Saturday, 31 October 2015

No.88 - Peter Sellers - THE OPTIMISTS OF NINE ELMS (1973)


After a series of dark adult-themed movies, this 1973 family film was a refreshing change of tone for Peter Sellers that demonstrated once again his phenomenal ability to utterly submerge himself into a detailed three-dimensional character on screen.

THE OPTIMISTS OF NINE ELMS (also released as THE OPTIMISTS) was scripted by  Anthony Simmons and Tudor Gates, based on Simmons’ original 1964 novel and directed by him. An unproduced screenplay was originally adapted some years earlier for Buster Keaton – and before Peter Sellers was cast, it was originally to star John Mills who broke his leg before filming, and was later offered to Danny Kaye. The charming songs, such as the haunting ‘Sometimes’, were written by Lionel ‘OLIVER’ Bart, and this work very much has that charming, child-centric magic of the famous musical. With the Beatles’ producer George Martin composing the music, it was already a prestige piece before filming began.

Sellers plays a character clearly personal to him: Sam Hall, the ex music-hall variety song and dance man with a line in comedy patter. He based the characterisation on his father Bill, a veteran of the same circuit and channels his dad’s Yorkshire accent (specifically Barnsley). It’s a very rich and textured performance, and his transformation is accentuated by a prosthetic nose that changes his face remarkably without seeming a crude disguise. We see him as the die-hard stage trouper still putting on an outdoor busking show with banjo and organ accompaniment, and when not scratching a living, as he befriends the brother and sister (Donna Mulane and John Chaffey), he develops from a gruff and blunt grumpiness to a sweet, imaginative caring soul covering a deep sadness. His wife died twenty years ago and although he has the cute and talented Bella, his performing terrier in the act and dear companion, mortality and the fragility of relationships is never far from his thoughts. Sellers conveys beautifully this straddling of two worlds of the imaginative possibilities and harsh realities of life, something the children desperately need as their parents (David Daker and Marjorie Yates) work every hour God sends to move them to a better home. His is a subtle and wonderfully shaded portrayal.

Along the way, Sam’s friendship with the kids deepens as they peek into his music-hall past, trying on his costumes and sharing his love for dogs to the point where they manage to buy their own, struggling with council rules on tenants being banned from owning them. Eventually all comes right in the end; after Bella is buried by the children as a kind gesture to their new friend, they share ownership of their new pup with him, giving him a new playmate to teach tricks to and comforting his loss.

THE OPTIMISTS OF NINE ELMS is a beguilingly simple film, but at its heart is a deep and multi-layered Sellers performance that should be seen by every fan, particularly those who’ve only seen his more flamboyant, less delicate screen work. Here is an opportunity, as with HOFFMAN and later the stunning BEING THERE, to watch not just a great comedy actor but a tremendous dramatic talent when submitted to the right material…

Friday, 30 October 2015

No.87. Peter Sellers - GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN (1973)


Until the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise took the world by storm, historically pirate films had almost always failed at the box-office. GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN is a shining example of why. It’s all at sea from the start…

Peter Medak was the unfortunate captain of this leaky vessel, initially scripted by Evan Jones and then Ernest Tidyman, but subsequently augmented by Spike Milligan when he came aboard for his acting scenes.

The rambling plot, salvaged from what was shot and stitched together in episodic title-card form years after shooting and then released again in the 1980s, concerns Sellers as a treacherous ship’s cook, Dick Scratcher (yes, the humour is at that woeful level) who kills his captain Ras Mohammed (a sadly wasted Peter Boyle) after they bury their treasure on an island. However, due to a poor memory, he kidnaps a young boy and enlists him to help spot the ghost whose appearance would signpost the location of their buried loot at a later date. The crew of the Sword of the Prophet include such Sellers real life ship-mates as David Lodge - and press-ganged American star Anthony Franciosa, clearly a vain studio bid for international market success. Franciosa didn’t get on well with his wayward leading man and despite cutting a dashing Fairbanks-esque pirate look, his Portuguese accent at times circles the Cape of Chico Marx. Sellers certainly transforms himself more acutely than he did for many of his films in this period. He channels a tap-a-da-marnin’ t’ick southern Oirish brogue for the film, and physically his floppy fringe, scraggly facial growth and mad-eyed look is reminiscent of a young GOON SHOW-era Milligan.

On the plus side, money was definitely spent, equipping a handsome ship and some nice aerial photography to show it off on the high seas. The location footage to suggest Algiers was done in Cyprus whose port and ruined pillars look very cinematic. The movie also begins with a lush, lovely theme song by Denis King and a protracted but authentic-looking sepia silent movie style prologue detailing the initial skulduggery by Scratcher, albeit lasting too long.

What is clear is that stories about Sellers’ mutinous behaviour off-screen affect what is shown on-screen as well. Sellers mostly sounds like he’s indulgently improvising his lines, sometimes going off on flabby flights of fancy that are far from the welcome heights of comic invention he could reach guided by a disciplining hand on the tiller like Blake Edwards. Such was Sellers’ displeasure though with the scenes shot before Milligan reported for duty as treasure-hunter Billy Bombay that he tried to get Medak on side to scupper the production. Medak refused, and found himself not only dealing with a selfish, sabotaging star but this also seemed to rub off on Milligan. In Roger Lewis’s whopping and invaluable biography ‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers’, he confirms that during an off-day he was enlisted by Sellers to shoot a TV commercial for a well-known cigarette brand. Sellers refused to actually hold one of the products on camera, claiming he was the President of the Anti-Smoking lobby. Milligan similarly declined, citing that he was the Vice-President. The hypocrisy alone beggars belief, never mind the non-compliance!

James Villiers and Murray Melvin come aboard at one point investigating the boy’s abduction, but mercifully quality classical actors as they are soon flee at Franciosa’s ruse of faked contagious skin infection.

Milligan did inject some fresh lunacy into proceedings, as well as some re-writing, and for fans like myself at times it is a joy to see the two old Goons sparking off each other, such as their bazaar (and bizzare) quarrelsome reunion scene where Milligan is gulling people with the three-cup trick. Though they are obviously entertaining each other, occasionally the audience gets a look in, but these moments are miniscule doubloons in a beach of washed-up sea-weed. Milligan cannot resist resorting to his peculiar but amusing expressionist acting and a large punnet of vocal raspberries at the drop of a hat. Weirdly, from this point suddenly Sellers and Spike’s breaking of the fourth wall to address us is then adopted repeatedly during the second half of the film by them and once even by Franciosa. Perhaps this was part of their plan to change the tone from then on. It matters not a whit as this ship still runs aground.

Eventually, Scratcher finds Bombay’s treasure instead of his own and makes off with it back to his ship. Upon opening the chest, he is gutted that the haul is made up entirely of cannon-balls. On land, Bombay and his crazily identical crew of men (sporting the same white beard and tri-cornered hat as him) wade out to do battle and all but he are killed by the balls - fired at them as cannon-fodder. Bombay derides Scratcher for not realising the balls were composed from valuable silver and that almost all have sunk to the sea-bed. I should add there are a couple of quick sight-gags here worth noting: as Milligan pummels Scratcher on the beach in frustration, we see from his point of view that one fist from the side surreally turns into a rain of multiple arms punching Sellers from all angles. Also, a slyer camera joke is during Sellers’ failure to enlist his men to stop Franciosa; he continually exits and enters the frame during the speech and as Milligan and the others shout after him to one side, he startles them by reappearing from the other.

Finally, Franciosa and the rest of the crew steal away with the real treasure, leaving Sellers up to his neck in the sand and Milligan exaggeratedly tied to a tree. It’s tempting to see that as a metaphor for the movie (or just desserts for the twosome?) but really no-one comes out unscathed from this watery grave. All too often it plays like a baggy tour of TREASURE ISLAND that’s gone on too long, ragged and collapsing into indulgent in-jokery, especially from its pair of comedy stars. Maybe they should have known better – or been prodded along the plank by a director who could have helmed the voyage with more authority…

Thursday, 29 October 2015

No.86. Peter Sellers - WHERE DOES IT HURT? (1972)


Sharp satires of America’s accepted institutions were on the rise as the 1960s youthful optimism turned into a radical cynicism in the new decade. The ongoing war in Vietnam was a key ingredient in the citizens no longer permitting themselves to be blind to the madness and corruption perpetrated by their elders and betters in authority. This fed into the film industry where the energy of dissent found voice in such important movies as Robert Altman’s brilliant M*A*S*H and the fittingly crazy surrealism of the war satire CATCH 22. In that same period Rod Amateau directed the Peter Sellers vehicle WHERE DOES IT HURT?  - a savage satire of the healthcare system tapping a similar rich vein of biting humour.

From the start, the film nails its colours to the mast in no uncertain terms with a pointed disclaimer that it is actually dedicated to the hard-working M.D. members of the American Medical Association who still uphold the venerable Hippocratic Oath. It then caps the claim with; “Will these three doctors please stand up?”

Sellers plays Dr Hofnagel, the corrupt administrator of the American Vista View Hospital, a man of gleeful ruthlessness, creative in the sheer breadth of ways he can falsify illnesses and billing to boost the hospital’s profits and benefit from the proceeds. He clearly put detailed effort into the character, focusing on his all-important externals – an expensive tan and the tinted shades and smooth manner befitting a Hollywood producer. His voice, the vital key to any part he prepared, is close to the American accent of his President Muffley in DR STRANGELOVE; an even, slightly disembodied tone that works well to hide behind – not that cloaking is needed in this open den of thieves.
He is aided in his machinations by a network of colleagues in different departments who dovetail to serve their own interests through him. There is his senior employee Alice, a devious ambitous beauty (Jo Ann Pflug); Pat (THE KARATE KID’s Mr Miyagi) Morita as the equally avaricious lab expert Nishimoto parading a deck of accents and ideas of his own, and a board of the hospital’s doctors and surgeons led by the ever-wonderful Harold Gould channelling his inner fruitcake as Dr Zerny, whose dangerous incompetence is even stronger than his cunning.

A young man, Lester Hammond, comes in seemingly for a check-up and immediately the harpies of medicinal shysterdom feast on him, concocting and racking up a huge list of unnecessary treatments itemised on screen to the sound of a cash register. Later, we discover he is spying to gather evidence of malpractise for the Commissioner, (J. Edward McKinley, the droll producer host in THE PARTY). The scene is set for blackmail and venal infighting amongst the staff, keen to oust Hofnagel whilst unsuccessfully covering up their own corrupt nest-feathering willingly undertaken with him. Alison also attempts to squeal on her boss when he carries on with a nurse whilst feeding her phoney pipe-dreams about a future together.  Hofnagel tries to bribe Hammond with a job to no avail, and the hospital’s board of colleagues votes unanimously to fire him with the same effect as he knows where all the bodies are buried, so to speak.

WHERE DOES IT HURT? plays its gags well with the brisk pace of a sitcom, covering any that fail quickly. Its satire has real edge, not just about the corruption of the AMA but attacking the failings of all political systems too. When Hofnagel learns of Hammond’s infiltration, he draws a nuanced parallel between their need to pamper him and what he sees being done over in Vietnam: “If a little brown laundry-man points a bayonet at you, you stick a loaf of bread on the end of it”. As he fends off a poor extortion bid by one of the Afro-American orderlies, (appalled not at the man’s mirroring of his own unscrupulousness but at how cheaply in dollars he was bought-off), he gloats “So much for black power”. He even gets a historical pot-shot in when one of the doctors sacking him is brought to heel: “Surrender? How very Italian of you”.

Eventually, the staff are given a reprieve from closure and dismissal and appear to be rid of their boss – until he arrives on a stretcher, telling one of his senior team that he has one more scheme to cook up involving a malpractise-worthy appendectomy and splitting the resulting winnings fifty-fifty. However, as Hofnagel submits to the operating scalpel of the haphazard Dr Zerny, his face betrays the sudden concern that maybe this is one scam too many…

Whilst Sellers is given some great lines, he maintains a suavely under-played performance, allowing the excellent cast free reign to be madcap satellites around him. The film is also a guilty pleasure in seeing the mischievous glee with which the staff siphon the cash from their hapless patient prey.

WHERE DOES IT HURT? is a bitter pill but valuable medicine, whose warning has prompted no cure. In fact, Michael Moore’s superb recent documentary SICKO showed that the prognosis for ethical care has since become even more dire…

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

No.85. Peter Sellers - THERE'S A GIRL IN MY SOUP (1970)


After the uncommercial dark comedy of HOFFMAN, Peter Sellers returned to mainstream box office success with this feather-weight fun based on Terence Frisby’s stage play and directed by Roy Boulting. It already had ‘form’ as a long-running smash hit in the West End starring Donald Sinden and breaking theatre box office records

Sellers whips up an easy soufflĂ© of charm as Robert Danvers, a middle-aged wealthy bachelor about town, high-profile celebrity gourmand and TV star of his own cookery programme. He’s also an inveterate seducer of young women, only interested in one-night stands and a simple goodbye the morning after. What gives him appeal is his charm and a way with witty ripostes at deserving targets. We see both qualities in action from the start as he attends a society wedding, demurely batting away the photographers’ shifting of attention to him. He surveys the bride lasciviously: “So pure, so virginal..,” The reception guests are a dreadful assortment of horsey Hooray-Henrys, whose snobbery he can’t resist puncturing. When one condesdendingly asks him if he has a real job aside from his TV show, he replies “I perform abortions, didn’t you know?” Later, he gets the bride alone upstairs where we discover they had a past relationship which he escaped from, as he ‘mounts’ a re-offensive and has his way with her again on today of all days, melting her with a well-used line “My God, but you’re lovely…”. He even beds a second lady, a very young lovely Gabrielle Drake the same night. This is a man who is utterly confident in his prowess and carefree nature.

Danvers’ lifestyle is about to be challenged though, when he heads to a dull party with his friend Andrew (TV comedy actor Tony Britton, a cosy counterpoint of domestic happiness to Danvers). Instead of going in, he is distracted by Marion (Goldie Hawn), a young American standing outside a much livelier party downstairs. He likes what he sees and turns on the charm to take her back to his place – and this is where things don’t quite go according to plan. Hawn is marvellous at subverting the fluffy blonde stereotype she could play to perfection in films and TV’s kooky LAUGH-IN. Here, instead of immediately going to bed with Sellers, she returns his questions with the same, and systematically de-constructs his seduction technique point by point, which dampens his ardour and takes the vain wind out of his sails. As the scene plays out though, we realise that her armour of world-weariness about men doesn’t protect her from being routinely “passed around” by her boyfriend. Danvers retires cock-blocked to bed, leaving Marion alone and forlorn.

Against his better judgement, the next day Danvers finds himself taking pity on Marion and helping her move out of the flat shared with her boyfriend, a muso lothario snug fit for Nicky Henson. It’s entertaining and revealing seeing the two men vying for Hawn, with Henson hypocritically taking pot shots at Danvers’ motives while the latter tries to ignore the age insults.

Marion and Danvers embark on a whirlwind romance in France, helped by a cunning trick of hers to ‘accidentally’ spill wedding confetti from her purse to gain them preferential treatment at the hotel. Her naivete in other ways creates some embarrassment though when she swallows instead of spits every glassful offered to her at an upmarket wine tasting event, wrecking an expensive wine rack of vintage bottles. Danvers is forced to carry her back to their room, along the way attempting to give an autograph to an intrusive couple in the elevator with Hawn fireman’s lifted over his shoulder. When the husband hopes his ‘daughter’ feel better soon, Danvers soothes his stung vanity by retorting: “It’s my son actually. I’m rather worried about him”.

The couples’ dalliance has repercussions though when even back then, the paparazzi were in force, snapping them dancing together honeymoon-style. On their return home, they are besieged by speculative journalists asking when they were married – and strenuous denials won’t wash when there’s a scoop to be had about this famous bachelor finally becoming tamed. The tension rises even further when Marion decides to return to the bad-boy rock musician.  Uncharacteristically, Danvers suddenly proposes marriage, violating his singleton ethics to keep her with him. Equally out-of-character, it is Andrew who comes up with the modern idea of Marion sharing herself with the two men, much to Danvers’ shock and eventual bemused possible agreement. Marrion giggles out of the door, now in the power position of choice herself, a rare comeuppance for Danvers. He is left bemused at the turn of events and somewhat emasculated, until Andrew’s French au pair calls and his seducer spark returns. He preens himself in the mirror, affirming ”My God, but you’re lovely…”

THERE’S A GIRL IN MY SOUP is a harmless, fashionable and sweet dessert for Sellers (and Hawn) fans, easy on the palate and featuring bonus cameos by Diana Dors as the battle-axe apartment block owner’s wife and John Comer as her suffering husband, as well as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him intro cameo for Christopher Cazenove.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

No.84. Peter Sellers - THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969)


After their fractious relationship during the making of CASINO ROYALE (1967), Peter Sellers and director Joseph McGrath teamed up again with another friend of Sellers, writer Terry Southern, to bring to the screen an adaption of Southern’s novel THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN – with additional dialogue by John Cleese and Graham Chapman whose appearing scenes were all that was left of their own draft . It’s a mad, slightly psychedelic curio with some amusing cameos, albeit essentially a string of episodic sketches.

Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, a stupendously wealthy man with a strong streak of mischief. He meets Ringo Starr, a young homeless man in the park, and immediately fills a gap in both their lives by making him his son, renaming him Youngman Grand and beginning his ‘education’. They then play out a series of crazy ideas on society that illustrate Sir Guy’s theory that people will do anything for money. However, rather than become cynical or smugly moralising, the film is at times playful fun if you accept its loose structure and the kind of illogical plot jumps that you experience in a dream. (The first thing they do is enjoy a night out at a theatre performance of HAMLET where Laurence Harvey as the Dane inexplicably begins a strip-tease during ‘To be or not to be…’ accompanied by stripper music). The film also contains many British actor cameos as well as fleeting TV personality appearances from the time such as Michael Aspel, Harry Carpenter, Alan Whicker.

Grand’s schemes are wheezes and practical jokes rather than lectures. On board a train, he shows Youngman some fun at the expense of a man he claims profits ‘from man’s inhumanity to man’ by staging a hugely elaborate prank involving a fellow Japanese compartment traveller being repeatedly substituted via a revolving wall. As the intended victim grows more confused, he is dragged back through a sliding wall into the hallucinogenic experience of being photographed by Sellers as a cackling nun complete with wimple. This leaves the man a gibbering mind-altered wreck.

Not all the japes succeed as harmless fun though. One Grand stunt involving a news report of a jungle cat being passed off as a ‘Congo Black Dog’ at the Crufts show starts out as madcap tasteless fun but then McGrath suddenly jump-cuts to the infamous real ‘snuff’ footage of the South Vietnamese General shooting a suspected communist through the head in the Vietnam war. Using this moment of grisly reality is a terrible error of judgement in a comedy film, inexcusable whether or not he was aiming for some kind of Bunuel-style shock juxtaposition. It takes a while to recover from that ruinous tonal shift. Later, there is a strangely fizzled-out pay-off to a promising sequence where Grand, the celebrated gourmet, is strapped into a harness in his favourite restaurant, “une chaise gastronomique” almost pre-figuring Python’s Mr Creosote, but after comically smearing his face with sturgeon, the scene seems abruptly curtailed without a big finish

There are more amusing vignettes perpetrated by Grand and his son as THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN goes on. We witness a gloriously lunatic duck hunt where tank barrages are brought into play to wage full-scale air battle upon the flying ducks – simply because they can. A much-anticipated title fight in the boxing ring turns into a snog-fest between the two pugilists. Sellers’ old friend Spike Milligan makes a welcome cameo as an irascible traffic warden, clearly ‘corpsing’ at the start, who is bribed with £500 to eat his issued parking ticket. He does so, and here is one of the few plot points where Grand actually states a purpose to his mischief-making: “I just wanted to see if you had your price. Most of us do”. This stunt like one or two others in the movie at least offers the type of vicarious wish-fulfillment that money could buy if you had enough of it.

One of the best scenes is where the Grands attend an art exhibition to cause mayhem (surely a deserving target) and get the better of a snob expert, John Cleese, who instead of being driven to his trademark wonderful apoplexy is shell-shocked into a pleasing against-type submission by the offer of £30,000 from Grand for an unauthorised Rembrandt. “Shit…” he meekly swallows. Sellers thus takes out a pair of scissors and to Cleese’s shock, cuts out a nose from the canvas as this is all he wants from the work. He then attends the bidding with Youngman, for me the funniest sequence in the film, as he tries to distract the auctioneer with increasingly frantic props such as an Aldis lamp, semaphore flags, a parping klaxon horn and an Inspector Gadget-style extendable hand.

Cleese’s comedy writing partner and fellow Python Graham Chapman also appears in a short scene spoofing the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race, where Grand bribes the Oxford crew (managed by Richard Attenborough, no less) into ramming their opponents’ vessel. Chapman is amused by the offer, and it’s nice to see him under-playing in a straight part as Cleese does.

Eventually, we understand the title of the film when the Grands board the luxury cruise liner that the movie title is taken from. Here, the action descends into incomprehensible but amusing nonsense – how could it do otherwise with Wilfred Hyde-White as the ship’s Captain? Raquel Welch makes a fetching scantily-clad Priestess of the Whip in charge of rowing galley slaves. Fans of Christopher Lee’s Dracula sequels, still going strong at the time of filming, get a bonus one essentially as he morphs from a chilling waiter frightening an imperious passenger into the full splendid flowering of fangs and cape – for no reason. Roman Polanski is serenaded by an oddly familiar, masculine ‘lady’ who I suddenly guessed as Yul Brynner just before he de-wigs. (For a laugh, show this bit to a friend and see how long it takes them to recognise him).  A gorilla runs amok and the journey concludes.
Towards the end, Grand hammers home the point about greed over-riding all other motives by creating a pool filled with human filth and bank-notes and advertising it as free money. Sure enough, bowler-hatted city gents are only too happy to wade in at the chance of free lucre – a metaphorical foreshadowing of today’s distaste at such avarice still going on?

In an epilogue, Grand and son take to the park where the father met his adopted son. Grand suggests this may be a more direct way to influence the people. He ends the movie proving this once more by bribing the park-keeper with a bundle of cash to leave them alone.

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN only works sporadically for a few of its comic scenes, which are worth the wait. It does suffer though from an incoherent self-indulgent through-line, a manifesto that’s never clearly sustained and, I might add, a waste of Ringo Starr. Whilst Sellers seems to enjoy wafting through in a cut-glass accent as a twinkly Lord of Misrule, Starr never develops as a character, which is a missed opportunity. He has a natural offbeat charm on-screen, which is cannily why the Beatles always gave him central roles in their films, but here he merely agrees with his dad, existentially echoing or commenting as they go along.

This film isn’t magic, but check your brain at the door and enjoy the illusions that work…

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.