Jeremy Duns discusses scripts for 1967 Casino Royale

Jeremy Duns

Writer Jeremy Duns over the past nine years has researched the James Bond work performed by journalist-screenwriter Ben Hecht (1893-1964) and novelist Joseph Heller (1923-1999).

Both were among the scribes employed by producer Charles K. Feldman for his 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale. But little had been written about that Casino Royale work prior to Duns’ research.

The Spy Command conducted an interview with Duns via email.

QUESTION: What is it about the Charles K. Feldman production of Casino Royale that spurred you to find out more?

JEREMY DUNS: I tend to be interested in oddities and gaps in the record, and follow them up if I think there might be more there.

There has been so much written about the James Bond series that the tendency is to think that there’s nothing substantial that could now be discovered about this world, but I started to rethink that in 2005 after I found a few draft pages of an unpublished Bond novel from the Sixties (Per Fine Ounce).

That research was triggered by my reading a few sentences about the book in Duff Hart-Davis’ excellent biography of Peter Fleming, published in 1974. The discovery suggested to me that there might be more to find than I’d thought. A couple of years later, a passing mention in one of Kingsley Amis’ published letters to a ‘story outline’ he was writing ‘based on an original Ian Fleming idea’ led me to finding Jon Cleary’s unfilmed screenplay for The Diamond Smugglers.

So what else could there be out there? Like many, I had read more about the 1967 version of Casino Royale in advance of the reboot with Daniel Craig, and had watched it again. It was as much of a mess as I remembered, but I was intrigued as to how it had all come about.

So many famous actors, directors and writers were involved, and I was particularly intrigued by some of the names in the latter camp – several books mentioned that, among others, Ben Hecht and Joseph Heller had been involved in writing for the film.

Those are two mammoth figures, of course, so that started me looking. Idly searching the internet in late 2009 I found that the Newberry Library in Chicago had copies of Ben Hecht’s material for the film. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I had any luck with Heller, for reasons explained here.

QUESTION: As you’ve written, Feldman’s project went through various phases from straight adaptation to madcap spoof. What do you think accounts for this?

DUNS: Lots of factors, I think, although we don’t know for sure. Eon’s films became increasingly successful as Feldman was trying to make his, and with each one, Sean Connery became more established in the public’s view as James Bond – he was soon virtually indistinguishable from the character.

Feldman tried to poach Connery for his movie, but Connery asked for a million dollars and Feldman refused (according to Connery he admitted to him later that this had been a mistake). But at some point, I suspect he figured that trying to compete with Eon by making a film like theirs, without Connery, would risk a weak imitation.

Feldman had also negotiated with Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to make Casino Royale with them, but they had balked at his price. There might well have been some bitterness on Feldman’s part from those negotiations failing. And in 1965 he produced What’s New Pussycat?, which despite being a chaotic production, became a big hit.

Just as a few years later, George Lazenby was convinced by his agent that James Bond was old hat in the hippie era, Feldman seems to have convinced himself of something a little similar –- that the wild madcap psychedelic tone of What’s New Pussycat? was the hip new thing, and that he had a finger on that pulse.

QUESTION: What accounts for the interest of Ben Hecht and Joseph Heller in writing for Feldman? Was it just money? Were the writers genuinely interested in the material?

DUNS: It’s always tricky to speculate on people’s motivations, and I suspect they were nuanced and with many factors.

Ben Hecht

I don’t think Hecht needed the money, but he had initially moved to Hollywood in order to make it, of course. He was a screenwriter for hire, and one of the highest-paid in the field. He knew Feldman, had worked with him before, and they seemed to have been on friendly terms. He was certainly interested in the material – in his last letter to Feldman he said he had “never had more fun writing a movie.” I think the drafts he wrote also show he was interested in the source material.

As for Heller, Feldman offered him $150,000 to work on the script, and by Heller’s own account that was a major motivating factor – as it likely would have been for most writers.

But Heller was also interested in the material, I think, and enjoyed writing it, if not the stress of working for Feldman and doing so in the dark with other writers simultaneously working on the same script. Heller’s correspondence with Feldman and his satirical article about the experience are self-deprecating and dismissive, to the point where one might feel he disliked Bond, but that’s the Heller voice, familiar from Catch-22: cool, cynical, sardonic. It’s not the voice of his material.

If I’d only found a snippet of his letter to Feldman in which he described the pre-titles sequence he and George Mandel wrote for the film, but none of the script material, it would be easy to assume that he found the whole thing beneath him and was taking the mickey out of the whole thing. But I think that sequence is brilliant and shows a lot of care and craft. That and a lot else he wrote is easy to imagine in a later Connery film.

Other aspects of that letter, the script material, and Heller’s extensive notes and suggestions for it, show that he took the job very seriously, and did a lot of work on it.

Joseph Heller

QUESTION: Of the Hecht and Heller Casino Royale scripts, which do you think is better?

DUNS: That’s impossible to say at this point, mainly because I don’t know if there’s any more Heller material out there. There are thousands of pages in the Charles K Feldman Collection, but it’s currently closed, and there are clearly parts of the story we don’t yet know.

That said, it looks on the face of it that Hecht did more work on the film, for longer, and it more generally fits the kind of Bond film I tend to favor, eg From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Heller’s material wasn’t pastiche, spoof or satire, but nudges more towards the vein of You Only Live Twice.

Heller built on a lot of Hecht’s material, though, perhaps with Billy Wilder’s material in between, so there are several plot similarities, and their tone is broadly similar. But there’s more research to do, and it’s a little like comparing apples and pears. These were two geniuses of the 20th century, let loose on James Bond.

QUESTION: How would you describe Charles K. Feldman. I know he was an agent (and Albert R. Broccoli’s boss) and he got into production. What made him want to do that transition?

DUNS: He was a powerful Hollywood figure, and as an agent represented a huge number of stars: Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, to name just a few. He was handsome and debonair and had a rather peculiar biography, of which it’s not clear how much was true – there’s a touch of Jay Gatsby about him. I’m no expert on his career, but I think he went into production at least in part because the studio system was collapsing and creating his own projects was a way to steer a new course for the talent he represented.

Poster for Charles K. Feldman’s 1967 version of Casino Royale

QUESTION: Is there an element of tragedy with the Feldman production of Casino Royale? Hecht dies while working on the project. Feldman dies not long after the movie came out. The finished movie seems to have wasted an enormous amount of money. Was it worth it?

DUNS: Ben Hecht was 71 when he died, Feldman 63. I don’t know if the latter’s death was at all connected to the stress of making Casino Royale, but I doubt Hecht’s was related. This just happened to be the project he was working on when he died.

In terms of the finished film, I think it was a folly and an obsession that led Feldman astray, and he squandered enormous sums – including a lot of his own money – on it. But he also didn’t make use of some extraordinary script material he had commissioned from two of the era’s greatest writers. That’s perhaps not a tragedy, but it’s certainly a crying shame. Still, the material itself still exists, and I hope it can be read more widely at some point.

QUESTION: Perhaps an obvious question but is making a James Bond movie a lot harder than it looks? The two non-Eon films (1967 Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again) both encountered a lot of problems.

DUNS: Making any film is harder than it looks, but yes, a Bond film is especially tricky, especially because of the weight of expectations. At this point, Feldman was up against a phenomenon and, despite Heller’s clear warning, he didn’t understand that even a spectacle like Bond has to be at least halfway coherent.

You can replace John Barry with Burt Bacharach. You can have tremendous sets and costumes and Ursula Andress and David Niven and Orson Welles and the world’s greatest directors and writers… but you need to be able to put it all together. Feldman, quite literally, lost the plot.

The book Duns on Bond is an omnibus that collects Duns’ articles about Hecht’s Casino Royale scripts as well as pieces he wrote concerning Per Fine Ounce and The Diamond Smugglers. It can be ordered at AMAZON UK and AMAZON US, as well as AMAZON CANADA and other Amazon sites.

Duns wrote about Joseph Heller and Casino Royale in an APRIL 20 article in The Times of London. The article is behind a paywall. if you register for The Times’ site, you can see two free articles a month. The Times is offering a one-month free subscription plan. 

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