*. The one word you’ll see used in almost every review of this movie, both contemporary and appearing more recently online, is “waste.” I’ll just quote Leslie Halliwell, who called it “One of the most shameless wastes of time and talent in screen history.”
*. It was certainly a waste of money, going over double its original budget, and indeed coming in as more costly than the “serious” James Bond films being made at the same time. Money was just being thrown around. Woody Allen was amazed that he was put up in an expensive hotel for weeks before they even got around to shooting his scenes. It was that kind of thing.
*. More than money, however, it was a waste of talent. I mean Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, David Niven, Woody Allen, Deborah Kerr, a really nice performance by Joanna Pettet, the beauty of Ursula Andress . . . plus at least five directors (the final sequence was co-directed by the stunt coordinator), and maybe twice as many screenwriters. Included among the latter group were names like Ben Hecht and Billy Wilder, whose early drafts were tossed. Waste, waste, waste.
*. The other word that gets used, only slightly less than “waste,” is “mess.” Those five directors and dozen screenwriters should give you some idea of what is meant by this. Everybody here was just doing their own thing, and nobody seemed to know what anyone else’s thing was. Roger Ebert thought it “a definitive example of what can happen when everybody working on a film goes simultaneously berserk.” An opinion shared, I think, by everyone who has ever seen it.
*. Ebert’s review though helpfully reminds us that there were actually quite a lot of comedies in this vein coming out at the time. Chaotic zaniness was part of the zeitgeist.
*. That said, it’s really hard to overstate just how big a mess this movie is. The plot is completely incoherent, with none of the big or little pieces connecting in any way. What’s with that car wash scene? Who are those women? What’s the point of Evelyn’s dream after being drugged, which comes complete with its own theme music? Why present that big floorshow just to introduce the character of Mata Bond? Doing up the spy school to look like the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was certainly interesting, but what the hell was the point? You can’t make any sense out of this film.
*. The result plays a little, or a lot, like a variety show: a feature-length Laugh-In. Aside from the bits with Woody Allen none of it is very funny. The timing is all wrong for comedy. The cameos become disruptive and alienating, and include in-jokes that I’m not sure many people will get today. The “Born Free” music plays when a lion jumps on top of the sedan in the opening scene, for example. Or Stirling Moss (a race car driver) chases after the bad guys on foot while Sellers gets in a racing car. Or Peter O’Toole shows up playing the bagpipes and asking about Richard Burton. Or George Raft stands at a bar flipping a coin. In the closing credits he is billed as playing “Himself.” I wonder what that means.
*. Having said all this, I have to confess that I really love this crazy piece of crap.
*. I don’t know why. I’ve always been a big Bond fan, so maybe that’s part of it. I like watching such a talented cast tossed into the pool without a clue about what’s going on and responding in different ways (Sellers actually thought the movie was going to be played straight and not as parody). The sheer incoherence of the proceedings makes the whole thing into something like a psychedelic Rorschach test, letting us make what we will out of the shifting shapes and patterns that appear on the screen.
*. Most of all, however, I love the “Casino Royale Theme” written by Burt Bacharach. Ever since I first heard it some thirty or thirty-five years ago I’ve had it pop up in my head at all different times. The other big hit from the movie, “The Look of Love,” is better known (and a nice enough song in its own right, with vocals by Dusty Springfield), but Bacharach’s nutty theme is so good it even makes you forget about the (missing) canonical Bond themes. If there is a golden thread holding all of this mess together, it’s coming out of Herb Alpert’s trumpet. Great stuff.
*. Obviously this one makes you think of the Austin Powers movies, which only began arriving thirty years later. So if nothing else you have to give it credit for being ahead of the curve. And compared to those movies, I think Casino Royale holds up quite well as a bit of authentic nonsense.