casino Royale ’67, it’s not a gag: the writers really were so lost that the only way they could get out was by blowing up the cast.

  • EB

    I believe this is the first movie you haven’t recertified as a cult film… and you are absolutely correct. I always heard the horror stories, but the cast and crew just seemed to fantastic to be so awful. And I was completely wrong. The actors were wholly wasted. I would have love to have been in the room to see the execs gaping at the dailies. Yeesh what a terrible film.

  • A terrible movie in every way. Should be rated 15%.

  • After watching every single James Bond movie, this is the worst. a two and a half hour comedy that isn’t funny. A View to a Kill is much funnier than this movie.

  • gnarlygnome

    watch it on LSD youll understand

  • James Allard

    Ah, the wonder and the glory of the original Casino Royale. Personally, I love this bizarre mangled mess, the title track and The Look Of Love make it memorable in grand, pleasant ways. Perhaps I adore it due to the manner in which I was first exposed to it, on television. There, it was hacked to pieces to allow commercials, and I would dash off to do one thing or another, bathroom, snacks, what have you, and would return to what appeared to be the same film… but I couldn’t be sure. The whole thing is deeply steeped in WTF Just Happened… and later, when I had more, um, Life Experience (and Psychedelic Experiences) it oh so very nearly made sense. It was like Preminger’s Skidoo… a trip, a filmed hallucination.

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