The good folks at Eon Productions have been the caretakers of the James Bond franchise, through thick and VERY thin for almost 50 years.  Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig… These names roll off the tongue rather easily as all being the aliases of 007.  Thanks to the” miracle” that is cable television, I was able to reconnect with ANOTHER James Bond… One whose odds were even more against him than any other.

In 1967 the film “CASINO ROYALE” was released by Columbia Pictures, then a competing film company to MGM who released the more mainstream Bond films.  Originally conceived as a direct adaptation of the novel and originally intended to be a co-production with Albert R. Broccoli (the producer of the Bond films) the film wound up being another animal entirely.  Broccoli had just finished a co-production on a mainstream Bond film (“Thunderball” with Kevin McClury).  Not only was he unwilling to repeat such an experience, but given what would later happen with McClury and “Thunderball”, this would seem VERY wise (the fallout became “Never Say Never Again” — a remake of “Thunderball” without any of the trappings of the usual James Bond films to date).

Charles K. Feldman’s “Casino Royale” was not the first adaptation of the Ian Fleming novel.  In the 1950s, “Casino Royale” was staged as a live production on the TV series “Climax!”  It starred Barry Nelson as American secret agent Jimmy Bond, who battles with Peter Lorre as the villainous Le Chifre.

The “Climax!” version STILL wound up being closer to the original than Feldman’s attempt, which ultimately took the route of satire.

Feldman’s film stars David Nevin as Sir James Bond, a retired secret agent.  Niven’s straight portrayal is probably one of the two major highlights of a film that circles the tower without ever really trying to come in for a landing.  Nevin’s Bond is not the womanizing, sex-crazed character that one generally thinks of when they think of Bond (a fact that he even makes fun of in the film).  Instead he’s a conservative man who enjoys the finer things in life.  He has extensive knowledge and is ready to live out his retirement in peace.  However, a secret terrorist organization employing mainly female heavies is out to take over the world, forcing Bond out of retirement.

If you stop it right there, you almost have a watchable movie.  Everything that comes afterward is incomprehensible because the film was ultimately done VERY piecemeal with too many cooks in the kitchen (the film boasts 6 credited directors.)  Also in the film is Peter Sellers.  I’d say he co-stars, but to be frank his involvement is scattershot at best.

Sellers plays one of the many “James Bonds” in the film (THE James Bond decides that all MI5 agents should be called James Bond to confuse the enemy — and, one would think, the audience.)  Sellers also plays his part as straight as can be, almost causing a small amount of regret that we would never get to see Mr. Sellers play Bond for real.  He makes you think he just might be able to pull it off.  The problem with Mr. Sellers’ involvement was that he was feuding with co-star (and one of the villains of the piece) Orson Welles.  The feud between the two (the cause of which is a hotly debated topic) caused for their one scene together to be shot MAINLY separately.

Sellers reportedly left the film early which caused extensive rewrites and every editing trick in the book to make it look like he finished the film.  Again, this filmic triage gives the film a less-than-stable narrative.  Also in the image above you’ll note Ursula Andress.

Andress has the distinction of being the very first Bond girl from “Dr. No.”  She therefore is also the subject of one of the most iconic images in Bond lore, as she emerged from the water in a very small white bikini armed with a dagger in that same film.  Here she plays a wealthy spy inducted into the James Bond army.  While Andress may exude all the sexual charm she was intended to, her character’s arc becomes just another mildly confusing cog in the machine.

And then there’s Woody Allen.  Despite anything else I may be writing here, my intention is NOT to spoil the movie, so I won’t get too much into what part he plays (other than Bond’s nephew Jimmy Bond — not to be confused with Barry Nelson’s character in that OTHER “Casino Royale”).  He’s classically nebbish like he is in all his other films, and a touch neurotic.  But his presence seems to underscore the idea that this film really doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be, and most likely gave up trying about half way through.

Rounding out the cast are William Holden, George Raft, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Bouchet and more.  Not to be outdone is a score by Burt Bacharach.  The main highlight here being “The Look of Love” by Dusty Springfield, though the rest of the soundtrack is pretty solid including bits with Herb Alpert.

So what happens when you put all this together?  Like I said, it’s hard to tell.  The film is ABSOLUTELY worth seeing from any number of perspectives -whether you’re a film student trying to figure out how NOT to make a film, or a film historian wanting to see an ensemble piece with such potential that somehow still missed the mark, or a fan of comedy who may actually find the satire completely pleasing, or a Bond fan who just wants to check out this particular cultural oddity.  In a way, I fancy myself a bit of all of the above, so somehow I AM actually able to enjoy the film for what it is.  I will absolutely watch it when it’s on and occasionally seek it out.

The most amazing quality of it, though, is the indie film feel it has despite having the largest budget of a Bond film for its time.  It’s a bunch of people trying really hard to put on a good show despite the fact that there is no real story to tell, no real direction to go in, and troubles both in front of and behind the camera.   Everyone gives it the old college try, and if you’re into that sort of thing, I think you just might enjoy this film.

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