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Non-Review Review: From Russia With Love

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

Dr. No demonstrated that Ian Fleming’s suave British secret agent could make it to screen. Sean Connery’s James Bond was on the pop culture map, but perhaps just short of becoming a pop culture icon – that was a sequel or two away. Of course, a second movie was pushed into development, with a rich library of Fleming’s novels to adapt – as faithfully or as loosely as the producers might like. When President Kennedy, one of the other “coolest men of the sixties”, announced that From Russia With Love was his ninth favourite novel of all time, it seemed th choice had been made. Rumour has it that Alfred Hitchcock was at one point intended to direct the film, but Terrence Young’s From Russia With Love is still a wonderfully iconic Bond film, which represents a pretty large step from “an entertaining espionage movie” to “globe-spanning spy franchise”.

Bond was already making a splash at this stage of his career...

From Russia With Love represents a bridge between the original Dr. No and the subsequent Goldfinger. On one hand, you have the prototype, containing some of the recognisable clichés we have come to associate with the films (a deformed villain, an underground base, a plan for world domination), but with very few of the trappings we’ve come to associate with the franchise. On the other hand, you have perhaps the archetypical Bond film, which lays down the design that most of the following films would follow like a roadmap. From Russia With Love is cushioned between the two films.

Here, for example, Q appears for the first time. And yet the gadgets are practical and pragmatic, the kind of things you could imagine British intelligence actually using. There’s no fancy car, no evil lasers – the gadgets only play a very minor role, with Bond’s wits, guns and physical prowess end up winning the day. The movie’s titles sequence for the first time uses a theme based around the movie title (rather than Three Blind Mice from Dr. No). However, the theme is performed as an instrumental, the lyrics only awkwardly popping up in the background of one scene.

Here we get our first look (well, almost) at criminal mastermind, Blofeld. This iconic villain would pop up time and time again in the series, finally fully appearing in You Only Live Twice and popping up all the way through to the opening scene from For Your Eyes Only. Like Bond himself, Blofeld would be played by countless actors over countless films – here I’m surprised that they didn’t go back to the earlier film and redub it with Donald Pleasance’s voice. I know that when you are talking about a franchise that has gone through so many lead actors it seems ridiculous to worry about something as simple as a villain’s voice, but Donald Pleasance is so distinctive that that you notice it’s not him.

It's Blonde vs. Bond!

What’s interesting about these early films is how they tied together to create a very loose meta-arc, spanning the entire Sean Connery series. There are explicit references to Dr. No, confirming that he was a part of this evil organisation which would go on to hound Bond for several more movies. It doesn’t really matter, as it doesn’t affect any movie’s plot and there’s no real weight that each these movies gains by virtue of its place within this over-arching plot. Think of it as a loose prototype for Marvel’s Avengers project.

The plot is fairly straightforward and actually relatively grounded by the standards of the franchise – actually far moreso than either of the two films surrounding it. Based upon the espionage strategy of “honey traps”, the idea of seducing and compromising western officials using Russian agents. It sees Bond attempting to escort a defector and a covert Russian device back to Britain, as part of an elaborate ruse by international crime syndicate SPECTRE. It’s interesting to note that the movie changed the villains from generic Russians, perhaps reflecting sensitivity to the fact that the Cuban Missile Crisis was fresh on the minds of many Americans.

The film, as such, is respected by many film historians for its grounded nature, for avoiding the flamboyance of many of the other Bond movies. However, there’s more than a fair amount of cheese to be found. “Welcome to Spectre Island,” an agent declares as we visit the evil organisation’s secret training camp, like we’re visiting a theme park. What follows reminds me of the obligatory Q scenes from the later Bond films, albeit given a more sinister twist.

A Bond we share...

There’s a sense of playfulness here, which never veers out of control as it would with Roger Moore. However, one can feel the strong British wit and irony playing here. Bond is arrogant and full of himself, declaring, “and for my next miracle…” on entering the office. M blushes as Bond discusses an earlier encounter with a young lady while debriefing his current defector. A stereo plays the movie’s theme song. Sean Connery spends most of the movie with a smug smile on his face, as if he’s having a great time – Bond resolves a gypsy dispute by sleeping with both parties. The villains even know that Bond will be assigned the case, because – despite being a covert secret agent – he’s just that well known.

I’ll probably talk about this later in the month, but the film does offer an excellent example of why so many attempts to make an Americanised iteration of the franchise have failed. Espionage is just the sort of activity which lends itself to a dry British wit. The Turkish spies seem to exist to sip tie while playing the spying game as if it were a jolly old time.  “They follow us, we follow them,” Bond’s driver explains. “It’s an understanding we have.” The Turks spy on the Russians using a periscope (!) built into their meeting rooms. Knowing full well it’s a set-up that could blow up in everybody’s face, the British “always treat a trap like a challenge.”

There are moments which seem to exist just to add a trashy element to the film. For example, the random gypsy catfight comes to mind, although it was borrowed from the source material. And the infamous bedroom scene, featuring the little black necktie (and little else) has become so darn iconic that it is (reportedly) the scene used to screentest new Bonds. As I said above, there’s a lot of the sort of things you would come to expect from the franchise built into the movie.

Connery doesn't phone it in, yet...

However, while the initial set-up is suave and stylish, the movie really only comes into its own during the second half, which features a ride on the Orient express. It’s during this journey in this tight and controlled environment, separated from the set pieces which so frequently define the Bond movies, that Bond and his Soviet defector are allowed to become real characters. I won’t pretend that either is especially well developed, but they are certainly more thoroughly explored than almost any other characters in any of the other Bond movies. It also lends the movie an air of sophistication and shows that the film doesn’t feel the need to rely on big action sequences to hold the audience’s attention.

The final scene between Red Grant and Bond, wrestling in that confined train compartment, represents one of the best moments of the entire franchise. It’s one of the images which comes into the mind of any viewer remembering Connery’s tenure and it perhaps explains the preference that later Bond movies have shown for blonde musclebound henchmen for our hero to wrestle with. The work, performed by Shaw and Connery themselves, is raw and visceral – it feels real rather than carefully choreographed, and it suits the film well.

I don’t quite share the opinion of many fellow pundits that From Russia With Love represents either the pinnacle of the Bond franchise nor the least ridiculous in the string of films. It is just as cheesy as many of the movies that would follow, though it does temper it somewhat with an intimate plot and more focus on character. Of the Connery Bond films, I prefer Goldfinger – it’s just a really well-made piece of British pop culture which does all of the Bond tricks so well that it may as well have engrained them in stone. From Russia With Love is a good spy film and a great Bond film, but it’s not perfectly formed as either an espionage thriller or a Bond film – that gives it a somewhat unique place in sixties history, and makes it a rewarding viewing experience, but I don’t think it makes the movie an instant classic.

We’ve got full reviews of all of Sean Connery’s Bond films, if you want to check ’em out:

The following bloggers also have reviews of the film up as part of James Bond January:

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