Producer Charles K. Feldman had secured the film rights to Casino Royale, the first Ian Fleming novel about a British gentleman spy named James Bond, the rights apparently having been sold many years earlier under unknown circumstances. The team of Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, through their EON Productions, had of course created one of the great pop culture icons of the 1960's through such films as Dr. No and Thunderball. But when Feldman approached them to turn Casino into a legitimate Bond film, he was turned down (possibly because the team would be denied complete control over the production).
Certainly, Feldman knew he was sitting on a hot property - the original James Bond story, at a point in time when the spy craze was at its peak with TV shows like The Man From UNCLE and movies such as Our Man Flint making kids crazy with espionage- tinged fantasies. What to do? The only thing, of course, was to take it in the direction of humor - turn the property into a comedy, a sendup of the already-ridiculous aspects of the genre.
Peter Sellers, one of the top British stars of the era, was selected to play Evelyn Tremble, a gambling expert who is drafted to take the place of one James Bond and attempt to bankrupt the corrupt Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) with a high-stakes game of baccarat at the Casino Royale in Montenegro (per the original novel's plot). Sellers was a good choice - he could certainly pull of the comedic aspects, but he also was able to carry himself in such a way that one could almost believe him to be a gentleman spy: smooth, confident, canny, attractive to women (he was married to Britt Ekland at the time, after all).
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Sellers proved to be a bit of a problem. One version of events suggests that he was terribly intimidated by - or possibly disliked - Orson Welles, so that after having filmed only a handful of scenes together, the director was forced to film each temperamental star separately, with their scenes later joined in the editing room. Another story goes that Sellers was annoyed with the script, and hated the part he was forced to play - he wanted to be a Bond who was funny, sure, but also smooth and sexy and dashing in his own way.
In any case, Sellers was out - fired or quit, it's uncertain at this late date, but he completed a handful of key scenes as Bond that could almost be turned into a film, if one could only pad out the running time a bit. With millions of dollars already spent and the chance to cash in on the Bond craze still to be seized, Feldman pressed on, and the entire film script was rewritten to somehow add another James Bond (or two) in order to make a cohesive story out of the thing, no matter what.
David Niven was picked to play a more mature, now-retired Sir James Bond, who is asked to return to service in order to help stamp out the worldwide criminal organization called SMERSH. Bond is persuaded to return first by the pleading of a quartet of experienced intelligence agents, most notably M (director John Huston, who was also directing these first Niven sequences) and an American CIA man (William Holden, possibly sober here but no promises); when these tactics don't work, the British army mortars his home and in the next frame we see Bond in a car, apparently having taken the assignment after all (the first of several jarring jumps between sequences).
Sir James had originally retired because he was distraught over the death of his one true love, Mata Hari, whom he betrayed so that she was eventually hanged as a traitor in France; even at this late date he still grieves. But he composes himself long enough to recruit their daughter, Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet), to be an agent and infiltrate SMERSH. Bond also takes over at MI6 headquarters, what with so many agents dead or missing, after all. Even his nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen), is standing before a firing squad.
The plot goes on from there, with several characters weaving in and out, and some attempt made to interleave the Peter Sellers footage with the David Niven sequences. The ending is entirely ridiculous, as if everyone involved simply threw all remaining unused elements together in a room - and with cowboys and Indians to boot - and then just said, 'Fuck it, it's finished.' Although the ending kind of makes sense, given the nonsensical plot so far, it still happens far too abruptly and unsatisfyingly.
But don't let that stop you from seeing this! Casino Royale is a fun, delerious time capsule of the latter half of the 1960's - complete with all of the fashions, music, and mood pieces that one could want from such a production. It's beautifully directed, at least in places - most notably Mata Bond's dance sequence, but also primarily the bits with Peter Sellers and the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd. Owing to the fashion of the time, the film also offers a varied pallette of beautiful colors, in costumes and sets. (Every dollar spent on the film, incidentally, is right there on the screen.)
And the music, composed primarily by Burt Bacharach (with the goofy title song by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass - how 60's can you get?), is - there's no other way to say it - absolutely fabulous. This is, after all, the film that gave us "The Look Of Love," possibly the ultimate swinger's seduction song of all time, both the instrumental version and the one sung by Dusty Springfield. There are other instrumental bits that one occasionally hears on lounge-radio internet stations; it all adds up to a super-groovy, loungey, swingin', two-martinis-and-a-stewardess sound melange that stays with the viewer long after all other aspects of the film have been forgotten. (Incidentally, one song from the soundtrack, "Bond Street," is the song that plays on Family Guy when Stewie is having one of his 'sexy parties.')
Yes, a lot of the humor is childish and falls flat. Yes, the plot is nearly impossible to follow - not that it's the viewer's fault; it's simply not all there to comprehend. But ultimately Casino Royale is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Beautiful women, 60's fashion, the expensive sets, the comedic moments, the confident coolness of both Niven and Sellers - what's not to like? This is a silly fantasy, full of comicbook elements that simply couldn't exist in our heavily truncated reality. But we - or perhaps more accurately, I - would desperately like to live in this gorgeous world. Or at least, perhaps, visit it once in a while.