Strange that the first James Bond novel didn’t come to the big screen until several 007 films had already been made–and that it came in the form of a slapstick comedy. This is certainly no Eon production. In fact, it takes the piss (as the British would say) from the opening credits. Indeed, this is a very loose adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, but it is a thoroughly entertaining film.
Any film with Peter Sellers is worth checking out, and this flick does not disappoint (with Sellers as the nervous baccarat master Evelyn Tremble). Ursula Andress, herself the first Bond girl (Dr. No), plays Vesper Lynd: the woman so rich that she buys the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square and has it moved to her own residence. This is just one of the many ridiculous details which make this a polarizing tapestry.
Joanna Pettet is quite good as the love child of Sir James Bond (David Niven) and Mata Hari. Mata Bond (as she is known) takes up the spy trade of her progenitors in the film and, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, is quite a good dancer indeed.
But it is not just the details which make this film thoroughly puzzling. The film credits list John Huston as director, but that is only part of the story. Nicolas Roeg was a cinematographer on the film. In fact, even auteur/actors such as Orson Welles and Woody Allen participate in their thespian capacities. Surely, there was plenty of talent involved in the making of this mess-of-a-film. But what a pleasant mess it is.
The film begins in a pissoir (reminiscent of Henry Miller’s oeuvre) and never looks back regarding the “tradition of quality” it leaves behind. The plot (liberties taken with Fleming’s plot) is absolutely Joycean and akin to The Big Sleep. If one is not painfully attuned, the entire first quarter of the movie makes no sense whatsoever. Sir James Bond’s house is blown up by MI6, but somehow the head of the service (M) is killed in the explosion which he himself ordered.
Indeed, the entire episode in Scotland (near the top of the film) is confusing at best. M’s widow has been replaced by a SMERSH (Russian conjunction meaning roughly “death to spies”) agent named Mimi…who, of course, falls for Sir James Bond (himself reluctantly returning from retirement after his house is blown up by his former employers) and thus fails to do her duty for mother Russia. This apocryphal film in the Bond saga fails to take the same liberty as Eon Productions in that the name SMERSH (Soviet counterintelligence) is retained in the stead of SPECTRE (an Eon creation which neatly changed the “enemy” focus from being the U.S.S.R. to simply organized crime…on a grand scale).
David Niven’s portrayal of 007 bears no likeness to Connery…especially in that “Sir” James Bond is a man of utmost morals. This couldn’t be further from the womanizing Connery-Bond we see in From Russia With Love and other Eon production classics.
Mention should be made of Barbara Bouchet’s portrayal as Miss Moneypenny. Her overtime work (beyond the call of duty) to find a spy capable of controlling his libido is really rather hilarious and she plays this part quite well. In a nod to Spartacus, Sir James (now the new head of MI6) orders all British agents to henceforth go by the name James Bond. Terrence Cooper is chosen by Moneypenny (or, perhaps, vice versa) as the most capable candidate as regards warding off the temptation of “feminine charms.”
Orson Welles plays Soviet agent (a gambler trying to save his neck) Le Chiffre. Having such an auteur on set couldn’t have but helped the knowing “direction” of this movie. Mata Bond’s foray to East Berlin in fact is a foray back into the Expressionist cinema of Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). The set designing in this particular section is quite remarkable and, if we are to go by the credits alone, we might credit John Huston with this deft reference.
The spoof hits higher and higher levels of satire as when Evelyn Tremble (himself also now known as James Bond…quite laughable) encounters Miss Goodthighs (a singular name, what?). But the real pinnacle in this absurd film is Welles’ (Le Chiffre’s) torturing of Sellers (Tremble). I have seen nothing quite like it in cinema except for the psychedelic boat ride in the original Willy Wonka movie with Gene Wilder. Certainly, the year was 1967…but still: this could have been an outtake from Roger Corman’s The Trip!
It becomes so that one senses the ghost of Buster Keaton in this ever more Dadaist confection. A flying saucer lands in London. Sir Bond’s nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) is revealed to simultaneously be Dr. Noah (a hilariously Hebrew reference to the original Bond villain Dr. No). Jimmy Bond’s plan for world domination (he has defected from MI6 over to SMERSH) bears a striking resemblance to the film The Tiger Makes Out. Strange times…
The coup de grâce is when not only the American cavalry arrive at the casino (straight out of a John Ford film for all we know), but when amidst the equestrian chaos Jean-Paul Belmondo finally appears to say merde a few times (after each time he punches someone). By this time all sense of taste has been trampled underfoot, but it was so fun getting there. Indeed, Mata Bond at one point takes a taxi from London to Berlin!
So what, if any, relic is left of John Huston’s direction in this anti-masterpiece (besides the hairpiece which succeeds M…a role likewise acted by Huston at the film’s start)? And should this vestige be given Christian burial? In Fleming’s original novel, MI6 has no “Christian name” on file for Le Chiffre. He is a total mystery: Mediterranean with perhaps a dash of Prussian or Polish. But that’s it. He is a cipher–a number.
Vladek Sheybal (who had played Kronsteen in From Russia With Love) appears in a minor role during the East Berlin portion of the film. In fact, we last see him (having sauntered into West Berlin) firing shots at the fleeing Mata Bond (right under the nose of an American soldier). What is the meaning of this, one might ask?
With turns like that of John Wells (as Q’s assistant), this might very well be considered the true predecessor of the Airplane movies. In fact, there were FIVE different directors employed in the making of this film (not including Richard Talmadge, who co-directed the final chaotic episode). It is believed that not only Allen and Sellers contributed to the script, but also Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern and even Billy Wilder. Again (in my best British tone): just what is the meaning of this?
It appears that John Huston only directed the beginning of the film. Ken Hughes, in fact, pulled off the Calagari-referencing East Berlin scene. Three other directors shot various scenes among them to bring the total to five. Ben Hecht was initially the principal screenwriter, but his “straight” adaption eventually became so bastardized as to bear no resemblance to its original self (nor the Fleming novel). Hecht, of course, died in 1964…well before Casino Royale made it to the big screen.
Rewrites were handled (it appears) principally by Billy Wilder. The Spartacus idea, though, (all the James Bonds running amok) would be preserved from Hecht’s adaption. It is interesting to note that Peter Sellers (in his well-reported competitive dealings with actor Orson Welles…as well as Woody Allen) had Terry Southern write his dialogue. Sellers and Welles were famously at odds (no pun intended) during the shooting of this film–Welles being unimpressed with Sellers, and Sellers feeling insulted and perhaps insecure by the presence of Welles.
Whatever can be conjectured, one thing is certain: this was the most expensive Bond film made at the time it came out. It indeed runs like an extremely indulgent film-school joke. Fortunately, it’s a good joke. Welles’ magic tricks as Le Chiffre (at the baccarat table, no less) were real life annoyances to Peter Sellers (all of which–the tricks and the irritation–made it into the film). The film really is a bloody mess (in plain Cockney). It is interesting to see this burgeoning side of Welles (the magic) which would play such a large role in his last major film F for Fake (1973). Indeed, there is only one film in the entire cinematic canon which outshines F for Fake and that is Histoire(s) du cinéma by Godard.
Part of the nonsensical nature of this film can be explained by the fact that Sellers was either fired or quit before filming was completed. This posed an enormous problem for director (1 of 5) Val Guest who was tasked with patching all of this incredibly expensive footage together into a quasi-cohesive whole. Indeed, one is rightly confused by the James Bond Training School being in the bottom level of Harrods because the scene which was to set this up was never shot. Many other such aberrations make the narrative at times completely inexplicable and unnavigable.
“Ooch,” as Belmondo translates from his phrase book: merde. I can very well see why many would consider this film just that: complete shit. But it is not. It’s not because David Prowse (the physical Darth Vader in Star Wars) appears in his first film role (as Frankenstein giving Niven directions by dumbly walking into a steel double-door). Perhaps it is because the film has at least a hint of legitimacy from John Huston, Orson Welles, etc.? All of these intellectualizations aside, it is simply an entertaining template for Austin Powers which dates all the way back to the time Mike Myers would have to recreate three decades later.
Eon would have to wait until 2006 to get its shot at Fleming’s novel Casino Royale. And there just really is no beating a film in which “The Look of Love” (as sung by Dusty Springfield) plays such a highlighted part. So we wish Daniel Craig and Adele well on these recent ventures, but Casino Royale of 1967 will always be in our senseless hearts.