Wednesday, December 05, 2012

007@50: From Russia With Love (1963)

Bond makes the acquaintance of SPECTRE hitman Red Grant (Robert Shaw)
Click here to read my retro review of 1962's Dr. No

When Dr. No inaugurated the big screen's James Bond franchise in fall of 1962, it stormed theaters to the tune of $16 million domestically against a $1 million budget. With a return on investment like that, a sequel was a foregone conclusion. Or at least it would have been a foregone conclusion were a follow-up not already well underway before the first film even hit the screen.

Indeed, fully anticipating the rapturous response to Dr. No, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, along with home studio United Artists, upped the ante in every way possible for From Russia With Love, 007's second silver screen foray: bigger budget, bigger stakes, bigger action, bigger star (thanks to newly-minted global phenomenon Sean Connery), and, ultimately, bigger box office.

Picking up where Dr. No left off, From Russia With Love has the inner circle of evil organization SPECTRE, led by the mysterious Number One -- more on him later -- and Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb (the inspiration for the Frau Farbissina character in Austin Powers) plotting revenge on our erstwhile double-0 while also scheming to acquire for themselves the Lektor device, a decoding machine that will provide a valuable bargaining chip in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West.

To this end, Bond is lured to Turkey to rendezvous with beautiful Russian file clerk Tatiana Romanova (Italian model Daniela Bianchi with, like Ursula Andress last time, all her dialogue dubbed over), who ostensibly wishes to defect (though only to him -- she's in love, y'see) and sneak her to England. This is a SPECTRE-induced ploy, of course, unknown both to the girl and Bond himself. They're being tracked at every step by coldblooded SPECTRE agent Red Grant (playwright Robert Shaw), who's gotten his bad guy training by offing decoys wearing Bond masks.

When it came time for the Eon Productions braintrust to decide which 007 adventure should get the celluloid treatment after Dr. No, it was pretty much a no-brainer. In a 1961 Life magazine interview, President John F. Kennedy listed Ian Fleming's novel From Russia With Love (the fifth print Bond adventure) as one of his all-time favorite books*, a weighty endorsement that was enough to launch the entire Fleming Bond catalogue onto the best-seller list and make the character pretty close to a household name.

For the much-anticipated film version of the book, director Terence Young and screenwriter Richard Maibaum were again tapped after providing the same duties quite admirably on Dr. No. Luckily for them, they had one of the strongest of the original batch of novels to work from as source material, and the film benefits considerably from the franchise having shaken off its beginners' jitters, with the characters, style, and tone already firmly established. These many strengths taken together result in one of the best Bonds of them all -- setting a high qualitative bar early in the series' life.

Although the next two 007 engagements would lead the franchise to its highest highs commercially, I'd argue that this sophomore entry is the most creatively satisfying, with a genuinely engaging espionage corker that, while pausing for the occasional wink, still weaves in a fair amount of tension as SPECTRE's trap springs shut. From Russia With Love perfectly threads the needle between art and commerce, showing us everything that's allowed the series to keep on keeping on.

In fact, with the pronounced reality-plus-one ethos of the current Daniel Craig Bond era, the unmistakable impact of From Russia With Love can be felt even more strongly, with Bond's gadgets in this entry limited to a collapsible sniper rifle and a fairly non-fantastical briefcase tricked out with throwing knives and tear gas. The vicious grudge match between Bond and Grant (one of the series' all-time best baddies) in the cramped confines of a train car has lost none of its visceral intensity.


Also increasingly evident as one of the series' key strengths is the presence of its increasingly confident star, Sean Connery, who truly found his swing with both this and the following entry. He perfects here that delicate dance between cultured class and callous cruelty that Fleming defined, and which would be the trademark for Connery's iteration of the character (witness his calling out the villain for drinking the wrong kind of wine one minute, then slapping the daylights out of his comely love interest the next to see what I mean).

More than the other Bonds that would follow (save, perhaps, for the more recent entries), From Russia With Love takes great pains to establish a sense of continuity with its predecessor, making mention not only of SPECTRE's rage over the events of Dr. No, but also bringing back Eunice Gayson as 007's girlfriend Sylvia Trench (who he first met last time). While she was no doubt intended to show up in subsequent entries doing some variation of the long-suffering schtick she does here as the girl constantly left behind, she's never heard from again after this -- not that I think the series particularly suffers for her absence.

Reprising their previous roles are Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell as, respectively, agency head M and his assistant Ms. Moneypenny for the requisite round of exposition-and-bantering. And making his 007 debut here is Desmond Llewellyn as Major Boothroyd, a.k.a. Q. Although he only flits in-and-out long enough to hand off Bond's accoutrements in this one, his presence would eventually come to be an essential element of the films. Also making an impression, however briefly, is actor Pedro Armendariz as Bond's Istanbul contact, Kerim Bey. We saw with doomed fisherman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) in Dr. No that Bond's international allies tend not to last very long, and that trend continues with poor Kerim.

As mentioned earlier, Maibaum's translation of the novel rarely steps wrong, with any changes from the text (such as the introduction of the SPECTRE angle, which actually didn't come until later in the novels) helping the story rather than hurting it by adding yet another layer of intrigue for Bond (and we in the audience) to have to uncoil. And on the technical end, we continue to see the proficiency that distinguished Dr. No, with Peter Hunt's bravura editing techniques continuing to stretch the boundaries of the form, and helping to make the aforementioned train car fight a highlight.

Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova
In addition, there's also a harrowing chase sequence in the third act, clearly indebted to Hitchcock's North By Northwest, where the hapless secret agent is bedeviled by an enemy helicopter that's attempting to mow him down in an open field. There's a visceral, unflinching reality to it as we watch an actual stuntman leap out of the way of an actual 'copter that makes us acutely aware of just how much the digital age, with its plethora of CGI marvels, has taken away just as much movie magic as it's given us.

Also worth mentioning, this film marks John Barry's official transition to the series' composer of record, a role he'd remain in for the better part of the next three decades as he created a musical identity for the brand that all other composers working on Bond have emulated or homaged in some form or other. And while Barry retains the signature Monty Norman theme introduced in Dr. No, he also adds his own to the mix, "007", which, while it doesn't have quite the same cache, does manage to show up in a few more entries all the same.

When the film version of From Russia With Love made its debut in October of 1963, exactly one year after Dr. No, so great was the pent-up demand for new big screen Bond that it managed to outgross its predecessor by a considerable margin, cementing the series' box office bona fides. Just two movies in, Broccoli and Saltzman were already presiding over what was clearly shaping up to be one of the biggest cultural forces of that generation -- and there were still plenty more books to go yet. They'd clearly found a nice little goldmine for themselves, they'd get to see how much they could make that gold glitter with their next entry.

* An unfortunate addendum to this is that the film version was screened for Kennedy in the White House on November 20th, 1963, just two days before his fateful trip to Dallas. It was the last film the president would ever see.

2 comments:

Ian Sokoliwski said...

Every time I sit down to watch this film, I am puzzled as to how I can forget just how damn good it is. I suppose it's the more 'grounded in reality' approach that makes it feel like it's almost part of a different film series that is the cause of it, and the fact that it lacks a really memorable core villain (aside from one of them being subject of parody by Myers decades later).

Also, I may be wrong on this, but I think this is the only Bond movie to actually mention SMERSH, which is a bigger source of conflict in the novels. I know I've heard reasons put forward as to why these Bond films didn't want to actually go the East/West conflict route, instead dealing with SPECTRE rather than any real-world organization, and that always struck me as odd. It's not like other films at the time were afraid of painting the Soviets as the enemy...

However, I do have to say, one of the good things about distancing themselves from a more Cold War-based conflict is that these films have aged better than they may have otherwise. So, replacing SMERSH with SPECTRE was probably, in the long-term, a good thing...even if they end up dropping them entirely in the Moore era.

Zaki said...

I'm pretty sure you're right about SMERSH only being mentioned in this one. I definitely agree about the benefits of not grounding the films in a particular cultural moment (i.e. realistically tackling Cold War tensions). While some of that is unavoidable, I think the series skated through it by and large.