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At the height of the James Bond craze in the mid-sixties, the studio executives at Columbia Pictures desperately wanted to capitalize on the 007 phenomenon, but Harry Saltman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli (who had a distribution deal with United Artists) owned the rights to every Ian Fleming novel except one - Casino Royale, which had been acquired by producer Charles K. Feldman. A deal was struck to create the biggest James Bond extravaganza of all time, but the resulting film was something else entirely - a wildly uneven parody that required the services of five directors, countless screenwriters, and a cast of international actors and celebrities, many of them reduced to fleeting cameo appearances. In terms of its immense cost and production delays, Casino Royale (1967) was the Heaven's Gate (1980) of its era and critics savaged the film mercilessly when it was released. Yet surprisingly, Casino Royale was a big box-office hit and it's not hard to find passionate fans of the film due to its oddball and chaotic structure; it's closer to a sixties "happening" than a major studio release. After all, what's not to like about a film that features a Burt Bacharach score performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Dusty Springfield singing "The Look of Love" while Ursula Andress seduces Peter Sellers, Woody Allen in one of his first screen roles as the megalomaniac Dr. Noah (billed as "the tallest dwarf in the world"), lavish special effects, and groovy art direction with all the psychedelic trappings?
On the screen, Casino Royale looks like one big swinging party, but it was an entirely different story behind the scenes. The trouble started when producer Feldman found out after he bought the rights to the book that all he really owned was the title. According to co-director Val Guest in Woody: Movies from Manhattan by Julian Fox, "the rival Bond producers, Salzman and Broccoli, had already used everything in the book except the baccarat game, so the whole thing had to be structured around that." Sean Connery and Shirley MacLaine were first considered for starring roles while Bryan Forbes and Clive Donner were both in the running to helm the project. None of this panned out so Feldman decided to hire several directors for the project (John Huston was among them) with David Niven (Ian Fleming's original choice for the 007 role) playing the role of Sir James Bond. The basic plot has Bond being recalled to active duty in Scotland where he encounters the widow of a colleague (Deborah Kerr) now working for the evil SMERSH empire. The British Secret Service decides to confuse their enemy by creating a number of Bond decoys, one of whom is a cardshark (Peter Sellers) who takes on the villainous Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) in a marathon baccarat game.
Feldman was particularly excited about the casting coup of Peter Sellers in the role of Evelyn Tremble, even though he had been warned against hiring him by several industry insiders who knew the actor could be extremely tempermental. Sellers, who was at the height of his career thanks to the critically acclaimed Dr. Strangelove (1964) and the box-office successes of The Pink Panther (1964), A Shot in the Dark (1964) and What's New, Pussycat? (1965), turned out to be a total nightmare on the set. Despite a recent heart attack, he insisted on subjecting himself to a rigorous course of body-building exercises and running; he even devised a special catlike walk for his character. But his professional dedication soon gave way to unpredictable mood swings and violent tantrums; he fought constantly with director Joe McGrath (a personal friend he insisted be hired for the film) and, at one point, their anger erupted into a slugging match.
Sellers' superstitious nature also dictated his decisions; he demanded that an enormously expensive set be destroyed prior to its use because he had a nightmare about it in which his mother said she didn't like it. Worst of all, he developed an irrational fear about his co-star Orson Welles and refused to appear in scenes with him. In Peter Sellers: The Authorized Biography by Alexander Walker, Joe McGrath said, "This was my first film in Panavision, the letter-box-shaped screen. You could hold a hundred yards of the set in the lens. We had seven hundred extras for the gaming tables sequences, but we had no way of bringing our two stars together in the same shot!." But the problems persisted - including Sellers' three-week disappearance while 2,000 extras waited - until the actor suddenly quit, throwing Feldman into a panic. At first, there were rumors that drag star Danny La Rue was being brought in as Sellers' replacement. Instead, Feldman flooded the film with a multitude of faux-Bond characters in an effort to lessen Sellers' importance in the plot. Joanna Pettit's role as Mata Hara was also built up and so was Woody Allen's as Jimmy Bond/Dr. Noah.
But for Woody Allen, Casino Royale was simply a job with an attractive salary. He would spend his time off the set playing high-stakes poker, using his winnings to buy German Expressionist art (an Emil Nolde watercolor, a drawing by Oska Kokoschka) or purchase hard-to-find jazz records for his personal collection. In Woody Allen: A Biography by Eric Lax, the actor/writer/director confessed (in a letter to a friend) that Casino Royale "is a madhouse. I haven't begun filming yet but saw the sets for my scenes. They are the height of bad pop art expensive vulgarity. Saw rushes and am dubious to put it mildly, but probably film will coin a mint. (Not money, just a single peppermint.) I play the villain (okay to give that out) and also James Bond's bastard nephew (not all right to give that out) and my part changes every day as new stars fall in....I would like it emphasized and made quite clear that I am not a writer of Casino. I'm adding a few ad-lib jokes to my own part but that's all. In fact...we demanded a letter saying my name cannot appear on screen as writer. This because everyone who contributed a comma is demanding his name on the film and the writers' list looks like Terry Southern, Ben Hecht, Michael Sayers, Frank Buxton, Mickey Rose, Peter Sellers, Val Guest, Wolf Mankowitz, etc."
By the end, the budget of Casino Royale had swollen from its initial cost of $12 million to more than twice that amount. And no wonder the costs were high considering the extensive locations included Paris, the South of France, West Berlin, Ireland, and the Pinewood and MGM-British studios in England. The mammoth slapstick climax alone - featuring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a French Legionnaire, George Raft as himself, and countless famous faces - cost $1 million and took two months to shoot! Yet, despite the film's troubled production history, there is fun to be had amid the insanity - everything from Scottish comedian Ronnie Corbett as a robot with a German accent to the lovely Jacqueline Bisset as Miss Goodthighs. So, if you want to experience the sixties - Hollywood-style - this is the ultimate pit stop.
Producer: Jerry Bresler, John Dark, Charles K. Feldman
Director: Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish
Screenplay: Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, Michael Sayers, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
Cinematography: Jack Hildyard
Editing: Bill Lenny
Music: Burt Bacharach
Art Direction: Ivor Beddoes, Lionel Couch, John Howell
Cast: Peter Sellers (Evelyn Tremble), Ursula Andress (Vesper Lynd), David Niven (Sir James Bond), Orson Welles (Le Chiffre), Joanna Pettet (Mata Bond), Daliah Lavi (The Detainer), Woody Allen (Jimmy Bond/Dr. Noah), Deborah Kerr (Agent Mimi aka Lady Fiona McTarry), William Holden (Ransome), Kurt Kasznar (Smernov), Barbara Bouchet (Moneypenny), John Huston (McTarry), Anna Quayle (Frau Hoffner), Peter O'Toole (Piper).
by Jeff Stafford