James Bond Declassified: File #2 - 'From Russia With Love' is still one of the best
JAMES BOND 007 DECLASSIFIED
File #2: "From Russia With Love"
This series will trace the cinema history of James Bond, while also examining Ian Fleming's original novels as source material and examining how faithful (or not) the films have been to his work.
This edition of this column is dedicated to my father, who took me to see "The Spy Who Loved Me" in 1977, igniting my own lifelong relationship with the character. He was an old-school fan, a Fleming fan, a Connery fan, and if I got any particular part of my fanboy DNA from him, it's Eastwood and it's Bond. Bond has been shared language for most of my life, and the same is true of my friendship with Scott Swan, who has been my Bond buddy since "The Living Daylights."
When you've had those Bond-nerd conversations, when you've talked about theme songs and title sequences and Bond girls and which bad guys are the best and all the things you talk about as Bond fans… that's a very specific thing that's shared. And like Batman, I notice that all Bond fans have their own Bond that they like, and I don't just mean the actors that played the character. Each fan has what they consider "the" version in their head, the perfect definition of who Bond is, of what elements they want and like, and how the films should play.
Making a film in a series that has run for 50 years at this point is daunting if only because of the history one must confront, and here's how I'll decide if Sam Mendes and company pull it off with "Skyfall" this year: if my dad signs off, you get my thumbs up. Because my favorite Bond is his favorite Bond. That's just how it works.
Today's his 72nd birthday, and he's still the coolest Bond fan I've ever met.
Directed by Terence Young
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood (adaptation)
Produced by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman
CHARACTERS / CAST
James Bond / Sean Connery
Tatiana Romanova / Daniela Bianchi
Kerim Bey / Pedro Armendariz
Rosa Klebb / Lotte Lenya
Red Grant / Robert Shaw
M / Bernard Lee
Sylvia Trench / Eunice Gayson
Morzeny / Walter Gotell
Vavra / Francis De Wolff
Krilenko / Fred Haggerty
Miss Moneypenny / Lois Maxwell
Vida / Aliza Gur
Zora / Martine Beswick
Kronsteen / Vladek Sheybal
Ernst Blofeld / ?
Boothroyd / Desmond Llewelyn
In every way the model of the rest of the series, "From Russia With Love" opens with the gun-barrel image, and then segues into what must have been a real mind-f**k for an audience when it was released. The scene features James Bond (Sean Connery once again) being stalked by Donald Grant, the otherworldly-looking Russian played by Robert Shaw, building to Shaw's shocking bare-handed kill of our hero. Of course, he's revealed to simply be an agent disguised as Bond, part of Shaw's training, but it's a great way to kick off the second film in the series, and it shows that this time, they're gunning for Bond personally. This isn't like "Dr. No" where he ends up on the case by coincidence. This is a movie in which Bond is the target, and in three quick minutes, we see that
And then we're into what is the first "real" credits sequence in the series, with the credos projected over belly dancing bits and pieces. When "007" appears over a pair of shaking boobs, I think a tone is set for the title sequences for every single film afterwards, and it's awfully hard to complain about what we get. I love the orchestral version of the theme song that plays over the credits, particularly the jazzy organ over the top of it. The whole thing is so stylish and so confident that it's like they're telling you "Okay, we've got it all figured out now, so sit back and get ready for us to rock your ass off."
Which is fair warning, because the film absolutely does.
The first sequence in the film after the credits is set at a chess tournament in Venice, Italy, and I love the look and feel of these early Bond films. Ted Moore's cinematography is once again rich and colorful, setting a very lush sense of style for the James Bond world. This has got to be the most opulent setting for a chess tournament ever. The winner of the tournament, Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal), is summoned to the boat where Ernst Blofeld (glimpsed only in part and voiced by Anthony Dawson) is already discussing plans with Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), the number three agent for SPECTRE. His musings on the nature of Siamese Fighting Fish reveals his thinking about his own organization, and hints at the ego that will make him one of Bond's greatest ongoing rivals.
There are so many things in this film that have been parodied and borrowed and referenced over the years that it's hard to look at it now without all of that crowding in. When you see the white cat that Blofeld is constantly petting, just try not to think of Dr. Evil's obsession with Mr. Bigglesworth in the "Austin Powers" films. When Blofeld and Rosa talk to each other as "Number One" and "Number Three," I can't help but think of "The Prisoner." It's just fascinating to watch and see how big a shadow this film has cast over pop culture in general.
Kronsteen, Klebb, and Blofeld discuss their plan to steal a Lektor, a Russian cryptographic machine that they're going to sell back to the Russians while using it to lure James Bond into a trap. They mention that they want revenge for him killing Dr. No, making this a direct sequel to the first film. I like that there was some continuity in the early movies.
Robert Shaw is probably best known to audiences today for his work as Quint in "Jaws," but he's absolutely iconic here as Grant, the big giant freak that they turn loose on Bond. Seeing him shirtless, he is a side of beef here, gigantic and carved from wood. Each early scene with him just reinforces how hard it's going to be for Bond once they finally clash. In this film, he's Jaws. He's the shark out there in the water, killing people one by one, working its way towards the hero. And he's great at it.
Tatiana Romanova, who works for the Russians in Istanbul, is contacted by Klebb, who she believes is still part of Russia's SMERSH, and Klebb lets her believe that, using her loyalty to the state to recruit her to the Lektor mission. Lotte Lenya makes Klebb into a weird little villain, squat and bug-eyed, with a mouth like a carp. She freaks me out, and that's probably the point.
It's a full eighteen minutes before Bond finally appears in the film. In another nod to continuity, when we first see him, he's laying some moves on Sylvia Trench, who also appeared in "Dr. No," and Eunice Gayson plays her again. She is a perfect '60s Bond girl, lovely and cultured and oh-so-British, and she seems like she's interested in only one thing. There's a gleefully Caveman mentality to the early films, and I wouldn't change anything about that. I don't need my '60s spy movies to be politically correct for right now. They are a product of their times and so be it.
From the moment the hook is baited, Bond is sure it's a trap, and so is M. Even so, that first glimpse of Tatiana Romanova is enough to intrigue Bond. He has a great briefing scene with Boothroyd, played here by Desmond Llewellyn but not yet nicknamed Q. I always enjoy these scenes because they give you a sneak preview of what to expect later in the film. The sniper rifle that Bond uses here is iconic, and my own father owned a replica of it when I was growing up. It wasn't the greatest gun in the world in terms of aim and power, but there was an undeniable charge to assembling it before we went shooting at the range, just because it was so fun to pretend to be on a mission.
Bond goes to Istanbul to start the fun, and from the moment he lands, there are spies following him and spies following them, and that great Bond theme like a heartbeat for the film, wrapping it all in that recognizable cool. Ali Kerim Bey is a great counterpart to Bond, and when Bond arrives, there's a girl leaving, suggesting he enjoys his work the same way that Bond does. I love how Bey's surround by his sons, all of them working for him. Pedro Armendariz does a great job playing the character, and he makes for a hell of a tour guide, showing Bond around and explaining to him how open all the spying and counterspying is in the Istanbul culture.
The first half-hour of the film, nothing really happens. But that's the pleasure of it. This is spying as a game, as chess, explicitly promised and then played out. Grant's shadowing Bond from the moment he lands, and we see the evidence of what he can do, of how cold and sadistic he is. We see the games being played with Bond's hotel, and how he knows, and they know he knows, and there are bodies showing up, and Grant and Klebb are under the radar, playing everyone against each other. Great fun.
And, uh, the Bond girls in this movie? Ka. Pow. When Nadja Regin attempts to seduce "AliKerimBeeeey," purring at him, pouting at him, it's shameless, and god bless the casting director. I love that the sequence ends with a sort of abstract psychedelic version of a bomb blast, and that big band Bond orchestral sting. I think once John Barry had the notion of using the Bond "BA-DA duh, BAH-DAH duh, BAH-DA-DA-DA" as a rimshot after Bond does something badass or super cool, the series turns into something better and bigger than Fleming originally conceived. There's something deeply satisfying about a Bond film when it works, and a big part of that is watching Bugs Bunny stroll through the movie, frustrating all the bad guys and never really breaking a sweat. That's Bond as an archetype, and I love that he can look as impeccably stone cold perfect as Connery does in this film while doing anything. It's the reason I don't feel bad about admiring the Bond girls… Connery was cast to give the ladies equal time in the drool department. There are certain night scenes in the film where Connery's tan is so deep and his color so different than the rest of the people in a scene that he almost looks like he's in blackface, particularly during the trip to the gypsy camp.
Peter Hunt continued to refine the editing rhythm that made these early films feel so fresh and unique, with a propulsive sense of cutting motion into the scenes, a sort of urgency that's built into the speed of what he's doing, of how he accelerates scenes or lets them breathe. The Bond films, even these early ones, are always moving. These just weren't the same sort of giant-budget affairs that later entries in the series were, and that's sort of a case of being held hostage by success. In order to compete as events now, the Bond films have to be something different than what they were originally. This film made something like 80 million dollars in 1963, which is like half a billion dollars today. This was a big deal. I'd like to think that audiences recognized that there was something genuinely new going on in the film, a sort of wild raw pulp language being translated to film that seemed to push right up against standards at the time. The girl fight in the gypsy camp is one hell of a left-turn for that film to take for a moment, and they let it go on for an awfully long time before erupting into the first big action scene in the film, and it's very different than what a modern action scene would be like. This is brutal and the emphasis is on the stunt work, the live electricity of it all. There are some great falls, some great deaths, and in a great touch, James Bond really would have been dead at one point in this fight if not for Robert Shaw's Grant, who is saving Bond for himself for later. I love that. I love knowing that Bond, who is very good, could have died here. He could have missed something. Makes it exciting.
Bond makes a run for it with the ladies in the film, with the two girls in the gypsy camp and then Romanova right after that. Daniela Bianchi is a dish, and the whole plot of the film hinges on whether or not she can get Bond in bed. There's nothing coy about the seduction scene, and I like that Bond is playing a part, knows she's playing a part, but within that, they're both also being fairly overt about what they want and they're taking real pleasure in it. And when Bond talks to Bey about it, it's a flat-out joke to them. Of course it's all a trap. Of course there's a game being played. But… but… but look at her. Why not enjoy the moment? One of the funniest moments in the film is when we see M and Moneypenny and a group of military and government men all listening to a tape of Bond and Romanova talking on a boat, and she's begging him to make love to her day and night. When Moneypenny continues eavesdropping even after she leaves the room, it's a great touch. She's got Bond's number, and she loves it.
I also like the way Grant continues to tighten the web, playing Bond, leading him to do exactly what they want, and Kerim Bey is part of it without realizing it, helping Bond but, in doing so, delivering him right to SPECTRE. The actual set piece where they steal the Lektor is pretty great, including what I'm sure is the origin of a scene in "Last Crusade," a wave of rats that sends Bond, Bey, and Romanova into a hasty retreat onboard the Orient Express, which is where a major chunk of the film takes place. As the train rolls out and we glimpse Grant onboard, closing a window, that's a promise that things are going to hit the fan soon. Closer. Closer. When Bey dies, it's the beginning of the endgame, Grant starting to chip away at Bond's support system, stranding him on the train, where there's no real escape. Bond's busy playing house with Romanova, happily and understandably occupied, and Grant's chipping away. Closer. Closer.
And then comes Zagreb, and Grant finally comes face to face with Bond under the guise of Agent Nash, there to help Bond. He knows that Bey's sons were supposed to send Bond someone from Station Y, and he knows the signals they use to identify each other, and he uses that to play with Bond a bit. He wants to test him. He wants to study him up close before he ends him. Bond is the reason Grant was created, basically. Shaw's very funny as Agent Nash, with his posh English accent. The game he's playing with Bond is a dangerous one, and Grant seems to have the edge throughout. He drugs Romanova at dinner and gets her out of the way. And then, finally, after finally getting Bond to lower his guard, Grant strikes. Again, here's an element that's been borrowed and imitated and mocked, as Grant monologues a bit, revealing himself to Bond, gloating a bit as Bond puts it all together. "Oh, I don't mind talking. I get a kick out of watching the great James Bond find out what a bloody fool he's been making of himself." Grant makes sure Bond knows he's the one who saved his life at the gypsy camp.
The whole verbal confrontation, which is a long, tense, beautifully performed sequence, is only a precursor to the moment where the fight breaks out. I love the fight. Robert Shaw versus Sean Connery in a train car, with no room to move, no room to really do much o anything, and somehow, it's this epic gladiator collision of these two apes. They beat the holy hell out of each other in close-quaters combat, and it feels like Bond really earns the escape. There's nothing about Grant that makes it easy for Bond. And even once he escapes with Romanova, he's still got to beat the first of his many helicopter-piloting opponents in the series.
Blofeld returns to bump off Kronsteen for failing to kill Bond. He was the strategist, after all, behind all of Bond's troubles. Blofeld tells Kelbb to get the job done, and she sends henchmen after Bond, bunches of them in boats, with an ingenious escape that allows Bond to delivers a groan of a one-liner, in the best tradition of the series. Connery could throw those lines away perfectly, and I think that was as important as the way he looked or his fighting.
And as great as the fight with Grant is, the fight with Klebb is more of an awkward, creepy little flurry of violence and desperation. When Romanova makes the choice to kill Klebb instead of Bond, they earn their happy ending together. Yes, Romanova was part of it, but she was the least guilty person out of the whole guilty bunch, so James Bond still feels good about putting it to her as the film ends. He even does the gentlemanly thing of getting rid of the film of the two of them together in their hotel, a SPECTRE trick she knew nothing about. Ending the film with Bond about to get his groove on is a mainstay of the series, and this is one of the classic ones, even if it is Sean Connery in front of a terrible rear projection Venice.
The first credit after "The End" reads as follows, as the start of the full credits crawl:
"Not Quite The End
Will Return In
Ian Fleming Thriller
Overall, a pure pleasure. As good a spy movie as I've ever seen, focused on real espionage shenanigans from the '50s and '60s. Fleming knew what he was writing about, and this one drew largely on his text. Speaking of which...
The fifth book in the series. One of the greats, in my opinion. Now… as to why it was filmed second, it's simple. Imagine George Bush, at the height of his public approval, said, "I like the fifth Harry Potter book the best," and so Warner Bros decided to make it the sequel to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" instead of doing "Chamber Of Secrets." JFK picked the book as an all-time favorite in an interview. This went into production in 1962, when Kennedy was still a rock star and very much alive. Easy choice for the producers. And then when it opened in the UK in late '63, generating huge press and becoming a major hit, the build-up began, stoked by a limited New York engagement in the spring of '64, and then finally getting a full release in the States in May. By that point, Kennedy was gone and the canonization had begun.
What makes the movie an extra added bit of fun for people familiar with the Fleming is that in the film, Bond believes SMERSH is behind the trap that's been laid for him, and when he finally meets Grant, he realizes it was SPECTRE, simply using SMERSH for cover. At this point in the book series, it made sense that SMERSH wanted Bond dead. He'd defeated Le Chiffre, Mr. Big, Hugo Drax. He was a menace, chipping away at the very infrastructure of Russia's intelligence community. So SMERSH was the bad guy. There's no duplicity. SMERSH sets out to destroy him, and he figures it out. Here, he's got it all figured out, and then he realizes it's even deeper, and that's a kick to the gut for him, just as it must have been for audiences who knew the book. It's a bigger game here.
The honey pot is the same trap it is in the film, and one thing i like is that they really were adapting the novels in these early films. By the time they got to films like "Moonraker," they were using a title and nothing else. Character names. But they weren't doing the books as actual stories anymore. Here, they did a pretty strong job of toning down what they had to, turning up what they could, and working to make the films their own special things. Fleming spends some serious time in the book sketching in Bond's home life, something that the films really didn't do at all.
The most significant difference is that Fleming finished his book on a cliffhanger. In the film, when Rosa Klebb poses as a maid to get into Bond's room, she has a shoe with a knife-tip built in, and she tries to kick Bond to poison him. Romanova shoots her and kills her, so she doesn't get the chance to kick him. In the book, however, she manages to kick him, even as she's captured, and the book ends with Bond gasping for air, hitting the ground, the poison kicking in. Each of Fleming's chapters is designed to push you directly into the next, and the end of the book is like the perfect example of his craft, designed to give him either an ending to the series or a dramatic kick into his next book.
Overall, re-watching this film and re-reading this book just convinced me anew that Fleming was one of the great thriller writers, and adapting his work closely yields truly impressive results.
Catch up with our entire "James Bond: Declassified" series:
James Bond will return...