...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Day 4297: BOND GOLD: From Russia With Love


From Russia With Love (1963)

Staring Mr Sean Connery as Ian Fleming’s James Bond

The One With: The fight on the Orient Express (fighting fish!)

Beautiful direction from Terence Young, some lovely clean establishing shots such as the introduction to Istanbul with a view of the Blue Mosque, and beautiful sweeping John Barry soundtrack, especially his pounding Orient Express theme and of course the “alternate” Bond theme “007”, carry us away on an Oriental Mystery Tour.

What a lot of people say is that “From Russia With Love” is a great spy film, but not that great a Bond film. But Daddy Alex points out that the first quarter of an hour or so are in fact a CRACKING Bond movie: the pre-title mini-adventure, the title sequence which really gets it right this time, both discovering Maurice Binder’s style of projecting the credits onto women’s bodies (even though it isn’t actually Maurice binder this time) and the music that combines the “exotic” themes of Eastern Europe with the Monty Norman James Bond theme without the handbrake turn of Dr No’s calypso; then there’s the introduction of Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) and Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), the lizard and toad of SpECTRE; then the visit to SpECTRE Island; and only THEN do we get the REAL Mr Bond in a charming scene with M and the new Q (Desmond Llewelyn).

Oddly, “From Russia…” is already SUBVERTING the James Bond tropes, often BEFORE they’re even established. That pre-title adventure is actually GRANT’S adventure and sees Bond “killed”; the “gadget” scene is SpECTRE’s lethal training ground rather than Q’s rather more sedate laboratory. In this context, the Bond/Q relationship – joking and friendly, rather than acerbic – seems a deliberate reversal rather than not yet having been established. (It won’t be until the next movie, when Llewelyn waspishly takes Connery to task in character, that everyone realises that OF COURSE Q would despise this man who spends his life destroying everything Q creates.)

It’s very brave of Connery to appear with the exaggerated make-up of the first sequence, it’s enough to make him look slightly… off, so that the reveal that it’s a mask and a training exercise for Grant comes as an “oh that’s what’s going on” rather than a total cheat.

But speaking of brave, Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb is quite awesome. Her first scene, with the faceless cat-fancier (Blofeld, the titles admit) sees her fawning and crawling, the defector who knows she’s not to be trusted. But as soon as she’s out of his presence, she completely dominates any scene that she is in.

More subtly, Robert Shaw as the anti-Bond Donald “Red” Grant, is carefully woven through the film. In fact, it’s possible to watch “From Russia…” without taking in the significance of the little cut-aways to Grant – watch out particularly to catch him loitering outside the meeting between Rosa Klebb and Tatiana – but once you notice him you realise just how carefully he is masterminding everything that occurs. The difference between “Dr No” and “From Russia…” is that where the first film is very much a sequence of set-pieces, the second is a sequence of set-pieces where you can SEE Grant setting them up in advance.

For example, Bond arrives in Istanbul and is met by one of Kerim Bey’s sons (Neville Jackson – “The Androids of Tara’s” Prince Reynart). They are tailed to Kerim Bey’s headquarters by Bulgarians working for the Russians. “It’s an understanding we have”, explains the chauffeur. But after Bond’s meeting, we – though not Bond – see that the Bulgarian’s Citroen has been hijacked by Grant, who now tails Bond to his hotel. Later, Grant drops the Citroen outside the Russian Embassy, where the commissionaire discovers one of the Bulgarian agents dead.

Now in itself that’s just a shock moment set-piece. But it’s also a clever reference to the scene in “Dr No” where Bond leaves a dead body outside Government House with the quip “See that he doesn’t get away”; thus we’re establishing Grant’s Bond-ish credentials. But on top of that, it’s the murder of the Bulgarian that triggers the Russian limpet-mine attack on Kerim Bey, and in turn the escalation of the fight between the Bulgarians and Kerim’s Gypsy allies, and the assassination of Krilencu. In fact the whole middle third of the film.

(British vanity puts the limpet-mine attack down to Bond’s arrival, and they later link it to the return of Kerim’s old enemy Krilencu. So they never properly pause to investigate why the truce is so unexpectedly broken, and so fail to detect SpECTRE’s hidden hand – or tentacle – behind events.)

That that middle third of the film is a gorgeous travelogue and a complete distraction from the main business of stealing the LEKTOR decoder is glossed over almost entirely by the quiet understated charisma of Pedro Armendáriz as Ali Kerim Bey, head of section T, Turkey. Cheerfully staffing the secret service in Istanbul with members of his extensive family, while referring to keeping his mistress satisfied as “another day down the salt mines”, his honour and good humour are the backbone of “From Russia With Love”. All the more astonishing when you learn that Mr Armendáriz was suffering from terminal cancer throughout the filming (and took his own life shortly afterwards), it makes his on-screen death, murdered by Grant, all the more poignant.

Favourite line of the movie, Kerim to the bound and gagged Russian spy Benz: Did you know I have had a particularly fascinating life. Would you like to hear about it?

Benz: Mmmm

Kerim (surprised and delighted): Oh, you would?!

You do have to say it’s not a terribly FEMINIST movie, though. Whether it is the way this film’s Bond Girl Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) declines from assertive Russian signals officer to passive Westernised trophy wife, or the frankly bizarre scene with Kerim’s mistress where she seems to exist only as an object to desire him, or the overt lesbian = evil coding of Rosa Klebb it’s rather too much about “putting women in their place”. Even Klebb, as we observed earlier, has to be odiously subservient to Blofeld. Which is a shame after the surprising strong showing for the women of Dr No.

(Given “that thing that’s going to happen with Pussy Galore at the end of the next movie”, we did think that there was a case for “From Russia…” being a better THIRD movie, and playing on Bond’s growing reputation as Britain’s premier gigolo. Which would make Fiona Vulpe’s line in “Thunderball” even more of a payoff. But we will have to wait to see those in turn.)

SpECTRE are even more ingeniously woven into the plot of Fleming’s novel here than they were in Dr No, though in both cases they serve to magnify something that could be almost mundane into something really very special.

Grant is defeated by a combination of Bond’s tenacity, Q’s gadgetry and his own greed (if he hadn’t stolen the cash from Bond’s pocket, Bond would not have known Grant would be susceptible to the gold sovereigns in the Q-case), and that is remarkably satisfying. As is Kronsteen’s well-deserved comeuppance. (“What is Bond compared to Kronsteen,” he wheezes in an attempt to shift the blame when the plan has failed. Well, he’s the man who beat your fool proof scheme, you moron! No wonder Blofeld has him offed.)

Walter Gotell, who would later create M’s opposite number, General Gogol of the KGB, here appears as chief SpECTRE henchman, Morzeny. Clearly he’s SUPPOSED to be the same character who is in charge on SpECTRE Island, AND dealing out the death kicks on Blofeld’s yacht in Venice AND in charge of the SpECTRE speed boats that pursue Bond and Tatiana in the Adriatic. But it’s terribly tempting to think that SpECTRE just have a half-a-dozen clones of the head of Russian intelligence working for them.

Bond Quips #3: (after Bulgarian killer Krilencu is shot escaping through the most outrageous Bond-film product-placement until Moonraker: a billboard for Henry and Cubby;s own movie starring Anita Eckberg) “She should have kept her mouth shut”

Bond Quips #4: (on the death of poison-boot-wielding Rosa Klebb) “She’s had her kicks”

Other things to watch out for: The use of cigarettes to suggest sexual knowledge. At the start of the film, when Bond is called in from his picnic with Sylvia Trench, he uses a carphone to speak to Moneypenny. Here the film contrasts Sylvia who clearly wants Bond in a sexual way, with Penny who has a more worldly “been there, done that” attitude. What is striking is that, very unusually, Moneypenny is seen toying with a cigarette, as if it is a symbol of her greater knowledge.

This is mirrored at the end of the film when we see Tatiana smoking for the first time only once they have got safely away to Venice, implying Bond has finally “fulfilled” her as a woman. Note also, that she discards her cigarette – the symbol of her sexual awakening – when Rosa Klebb turns up and takes charge over her again.

The Bottom Line: Bond on the brink of becoming super-human, nevertheless tells a tale of spy intrigue, blood feuds and cross and double-cross. Probably the best fight-on-a-train scene ever!

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