FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
“They used to say that a good spy is a pure spy, inside and out…”—John Huston as M, CASINO ROYALE.
According to Val Guest’s commentary on MGM's DVD release of CASINO ROYALE, after he and four other directors had given producer Charles Feldman what he seemed to ask for—a totally madcap take on the James Bond films—Feldman belatedly decided that the film needed some sort of continuity. Guest consented to build some sort of continuity-thread using Ursula Andress and David Niven, but clearly Niven’s character—“the original James Bond”—is the one that gives the disjointed film any semblance of organization.
Patently there’s no point of making any comparison between this film and the 1954 Ian Fleming book; Feldman and his people were unable to use anything more than the title and a few incidental names (Orson Welles plays a barely relevant version of LeChiffre, the Soviet paymaster from the book). But it’s impossible to imagine agent-turned-producer Feldman making a straight adaptation anyway: his CASINO derives entirely from the Bond of the movies, with the cruel licentiousness of cinema-Bond viewed through the lens of a polymorphous PLAYBOY perversity.
To be sure, the early scenes of the film do play off one aspect of the books. In Fleming, a loose son-father relationship obtains between Bond and his commander M, with Bond as an unchaste Perceval sowing wild oats wherever he goes, while Arthurian M can only sit back and dream of his younger days.
Niven’s Sir James Bond, however, is an older man, a retired spy with a far-flung reputation for celibacy, which state is motivated (to the extent that any motivation exists in this farrago) by the fact that he had to sacrifice his one true love, the historical Mata Hari, to the firing-squad. Nevertheless, because some mysterious mastermind has been picking off the spies of various agencies, Sir James’ former commander M (John Huston) and three other spy-chieftains journey to the retired spy’s home. They find the grounds overrun with male and female lions, which has a certain symbolic resonance, in that the male lion is the “playboy” of the feline world, allowing copious lionesses to bring him his meals in exchange for “servicing.” One spy-chief comments that it’s an “Eden,” but one “without an Eve.” Sir James wants nothing to do with the intrigues of the “joke-shop spies” (a reference to the movies’ proliferation of spy-gadgets), and he resents MI-5 for having dispensed his name and 007-number to a “sex maniac,” though he himself displays an odd stammer in early scenes (sex repression?) The spy-chiefs are unable to persuade Sir James to return out of loyalty, but quixotically they manage to do so by blowing up his house. M is seen in the foreground as the house goes up, getting his toupee blown off by the impact—
And then, with no explanation whatever, M’s apparently dead. Sir James respectively conveys his last remains—the toupee—to his widow at the very Scottish McTarry castle. But somehow the normal occupants of the castle, including M’s widow, have either been kidnapped or detoured, for now everyone in the castle is a spy of the power that’s been offing spies. The enemy spies, later identified as the pawns of a SMERSH leader named “Doctor Noah,” aren’t primarily motivated to kill Bond. The spy impersonating McTarry’s widow (Deborah Kerr) admits that their first mission is to seduce him and destroy his celibate reputation.
To this end, the castle is filled with nubile young beauties, ostensibly the daughters of M. Thus the fantasy of Fleming’s Bond—a horny young goat surrounded by young hotties—is replaced by a horny old goat’s fantasy: an old fellow surrounded by even more young hotties. The castle sequence is stuffed with far too many Scots jokes, but at least interesting when “Lady McTarry” claims that Sir James is honor-bound to lie with her following the “laird’s” demise: accidentally or intentionally, this reproduces a familiar trope from medieval fantasies, wherein a chaste knight, accepting the hospitality of a lord’s castle, must resist temptation from the lord’s wife.
After Sir James escapes the tantalizing trap of the castle, he takes command at MI-5 headquarters. He meets and immediately kisses the secretary Miss Moneypenny, who turns out to be the daughter of the original. Apparently the Moneypenny in this world was not the vaguely maternal figure who’s “married” to M in the books and the official Bondfilms, but a woman of young Sir James’ age, with whom he had less than official relations. “Your mother did some of her best work at night,” he quips to Moneypenny II.
Once he’s in command of MI-5, Sir James’ stammer disappears, and he spreads his celibacy ethic like wildfire. He determines that since Doctor Noah is making so much use of seductive female spies, he’ll train all available spies to resist feminine temptation. Further, though he still resents having had his name bandied about by unworthy followers, he decides that he’ll confuse the enemy (and the audience) by having all agents, even the female ones, designated as “James Bond 007.” Thus, when the plot veers off and begins following other characters, played by Ursula Andress, Daliah Lavi and Peter Sellars—there’s at least a piddling connection to the film’s early scenes. A side-plot introduces the only other “James Bond” with a legit claim to the name— Sir James’ nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen).
From there the film continues to unravel into increasingly senseless and “madcap” scenes. The plot-thread only becomes a little more comprehensible when Sir James is brought back into the mix. He decides he needs a new female agent to infiltrate one of the SMERSH operations, and seeks to enlist his daughter by the late Mata Hari, “Mata Bond” (Joanna Pettet). Mata Bond spends the whole film dressed up like a Hindu dancer, and further enhances the old-goatish nature of the film by making a mild pass at her long-absent father: “If you weren’t my dad I think I could fancy you.” Sir James returns the compliment by saying that she’s got more “ammunition” than her own mother. Suffice to say that Mata does infiltrate the operation, where she meets two of her mother’s old cohorts. One of the film’s better slapstick fights concludes this sequence.
Shortly thereafter the film farts around with a near-encounter between Peter Sellers’ version of Bond and Orson Welles’ LeChiffre. Because the two stars disliked one another, the director of the sequence shot their scenes separately, so that Sellers and Welles never truly occupy the screen together. Oddly, though the film couldn’t do any scene from the book, the last LeChiffre-Bond scene in the film does reference the book-scene in which villain LeChiffre tortures Bond with an attack on Bond’s genitals. The disorganized scene ends with both Sellers-Bond and LeChiffre being killed.
Finally, following the capture of Mata Bond, the plot whirls back to Sir James, who, in the company of Miss Moneypenny, penetrates the super-scientific hideout of Doctor Noah beneath Casino Royale. He’s revealed to be the long-unseen Jimmy Bond. Did he want his uncle’s reputation for celibacy destroyed because he felt so inferior to Sir James? It’s pointless to ask, since the film never brings the matter up again. Jimmy does have a Noah-like plan to deluge the world with a super-bacillus that will “make all women beautiful and destroy all men over four-foot-six.” In other words, Jimmy, like a lot of James Bond movie-viewers, wants the fantasy of endless sexual gratification without working for it. One of the objects of his lust avenges herself by slipping Jimmy an explosive pill, and he walks through the film, his hiccups leading up to an atomic explosion. At this point the film loses all coherence, as Casino Royale is invaded by a cavalry coming to Sir James’ rescue, resulting in a chaotic fight-scene and an atomic explosion that kills everyone. However, all of them (except Jimmy) go to heaven, so it's all good.
Aside from whatever “continuity threads” Guest injected, the two elements that keep CASINO from falling apart are (1) the near-constant parade of comely women, and (2) the jaunty score by Burt Bacharach. Given that there really is no plot as such, it’s a little surprising that Feldman’s writers and directors injected, probably by accident, some fairly strong symbolic elements into the manic mix. But perhaps that’s the sort of thing that happens when old goats get the chance to feed on fresh “grass.”