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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1963)

2. From Russia with Love

Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were determined to transform James Bond into an on-going series. How determined? The minute “Dr. No” became a world-wide hit, the same team was reassembled for a sequel. The very next year, “From Russia with Love” arrived in cinemas. The second Bond movie proved to be an even bigger success then the first. Hardcore Bond fans don’t agree on much but many consider 007’s second outing superior to his first. Among those that think that?: Sean Connery, who ranks the film as his favorite Bond adventure.

MI6 is contacted by a Russian agent stationed in Istanbul, promising to defect and hand over a decoder device called a Lektor at the same time. The agent, Tatiana Romanova, specifically requests Bond. Certain this is a trap but intrigued by the beautiful woman, Bond agrees. It is a trap but not by the Russians. Two SPECTRE agents, Rosa Klebb and the imposing Red Grant, plan to steal the Lektor and sell it back to the Soviets for a hefty price. This provides the secret criminal organization the perfect oppretunity to exact revenge on Bond for ruining their Jamaican operation in the last film. Bond, his new Russian mistress in hand, has to figure this out on his own and survive.

“Dr. No” was the prototype for the entire franchise. “From Russia with Love” shows the series evolving further into what we think of as a James Bond film. It established what we think of as the Bond opening credit sequence. The credits are projected on the body of a gyrating belly dancer, lit in moody colors. It’s not silhouettes of naked woman dancing around vaguely spy related items but it’s closer then the abstract imagery of “Dr. No.” “From Russia with Love” is also the first film in the series to have a specific theme song. An instrumental of the song, which slowly segues into the traditional Bond theme, plays over the opening, with the lyrical version only appearing at the end of the film. Matt Monro sings the vocal version. Monro’s delivery is high-flying, vaguely reminiscent of Frank Sinatra, and representative of what popular music was at the time. It’s not a breakaway pop hit but, as far as the first Bond movie theme goes, it’s not bad. The same could be said for the credit sequence.

“From Russia with Love” continues to establish the franchise formula roughly outlined in the last movie. Bond flirts with Moneypenny, steps into M’s office, receives a mission briefing and some good-natured ribbing from his boss, is assigned a gadget from Q division, and sets out on his adventure. He even tosses his hat onto a coat rack in both movies! Though only the second entry, “From Russia with Love” also plays with expectations a bit. It’s the first film in the series to have an action scene following the required gun barrel sequence but before the opening credits. We see Bond, dressed in a tux and armed with his Walter PPK, hunted by an unidentified bad guy. Only the bad guy catches our hero, killing him! Of course, this isn’t actually Bond. However, it’s interesting to see that, as early as part two, Eon Productions were subverting audiences’ expectations. Further evidence? Bond himself doesn’t appear for another ten minutes.

As the title indicates, “From Russia with Love” has 007 in a more romantic mood. Though he beds four different women throughout the film, he sends most of the run time in the company of just one. In “Dr. No,” Bond used his skills with the ladies mostly in service of Queen and Country, or for a casual hook-up. Tatiana, played by the radiant Daniela Bianchi, is genuinely in love with Bond. The two share many romantic moments together. Their initial hook-up in a hotel is a typical Bond seduction. However, the two remain close. He tries to keep her on topic while discussing the Lektor but she’s more interested in jumping his bones. Sweetest is a mid-day rendezvous on a train, Tatiana dressed in a flowing nightie the spy purchased for her. Though Bianchi was dubbed over by a different actress, she and Connery have great chemistry together. The characters’ romance is so well done that I’m honestly saddened that Bond drops her after this movie.

Even in a movie with an obviously romantic tone, Bond is never a one-woman man. “From Russia with Love” features a brief reappearance by Eunice Gayson’s Sylvia Trench. Though planned as Bond’s starter girl in every film, this is the last appearance Gayson would make in the series. It’s a shame, since she’s a lot of fun, sensual in a funny, free-spirited way. However, the film gets quite lascivious as times. Bond drops more sleazy one liners then ever before. While staying in a gypsy camp, the film pauses for a catfight between two gorgeous gypsy girls. Soon afterwards, both offer themselves to Bond. That’s right, the movie implied a threesome all the way back in 1963. It’s apparent that Bond doesn’t have much need for women beyond carnal desires. He even smacks Tatiana around at one point, when he’s worried she’ll betray him. The movie’s constant horniness stops just short of sleazy. For all its romantic overtures, “From Russia with Love” probably wouldn’t win any fans with modern feminists.

“Dr. No” felt more like a mystery. Future sequels would focus on action. “From Russia with Love” has the spy actually, you know, spying. Bond is collecting information, barely avoiding being whacked by enemy agents, and balancing delicate social-political situations. He’s less about killing bad guys and more about making sure the job gets done without igniting the Cold War. Notably, Bond receives his first real gadget. Desmond Llewelyn, though not credited as such yet, makes his first appearance as Q. He gifts Bond with a pretty sweet suitcase, packed full tear gas, a knife, and a collapsible sniper rifle. Also featured is a camera that conceals a recording device. Both items have plenty of cool value yet stay within the realm of plausibility.

The film also establishes SPECTRE as a genuine threat. The organization was mentioned in “Dr. No” but, here, we see the syndicate’s villainous machinations in action. The ludicrously acronymed cabal intends on playing the world’s superpowers against each other, slowly building towards World War III. And, in the aftermath, they’ll rule the ruins. This is illustrated via fish metaphors. Though their motivations are hardcore super-villainy, SPECTRE’s master plan at least makes sense. (Though how an organization like that this is run or financed isn’t answered. This is a popcorn movie, after all.) The film also gives us our first glimpse at Bond’s eventual arch-nemesis Blofled, via his iconic white cat. Though it's truly just a glimpse. We don’t even know his name yet. He’s just Number 1, served by his lower numbered underlings.

The actual villains of the film fill the roles of muscle and mastermind. Rosa Klebb is played by the stern Lotte Lenya. With a thick accent, harsh physical features, and implied-almost-to-the-point-of-unnoticed lesbian tendencies, she’s an iconic villainous. More imposing is Red Grant. Considering Bond is the baddest of cinematic badasses, it’s impressive the filmmakers were able to cook up a henchman that could physically intimidate him. Robert Shaw, who towers over Connery, fills the role. Grant is a man of few words, not speaking until the movie’s nearly over. He’s all harsh determination and brutal execution, literally crossing minor characters under his feet. His weapon of choice is a wrist watch concealed garotte, brutally strangling his victims. When Bond and Grant come two-to-two, he reveals a calculating intelligence as well. Ultimately, Grant is Bond’s Soviet counterpart, a home-brewed killing machine with his eyes solely on the mission. He’s one of my favorite Bond villains.

Despite their later reputation for flying their character all over the world, “From Russia with Love” takes place primarily in two places. (Neither of them, oddly enough, are Russia.) Bond lands in Istanbul. The film briefly makes use of the country’s local color. However, large portions of the story takes place in back alleys and undistinguished country side. Most importantly, Bond befriends Kerim Bey, the MI6’s contact in Turkey. Bey and Bond have a similar appetite for woman and a way with a one-liner. Bey’s involvement doesn’t contribute much to the story. A subplot involving his own assassination attempt is mostly an extraneous detour. However, Pedro Armendariz is fine in the part, working well with Conenry. It makes it even sadder that the actor took his own life not long after filming ended. Most of the rest of “From Russia with Love” takes place on the Orient Express, the film mining the train’s cramped locations for suspense.

Though the story is arguably even more low-key, “From Russia with Love” does feature more action then “Dr. No.” The first big set piece comes during a chaotic shootout inside the gypsy camp site. Bullets zing through the air and wagons get set ablaze. My favorite part of this sequence is how calm Bond is throughout, nonchalantly rolling a flaming wagon into a trio of attackers. More impressive is the close quarters melee between Bond and Red Grant. The two spies are already established as being on equal footing, during the tense lead-up to the fight. The small train compartment does not leave much room for theatrical judo tosses. Instead, it’s a tough struggle between two burly men determined to kill each other. They stumble into walls, pushing each other around, attempting choke holds and grasping for limbs. It’s an intense fight and leads to an especially satisfying conclusion.

Weirdly, that is not the climax of the film. “From Russia with Love” continues onward, throwing in two vehicle chases. The first has Bond being pursued on foot by a helicopter. Though ridiculous on paper, and close to ridiculous in execution, the quick cutting makes the scene believable and exciting. The second chase has the spy on the sea, followed by a small fleet of enemy speed boats. The conclusion here shows Bond thinking quickly on his feet and throws in the required giant explosion. Are either of these moments truly necessary? Probably not. Are they fun to watch? Yep.

“From Russia with Love” is less theatrical and less heavily plotted then “Dr. No.” It’s also more suspenseful, with better defined action, more humor,  and a superior adversary. The supporting cast is great, Connery is fully comfortable in the part, and the action is tighter. The sequel is closer to what we think of when we think of a James Bond movie. Eon knew they had an on-going series on their hand. “From Russia with Love” concludes with the first “James Bond Will Return…” tag, dropping the title for the next film to an audience eagerly anticipating it. [Grade: B+]


[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[] Wears a Tux

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