Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, December 18, 2011

From Russia With Love (1963)

Besides GOLDFINGER (1964), I have probably watched FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) more than any other James Bond film.  In high school, I owned GOLDFINGER and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE on RCA Video Disc (before consumers could own video cassettes) and would invite my high school buddies over for a James Bond night. I would have six or seven guys crammed into our small family room, digging James Bond scoring with exotic foreign women, driving kick-ass foreign cars, and fighting bad ass villains around the world. But I don't think I fully appreciated FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE back in high school. The Bond girl (Daniela Bianchi) never did much for me.  The Istanbul, Turkey location was too obscure. The MacGuffin (a Lektor decoder) wasn't very sexy as an object of interest.  But a revisit and reviewing of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE after several years has changed my tune. RUSSIA is a very strong sophomore effort in the Bond series.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is the second in the Bond series, following the successful introduction of James Bond to movie audiences in DR. NO (1961). In most cases, the second in a film series usually doesn't live up to the original. But what RUSSIA had going for it is most of the same creative people who worked on DR. NO.  Back to direct a second time was Terence Young who really developed and understood the James Bond mystique. Sean Connery reprised the role of James Bond which he would become internationally famous for.  The excellent producing team of Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman maintained the high standards that the first film set. Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood returned to adapt author Ian Fleming's novel and make it a tight, suspenseful narrative.

In FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, the international crime syndicate SPECTRE makes its first appearance. SPECTRE Agent #2 Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) hatches a plan with the help of ex-KGB Chief and SPECTRE Agent #3 Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) to offer a Russian Lektor decoding machine as bait to lure James Bond (Sean Connery) into trying to grab it. SPECTRE's plan is to pit the Russians against the English, with SPECTRE swooping in to grab the decoding machine and kill James Bond at the same time. Klebb enlists the naive but beautiful Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a Russian cypher clerk to contact the British Secret Service that she wishes to defect with the Lektor decoding machine over to the West but only to James Bond. Tatiana doesn't know that Klebb has defected from the Russians to SPECTRE and is using her to trap Bond.

To make sure that the Russians don't kill Bond before SPECTRE can, Klebb enlists the help of white haired killer Donald "Red" Grant (Robert Shaw) to make sure their plan runs smoothly. Grant runs interference behind the scenes as Bond with the assistance of Turkish minister Kerim Bey (Pedro Armenderiz) make contact with Tatiana and set up a plan to steal the Lektor. Bond and Karim battle SMERSH/Russian agents intent on killing them. After Russian agent Krilencu (Fred Haggerty) ambushes them at a gypsy camp wounding Karim, Bond and Karim seek payback as they stake out Krilencu's hide out and Karim, using a rifle with a scope, kills Krilencu as he tries to flee. It's a nice Cold War touch. Krilencu tries to kill Karim and fails. Karim retaliates and succeeds. Bond and Karim set off a bomb as a diversion at the Russian embassy and Bond and Tatiana grab the Lektor and escape underneath Istanbul and quickly catch the Orient Express where they plan to jump off at the Yugoslavian border with the help of Karim's sons.

But Grant is one step ahead as always and awaits on the train, drugging Tatiana and preparing to kill Bond and steal the Lektor. Bond prevails with the help of his gas rigged briefcase and strangles Grant with his garrote after a fierce battle in his cramped compartment.  Bond and Tatiana improvise their escape, as SPECTRE teams converge on them, ending with a high speed boat chase.

One of the strengths of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE'S is director Young's casting choices. The supporting cast is made up of an eclectic group of actors. Lotte Lenya is inspired casting as the nefarious Rosa Klebb. She may be small and mousy looking but watch out for her poisonous knife tipped boot. Lenya performed primarily in musicals and operas including THE THREE PENNY OPERA but never had she played such an evil person. Robert Shaw as the blonde assassin Grant is another wonderful choice. Shaw was a theater actor and novelist before turning to movie acting.  Shaw's other memorable performance would be as Quint in Steven Spielberg's JAWS (1975). Both Klebb and Grant are memorable villains who belong in the Hall of Fame of Bond Baddies. I mentioned that Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana never was a favorite of mine but as I've grown older, I found her excellent as the innocent, beautiful doe-eyed Russian clerk (Bianchi is actually Italian and a former Miss World contestant)  who must fall in love with a British spy for her country. She's fresh, sexy, and I can't get that black ribbon tied around her throat as she seduces Bond out of my my mind. Pedro Armendariz as Kerim Bey, the Turkish Minister is another interesting casting choice, serving as Bond's Istanbul tour guide and confidante, helping Bond maneuver through the politics of the Cold War. Armendariz acted in several Westerns for famed director John Ford. Director Young also introduced us for the first time to Q played by Desmond Llewelyn, the mastermind behind all of M-6's gadgets.

The characters in RUSSIA have interesting layers and subtexts that make them more than just cardboard characters.  There is a hint that Rosa Klebb may be a lesbian as she strokes Tatiana's hair during her recruitment. Klebb even directs the secret filming of Bond and Tatiana making love behind a two way mirror at Bond's hotel room. Grant, although a sociopath, is almost the opposite of Klebb.  He seems asexual.  Early in the film, at SPECTRE ISLAND, he's given a massage by a beautiful masseuse, yet he seems ambivalent to her. The only thing that turns Grant on is killing people. Grant is Bond's doppelganger. In RUSSIA'S opening scene, Grant tracks down and kills an agent wearing a James Bond mask during a training exercise, a premonition of his mission. He follows Bond, mirroring his movements but always from a distance until the fateful train fight. Grant is Bond's guardian angel, saving Bond's life surreptitiously at the gypsy camp, later killing a Bulgarian agent who threaten to disrupt SPECTRE's subterfuge at a Turkish mosque. But Grant reveals a crack as he holds Bond at gunpoint on the train.  A hint of vanity and greed prove to be Grant's undoing.

Interestingly, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, whether intentional or not, has a lot of Alfred Hitchcock like characters and set pieces in it. Grant is very much a Hitchcockian psychopath (think Joseph Cotten in SHADOW OF A DOUBT), charming and good looking with a patented style of killing, a wire garrote that he pulls out from his sleeve.  There is a long train sequence on the Orient Express (think Hitchock's THE LADY VANISHES) culminating in one of the classic fight scenes in film history as Bond and Grant grapple in a cramped train compartment.  The staging of the fight is realistic, as the struggle is awkward and violent and doesn't seem choreographed. The finale echoes NORTH BY NORTHWEST as Bond is pursued not by a crop duster but a helicopter that buzzes him again and again. Ironically, Sean Connery would star in an Alfred Hitchock film a year later in MARNIE (1964) with Tippie Hedren.  Hitchcock liked to use the MacGuffin as a plot device to propel the story.  It might be microfilm or a treaty memorized by a foreign minister.  FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE's MacGuffin is the Lektor decoding machine.  We never see what it does but it's what brings Bond to Istanbul and all the spy and crime organizations wish to obtain it.

Many critics have suggested that the James Bond series owes its origins to Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) which had an unsuspecting hero being chased from famous location to famous location by erudite bad guys. The Bond filmmakers just substituted Bond for the unsuspecting hero but continued to have Bond chase villains from country to country. The early Bond films, with Fleming's novels as a great source, mixed up the story and locations very nicely, with an emphasis on character and plot. Later Bond films seemed to quickly explain the plot and spend more time coming up with exotic locations to send Bond to and spectacular stunts for him to perform.

But FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE stands out for its excellent action scenes.  Director Young kicks it off early with Klebb getting a tour on SPECTRE island of the the spy organization's training grounds , a SPARTACUS like outdoor set with agents in hand-to-hand combat and trainees having to dodge live flamethrowers. It's a creatively juicy scene. Young also stages a nice battle at the gypsy camp where Kerim Bey takes Bond to hide out, only to be attacked by Russian agent Krilencu and his men, the sequence punctuated by a great John Barry musical score. The before mentioned train fight scene between Bond and Grant set the standard for many future Bond fights.  Young ends the film with two exciting climaxes: Bond being chased by the helicopter and later, Bond and Tatiana fleeing by boat with the Lector decoder, chased by SPECTRE's boats and men, ending in lots of pyrotechnics.

There is lots of good trivia that comes from FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Actress Eunice Grayson makes her second appearance in a Bond film in RUSSIA as Bond's some time flame Sylvia Trench. Actor Walter Gotell makes his first of seven appearances in a Bond film but his only time as Morzeny, a SPECTRE heavy. Subsequently, he will play Russian General Anatoly Gogol in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) through THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987). Martine Beswick who plays beautiful gypsy Zora in RUSSIA will also appear in THUNDERBALL (1965). One character who does not make an appearance in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is American CIA agent Felix Leiter. Kerim Bey takes his place in RUSSIA as Bond's accomplice in stopping the bad guys. Felix Leiter would be played by a variety of actors throughout the Bond series including actors Jack Lord, David Hedison, and Everett McGill.

I have a new found respect and love for FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. It's probably a superior effort than DR. NO which can be partly credited to a bigger budget.   But the filmmakers took great care and effort to build upon the success of DR. NO and develop the world of Bond. For me, the filmmakers experience and success with DR. NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE would culminate in probably the best Bond film of the franchise a year later -- GOLDFINGER (1964).

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