Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review - Casino Royale (1967)

February 16, 2012

Casino Royale – US/UK, 1967

Recently, I sat down to watch Buster Keaton’s 1927 film College, and while I enjoyed it, there is a scene in it that will likely divide present-day audiences. Some will be able to look past it by chalking it up to the sentiments of the time, while others I’m sure will be so uncomfortable as to wonder if the film should still be watched at all. In the film, Keaton’s character dons blackface to secure a job at a restaurant. The scene has a purpose, for it demonstrates his determination to remain in school near the woman he has had a crush on for years, and when his ruse is discovered by the rest of the restaurant staff, they don’t take too kindly to being fooled and chase him out of the restaurant. I don’t recall laughing during the scene, nor do I remember being terribly offended by it. However, I can imagine that some audience members in 1927 felt the scene was hilarious. After all, it was neither the first time nor the last time that blackface would be used for comic effect in films. All of this brings me to the 1967 James Bond spoof, Casino Royale, and I’ll be honest here - I can’t decide whether the film is simply not funny or if it is just no longer funny.

I suppose it doesn’t matter in the long run. What is important is that Casino Royale is a comedy that contemporary audiences will not likely experience much joy watching. The film is first and foremost a product of its time. It is a sex comedy made within the first decade after the fall of Hayes Code, and as such, it seems to take pleasure in pushing the boundaries that had been in place for so long. There are the usual promiscuity jokes, the quest for world domination as an ultimate means of the evil villain securing as many women as he can, and the kinds of homosexual characters that Hollywood has spent the last twenty years trying to make up for. On the more unsettling side, there are also a few jokes about rape, a key scene in which a main character mocks the accents of Indians and Chinese, and an odd scene in which the same character is made to don a series of questionable costumes, one of which has him dressed as Hitler. The scene serves no purpose, and the joy the character seems to get while in costume seems out of character. However, arguing about character consistency in a film such as this feels entire futile.

Surprisingly, Casino Royale starts on a very promising note. Its opening scene establishes the film as occurring in the same reality as Sean Connery’s 007. We learn that Connery’s 007 is actually the second James Bond and that MI-6 gave him that name to keep the James Bond legend going. The original Bond is played by David Niven, and he couldn’t be more different that the man who now uses his moniker. In one of the film’s best moments, the older Bond details a laundry list of reasons why he dislikes the person presently using his name, from the “wretched gadgets” he uses to his disrespectful behavior with women. When told that secret agents are disappearing all over the world, he asks if his replacement is one of them, and he is not asking because he is concerned about his safety. By characterizing the old Bond as respectful to women, the film puts in place a series of intended gags in which female spies try unsuccessfully to seduce Bond. The problem is that none of them are particularly successful at eliciting laughter.

But back to the plot, if you can call it that. Secret agents are disappearing, and Bond must find out who is behind it. However, if you were expecting Bond to actually do some investigating, you are bound to be disappointed. This Bond gets stuck at headquarters, which other agents are recruited for the case – all of which, even the women, are to be referred to as James Bond. This is intended to fool whoever the enemy is, but it just bogs down the film. For more than an hour, the film is a procession of recruitments and training for a mission against an enemy that has yet to be revealed. Normally, a Bond film is able to build suspense by not revealing key details of the plot. Here though the technique is downright frustrating. Eventually, it comes down to a card game between a writer named Evelyn Tremble (played by Peter Sellers, also undercover as 007) and Le Chiffre, a Baccarat-playing illusionist who just happens to be involved in organized crime. Le Chiffre is played by Orson Welles, who has such an onscreen presence that he is able to make even the worst of movies watchable.

If you’ve seen 2006’s Casino Royale, you know exactly how that card game ends, and you know what comes next. However, here instead of being roughed up, Bond is subjected to the kind of surreal, psychedelic torture that makes the rehabilitation techniques used in A Clockwork Orange seem downright logical. The film’s final moments descend into complete and utter chaos, and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to Mel Brook’s 1974 send-off of the western, Blazing Saddles. The difference is this: Blazing Saddles had done so much right earlier in the film that the film’s awkward ending was excusable; the same cannot be said for Casino Royale.

In short, Casino Royale is a mess and not in a "cult-midnight movie" kind of way. It has the length of an actual Bond film but does nothing to deserve it, with much of its screen time filled with poorly-conceived attempts at humor and scene after inconsequential scene. The film’s normally stellar cast, which includes the first Bond girl Ursula Andress and Woody Allen as Bond’s less-triumphant cousin Jimmy Bond, are given very little to work with, and not even Peter Sellers is able to do anything with the material he is given. In fact, I now find myself wondering which “Bond” movie I like the least, Moonraker or Casino Royale. Let’s just call it even. (on DVD)

2 stars

No comments: