50 Years of James Bond

Even the worst Eon-backed Bond movie has the distinction of being better than Charles K. Feldman’s “Casino Royale,” the first of two unofficial 007 pics (the other being “Never Say Never Again”) in which producers who’d acquired the rights to an Ian Fleming novel set out to make a competing entry on their own. In the case of “Casino Royale,” Feldman bought the rights more than a decade before “Dr. No,” but didn’t bother to exercise them until four Sean Connery films had made Bond an internationally bankable name.

I’m no film historian, but I picture Feldman running a SMERSH-like extortion racket on Eon’s Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman over the years, trying to worm his way into what, until Harry Potter came along, was the most successful film franchise of all time. Failing that, he decided to make his own version, attempting to subvert the character itself in a madcap satire with five different directors and one of the starriest ensembles of all time, featuring everyone from Peter Sellers and David Niven (both playing Bond) to Orson Welles and Peter O’Toole to Charles Boyer and Jean-Paul Belmondo, many of them appearing in blink-and-you-miss-it cameos.

The result is a film of astounding sloppiness, an insult to the Bond name (most likely deliberate) and a dark spot on the resumes of all involved (surely unintentional). A lavish, garish and ultimately nightmarish snapshot of creative energies run amok, which Roger Ebert called “a definitive example of what can happen when everybody working on a film goes simultaneously berserk,” “Casino Royale” suggests what we might expect if a Bond villain were ever to get his way, ending with the detonation of an atomic device and most of the characters blown to high heaven.

Robert von Dassanowsky is a film historian, and I learn from Wikipedia that he has written a fascinating defense of one of the worst films ever made. Crediting “Casino Royale’s” meta-satire with mocking and then ultimately predicting where the increasingly overblown Eon productions were headed, he writes, “the film was stocked with in-stars, in-jokes, and an in-style that would surpass not only the grandeur of the original series and its penchant for outrageous cold-warrior escapades, but in turn, influence the megalomania of the ‘real’ Bond series.”

Opening less than two months before Eon’s “You Only Live Twice,” “Casino Royale” did get at least one thing right: The role of Bond would soon open up to all manner of actors, none of them a match for Sean Connery (at least “Never Say Never Again” was able to cast the original Bond). “Casino Royale” compensates for the star’s absence with an impossible-to-follow plot in which six other characters are deputized under the name James Bond, including Sellers, a cardsharp who literally wrote the book on Baccarat; Vesper Lynd, played by original Bond girl Ursula Andress; and Mata Bond, the love child born of Mata Hari and the real James Bond, played by David Niven as a nancy, asexual, upper-class anti-version of the way Connery interpreted the character.

In one of the film’s competing plotlines, Sellers attempts to out-gamble Le Chiffre (Welles, circa “Chimes at Midnight,” already taking self-parody parts to support his struggling artistic efforts). In another, Bond’s insecure Blofeld-attired cousin, Jimmy Bond (none other than Woody Allen), threatens – and eventually succeeds – at blowing up the world, but not before the film falls apart before our eyes.

There must have been massive amounts of drugs involved. Certainly, there was no limit to the film’s budget, which outspent both “Thunderball” (with its costly underwater sequences) and “You Only Live Twice” (with its elaborate volcanic-crater base), coming in at a then-staggering $12 million. Oddly, that amount bought Feldman more action and more explosions than any of the Eon entries, but fewer laughs, despite the fact that “he traveled all over the country, hiring writers to do various scenes,” as “Catch-22″ author Joseph Heller told Playboy magazine.

Trying to reverse-engineer the contributions of the film’s five credited co-helmers, von Dassanowsky declared “Casino Royale” “the anti-auteur work of all time,” although he made the usual mistake of limiting the definition of “auteur” to directors. Certainly, “Casino Royale” reveals a great deal about Feldman. A more interesting project still might involve trying to suss out what writers Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, Terry Southern, Allen and Heller added to the mix – to say nothing of Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers, the three nobodies who ultimately took credit for writing this mess.

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