'Casino Royale' Review: The Joys of Being Bond
When you go through a series as prolific and influential as that of James Bond, ones which become so ingrained in the cultural psyche, it’s easy for the work to begin to take on a life of its own. Everyone who encounters it wants to stake their own claim on the legend, making the characters warp and change as new approaches are taken. Eventually fan theory can inspire its own work, though few get the chance to play with the source material as directly as 1967’s Casino Royale.
This early spoof sees the legendary spy brought out of retirement to stop the schemes of the villainous SMERSH. In so doing, it is revealed that Bond (played by David Niven) had his adventures expanded as a clever bit of propaganda for the British Secret Service. But the looming ghost of his mythic status may be his greatest weapon, as Sir James orchestrates a clever ploy to outwit the sinister group by raising a group of operatives to take up the moniker and attack SMERSH from every angle.
It’s a clever plot that actually predates the replacement of Sean Connery as Bond in the mainline films, thus heading off the now popular “James Bond as title” theory, while also making pointed jabs at the less-palatable parts of the character’s persona. In fact, Bond, himself, is quick to point out how his government added the insatiable sexual appetite to his legend, much to his own chagrin. Yet as any good parody, such critiques are neatly woven in to the laughs the film presents, and even James’ professed squeaky-clean view of himself is put to the test.
But the cheap jokes at the expense of sexual tension are quickly toned down once Bond takes command of British Intelligence and brings in his two hand-selected doubles: Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) and his own estranged daughter, Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet). Each is sent on their own section of the takedown – Mata will infiltrate the ranks of SMERSH’s cover group and confront its leader, while Evelyn takes on their mysterious front man, Le Chiffre (Orson Welles), in a game of high-stakes baccarat. Both of these plots intersect wonderfully, letting Marta explore the possibilities of a female lead spy, while Evelyn goes undercover as James Bond, himself, allowing Sellers to both feel out the role as if it were a serious entry to the series while also providing his legendary comedic twist. All the while, Welles’ Le Chiffre chews the scenery in such a memorable way that it’s almost a pity he wasn’t cast for one of the proper films.
To be fair, Casino Royale may not be for everyone. It’s got a very strange style and a head scratcher of an ending, with issues only further compounded by the behind-the-scenes tensions between Sellers and Welles, as well as the studio’s on incompetence. Royale has that classic 60's weirdness coupled with a true love for all things Bond, making for a truly delightful, if unexpected, companion to the classic spy thrillers.