Tuesday, May 3, 2011

From Russia With Love [1963]

From Russia With Love is still considered to be one of the best James Bond films, and in general terms is well-remembered and well-loved almost fifty years after its release.  There aren't many movies that survive in the public consciousness for fifty years; 1963 actually fares pretty well in that regard, with flicks like The Great Escape, 8 1/2, The Birds, The Pink Panther, The Haunting, Cleopatra, and Hud still hanging around around actively in the cultural consciousness.

From Russia With Love is as notable a title as any of those, though, and with that in mind, it surely ought to earn a great score on the old Double-0 Rating system, right?  Let's find out.



(1)  Bond ... James Bond






One of the interesting things about From Russia With Love is that Bond himself is a bit of a puppet for almost the entire film.  With poor direction -- or possibly even without it -- I suspect that a lot of actors might have had the tendency to play Bond as a puppet, thereby weakening the character.  Instead, Connery's portrayal is of a 007 who knows he is being controlled, and is simply waiting for an opportunity for the puppeteer to show his face so that control of the strings can be wrested away.




Connery has any number of great scenes in the movie, but my favorite is the siege on the gypsy camp scene, in which Bond prowls around the fight, nonchalantly dispatching one combatant after another.  He's also great in the film's opening scene, in which "Bond" is being stalked by Grant.  If you pay attention to the way Connery plays this mock 007, it is clear that he is, indeed, playing an entirely different character; very effective.

All in all, Connery in this film delivers what has to be considered one of the definitive portrayals of Bond.  Points awarded: 007/007


(2)  SPECTRE

Main Villain:  Well, here's an interesting dilemma: who should I consider to be the main villain of From Russia With Love?  There are several candidates, and the most obvious is Rosa Klebb, as portrayed by Lotte Lenya.  However, I'm also tempted to say that the main villain of the piece is Blofeld himself (referred to here only as Number One), who appears for the first time in the series.  And in terms of being a physical presence in the film, Donald Grant is Bond's most formidable adversary.  So, I'm going to be a little atypical here and simply say that in From Russia With Love, James Bond has no main adversary: instead, it is the organization itself, SPECTRE, which fills that role, so it's SPECTRE itself I'll be grading.





And it's a formidable set of adversaries, to be sure, headed by Blofeld himself.  Blofeld is presented here as a man behind a desk, controlling his plans and schemes while stroking a white cat and philosophizing to his various underlings.  It's an iconic portrayal, and a lot of the credit for that must go to Eric Pohlmann, who did the voiceover work as Blofeld.
 




Blofeld's primary agent in this movie is Rosa Klebb, a KGB defector played by Lotte Lenya.  Lenya was once married to Kurt Weill, and was famous at the time of this movie's release primarily for her stage and singing careers.  That makes her a bit of oddball casting here, but it paid off handsomely.  Lenya's like a spider in the movie: not at all pleasant to look at, and prone to jump out and bite you when you least expect it. 
 




The icy hints of lesbianism are effectively rendered; couched as they are in a context of villainy, they are perhaps objectionable by today's standards, but after all, the movie is nearly fifty years old, and it accurately represents the pop-cultural climate of the time.
 




Another of the SPECTRE agents is Kronsteen, played by Vladek Sheybal, who is terrific.  One of the reasons Blofeld in this movie is able to seem like a genuine menace to Bond, Britain, and the Western world in general is that he has such a man as Kronsteen in his employ: one of the film's memorable scenes is Kronsteen's introduction, in which we discover that he is a master chess champion!  Surely, such an intellect being put to villainous use can result in no good.
 

 
Also worth mentioning is Morzeny, who appears to be the head of SPECTRE's training colony for new agents.  He is played by Walter Gotell, who would go on to have a minor recurring role as the Russian version of M in later films in the Bond series.  Gotell doesn't have much to do here, except die in a fire, but the SPECTRE training camp scene is ominously fun, and goes far in terms of showing what, exactly, Bond is up against.  Points awarded (Main Villains):  006/007

Henchmen:  The main henchman of From Russia With Love, of course, is Donald Grant, played by Robert Shaw.  Shaw would come to fame a decade later playing Quint in Jaws, but he's awfully good here, also, and most of his role requires him to do nothing more than look imposing.  The idea behind Grant is that he's like a villainous mirror image of Bond, almost Bond's evil opposite twin.  He takes no drink, does not smoke (you can see him viciously toss a cigarette away at one point), does not indulge in women ... he foregoes all of the vices which make James Bond the loveable cad we know him to be.  That's all fine to say, and it's fine for it to be written into the screenplay; but actually getting it on screen is another thing entirely, and Shaw does just that.  As such, he's one of the very best Bond villains, still.  (And, by the way, does he look a bit like Daniel Craig?  Yes, he does, a bit.  That only makes it more fun, as far as I'm concerned.)  Points awarded (Henchmen): 007/007




Overall points awarded (SPECTRE):  006.50/007

(3)  The Bond Girls

Main Bond Girl:  Ah, Daniela Bianchi, Daniela Bianchi ... there are not enough sighs in the world for Daniela Bianchi...



Bianchi plays Tatiana ("Tanya") Romanova, a Russian cypher clerk working in Istanbul who is recruited by SPECTRE to unwittingly aid in their latest plot.  Romanova is a strong, forthright woman who is approached by Kelbb and ordered to go screw a stranger for her government.  She agrees to do it, and then she does it, and then she uses it as an opportunity to escape to a better life.  I remember reading a critique of the film at some point that lambasted it for Bond's treatment of Romanova as a simple prostitute, to be used, battered for information, and then tossed aside, and while I can see how one might come to those conclusions, I just can't agree with them at all.  It is clear that Romanova is actually more equivalent to Bond than she is subservient to him: she is aware that she is being used (by the KGB, she thinks), and goes along with it willingly.  Is it for country primarily, or is it out of a sense of personal adventurousness?  That is unclear; Romanova also gets to remain -- pardon the pun -- a bit of a cypher.




It is not at any point made entirely clear to what extent Tanya has actually fallen for Bond; we can draw our own conclusions on that score, I suppose.  My take on it is that Romanova loves her country, but loves the enjoyment of life more, and simply decides that going along with Bond is an easy recipe for enjoying life for a while.  And once it becomes clear that she is not working for Mother Russia, but instead against it, she aids Bond, saving him from Klebb at the end of the film.





Bianchi is great in the movie (as is Barbara Jefford, who performed Romanova's dialogue), and remains one of the best Bond girls of them all.  Points awarded (Main Bond Girl):  007/007





Secondary Bond Girls:  Making a welcome return to the Bond series for a second consecutive film is Eunice Gayson, playing Sylvia Trench (who was obviously worthy enough that Bond rang her up for a return engagement).  Trench never showed up again in the series after this, which is a shame: I like the actress, and I like the idea of Bond have a steady of some sort waiting for him back home.  It would have lent a nice sense of continuity to the films.




 
The only other secondary Bond girls in the film are the two gypsy girls who are fighting over a man while Bond is in the gypsy camp.  They end up, naturally, having to appeal to Bond to decide the victor.  Does 007 bed one of them, or both?  Personally, I tend to think he beds neither: it appears that he opts instead to put them to use in other domestic ways, possibly as a means of staying on the good side of his new gypsy "father."  Oddly, the plot point of which of the two wins the fight is never cleared up.  The fight itself is an odd scene, and seems to have stepped straight out of a caveman picture or something like that; it is not a high point of the series.




I like the reappearance of Sylvia Trench, but the gypsy girls lose the film a few points.  Points awarded (Secondary Bond Girls):  004/007

Overall points awarded (Bond Girls):  005.50/007 ... which seems awfully low, considering how great Bianchi is.  However, I think it's fair; the brawling gypsy chicks do drag the film down a bit, so it makes sense that they ought to drag this category's score down a bit, as well.

(4)  "Oh, James..."

Action/Stunts:  Compared to a modern action film, From Russia With Love would seem like a dinosaur in terms of its action scenes.  For its time, however, it was a landmark, and -- like Dr. No before it, only better -- it remains one of the seminal action films in terms of building the genre.  Also, let's face it: some of those action scenes still work just fine today.




The most celebrated action scene in the film is unquestionably the hand-to-hand fight between Bond and Grant on the Orient Express.  This scene is visceral enough that it was still being referenced as the fistfight to beat when Casino Royale came out decades later; for sheer believability, the Bond-Grant fisticuffs went unmatched for years and years, which is quite an achievement.

I also love the scene in which Bond, on foot, is menaced by a helicopter.  The stuntwork in this scene is great; it looks like exactly what it is, a helicopter coming very close to impaling a dude in a suit.  The scene, obviously, was inspired by the cropduster scene in North By Northwest, but let's not take it as a ripoff: it was, and is, very much a loving homage.

The climactic scene in which Bond and Tanya escape in a speedboat is also still thrilling (with some stuntwork which very obviously went awry in real life), and I adore the mayhem of both the gypsy-camp and the taking-the-Lektor scenes.  There are also smaller-scale scenes which work well, such as the assassination of Krilencu and the final showdown with Klebb.  All in all, this stands as one of the great action films in the genre.  Points awarded (Action/Stunts):  007/007

Editing:  Once again, great work by Peter Hunt, who does the narrative a world of good by keeping things moving at a rapid pace, but never so rapid that the story becomes obfuscated.  Obviously, Hunt did crackerjack work during the action scenes, but his editing is just as effective during the quieter scenes between Bond and Romanova.  Points awarded (Editing):  007/007

Costumes:  Simple, restrained, and very effective.  Good God, I ought to award the highest marks just for Tanya's nightgowns.  I'll restrain myself.  Points awarded (Costumes):  006/007

Locations:  Most of the film takes place in Turkey, and there are some lovely sights to be seen there, including the Hagia Sophia cathedral.  However, much of the film takes place on sound stages, so the locations are not actually one of the stronger points of the film.  It seems odd to deduct points for that, but there you have it.  Points awarded (Locations):  005/007

Overall points awarded ("Oh, James..."):  006.25/007



(5)  Q Branch

Bond's Allies:  Making their return to the series are Bernard Lee as M and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny; both are great in their scenes, particularly the one in which everyone back at the office is reviewing the recording Bond has sent (in which Tanya begs Bond to make love to her and James begins recounting some tale of M's shenanigans, much to M's consternation).





Bond's most notable ally is the film is Kerim Bey, who was named Darko Kerim in the novel and is played here by Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz.  Armendariz discovered that he was terminally ill during his filming of this part, and he died -- by his own hand -- only days after completing his work upon it.  As far as epitaphs go, playing a congenial, charming, and highly effective Turkish agent who assists James Bond on one of his greatest adventures ... yeah, that's not too shabby.  Armendariz is very, very good in the role, and while I don't think I've ever seen him in anything else, I hope to someday.


Perhaps most notably, From Russia With Love was the film in which Desmond Llewellyn made his first appearance as Q.  He's very efficient, and while the scene doesn't contain any of the banter that would later become a hallmark of the series, that's okay; it doesn't need it.  Points awarded (Bond's Allies):  007/007

Direction:  As far as directors go, Terence Young had a greater impact -- a greater positive impact, anyway -- on the Bond films than did any other director in its history.  It might at this point be possible to have a debate on the subject of whether or not Martin Campbell has assumed the second-place position, but Young remains the undisputed champeen.  He does terrific work with From Russia With Love, investing its scenes with genuine intrigue and tension, buckets of charm, breezy romance, wry humor, and a Western-world-triumphant backbone.  One of the best scenes in the film is the one in which Grant, silent as a tiger stalking an antelope, follows Bond: 007 has disembarked from the Orient Express to meet one of Kerim Bey's many sons, and Grant prowls the corridor of the train, following Bond, unseen.  The staging of the scene is perfect, very suggestive, to my mind, of what Hitchcock might have done if he had ever made a Bond film. 

Terence Young may be no Hitchcock, but it's no small compliment to say that the quality with which he directed this film has endured for five decades, and shows no signs of vanishing.  Points awarded (Direction):  007/007

director Terence Young with Daniela Bianchi

Cinematography:  Lensed by Ted Moore, the cinematography here is effective in a non-showy way, which seems appropriate for the more realistic tone the film takes in general.  Even Dr. No, the first film in the series, had a considerable amount of cartoonish elements, and the cinematography occasionally reflected that vibe.  Some of the more effective scenes from a photographic standpoint: the siege on the gypsy camp (shot entirely on a sound stage, but it looks pretty convincing, and the "nighttime" lighting has a lot to do with that); Bond's meeting Tanya for the first time; and the fight between Bond and Grant.  Points awarded (Cinematography):  006/007

Art Direction:  As with the cinematography, the art direction is more restrained than in Dr. No due to the increased level of realism in the plot.  But the production design -- not by Ken Adam this time, but by Syd Cain -- is nevertheless extremely effective.  The most memorable constructed set is probably the chess auditorium which is seen near the beginning, but the sets representing the Orient Express and the gypsy camp are fine, as is pretty much everything else.  Not one of the highlights of the Bond series from this standpoint, but there's nothing much to denegrate.  Points awarded (Art Direction):  005/007

Special Effects:  There is some rear-screen work which seems fairly obvious nowadays, so I suppose points ought to be deducted for that.  However, there's also a fine matte shot (of the ceiling of the chess auditorium), and the explosions in the boat chase toward the end are very effective.  Points awarded (Special Effects):  005/007




Gadgets:  The notion of gadgets in the James Bond universe didn't truly begin to take hold until the next film in the series, Goldfinger, but that's no reason to discount the appeal of this film's contribution to Bond-gadget lore: that tricked-out, always useful briefcase with which Q outfits 007.  Throwing knives, compactable rifles, gold coins, gas-release failsafes ... it's a high-quality item, no doubt.  Seems like small beans compared to crap like invisible cars and whatnot, but the element of realism makes this a superior entry in the Bond Gadget Hall of Fame.  Points awarded (Gadgets): 006/007






  
Opening-Title Sequence:  Well, it's hard to go wrong with a belly-dancer, isn't it?  (The actress in the credits sequence is Leila, who also appears later in the film as a lovely gypsy who entertains Bond and Bey prior to the girlfight.)  The credits sequence in this film is simple, less postmodern than the one in Dr. No.  However, it's also interesting as a reflection of the story: a woman, with all her considerable charms, is being used as a distraction, and as a device for meaning to be projected upon.  I like the sequence; it isn't one of my favorites of the series, but I like it.  Points awarded (Opening-Title Sequence):  005/007
  



Overall points awarded (Q Branch):  005.86/007

(6)  Mission Briefing

Is there any disputing that this is one of the very best Bond screenplays/stories?  If so, I'm not aware of it.  Written by Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood, the screenplay makes massive changes to the specifics of Fleming's novel -- in which the plot is instigated by SMERSH, not SPECTRE -- but stays close to its spirit.  We know for the entire movie that it is all a trap, which by all rights ought to have resulted in the complete loss of dramatic tension; instead, the writers shifted the focus onto the tension over the means by which Bond would discover the trap, and how he would counteract it.  Said simply: it just all works.  Points awarded:  007/007

(7)  The Music

Title Song:  I'm not the hugest fan of Matt Munro's "From Russia With Love," which was written by Lionel Bart, but it's decent enough.  The song itself is not used in the opening credits (except in instrumental form); that tradition did not begin until the next film in the Bond series.  However, I think it's acceptable to put it here for our purposes.  Points awarded (Title Song):  004/007
  



  
The Score:  I'd be tempted to give this category the highest marks just for that album art.  Luckily, I don't have to; it's one of the best scores in the entire series, easily.  John Barry had had no actual involvement with Dr. No apart from his work on the James Bond Theme, but for the second film in the series, he was hired on full-time, and provided a lush, exciting, and very memorable score.  The fanfare that begins the opening-credits sequence is terrific, and it leads into a fine instrumental rendition of Lionel Bart's title song.  The highpoint of the score, though, is Barry's "007" theme, which is used first during the siege on the gypsy camp, and then also during the taking of the Lektor.  This is a propulsively fun theme that Barry would use off and on throughout the next two decades, but it's best use remains its original appearances in this film.  Points awarded (The Score): 007/007

Overall points awarded (The Music):  005.50/007

Double-0 Rating For From Russia With Love:  006.23/007
  


That's a solid rating, no doubt about it, and there are only maybe three films in the series that I can imagine doing better.  (Hint: the next one is not one of them.)  Will they?  Only time will tell.

The tally so far:

006.23 -- From Russia With Love
004.76 -- Dr. No
002.55 -- Climax!: Casino Royale

You Only Blog Twice will return in ... Goldfinger.

15 comments:

  1. Quite the comprehensive review (and rating-system-breakdown) of my favorite Bond film.

    My God those pics of Daniela Bianchi... words fail me. Good pics all around, but yeah, damn.

    This blog deserves more than "Man, Daniela Bianchi was smoking hot," haha, but I'm afraid it's all I can focus on...

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  2. I hope that whomever eventually remakes "Thinner" includes an homage to the raid on the Gypsy camp, here, for Special Agent Stoner's raid on the same... It just occurred to me that my entire mental imagining of that scene was from this movie.

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    1. I'd settle for them just using the same piece of John Barry score. Man, if that happened, I might just faint out right there in the movie theatre.

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  3. All right, it's me again...

    "Oddly, the plot point of which of the two wins the fight is never cleared up. The fight itself is an odd scene, and seems to have stepped straight out of a caveman picture or something like that; it is not a high point of the series."

    #BondConfessions: There are times when I think it is THE high point of the series. I'm not even one of those guys who gets turned on by women-fighting, like the "me-ow" Seinfeld episode. But there's something so perfect about this crazy gypsy-girl fight that Bond then gets to adjudicate. (Left to our imagination, naturally...!) It's a testament to the vast distance between every man who has ever lived and James Bond - truly a "World's Most Interesting Man" moment.

    Though it IS kinda funny they never tell you the verdict. I can imagine asking that question on-set or in the script-room and getting an ashtray thrown at you, or fired outright. For some reason I feel trying to clear that up in the script would provoke rage, even if it's a perfectly legitimate question.

    I don't know how many times I've seen this one, but it's probably my vote for favorite Connery-as-Bond performance. Like many people, I guess. (Close call with Thunderball.)

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    1. I would find it impossible to argue with that as a best-Connery pick. I think "Thunderball" is my personal fave, but only by the slenderest of margins over this and "Goldfinger."

      Hmm. In revising this post, I'd probably revise that sentence about the catfight. It does kind of have a weirdo memorability factor going for it, if nothing else.

      There is a three-part Bond comic book called "Permission to Die" that was published in the late eighties by . . . I want to say Dark Horse, but I thnik I'm wrong and I'm too lazy to find out for sure. Jeez, I could just go to my bookshelf and look...! Nope; just worked a 17.5-hour day, I ain't walkin' over to nothin'. Sorry! Anyways, my memory of the comic is dim, but I know for a fact it revisits the gypsy camp and the Kerim Bey legacy a couple of decades after the novel/movie is/are set. From what I remember, it's pretty cool.

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  4. Only 006 out of 007? For Kronsteen?? WHO IS BOND COMPARED TO KRONSTEEN???

    Doesn't even shake the dude's hand after effortlessly finishing off his chess opponent! Guy's stone-cold.

    He does die like a chump. Funny personal story about that: the first few times I saw FRWL, it was a poorly-framed, probably recorded-off-TV vhs copy that led me to believe that what happened in Kronsteen's final scene was this: Blofeld was ready to kill Klebb, KLEBB popped the poisoned shoe-blade and offed Kronsteen herself. Then, either out of sheer deference or mild amusement at her desperate ploy for survival, Blofeld let her live. On my vhs copy, you could barely register the SPECTRE guard behind them who actually kills Kronsteen at Number One's behest.

    And I don't know, maybe it's because I watched that version easily a dozen times as a kid, but that confused version of events stuck in my head. I accepted its illogical logic, which seemed supported by Rosa Klebb being known as the "knife-shoe" villain (a reputation that seems kind of lame considering she only utilizes the gadget once in the movie, quite unsuccessfully). And anyway why should Blofeld want to wipe out Kronsteen? Grant was Klebb's boy! It's totally on her that the whole plan went down in flames.

    I swear I can still remember the scrunched. homicidal look on Lotte Lenya's face when she swings at Kronsteen! Ah the things false memory conjure in your mind...

    Great observation on the Shaw/Craig physical similarities. I could absolutely see Craig being cast as Grant if he were that age in the early 60's. Would have been amazing to see Connery and Craig, each in his prime, go head-to-head.

    However, the gypsy fight is not a "high point" of the series? I respectfully disagree. My only complaint about that scene is that it isn't 10 minutes longer.

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    1. I bet a lot of people misunderstood plots points from the movies back when the only to see them was via cropped-image VHSes or tv broadcasts. I distinctly remember the first time I saw a widescreen version of "Thunderball" -- I felt like I was seeing a movie I'd never seen before. Which, to some extent, I was!

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  5. I can't really pick one Bond movie I regard as "The Best", but I must say if I were to try, From Russia With Love would be a very strong candidate, watched it not that long ago, and it's amazing how well this movie still keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout!
    Connery is great, his supporting cast are great, great music, great story.. They really knocked this one out of the park on almost all fronts!
    Daniela Bianchi is devastatingly beautiful, and unlike Honey Ryder is also an interesting character!
    As for which one of the gypsy girls won the fight? My guess is the one in red, she seems to have the upper hand for the most part! ;)
    Robert Shaw as Grant is amazing, one of the all-time best, I particularly enjoy the scenes on the train when he impersonates Captain Nash, we know, as the audience, that this guy is a villain, but I think Shaw does a good job coming across convincingly friendly enough so that I can buy that Bond would fall for it!
    Kerim Bey must also rank as one of Bond's best allies! Bond's allies are always most memorable when they have that very colourful, cultured personality.. (Other than Kerim, I would point to Tanaka, Colombo and Zukovsky as good examples).
    Also, lots of credit to John Barry, unlike Monty Norman it doesn't feel like his music has aged at all, it never jumps out at me as seeming "old-fashioned" the way Normans score did, and that probably plays a role in why the movie still works as well as it does today!

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    1. I'd have no argument whatsoever with somebody who said this was/is "the best" of the Bond movies. It's my Dad's favorite, so there's that; but by just about any standard I would care to use, it's strong storytelling.

      We are obviously in complete agreement on the subject of Daniela Bianchi. Ay-yi-yi...

      I'd be interested in reading a good long essay about Barry's Bond music that tried to explain how it still sounds so timeless. Or maybe it only sounds timeless if you've got a connection to that era of some sort; I don't think that's true, but I guess the devil's-advocate side of me thinks it's worth considering. Either way, I think Barry is as crucial a part of Bond's success as virtually any other.

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  6. I wonder how come that daniela was not well remembered of all the bond girls, when is i guess the most beautiful among of them. Sighs for daniela.

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  7. Add me more on the side that the catfight is a bore. I can sort of see the appeal, particularly in regards to Bond's role, but it still feels a little contrived to me, and just a moment too long, in a film that otherwise feels fairly realistic and grounded in terms of plot and scene choice.

    It might not have felt as out of place in a Roger Moore film, but I think they might've given a stronger explanation by then, ironically.

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    1. Wouldn't it be great to somehow be able to see alternative versions of each movie, but with the different Bond actors, and filmed in their era? So, like, a mid-'00s version starring Daniel Craig and a mid-'70s version starring Moore, etc.?

      Boy, now THERE'S a Blu-ray set I'd buy.

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