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(Almost) Fifty Years of 007! Josh Reviews From Russia With Love (1963)

May 23rd, 2011

I’ve just begun what promises to be a year-long project to revisit all 22 James Bond films.  (I plan on also re-watching Never Say Never Again, though I will most likely be skipping the 1954 and 1967 versions of Casino Royale.)  Click here for my lengthy article on the very first James Bond film: Dr. No!

The film: The second Bond film, From Russia With Love, has always ranked among my favorite of the Bond films, and this latest viewing only reinforces that opinion.  Just like Dr. No, the film is a tense, fast-paced espionage thriller, only I’d argue that this installment is even more ambitious and slickly produced than that first film.  From Russia With Love takes place in a myriad of different locations, and is filled with some impressively elaborate-for-the-time action set-pieces, such as the helicopter attack on Bond’s purloined truck and the terrific speed-boat chase late in the film.  There’s none of the silliness or bloat that would infect later installments in this series (well, except for a number of absolutely TERRIBLE puns that Bond utters several times in the film after disposing of one bad-guy or another).

The film demonstrates a confidence right from the get-go, as James Bond (the ACTUAL James Bond, not counting the Mission Impossible style face-masked Bond impostor in the opening sequence) doesn’t actually appear in the movie until about twenty minutes in!  That’s a pretty surprising and bold narrative choice, when you think about it.  The film takes a great deal of time, at the start, to ratchet up the tension by introducing us to all of the new adversaries that Bond will now be facing.  It’s a gutsy move, to take so much time before ever introducing your film’s main character, but that’s just one of the many things that I love about From Russia With Love.

The opening/The music: Speaking of the opening sequence, whereas Dr. No started right with the opening credits, here in From Russia With Love there’s a short sequence (the buff hit-man Donald Grant stalking the Bond doppelganger on “SPECTRE Island”) that comes before the opening credits.  Opening the film with a pre-credit action sequence would become one of the Bond films’ most notable stylistic devices, and it’s fun to see that begin here.

The opening credits themselves are just as weird as those in Dr. No. In this film, the credits are projected on the writhing body of a belly-dancer.  It’s a pretty bizarre, kinky way to start a film!  As a fan of the writhing bodies of belly-dancers, I heartily approve, though it’s sort of weird that a film titled From Russia With Love would choose to emphasize the gypsy aspect of the film’s story (which basically consists of ten minutes in the middle of the film) so prominently.  Although this film has a phenomenal theme song (written by Lionel Bart and sung by Matt Monro), we only get it played in instrumental over the opening credits.  (We’ll hear the vocal version at the end of the film — oh, and also, in a really silly touch, played on the radio that Bond is listening to when hanging out in a canoe with Sylvia Trench.)

After the belly-dancing, we’re thrown right into the plot.  SPECTRE has a scheme to get ahold of a Russion Lektor code-breaking device, and in so-doing escalate tensions between the British and the Russians (in the hopes that the two sides will destroy one another, or at least weaken one another enough for SPECTRE to achieve dominance over them) and also avenge the death of SPECTRE agent Dr. No by killing his killer, James Bond.

The good: The first half of the film is set in Istanbul, and the film takes a lot of time to explore the complex web of cold-war espionage that exists there between the British and the Russians.  After setting up the SPECTRE plot in the film’s opening scenes, I love how that story basically takes a back-seat for the next 30-40 minutes.  It takes a LONG time for the Russian agent Tatiana (set up as a bait for Bond in the film’s opening scenes) to re-enter the story.  Instead, we get an elaborate Cold War spy sequence.  After arriving in Istanbul, Bond quickly gets involved in the ongoing British-Russian shenanigans (riled up by SPECTRE), and I remain endlessly fascinated by that aspect of the story.  I love how grounded these early Bond films are.

When Bond leaves Istanbul, we’re then treated to an extended sequence on-board a train (headed for Yugoslavia).  This is a phenomenal sequence, one of my favorites from all of the Bond films.  As Bond (and Tatiana and Kerim) move in and out of the train’s small compartments, the tension builds and builds, and it all culminates in a violent, close-quarters hand-to-hand battle between Bond and SPECTRE agent Donald Grant in Bond’s train compartment that is a fantastic, justifiably famous sequence.

In addition to being tense, From Russia With Love is also quite funny.  One of my favorite moments is when we see Bond recording Tatiana talking about the Lektor device.  Between her descriptions of its mechanisms, she keeps moaning to Bond to make love to her.  Cut to M and a roomful of British officers listening to the recording.

The silly: The film has a few weak moments.  The final scene in Bond’s hotel room, in which he faces off against a little old lady with a poison-tipped shoe — isn’t exactly a show-stopping action climax.  It’s nice to see Tatiana — who’s been totally passive through the whole film — finally take some action and make a firm decision (to be with Bond), but it doesn’t redeem the silliness of the scene.  There are some other silly moments — like the ludicrous pin-up shot of Tatiana that M gives to Bond, supposedly a shot that one of their agents photographed — but even the old-lady shoe battle doesn’t come close to meeting the craziness of the ten-minute gypsy digression in the middle of the film.  For no reason that I can ascertain, at one point in the film, Kerim drives Bond to a gypsy camp (apparently they’re his allies), during which he and Bond get to watch a sensual belly-dancer perform, and then two gypsy young women engage in a Jerry Springer face-scratching, hair-pulling battle-to-the-death because they’d both fallen in love with the same woman.  “It’s the gypsy way,” Bond is told.  I seriously doubt that.  (I’m also not sure how accurate the Wonder Woman-like outfits worn by the two girls were to actual European gypsy attire…)

But there’s so much to love about From Russia With Love that it’s hard to complain.  As with most of these early Bond films, I find those awkward moments so endearingly entertaining that they only enhance my enjoyment of the film!

“I told the stewardess liquor for three” (the supporting players): One of the main strengths of From Russia with Love is its great ensemble of characters.  In Istanbul, Bond teams up with the head British agent there, Kerim Bay (Perim Amendariz).  I love this character, and I was really sad to see him exit the film (though he lasts a LOT longer than I’d expected — the first time I saw this film, I totally expected him to buy it during the shoot-out at the gypsy scene, didn’t you?)  It’s a rare example, in a Bond film, of our seeing another secret agent who is Bond’s equal, and who Bond treats with total respect (if not even a little deference).  (You could argue that Felix in Dr. No was presented as Bond’s equal, but Bond still ditched him to take on Dr. No alone.)  Kerim is very funny and full-of-life, he’s just as much a womanizer as James (he makes repeated comments about his enormous family and all of his sons — birthed, one presumes, by many different mistresses — and at one point he comments that having sex with another beautiful young girls is like “going back to the salt mines”), and he’s a very competent and skilled agent (after getting shot in his right arm during the gypsy shoot-out, he just switches his gun into his left hand and continues fighting).  What a great, fun character!

On the villains side, From Russia With Love introduces us to a number of great no-goodniks.  There’s the brilliant, chess-playing criminal mastermind Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal).  I adore his introduction during the chess competition.  There’s the sadistic, perverted, poison-tipped-shoe-wearing Russian defector Rosa Klebb.  She’s a great character — totally bizarre but also a convincing heavy — and she’s always fun to watch, whether she’s oogling a nearly naked Donald Grant (the blond SPECTRE super-killer played by Robert Shaw) or running her hand leeringly along the neck and leg of the beautiful, young Tatiana.  Speaking of Robert Shaw, he’s wonderful (and very iconic) as Grant, a killer with great brains and brawn.  The scenes in which he impersonates a British agent (and keeps condescendingly referring to Bond as “old man”) are a hoot.

In this film we get our first glimpse of Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  (No actor is listed in the film’s credits — just a question mark — but the role was played by Anthony Dawson — who played Professor Dent in Dr. No — and the voice was supplied by Eric Pohlmann.)  We never see Blofeld’s face, we just hear his voice and see him stroking his white cat, while using buttons to summon underlings to dispose of other underlings who have failed him.

“Where’s Pussy?” (The women): Daniela Bianchi plays the Russian Tatiana Romanova, the main Bond girl in the film.  (We do also see Bond having a quick tryst with Sylvia Trench at the start of the film, and we never learn just what goes on all night in his tent with the two gypsy women — nor do we learn how exactly Bond was able to settle their dispute, though we can guess…!)  I really love Ms. Bianchi in this role.  She’s stunningly gorgeous, possibly one of the most beautiful women in any of the Bond films, and she brings an endearing innocence to her character.  She does seem to get over her revulsion at being assigned to pimp herself out to a British secret service agent pretty quickly (when she meets Bond she seems to magically fall in love with him)… and she does unfortunately shift into helpless “Oh James” mode in the second half of the film… but still, she’s a great character.

(Note: I was shocked to learn that Ms. Bianchi’s voice was actually dubbed over by another actress: Barbara Jefford!)

Calling the Armorer: Also!  It’s the first appearance of Desmond Llewyln as Q!  Described by M as a man from Q Branch, he gives James his tricked-out suitcase.

Best exchange: Bond: You’re one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen.  Tatiana: Thank you, but I think my mouth is too big.  Bond: No, it’s just the right size… for me, that is.

Continuity nods: There are several connections to Dr. No found in this film, which is great fun.  Blofeld makes a point of mentioning his desire for revenge for Bond’s killing of Dr. No.  Then, of course, we see the first (and, I believe, ONLY) time that a Bond girl carries over from one film to the next.  Sylvia Trench (she of the naked mini-golf from Dr. No) makes a return appearance, going on a Huck Finn-style date with Bond early in the film.  I really LOVE that connection with the previous film.  I think it’s a shame that the later Bond movies never did anything like that again.

Why not just shoot him? SPECTRE agents have so many opportunities to kill Bond in this film, it’s laughable.  Rosa Klebb and her pack of thugs would rather tape Bond schtupping Tatiana, rather than just stepping into his room and popping a cap in his ass?  Grant gets the drop on Bond on the train and presses a gun right up to Bond’s temple, but instead of squeezing the trigger he steps back so that he and James can have a little chat?  Very silly.

Womanizer alert: Bond is pretty well-behaved towards women in this film, actually. Yes, he does give Tatiana a good slap to the face on the train, which is somewhat wince-inducing to a modern viewer, but he had just deduced that she was a Russian agent so you could argue that she had it coming.  He’s pretty curt to her for the next portion of the film (constantly threatening to leave her behind), but he never actually does… OK, never mind, Bond is still sort of a jerk!

Nudity alert: Something I did NOT remember about this film is that you can totally catch a glimpse of Daniela Bianchi’s lovely nude derriere as she climbs into the bed in Bond’s hotel room.  Does this reflect changing social mores (a moment that was considered acceptable in a Bond film from almost fifty years ago that would never happen today) or just the improved clarity of DVD allowing us to see what was meant to be obscured?  You decide…

Most unfortunate moment to a modern viewer: Gotta be that crazy Gypsy cat-fight.  What the hell does that sequence have to do with the spy movie that we’ve been watching??  Just how condescending can we be to the Gypsies to suggest that they solved their love-triangles by forcing girls to engage in hand-to-hand combat to the death?  (By the way, whenever I watch that scene I always hear in my head the “Amok Time” music from that classic Star Trek episode when Kirk and Spock have to fight in a battle-to-the death on Vulcan when Spock undergoes pon farr…)

Alcoholic alert: Bond kicks himself for not realizing that Grant was a bad-guy because he ordered white wine with fish.

James Bond will return in Goldfinger (1964), and so soon will I!

Previous Bond reviews: Dr. No (1962).

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