Two films forty years apart but based on the same source novel. It’s not Sherlock Holmes, A Christmas Carol, or even La Planète Des Singes but this story has a few twists in the story of getting it from paper to celluloid. It is Casino Royale: the first Bond novel written and, subject to debate, the 1st, 6th, 21st, or 24th to be filmed.
The original novel was first published on 13th April 1953 and became the world’s introduction to James Bond 007. The second world war was recent history; so recent that meat and sugar were still rationed in the UK. The Cold War was approaching its peak with less than ten years to go until the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In The Beginning…
Perhaps it was the zeitgeist at the time that led to the surge of interest in espionage fiction but Casino Royale was an instant success… in the UK at least. All 4,728 copies sold out within a month. A second print run later that month also sold out as did a third run of more than 8,000 books published in May 1954. April 1955 saw Pan Books releasing the paperback version and selling 41,000 in the first year.
The USA weren’t as keen. Within a year of publication only 4,000 copies had sold across the whole of the States. However…somebody, somewhere saw that there was a story to be told and CBS paid Ian Fleming $1,000 to adapt Casino Royale into a one-hour television adventure as part of its Climax! series. This starred Barry Nelson as Jimmy “Card Sense” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.
Apart from a newspaper cartoon that was the only version of the story, in fact, of any of Fleming’s stories that was adapted for years. But then the convoluted story of bringing Casino Royale to the screen began with Ian Fleming selling the film rights to Gregory Ratoff for $6,000 which, following Ratoff’s death, was sold on to Charles K Feldman. Somehow, everything else Bond related went to Eon Productions; they didn’t get them until 1999 when a swap was made to get Spider-Man for Sony.
In The Red Corner…
The first film version seems to me to have more than a hint of “dog in the manger” about it. Charles K Feldman seemed to be saying “it’s mine and I’ll do what I want with it”. Eon had started churning out the “official” Bonds and would, I’m guessing, have liked to have had control over the complete panoply of Fleming’s output following his death in 1964. Maybe Feldman wanted to take the franchise in the direction of comedic buffoonery that wouldn’t be reached until Roger Moore took over the Walther PPK and martini guzzling.
Or maybe he had the script and the cast lined up and decided that comedy was the way to go. Whatever was going through his mind will have to remain unknown… comedy was the way Casino Royale went despite what most of the cast claim to have thought before filming began. My thinking is that Feldman originally wanted to follow a non-comedic line as he was in talks with Saltzman and Broccoli to make the film as a co-production with Eon and had Sean Connery in mind for Bond (obviously!) and Shirley MacLaine for Vesper Lynd.
Anyway, such cogitation is pointless as what’s done is done. The 1967 version of Casino Royale was… well… is a comedy. One has to bear in mind that it is a comedy that was made in the 1960s and, frankly, is showing its age. There are some still funny moments in there… or should that be that there are still some funny moments in there. There are the signs of the usual “-isms” that were prevalent at the time. The sexism is limited to the usual parade of what were, at the time, commonly known as “dolly birds”. In fact, there’s probably less rampant laddishness in this Bond than in the majority of the rest of them.
The level of racism isn’t acceptable any more. Peter Sellers is often included in lists of things like “All Time Funniest Men” or “Funniest Ever Film Performances” but it’s best not to look too closely. His humour hasn’t always aged well especially when it consists of little more than poor imitations of Indian or Chinese accents and heavily applied make up which, sadly, he tended to fall back on way too often. Throw in his outrageous, “movie star” outbursts and it is quite amazing that he managed to get as much work as he actually did.
There is one area that the 1967 version wins hands down…music. Which, let’s face it, is always a big deal. The announcement of the theme song is given the same level of razzamatazz as the announcement of the next title, the next bad guy, and only a little less than the next Bond! The 1967 Casino Royale employed the musical talents of Bacharach and David, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, and Dusty Springfield; the music can hold its head up alongside any of the Eon productions.
And In The Blue Corner…
Fast forward nearly forty years and there’s another chance to have a go. Millions of dollars changed hands following threatened lawsuits and a game of swapsies that ended up trading Spider-Man rights for the rights to Casino Royale and Eon finally got to have their go. Two things coincided to make the 2006 version what it finally became. The first thing is that Casino Royale was the first book that Fleming wrote and, so, is the introduction to James Bond.
Why Eon kicked off their films with Dr. No is unknown to me; it was the sixth Bond book that Fleming wrote following Live And Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, and, From Russia With Love… all of which have appeared in one form or another. The other factor was a new Bond – Daniel Craig. Daniel Craig had arrived amongst a firestorm of vitriol because of the colour of his hair. Online campaigns had been mounted like www.danielcraigisnotbond.com and all because he was blond. Let’s face it… we’re not talking Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty blond, he’s light brown looking quite dark when it’s wet blond.
New Millennium, New Style
What this version of Casino Royale did was to take the opportunity to go right back to the beginning and show how James Bond became James Bond 007. A delightfully noirish, black & white, pre-title sequence showing how he got the two hits necessary to get the Double O prefix; one cold and clinical, the other delightfully nasty and thuggish… just like the Bond in the book. In fact, this film is probably closest to the source material than any other attempt, the amped up action sequences aside.
The other big change is the game played at the eponymous Casino Royale. In the book, and the 1967 version, the game played is Baccarat which, presumably, was popular back in the ‘60s. The game now is No Limits Texas Hold ‘Em which is much more widely known to the modern audience. I watched the Baccarat scene and didn’t have a clue what was going on or who had won before they said. Thanks to hours of exposure on late night TV and actually playing the game both live and online I did know how Daniel Craig was doing against Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre much better than Peter Sellers was doing against Orson Welles.
And The Winner Is…
To be honest it’s a bit like comparing apples and orang-utans. One is a one-off, slapstick, parody while the other is a gritty, thrilling reboot of a multi-billion dollar franchise. The first was a vanity piece, the second a pump priming exercise which was planned to launch the series further into the new millennium. Both follow the story quite faithfully in parts… the plan is for Bond to beat Le Chiffre at cards so that he ends up in trouble with the bad guys who’s money he is gambling with. For clarity, the bad guys are an unnamed (in 2006) SMERSH like organisation rather than HMG. Le Chiffre meets the same sticky end from the same nasty people.
While the way Le Chiffre tortures Bond is different, there are similarities; in both the book and the 2006 version Bond is strapped naked to a chair with the seat cut out. In both he has his man-bits battered; carpet beater in the book and knotted rope in the film. The 1967 version has him sitting on a chair with the seat cut out but this time he’s fully dressed. There is a carpet beater tucked in the back of the seat but it doesn’t get used. The torture scene is a psychedelic extravaganza caused by Sellers’ sacking and the need to pad out the rest of the film with outtakes and a cardboard cutout.
So which is best? To be honest they both have their respective merits. One is a, very nearly, successful parody of spy films while the other is a, very, successful reboot of a long established franchise. Casino Royale (1967) has a kind of period charm which is probably doing it more favours than it got on its initial release. Casino Royale (2006) is a cracking spy adventure which it shows off during the rollickingly, rambunctious parkour chase scene that opens the film proper.
Ultimately there is a spectrum of spy films which runs from comedy to serious or Austin Powers to Jason Bourne. What we have with the two Casino Royale films are examples of either end of that spectrum. The 1967 version is, regardless of what anyone in it might claim, a comedy. I defy anybody to watch the pissoir scene which opens the film and not expect the rest of it to be a comedy. With the Roger Moore era disappearing further into the history books and the reign of Pierce Brosnan (a.k.a. the decaf Roger Moore) being over it was time to toughen up the act.
And that is where Daniel Craig comes into it. Hot on the heels of his role as the unnamed protagonist of Layer Cake he recreates Bond in the image of Ian Fleming. OK, he was originally written as having dark hair but he was also supposed to be English. Fleming was so taken with Sean Connery’s Bond that he wrote in Scottish ancestry. I feel sure that if he were able to see Daniel Craig’s Bond then he would have put in a paragraph or two about how his hair had been bleached by the tropical sun.
I’ve said elsewhere that I think that the Daniel Craig era Bonds are the best. They have the right balance between action and humour. Neither do they push credibility too far. Also, they tell a complete story. While Casino Royale(1967) is an interesting piece of kitsch, Casino Royale(2006) is the opening chapter of the best period in the history of Bond. That, for me, makes it the better film; not just between those two but over the last sixty years.
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!