Coate: Can you describe what it was like seeing Casino Royale for the first time?
Burlingame: Oh, Lord, I was appalled. It must have been on television in the ‘70s, because I certainly didn’t see it in the theaters at the time of its release. Yes, there is an all-star cast that includes David Niven, Sellers, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Deborah Kerr and Andress; but with six directors and something like ten screenwriters (three credited, most not), it was like passing a multi-car wreck on the freeway — terrible, but you couldn’t look away. I watched and thought to myself, how can anyone not be embarrassed by this disaster?
Cork: My aunt Lois took me to see Casino Royale at the drive-in in Montgomery, Alabama, in the summer of 1967. I was five years old. It’s likely I fell asleep in the car watching the film. I actually remember seeing the trailer for the film (again with my aunt) at some movie prior to that, and I recall shots from the end of the film in the trailer, but not from seeing it at the drive-in. My main memory of seeing the film that time was thinking, even at the age of five, that Deborah Kerr swinging around on the drain pipes was not nearly as funny as the filmmakers must have thought it would be. That opinion still holds. But the remote control car chase that followed? I loved that and still do! The very next day, my aunt drove us out to a local record store where she bought the soundtrack. When I became a James Bond fan, she let me have it, and I still have it to this day.
Pfeiffer: I saw it at the grand old Stanley Theatre in Jersey City, New Jersey, where I grew up. I was ten years old and went to see it with my parents. I was already a big Bond fan but was too young to realize that this film would seem to preclude a serious version of the story ever being brought to the screen. I remember liking it very much and going to see it several times, a not uncommon experience for a kid in an era where a children’s ticket cost fifty cents. I still have my original vinyl soundtrack that I played quite a bit.
Coate: Where do you think Casino Royale ranks among the James Bond movie series?
Burlingame: I have wrestled with this for years, especially when writing my book. When the issue arose about whether to include Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again, the two unofficial Bond releases, I quickly came to the conclusion that Bond fans would be curious about both even if they were not considered canon by 007 fans. And when Eon declined to cooperate with my book that made it even easier to include them.
That being said, I have to say I’d rank the ‘67 Casino Royale at the very bottom of all Bond films. If you’re a Fleming fan you can easily do without it. Especially considering the 2006 version with Daniel Craig, which certainly ranks among the greatest Bond films ever.
Cork: In 2012, my son and I watched all the Bond film in order and ranked them. That’s five years ago, but I’m going with them. Everyone can clutch their pearls, but I rank the 1967 Casino Royale at number nine. Here’s why: I enjoy the film. In many ways it is a big stinking mess. But I had a friend who has now passed away, James Burkart Jr. He and I would watch the film together late at night and laugh ourselves silly. He could quote dialogue and I would quote other bits and parts of the film became shorthand for us. “We stand, we bid! We no stand, we no bid!” “My goodness this is strong shampoo.” So I greatly enjoy the film. Even the ending, which for years, I winced at, found a way into my heart.
Terry Southern, who had poked fun at Bond in his script for The Loved One and who was just about to help make Easy Rider a phenomenon, was brought in as one of an innumerable list of writers, and the absurd fight at the end was his doing. He had already written a version of that scene before, a scene where everyone fights for no reason as the world comes to an end. That was the pie fight in Dr. Strangelove, a scene cut out at the last minute. The chaotic ending of Casino Royale is a version of that scene where idiotic comedic violence takes place as the seconds tick down to the end of everything. Watching it again and thinking of Woody Allen as Slim Pickens working to release the bomb, and the fight in the casino as the pie fight in the war room, always makes me smile.
Pfeiffer: It doesn’t rank anywhere in the Bond series. It stands alone in its own universe. It simply can’t be compared to any other movie in the series, although I’d still rather watch it than a couple of the weakest “real” Bonds.
Coate: What is the legacy of Casino Royale?
Burlingame: That’s a difficult question. I’m tempted to use that wildly overused phrase, “it is what it is” — meaning, it’s a one-of-a-kind movie that can’t really be considered a Bond film in the classic sense, yet it is based (however loosely) on the Fleming novel. And it is from the ‘60s, when we were all so immersed in spy movies; this was just one more, although a departure from what we may have expected or even wanted.
I come back to the Burt Bacharach angle: His score is a masterpiece, a remarkable work considering what inspired it. I remember finding the LP in the 1970s and then learning, many years later, that it was considered the apex of audiophile recordings, one of the greatest-sounding albums ever recorded (The New York Times even extolled its sonic merits in a 1991 story). And as much as I love Burt’s Casino Royale theme with its Herb Alpert trumpet against those equally brilliant Richard Williams titles (I find something new every time I watch them!), the Look of Love song is so great that it’s worth everything you have to sit through to hear it.
Cork: Did you ever laugh at the Austin Powers films? They wouldn’t exist without Casino Royale. Did you ever slow dance to The Look of Love? Casino Royale is part of some strange continuum that stretches from Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon through to Walkabout, Annie Hall, Midnight in Paris and the Harry Potter films. Stuart Craig who did such amazing work bringing the Harry Potter universe to life as the production designer on those films worked on Casino Royale. There is probably no film before or since that gathered so much talent in front of and behind the cameras. It is completely absurdist, devoid of a plot, but for me it is a joy to watch.
Pfeiffer: When the film opened in 1967, it grossed quite a bit of money but the soaring production costs compromised any chance of major profits. Feldman had a nervous breakdown from making it and retired from the industry. The film’s prospects were also compromised by the release of You Only Live Twice shortly thereafter. Both films probably ended up cannibalizing each other’s grosses but the Connery movie was much better received for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, Casino has grown in stature. Its greatest legacy is that Mike Myers is a major fan of the movie and I doubt Austin Powers would exist if it wasn’t for Casino Royale. The first Powers movie took so much of its inspiration from the Feldman production. The movie also inspired Woody Allen to take control of his film career. Having witnessed the chaos and waste of money on the Casino production, he became determined to have total say over all of his future movies. So the debacle of the film helped bring us an American comedy genius’s best movies.
Casino Royale is finally getting some much-deserved respect in recent years. I went this summer to see a big screen presentation of it at The Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a John Huston festival and was surprised at how well-attended it was and how receptive the audience was to the gags. Huston himself disowned the movie but it seems there are still plenty of us who are willing to embrace it. If nothing else, everyone agrees that Bacharach score is great.
Coate: Thank you — Jon, John, and Lee — for participating and sharing your thoughts about Casino Royale on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
The James Bond roundtable discussion will return in Remembering “Octopussy” on its 35th Anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, Danjaq LLC, Famous Artists Productions, MGM Home Entertainment, United Artists Corporation.
- Michael Coate