From Russia With Love (1963)

Posted: March 15, 2019 in James Bond
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And so my epic re-watch of every Bond film, in order, reaches the dizzy heights of, er, the second film. It’s fine, I have all the time in the world…

Anyway, Bond’s off to Istanbul, not Constantinople, to see a girl about a cipher machine.

There is a common nostalgia amongst some fans for the halcyon days when Bond films were realistic, gritty thrillers, before all the more fantastical elements that clearly arrived with that Roger bloke. Anyone with even a passing understanding of the franchise knows this is something of a fallacy, some of Connery’s films are the most fantastical of all (hollowed-out volcano anyone, a madman with metal hands and his own nuclear reactor?). That being said, of course some Bond films are gritty, and precious few are as grounded as From Russia with Love.

Yes, there’s an evil genius with a nefarious plan, but as diabolical schemes go it’s relatively tame. He doesn’t want to blow up Fort Knox, or start World War 3, he just wants to steal a Russian cipher machine so he can sell it back to the Soviets, oh and maybe get revenge for Dr No into the bargain by killing 007.

In many ways FRWL is the direct opposite of Dr No, there the titular villain doesn’t show up until near the end, whereas here we meet a whole host of characters before we see James Bond. Okay, Connery’s in the pre title sequence, but he isn’t Bond, it’s a feint, our boy doesn’t actually rock up for real until over fifteen minutes into the film, by which time we’ve met Red Grant, Kronsteen, Rosa Klebb, Blofeld, Blofeld’s cat, and even Tatiana! Off the top of my head the only other Bond films that come close are Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun, but in neither case do we wait so long for 007.

Not that we’re bored without him, from Kronsteen’s gloriously staged chess game, to the violent delights of SPECTRE island and Klebb’s creepy recruitment of Tatiana, there’s plenty going on. If anything the pace of the film slows dramatically after Bond finally appears.

I don’t have anything against slow burn films, quite the reverse at times, but it has to be said that at times FRWL feels a little too slow. Like Dr No this feels like a film in conflict with itself, at once yearning to break the mould, yet at the same time beholden to the good old days. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it hasn’t dated as badly as some Bonds will, but for me it isn’t quite the classic many claim it to be.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t very, very good.

After exotic Jamaica, this time we’re heading for exotic Turkey, which gives the film a very different feel, and makes it feel like a Cold War thriller in a way Dr No never quite managed.

There’s interesting things at play right from the off, take Bond locating the bugs and forcing the hotel staff to move him to another room, initially this shows us Bond’s competence, but in actuallity he’s merely a pawn moving precisely as Kronsteen had predicted.

Not that 007 is some dupe, he and M are well aware this is a trap, it’s just a trap they’re willing to walk into in hopes of getting their hands on a Lektor (which it has to be said feels like a quaint McGuffin even in 1963). The only thing MI6 don’t realise is that the trap hasn’t been set by the Russians.

There’s some wonderful scenery in Istanbul, in particular the flooded catacombs Kerim Bey uses to spy on the Russians.

DI-From-Russia-With-Love-16Ah Kerim Bey, one of many of Bond allies but one who stands out more than most. There’s something a little disingenuous about getting a Mexican to play a Turk, but Pedro Armendáriz plays him so well that you hardly care. Bey arrives fully formed; noble, hedonistic, brave, intelligent, a man playing a great game in Turkey, they follow us, we follow them as his son tells Bond. Armendáriz injects so much life into the performance that it’s hard to get your head around the fact that he was terminally ill, and would kill himself before the film finished shooting.

He and Connery bounce well off each other, and again Connery is good. Manly yet playful, dangerous yet noble. For the second film in a row he expresses some distaste at violence meted out to women, though he show no compunction is meting it out himself (insert your own Connery commentary here) and when he threatens to leave Tatiana behind, you kinda think he might.

Again there’s nuance I didn’t expect to find, and a genuine sense of mortality. Just check out the look on Bond’s face as he finds himself on the wrong end of Red Grant’s gun. He imagines he’s going to die and is scrabbling around in desperation for any way to survive.

Two films in and my slight disdain in Connery’s Bond is wavering.

Of course it helps if you have a good adversary, and if Kerim Bey is an exemplary ally, then Red Grant is an exemplary villain, even if technically he’s a henchman.

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“You’ll never guess how much these shoes cose, Bond.”

If Connery moves like a tiger, then Grant is a cobra, a cold-blooded snake with only one thought in mind; his mission. Robert Shaw is amazing, marrying an imposing physique with raw menace and genuine acting talent, and however cold he might be, there’s a broiling rage behind those eyes, Grant has a chip on his shoulder, and though it isn’t as obvious here as in the book, Shaw imbues his performance with it. Grant detests Bond, and not just because he killed Dr No.

What’s most disturbing about Red Grant these days of course, is how much he looks like Daniel Craig!

As Rosa Klebb, Lotte Lenya is almost as iconic as Grant, a brutal, Machiavellian villain and one of the franchise’s finest she utterly convinces as a Russian officer turned Spectre #3, her natural aura of command never in doubt, even when surrounded by burley men on all sides. She even convinces as a meek cleaning lady, and you have to admire the way she eyes up both Grant and Tatiana.

f3wkOANYRwmzt8ATIl2hbRvF3hwAh Tatiana. Much like Ursula Andress Daniela Bianchi is incredibly beautiful, much like Andress she’s dubbed, and much like Honey Tatiana doesn’t get much to do except be manipulated or placed in peril. Yes, there’s a smidgen of agency at the end when she betrays Klebb, but it’s too little, far too late.

Vladek Sheybal is wonderfully arrogant as Kronsteen, and Lee and Maxwell are always reliable. We get Desmond Llewelyn’s first appearance as Q (though not explicitly named) and Eunice Grayson’s last as Sylvia Trench. Then there’s Walter Gotell as a Spectre agent, Gotell will go on to play General Gogol in several Moore films, and Dalton’s debut. As an interesting side note the body (if not the voice) of Blofeld belongs to Anthony Dawson, i.e. Professor Dent. Damn, this franchise is incestuous!

Now onto the gadgets. The fully stocked briefcase with its knife, gold coins and teargas bomb, is a nice prop, and manages to be both slightly ridiculous, yet also incredibly practical, and whilst woefully underpowered, Bond’s collapsible sniper rifle is cool too.

In terms of action it’s a mixed bag. It would be disingenuous to start with anything other than Connery and Shaw’s brawl in the train carriage. Even decades later it stands up as one of the best fights in the series, in part because its so brutal, with neither man willing to give any quarter, but the lead up shouldn’t be overlooked, the whole scene between Shaw and Connery is magnificent.

And it isn’t the only iconic brawl, kudos to Aliza Gur and Martine Beswick for their vicious gypsy wrestling match. The attack on the gypsy camp is well handled too, with Bond coolly striding through the mayhem despatching bad guys with ease, watched over by Grant’s angel of death.

Bond vs a Spectre helicopter is decent enough, but references North by Northwest a little too closely. I’d always believed Bond cribbing from other films was something that came later, but here they are, doing it in the second film; though if you’re going to crib from anyone it might as well be Hitchcock.

Sadly, the films becomes a bit of a slog at the end, with one set piece too many. The boat chase never really gets my blood pumping, it seems unnecessary and, frankly, a trifle slow. It also overshadows Klebb and Bond’s final confrontation; going straight from the helicopter chase to Venice might have been better.

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“You know this film isn’t half bad.”

The final scenes on the gondola are a trifle strange, and the less said about Bond’s curious wave the better, but little detracts from what is a film that’s more consistent than Dr No and remains one of the highlights of the series, and works just ss well as a chess game of a Cold War thriller as it does a Bond movie.

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