Cinema: Keystone Cop-Out

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Casino Royale starts with a premise that is cheerfully cheeky: Sean Connery is an impostor. The real 007 is David Niven, now Sir James Bond, retired to a county seat. Visited by an all-star team of secret agents including William Holden, Charles Boyer and John Huston, he is persuaded to re-enter Her Majesty's Service, an experience that he soon finds simply SMERSHing. Along the way he encounters Joanna Pettet, the byproduct of his illicit union with Mata Hari; Peter Sellers, a green-gilled card shark who impersonates James Bond; Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond, James's narky nephew; and the ubiquitous Ursula Andress, who has become to spy spoofs what pits are to olives: tasteless, but unavoidable.

Nor are they the only celebs proffered by the picture. Producer Charles Feldman, apparently fearful of taking a Royale drubbing on his investment, has tried to bolster the box-office potential by casting Deborah Kerr as a mocking-burred Scotswoman, Orson Welles as an enemy agent, Jean-Paul Belmondo as a Foreign Legionnaire and George Raft as himself.

With so many egos—including five directors—competing for attention, the picture soon degenerates into an incoherent and vulgar vaudeville. Each actor frantically does his bit and then gets offstage to make room for the jugglers. Niven comes off best because his stylish acting floats far above the script's witless, single-entendre standard: "Beauty is only skin-deep. How about some skin diving?" Allen provides an adroit parody of paranoia, as when he objects to going before a firing squad because he has "a low threshold of death."

But there is never much chance for the comedy, let alone for the original yarn (which, like all Bond stories, could not be taken seriously, but which at least was a story). The movie is too busy kidding the previous Bond movies, which kidded the books and themselves before they were in turn kidded by the U.N.C.L.E.s and Flints. Poor 007 is now lost in a hall of distorting mirrors. It is no surprise that by the last reel there is a distinct air of defeat about Casino Royale, as if the money ($12 million) and the time (134 minutes) had run out. The final footage shows the U.S. cavalry riding to Bond's rescue, joined shortly by American Indians parachuting from planes and shouting "Geronimo!", the French Foreign Legion, and a Mack Sennett-style squadron of period policemen. This kind of keystone cop-out was done faster and funnier 34 years ago when the Marx Brothers made Duck Soup. But in those days comedies consisted of scenes and not herds.