02 June 2012

BOND BY HONOR

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
Directed by Terence Young
Written by Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood
Premiered 10 October, 1963

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
We see our beloved Agent 007 (Sean Connery) sneaking around the grounds of a house. Is he hunting, or being hunted by the shadowy man elsewhere in the garden? Hunted, it turns out, as that man pulls a garrotte from his watch and strangles Bond to death. Holy shit, he strangled Bond to death! Except, as the floodlights come up and the man, whom we're soon to know as Red Grant (Robert Shaw), comments on his time to kill the agent, it becomes obvious we've just watched a training exercise; and no sooner do we realise that, than Bond's face is pulled off to reveal a stranger wearing a mask. This first of all Bond pre-title scenes is doubly special, for it is one of a very small number that directly ties in to the main plot (Red Grant is one of the main villains), and for this reason it's always been special to me; and there's also the undeniable kick that comes of the brief, but singularly disorienting moment when Bond is, to all appearances, dead.

The great big problem with it is the question that immediately presents itself when the scene ends: how in the hell did they convince that guy to put on a James Bond mask and evening wear, just so he could be hunted and killed?

pretitle_4
Rating: 4 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
A strange case: Lionel Bart's composition "From Russia with Love" is first introduced as a wordless theme that's sandwiched in between two quotations of the James Bond Theme itself, which works extremely well from a musical standpoint, and the theme, while hardly the most memorable thing in the world, is dramatic and sweeping in a way that suits the imagery well. But then during the film, we get to hear the actual song, performed by Matt Monro, and it is sort of dull and whispy and not very appealing unless you have a much higher tolerance for knock-offs of Frank Sinatra warbling aimlessly than I. It is, frankly, the most perfectly impersonal of all James Bond themes: not bad enough to get under your skin, not good enough to hum it, and not unique enough to give the film its own stamp. Which means I almost must give it an exact middle-of-the-scale score.

song_3
Rating: 3 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
One of the rare early examples of a Bond title sequence not designed by Maurice Binder: this one comes to us courtesy of Robert Brownjohn, assisted by Trevor Bond. It's an elegantly simple cncept: the tiles are projected in bright colors against the body of a belly dancer. It's also one of the best examples in the entire franchise of the female body being literally objectified: by the time it's over, there's not even that much of a sexual component left to any of this, just the raw visual interest of watching an irregular, smooth object interrupting the projection of light. There's every reason to consider it too conceptual and simple in light of the sequences to follow, but as with much of the film to follow, its relative spareness is part of what makes it stand out.

title_4
Rating: 4 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
Adapted, somewhat freely, from a novel that had just been identified by U.S. President John F. Kennedy as one of his favorite books, From Russia with Love picks up six months after the events of Dr. No (this is one of the very small number of Bond pictures that make specific, repeated reference to the events of the last film). International terror group SPECTRE is up to some routine mischief: stealing a Soviet Lektor cryptography computer and then selling it back to them, embarrassing the British secret service along the way and - this is the best part - getting revenge on MI6's agent James Bond for his role in ruining Dr. No's wonderful plot to destroy the American space program. Obviously, Bond and M (Bernard Lee) immediately recognise this as being a trap, but Bond is sent to Istanbul anyway, just in case, where he meets up with local spy-of-all-trades Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendáriz), before connecting with loyal Soviet agent and SPECTRE dupe Tatiana "Tanya" Romanova (Daniel Bianchi). She helps him steal the Lektor and escape Istanbul, though SPECTRE keeps a close eye on them and makes their escape quite difficult.

Two important things: this is, for starters, the absolutely lowest stakes that any Bond film ever plays with, outside of maybe - maybe - 2006's Casino Royale. There's no world-destablising scheme involving weapons of mass destruction or impossible sci-fi technology; the impression we get is that SPECTRE does this kind of thing all the time, and it's only their desire to lash out at Bond that gets him involved. Second, we're still in the territory of Dr. No, where Bond is a spy first and an action hero second, though From Russia with Love undoubtedly does a better job than its predecessor of mixing low-key spying with excessive action sequences.

The result is a film that, compared to most of the films to follow, is probably a bit slower and more minor than the modern-day spy thriller fan is likely to be comfortable with - this stuff must have seemed far more exciting in '63 than it does today, where it's almost stately in its slow development - but I have regarded it in the past, and continue to, as maybe the smartest of all the James Bond movies, and while even I occasionally get a bit impatient for something a bit flashier than a coding machine at the center of all this, that kind of tight writing in a Bond picture is rare enough to deserve some very serious respect.

plot_4half
Rating: 4.5 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
For somewhat difficult reasons to parse out (see "The Henchmen"), it's tricky to say who the chief bad guy is in this film, but I am inclined to go with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the chief of SPECTRE, only ever glimpsed as a head and hands in an office chair, with a white cat in his lap (he's played by a pointedly uncredited Anthony Dawson, the quisling Professor Dent in Dr. No, and voiced by Eric Pohlmann). One could argue that he's barely in the film and doesn't count, but the sparing use of his screentime could not possibly be better-judged; the mere fact that the concept presented in this film has been parodied and referenced countless times over the intervening decade is all the proof we need that he's a potent villain. Besides, the icy coolness of his characterisation - we meet him idly watching his fighting fish killing each other and commenting on it without inflection - is exactly what the film requires of this unseen crime lord, and though he is barely present, he casts a shadow that we never shake, throughout the whole movie.

villain_3half
Rating: 3.5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Tanya Romanova, as played by Daniela Bianchi and dubbed by Barbara Jefford, is not remotely convincing as a Russian, and that's probably the biggest single problem with one of the most underappreciated of all Bond Girls - her lack of prominence owing in part, I am certain, to having one of the only "normal" names in the entire series (we're decades away yet from Georgian assassin Xenia Onatopp). Bianchi is tremendously beautiful, but then, that's more of a prerequisite for being a Bond Girl than an actual point of distinction; what's so marvelous about her is that, unlike a lot of the others, there's an actual performance in there, owing in part to the apparently untroubled male fantasy surrounding her. Tanya's role is a good old "fuck the Communism right out of the Soviet spy" job, but Bianchi doesn't just give in to that trope unyielding: she plays Tanya as a woman who quickly falls in love with Bond, but she and we never quite forget that she's due to betray him at some point; this, in turn, results in a final confrontation where Bianchi gets to indulge in one of the very view truly great moments of acting ever afforded to a Bond girl, as she has to decide, right before our eyes, if she's going to side with Bond or Mother Russia.

It is true, alas, that the role does spend a lot of time in sex kitten mode, robbing Tanya of much of the intelligence she displays throughout (though one scene, where she's using sex to distract Bond from his interrogation about the Lektor, is an ingenious combination of the two); and like all of the dubbed performances, there's a certain panicky emptiness every now and then, but I am content to call nonetheless to call her one for the ages.

girl_4half
Rating: 4.5 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMEN
I'm pretty sure you could make it stick, if you were of a mind, that Rosa Klebb is the "primary" villain and Red Grant the "henchman"; but then we see Klebb get dressed-down by Blofeld, and it's hard to regard her as a prime mover after that. So I've decided to put both of them here.

And what a pair they are! In Grant, excellently embodied by Robert Shaw with a merciless lack of bullshit or pretense, we find one of the most realistics ever faced by Bond in his long cinematic career, a plausible human being whose strength is the result of determination and commitment, not cartoon supervillainy; and whose intelligence, as demonstrated by how long he manages to pretend to be a British agent and get right up next to Bond and Tanya, is virtually unheard of in any other second-string Bond thug.

As for Klebb: the mere fact that Lotte Lenya ended up in a Bond film is enough for me, but even so, she's really quite a stand-out character: one of the least-glamorous people to ever show up in the franchise, look as frumpy and mannish as you please, and getting some legitimately terrific acting in when she can; the scene where she's convinced that Blofeld is about to kill her is on such moment, and so is her desperate, animalistic attack on Bond and Tanya near the film's end. Really, the only problem I have with this duo as villains, is that they're so prosaic, even with Klebb's poison shoes, lacking the color of the more famous Bond henchman; but given how squirrelly those villains could sometimes get, maybe this is a good thing.

henchman_5
Rating: 5 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Though Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) puts in a cameo that follows up on her brief, memorable turn in Dr. No, there really isn't any other Bond girl; unless you want to stretch like hell, and call it the pair of gypsy girls he beds, neither of whom ever get a name.


ACTION SEQUENCES
As I said, the action here is a bit smaller than we are used to imagining when we hear the word "action", but it's all done so sharply and well! There are, in effect, four setpieces: a gunbattle at a gypsy camp, a fist-fight on a train, a helicopter attack that bears a slight and unflattering resemblance to North by Northwest, and a boat chase. All of these are done well; the fist-fight in particular impresses me so much that I once did a presentation on its editing in a college class - the editing, in fact, is at a truly magnificent level throughout the film, but I'll say more to that in my additional comments. Suffice it to say that everything here is exciting, and it demonstrates admirably the vastly increased budget from Dr. No, and all of it is genuinely good filmmaking, not just awesome spectacle, as some Bond action work would be in later years, and it is, unfortunately, really really low-key compared to what a 21st Century viewer would want to see. That's not it's fault: this was popcorn cinema at its glossiest in 1963. But the action hasn't aged tremendously well, and that does shave off a half-point.

action_3half
Rating: 3.5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
It's hard to judge, really: this is the first film with an out-and-out gadget, in the form of a heavily-tricked out briefcase, but it's a pretty "realistic" briefcase, with a detachable knife and small can of tear gas, and money hidden away in the lining. It doesn't turn into a rocket bike or a laser shield, or anything, is what I'm saying. And still, when Major Boothroyd of Q branch comes along to hand it to Bond, he's now being performed by Desmond Llewelyn, who hasn't even thought about playing up the "Good Lord, 007, you are such a dumbass" shtick that makes Q so Qish. So all the ingredients are there, it's simply that nobody is interested in doing anything with them. Only a disappointment in retrospect, but a disappointment nonetheless.

gadget_1half
Rating: 1.5 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
And here we come to the movie's real Achilles heel: it lacks production designer Ken Adam (replaced by Syd Cain), the only Connery film in the series for which that is true (I suspect he was too busy with Dr. Strangelove at the time). Perhaps if he'd been around, there would have been more elaborate, imaginative staging, and perhaps not: the plot is not all that conducive to subterranean lairs and mountain hideouts. What it does have, to make up for it, is quite a lot of lovely Istanbul location shooting, but even the absolute dregs of the franchise have nice location photography. No, this is clearly not a movie designed to impress us with its design, and while that's not hardly its fault, we are here judging with a formula, not making excuses.

lair_1half
Rating: 1.5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Considering that this film was directed by Terence Young, the reason that it even makes sense to speak of Bond as being an elegant, cultured bastard, From Russia with Love is unusually light on anything resembling elegance and culture. Hell, the only tuxedo we see is on the fake Bond in the opening sequence! That said, his suits are simply exquisite, and he does at one point go out of his way to taunt a bad guy for selecting red wine with fish; and that is a little thing, but worth a bump simply because it was when I first learned that rule, and I still think of it every single time I order white at a restaurant.

elegance_1half
Rating: 1.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
There isn't one! I am not certain, but I believe this is the only film in the series for which this is true.


BEST QUIP
Even harder to select than in Dr. No - until the Timothy Dalton era, this is perhaps the least funny of all Bond pictures.
TANYA [in a sheer dress]: "I will wear this one in Picadilly."
BOND: "You won't. They've just passed some new laws there."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Fun fact: From Russia with Love was the first DVD I ever bought, way back in the spring of 1998. And this should perhaps tell you where it lies in my esteem, though it also helps to recall that in the spring of 1998, I was 16 years old.

Still, I won't go about burying the lede: this is my favorite James Bond film, always has been, which is testament, I think, to just how good it is: a teenage American male in the 1990s, even one who'll grow up to be a godawfully pretentious film blogger, is exactly the sort of person likeliest to slag the movie for not being as funny, as exotic, as elaborate, or as fantastic as just about every single other movie in the series. What it has instead is just stupendously precise filmmaking - rather, it has the exact opposite of that, because it was famously a difficult shoot with a script that kept being heavily revised over the course of production, leading to all sorts of insane continuity mismatches and dropped threads that they didn't have time to reshoot. Enter Peter Hunt, the editor of the first five Bond films and director of the sixth; he is one of the secret weapons of the Connery films and along with Ken Adam a name not nearly well-enough known outside of the most fanatic Bond fancier.

However much From Russia with Love functions, it owes almost entirely to Hunt, who took a pile of footage that in theory had not coherent plot - certainly, none of the actors nor the director would have been able to tell you, at that point, what the exact story was - and transformed it into one of the sleekst of all Bond features. Even then, there is the evidence of a first act that tells a very different story than the second half, but the transition from one to the other is handled so invisibly that it only registers if you're looking about it. In the meantime, Hunt's assembly gives even the blandest scenes - the film proper opens with a chess scene, and it's one of the most heart-stopping chess scenes ever put on the silver screen - an intensity that makes this one of the best thrillers of its decade. I've already mentioned how much I admire the editing of the climactic fistfight between Grant and Bond, a tremendously innovative piece of work for its time and still a rather sophisticated way to move is around a battle in a tiny room on a train.

Its construction is hardly the only reason that From Russia with Love works, of course. In fact, part of Hunt's gift was in making the editing so totally invisible, allowing the story and character to rise to the fore; and they're both awfully good here. Connery's Bond has finally gone from having potential to being out-and-out great, Bianchi's Tanya I have already praised, as well as the villains. Bernard Lee's M and Lois Maxwell's Moneypenny are infinitely more comfortable with themselves, with Bond, and with each other - the funniest scene in the movie, by far, watches these two and a room full of men in suits, listening to the tape of Bond interrogating Tanya, despite her amorous advances: Lee's growing discomfort and Maxwell's growing arousal are absolutely tremendous, without being even a little bit overstated.

No, it does not have the delectable camp excess that makes the James Bond series what it is - so maybe it's disingenuous of me to rank it a the top. But it's just such a tight, smart, breathless spy movie/action movie hybrid, one of just a couple Bond adventures that is genuinely great as cinema, that I can't help myself. I adore it, from its gotcha opening to its promise that James Bond Will Return - the first time that card shows up - that I don't care if the reasons I adore it are generally in direct opposition to the reasons I love almost every other great Bond picture.


OVERALL SCORE
36.5/55 [eq 39.8/60]
As with Dr. No, this is artificially low; or at any rate, the film's score suffers considerably for not having gadgets and elaborate sets, when neither of those would have done it much good.

3 comments:

Brian said...

I've always been of the opinion that it is the best film in the Bond franchise, but not the best Bond film. It seems you would more or less agree with that assessment.

It simply doesn't feel like a "Bond film" (although given that I wasn't born until just before the franchise turned 20, I guess it's not fair, because Bond films didn't feel like Bond films until, at least, Goldfinger...)

As a work of film-making, though, it's stunning. A classic.

redwood said...

Mr. Brayton, I would NEVER think of attacking your reviews. On the contrary, I found this blog by looking up 007 on Rotten Tomatoes. You were one of the few, well, "quotations" to appear to which I consistently found myself agreeing (your whole review is only seen if entered, of course). You make a good point of being from an era when this film would not exactly be a popular Bond. Your knowledge, alone, makes this blog completely worthwhile. However, I also agree with your points on filmmaking (something sorely lost, to a good extent, in the modern era). Nevertheless, as much as I agree with you on this film (it's a beautiful picture, really!), I also have to agree with your scoring. In the end, it IS a Bond film. As a spy thriller, it's good, quite good, but I agree with you about the lagging, especially later in the film, after Grant - who really does make the film (the villains are likely the best group of any one of the films). Two points though: first, the plot, to me, is not just slow for modern standards, but not exactly "Spy Who Came in From the Cold", either. It's good for the time. I'm just not sure about great, even as a more straight espionage film; second, Tanya Romanova's review is dead on ... but reading it and looking at the score ... doesn't exactly match up, especially based on the last paragraph on her review. I found her more interesting than Honey Ryder - and definitely wasted - but she was dubbed and submissive, for the most part, just the same. I really wanted to like this film enough to call it my favorite Bond and, again, I love how it looks. I, sadly, think that the fact that it's almost the antithesis of a Bond picture is what's going against it. Great review, though, if not the best I've ever read. Love the blog!

redwood said...

In starting a marathon of my own (viewing, not reviewing), I've gotten my wife to join me (so far). I would just like to rescind a previous statement I made in my last comment here. The film's NOT too slow, at all! It's paced purposefully and is definitely more an impressive 60s spy thriller than Bond film, but WHAT a spy film! Connery is now at home as Bond, as the other series regulars have become (except Q, as you mention). However, your comment about the villains is true. Though great, they are so prosaic. But then, so are everyone and everything. It's just not a Bond film, for the most part. Where it's one of the best, it's because of this that I am not with many a Bond fan as picking this as my favorite. Your scoring of the films emphasizes this point, only making these reviews all the more THE Bond reviews. I thank you for this, sir.