Sunday, 25 October 2015

No.83 - Peter Sellers: CASINO ROYALE (1967)


(Region 1 Special Edition DVD)

By 1967, the James Bond film series had become fully established as a franchise at the box office. The spy world had actually saturated the market, producing not just Ian Fleming’s globe-trotting glamour but also the grittier low-key British version courtesy of Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer, and on TV there were the likes of I-SPY and THE MAN FROM UNCLE. Naturally, when a genre becomes such a part of the consciousness it is ripe for satire. Arguably, this was already being done with James Coburn’s OUR MAN FLINT movies as well as the tongue-in-cheek excesses of Bond itself. However, for the ultimate in men’s reach exceeding their grasp, not to mention any coherent sense, look no further than the first film of CASINO ROYALE. Whereas the Bond films were efficient, glossy cruisers navigating a careful and budget responsible path to success, this was a gawdy over-inflated party balloon, soon punctured and spraying chaotically all over the place to the sound of a harsh raspberry of forced-fun tastelessness.

Big budget Hollywood producer Charles K. Feldman acquired the rights to this first Fleming novel instead of official Bond producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli. He intended to make his own film as part of the established series but when a deal could not be agreed with Broccoli, he opted to independently make his film as a spoof - and this is where it all started to go wrong…

The success of any film is based on the secure foundation of a solid script, which explains much of the problem with the muddle that CASINO ROYALE was in even before filming. An original screenplay was written by Ben Hecht, a talented writer of Hitchcock master-pieces. For some reason, his draft did not pass muster, prompting Peter Sellers to bring in his friend Terry ‘EASY RIDER’ Southern, mainly to beef up his part. He needn’t have bothered. What we see on screen is a patchwork quilt of different helmers trying to plait water, pages being re-written and delivered just in time for the camera and never making plot sense to anyone’s benefit.

The first director assigned was Joseph McGrath, a noted TV comedy director  who would go on to have a turbulent but long-term professional relationship with Peter Sellers. Ultimately this movie was shot by a total of five directors, unusually all credited on-screen (not including Richard Talmadge’s uncredited stint directing of the riotous ending). McGrath was not to know that he would begin what would seem like tag-team directorial film-making, each man being brought in as his predecessor was knocked senseless against the ropes. McGrath had made his name with the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore sketch series NOT ONLY BUT ALSO. This was to be a key ingredient in the assembling of CASINO ROYALE. At that time Sellers was uninsurable due to heart health concerns. He thus contrived an appearance in McGrath’s TV show as a very funny boxer in a sketch to convince Hollywood he was literally fighting fit. This gave enough confidence for him to be cast as Evelyn Tremble, one of the many Bond impersonators in the film’s plot to alleviate the underworld threats against David Niven as the suave real 007. Niven enjoyed himself on-set in the scenes he had, making no trouble even whilst suffering from marriage concerns at home in the meantime. His is an effortless old-school charm that at least surfs elegantly upon the garish madness without seeming to be contaminated by it.

Sellers however was a different experience for all concerned, sadly having succumbed to paranoia, jealousy and petulant childish selfishness amongst his eccentricities - which would flare up many times in his later career. He landed McGrath with a huge problem when they were filming the famous casino scenes from the book between Bond and the expert card-player Le Chiffre – played by the powerful Orson Welles. Sellers declared “I don’t want to be in the same set-up as Orson” (not just for that day but for the rest of the shoot). McGrath was perplexed, and in the course of discussing this inexplicable and ludicrously impractical shooting demand off-set they came to blows. Welles was at first relatively good-humoured about such behaviour for the most part, beginning each day asking McGrath: “Where’s our thin friend?” Subsequently all the spoken dialogue you see of the gaming sequences between the two men are filmed in isolation, each actor filmed separately. They only appear in the same frame for a couple of unspoken master shots. Later on, when McGrath needed to add more moments, Welles became equally difficult in response to Sellers: “I’m not doing any scenes  with that fucking amateur!“ He refused to allow angles on his body to be filmed for over-the-shoulder shots favouring Sellers. At least the on-set tension could feed into the on-screen dynamic generated between these duelling egos.

McGrath was dismissed  - without warning or reason  - which in retrospect must have felt like being airlifted out of a raging battlefield. The next director to drink from the poisoned chalice was the acclaimed Val Guest. It wasn’t only the menfolk who created trouble and helped exacerbate the rapidly spiralling costs.  He had to negotiate with the diva Ursula Andress. Attempting to gently persuade her not to habitually drop her shoulders in scenes, she replied haughtily: “You dare to speak like that to the most beautiful woman in the world???”. Guest was ultimately praised for his directing of scenes that attempted to connect plot elements in a vain bid to achieve some sort of coherence. When Feldman offered to credit him especially as ‘Co-ordinating director’, Guest countered only half-jokingly with the threat of a a law suit; he knew no-one would believe this unholy debacle could be perceived as having been co-ordinated by anyone!

John Huston was the third choice to be in charge of this nonsensical bursting dam of flooding money. He shot the sequences in Scotland where Niven fends off shortbread tin Scottish-accented beauties and shoots malevolent radio-controlled grouse (don’t ask) , roping in William Holden along for the ride for no reason except happen-stance availability. The location had no actual grouse for the scenes involving the real thing so more delays and costs were incurred in contriving footage of live birds.
In fact, other than copious explosions, the bevy of ‘live birds’ on display of the female variety is almost all that is worth enjoying in the final movie – with the exception of the merciful (for him) welcome extended cameo appearance of the wonderful Woody Allen. He reluctantly agreed to work again with Feldman, albeit briefly, following his joyless experience on WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT?. He had called Feldman ‘a butcher’, allegedly due to the producer routinely ruining his screen gags, leaving only the set-ups.  Feldman asked Woody to work on the script, but he wisely focused just on his own scenes. The result is at least some pleasure in seeing Woody in his early clowning phase, firing off signature nervous repartee and pantomiming with a sombrero, a bucking bronco and a piano as the spoof villain of the piece, Dr Noah. This whole section of the script, and his Bond-style insane master-plan of replacing world leaders with duplicates was entirely invented by Woody - there was no established baddie in the earlier writing drafts  - but even his distinctive court-jester antics cannot save the climax from utter incomprehensible mayhem. (No wonder he became his own master, happily morphing into a writer/director/actor hyphenate of his own material from the late 1960s to the present). Dr Noah’s lavish pop-art lair is besieged by agents Niven, Mata Bond (again don’t ask) and a Bond prototype (Terence Cooper) trained to be impervious to womenly charms – who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the next ‘real’ Bond of the official franchise but fortunately has the talent not to share George Lazenby’s dubious ‘tailor’s dummy’ acting technique. The climax here and in the casino is a massive and ridiculous quasi food-fight of spectacle; sound and fury signifying nothing…but waste. Its like a protracted ending of BLAZING SADDLES, but then so is the entire movie, lacking the wit of Mel Brooks and the sense of anyone in charge. It shouts fun but quietly shrugs in resignation. The only ones who came out of it well were the stuntman, paid per stunt over long weeks of set-ups, and the genial second-unit cameramen led by the later greatly-acclaimed Nicholas Roeg.

Lovers of in-jokes will gain the odd moment of entertainment courtesy of brief appearances in the ensuing pitch battle by George Raft, who sensibly requested no dialogue and tossed a coin (a nice call-back to his role in SCARFACE) and French nouvelle vague star Jean-Paul Belmondo (who was Andress’s boyfriend at the time).

The only other notable  ‘in’ cameo comes during the impenetrable highland bagpipers’ sequence, a face-off between Andress and Sellers. One of the pipers suddenly asks Sellers “Are you Richard Burton?”. The latter replies that he is Peter O’Toole, to which O’Toole responds grandly “Then you’re the finest man who ever drew breath!” – a follow-on to the “Give my love to what’s her name” in-joke between Burton and O’Toole in WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT?. The appearance of the Bagpipers and Andress suddenly using one of their instruments to machine-gun Sellers is a nonsense scene functioning only to give a rushed explanation for his being abruptly fired from the production by this point. No matter how talented the actor, enough was enough.

Sellers’ million dollar fee was honoured, but this wasn’t quite the end of the anecdotes that involved him. After filming was over, courtesy of more added directors, CASINO ROYALE opened to surprisingly good box office at least in America. Sellers invited Joseph McGrath to lunch to apologise for his conduct during filming. He had been experiencing relationship stress with his wife Britt Ekland and was keen to mend fences with McGrath.  During the meal, one of the Columbia producers spotted McGrath and came over to also offer his apology for how the studio had treated him. Not recognising who was his companion, the producer claimed: “It’s all that bastard Sellers’ fault”. To compound the social faux-pax, he turned to Sellers, believing him to be Woody Allen, and remarked what a pleasure it had been to have him in their movie. He left the pair, his error uncorrected, confounding as well as embarrassing Sellers. “I’ve just had a cheque from him for one million dollars – and he signed it!”. Anyway,  as one bridge is burned another was rebuilt. McGrath were reunited, going on to work together on THE GOON SHOW (on TV), THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN and THE GREAT MCGONAGALL.

 CASINO ROYALE benefits at least from the wonderful Burt Bacharach score and Herb Albert's Tijuana Brass rendition of the theme tune, 'The Look Of Love' is a really evocative song, thankfully saved from almost being cut due to Charles Feldman's hatred of it.  Overall, the film doesn’t run out of energy for its whole length to be fair; it simply runs out of sense from the start.

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