- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2006

“Casino Royale,” published in 1953 in Britain and a year later in the United States, was the first of Ian Fleming’s 14 adventure novels about British Secret Service agent James Bond. In many respects it’s also the most incisive and compelling. The fadeout, in particular, is a say-no-more slap in the face. This introduction makes the definitive case for Bond as a vulnerably hard-bitten character.

What with one detour or another, it has taken the prototype quite a while to become part of the official James Bond movie series. The line of succession reaches its 21st attraction over 44 years with tomorrow’s release of the brand-new, back-in-the-fold update of “Casino Royale,” showcasing the accomplished British actor Daniel Craig as the hero.

The movie rights to “Casino Royale” eluded the original producing team of Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, both deceased for many years. (The series continues under the supervision of Mr. Broccoli’s stepson, Michael G. Wilson, and daughter, Barbara Broccoli.) The original producers did secure title to the other books and finally persuaded United Artists to bankroll a movie version of “Dr. No,” which grossed about $60 million worldwide on a very modest budget of $1 million during 1962.

The follow-up, “From Russia With Love,” which also had the endorsement of President John F. Kennedy (who had mentioned the book as a personal favorite), demonstrated that the ingredients could be even more satisfying. Every gambit seemed to pay off, from a prologue that pretended to murder the hero to a set of brilliantly contrived duels to the death, matching Sean Connery’s Bond against Robert Shaw in a train compartment (the sequence that pretty much sealed the deal with susceptible moviegoers) and Lotte Lenya in a hotel suite.

It was commercial gangway from that point on, and the immediate successors, “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball,” were the unrivaled blockbuster hits of 1964 and 1965, respectively. The budgets had increased to some extent — $3.5 and $4.5 million — but the worldwide grosses were soaring well beyond $100 million, a seldom-approached figure at that time. A number of competitors were also getting into the act. Michael Caine was cast as British spy Harry Palmer in a film version of Len Deighton’s “The Ipcress File.” Dean Martin signed on as Matt Helm and James Coburn as Derek Flint. Spy thrillers and spy spoofs were a growth genre, at the movies and on TV, during the middle 1960s.

Curiously enough, a television management had tested the waters with “Casino Royale” well before a feature-film management decided to invest in “Dr. No.” The original Bond novel was first dramatized in the year of its publication. On Oct. 21, 1954, the CBS Television mystery series “Climax!,” a live anthology series telecast on Thursday evenings, presented a one-hour adaptation of “Casino Royale.”

Barry Nelson, a specialist in light comedy, was cast as an Americanized embodiment of the hero. In retrospect, his nationality is less disillusioning than a somewhat post-collegiate personality that lacks a credible note of the mercenary or lethal. Although age and corpulence had clearly taken a toll, Peter Lorre possessed more authority as the villain, the Soviet agent Le Chiffre, who endeavors to restore his bankroll by intimidating other baccarat players at a casino on the Brittany coast. Staked by his own agency and the CIA, it becomes Bond’s mission to bankrupt Le Chiffre, who retaliates with abduction and torture.

Although “Climax!” was on the air for several seasons and recruited many name actors, the “Casino Royale” episode is the only one that remains readily accessible on the home video market. It’s also one of the supplements in the current home video edition of the first movie version of “Casino Royale,” a facetious extravaganza mounted in 1967 by the late agent-producer Charles K. Feldman. His fitfully diverting monstrosity, which divided sequences between five directors and consumed a then-exorbitant production budget of about $12 million, was completed in time to harass the fifth of the official Bond adventures, “You Only Live Twice,” then believed to be Mr. Connery’s farewell to the series.

Reasoning that it was probably futile to compete in a straightforward fashion — “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” had given the standard Bonds a seemingly matchless distinction and commercial momentum — Mr. Feldman took his stylistic inspiration from the last film he had packaged, “What’s New, Pussycat?” A distinctively nutty farce about lechery among Parisians of several nationalities, the movie had propelled Woody Allen as a screenwriting virtuoso in 1966 while teaming him with Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole, Romy Schneider, Paula Prentiss and Capucine (Mr. Feldman’s consort) as romantic screwballs.

Mr. Allen and Mr. Sellers were lured back into “Casino Royale” as James Bond doubles, part of a campaign masterminded by David Niven as the supposedly authentic Bond, who reluctantly comes out of retirement and attempts to confound the villains by multiplying the number of Bonds in the field. The movie’s add logo boasted that it was “too big for only one James Bond.” It was certainly too grandiose to be coherent or satisfying, but it remains an entertaining mess, salvaged by the fact that the disjointed episodes have funny performers on call.

As a rule, it’s not the major comedians, and certainly not Mr. Sellers, who keep this overblown picture precariously afloat. He was paid a salary of $1 million (Elizabeth Taylor’s asking price at the time) in order to be the go-to comic genius. He ended up as a costly obstruction and no-show, evidently so spooked by the presence and mockery of Orson Welles, a genial Le Chiffre, that he refused to play their baccarat scenes with him. The entire game, still a pivotal encounter, is intercut with Mr. Welles anad Mr. Sellers on separate shooting days. Evidently, a Sellers stand-in appears in the background of two takes in which the estranged actors seem to share the screen.

Mr. Welles upheld his share of the co-starring bargain. He’s a hoot, especially when reviving his magic act and instructing a levitating subject, “Keep your hand in place, madame, and continue to ascend.” Deborah Kerr is a more surprising and endearing hoot. Her absurdly winning scenes with Mr. Niven rely on a flurry of Scots-accented come-ons. This movie gave her a rare opportunity to play her own Scots ancestry for laughs. (I’m a pushover for her amorous pitch line “Comfort me, Jamie lad.”)

An ironic aspect of Bond longevity is that the company that distributed Mr. Feldman’s movie, Columbia, has now ended up with the Bond franchise, having acquired what was left of United Artists and MGM. Columbia itself is now a fading memory within its modern parent company, Sony Entertainment. A future multi-disc DVD for the new “Casino Royale” will probably collect all the versions under a single roof.

TITLE: “Casino Royale”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1967, a year before the start of the rating system; intermittent sexual innuendo and facetious violence)

CREDITS: Produced by Charles K. Feldman and Jerry Bressler. Directed by John Huston, Val Guest, Ken Hughes, Robert Parish and Joe McGrath. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers, with uncredited scenes by Woody Allen, Terry Southern and many others, “suggested by” the Ian Fleming novel. Music by Burt Bacharach

RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes

DVD EDITION: MGM Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.mgm.com/dvd

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