Our review of Casino Royale: Collector's Edition (Blu-Ray), published October 29th, 2008, is also available.
In the 1960s, Charles Feldman nabbed the rights of Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Casino Royale. And then he completely ignored the book's plot. Well, most of it, anyway. He corralled five directors—yes, five—and several writers and directed them to produce a movie that complemented the psychedelic movement that was transforming popular culture. And boy, did they ever. I have never dropped acid, but now, thanks to MGM Home Entertainment's DVD release of Casino Royale, I feel like I have.
Facts of the Case
Sir James Bond (David Niven, Three Blind Mice) led his mistress, Mati Hari, to her death by firing squad. Depressed, he's been out of commission ever since. Some evil force, however, has been picking off spies worldwide, and he is recruited to help save the lives of future targets. Reluctantly, he agrees. To help foil the enemy, quickly discovered as S.M.E.R.S.H., an organization that basically wants to take over the world (no kiddin'! In a Bond movie? Get outta here!), Sir James hires several different spies to play Bond and confuse the "evildoers."
The usual suspects are here, such as Q, M (played by John Huston), Moneypenny (played by the lovely Barbara Bouchet, Gangs of New York), and of course, Mata Bond (Joanna Pettit), the love child of James and Mata Hari. You know, how Bond and Mata Hari had that affair? Okay, okay, by now you probably know that a great many liberties were taken with the legend of James Bond, which is precisely the point: this is a spoof. A good spoof? Well, yes and no.
There are some big laughs here, particularly by Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond, the ne'er do well nephew of Sir James. Allen comes up with some great one-liners that are pure Woody, explaining the fact that he's often listed as an uncredited writer. Casino Royale also has plenty of star turns here, from Niven, to Ursula Andress (Dr. No), to Huston, to Orson Welles (The Third Man, as the evil but irrelevant Le Chiffre), to the formidable Peter Sellers (What's New, Pussycat), who is dashing, funny, and, as usual, constantly switching identities and appearances in the blink of an eye. Yes, Casino Royale is a good spoof, in that it hits the funny bone occasionally and has more stars than the VIP room at Spago. There's also the ridicule of the paranoia of the Cold War, a visual joke pertaining to the East and West blocs of Germany, and a few other tongue-in-cheek cultural references that betray the silliness of the picture.
But Casino Royale is not a totally successful spoof. Most parodies, from Austin Powers to Airplane!, understand that the art of comedy is brevity. At two hours and 17 minutes, brief this ain't. Mata Bond's mission at an art auction in Germany is a wasted 10-15 minutes, Le Chiffre's appearance is a yawner, and the four (five?) different viewpoints reflected in the film confuse the viewer and trample the plot. Finally, one hour and fifty minutes into it, Niven and Co. end up at the Casino Royale—the only obviously identical element of the story to Fleming's book—to shatter SMERSH once and for all, and the plot elements come together and make sense. Do our heroes save the day? Well, let's just say there's a heavenly ending, including a cowboy invasion, fighting seals, and a chimp. Yes, a chimp.
As for picture quality, the 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is mixed. The aspect ratio is greatly appreciated, especially since the production design, with its Mod colors and outrageous settings and costumes, need all the space they can get to be properly shown off. As for the film itself, there are occasional, noticeable, ugly white scratches, and grain is heavy at times. The colors, on the other hand, are beautiful—lovely definition, crispness, and color saturation all around. The excessive scratches and specks, needless to say, could be done without.
The soundtrack is very clear and crisp. The newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound is sharp, nicely combining dialogue, sound effects, and Burt Bacharach's cheesily great score. I heard an evenly spread distribution of sound for a solid, well-dispersed mix. The top end of high-pitched sounds is a little dull, but I attribute this to age. A mono track is also included for those who care to compare. To add to the crazy chaos, find out what everyone's saying in Portuguese by making use of the various subtitles MGM has given us on this disc.
MGM has produced a fine batch of extra features on this disc. It was a surprise to see the entire presentation of James Bond's very first screen appearance. The 1954 teleplay version of "Casino Royale," as part of the 1950s "Climax!" television series, is a priceless addition for Bond fans. The basic story is obviously loyal to Fleming's book and things happen quickly and snappily. Assigned with destroying Soviet foil Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) by out-gambling him, Bond escapes a shooting, spots the enemy, and gets the girl by 12:57, which says a lot more than the plodding plot of the Charles Feldman version. It's amazing to see how Bond has developed. Here, he's played by apple-cheeked, blond, and Middle-American-accented Barry Nelson. When asked how to play Baccarat, he says with a folksy twang that it's a matter of luck: "Ya either win or ya lose." Since when does Bond say "Ya"? Since 1954, that's when. The picture quality is very low on this oldie but goodie. "Casino Royale" the teleplay is in high-contrast black and white. The print is scratched, smeary, and beleaguered. How cool it would be to see this puppy cleaned up very nice.
Another excellent feature that one rarely sees on too many DVDs is a 20-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, "Psychedelic Cinema." One of the many directors on this film, Val Guest (The Full Treatment), is the only person interviewed here, but combined with footage of the film and stills from the set, offers a ton of information, including the fact that Sellers was fired midway through production. Creative editing and some trickery helped cover up the absence, although the plot is so harebrained and pointless, I doubt anyone would notice his sudden disappearance.
Also included in extras is a widescreen trailer, which is just as unbelievably dippy as the actual film.
Bond fans will love the extras here for their archives. The inclusion of Bond's first ever appearance in media (outside of literature) is a definite treasure. Casino Royale the film, on the other hand, is fun for only one single viewing. The second time around, make use of the chapter-skip button and self-edit for maximized enjoyment.
Not a classic. Thank goodness the rest of the Bond franchise was laid safely in Albert Broccoli's hands. Charles Feldman may have been hip with the kids with his Psychedelic approach, but psychedelia does not a classic make, especially with an incomprehensible and tiresome plot. But, Casino Royale does have a chimp in it—and hey, everyone loves chimps!—so I cut the sentence short: one year viewing Dr. No and Goldfinger over and over…and over again.
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