Sunday, July 27, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: From Russia With Love

The formula the franchise was built upon is virtually evident in the first Bond film, 'Dr No': exotic locations, glamorous women and a megalomaniacal villain with a fully kitted-out secret base.

The third instalment, 'Goldfinger', would truly establish the formula: exotic locations, glamorous women, a megalomaniacal villian with a fully kitted-out secret base and a shedload of funky gadgets.

Essentially then, the four Gs: guns, girls, gadgets and globetrotting. Plus the megalomaniacal villain lurking in his ever more gargantuan secret base (hollowed out volcanoes a speciality).

By the later episodes, it got so that Bond's profession (espionage) was almost an afterthought. Let's face, the man doesn't exactly go undercover; and unless blowing the bad guy's secret base to hell can be classed as clandestine activity, he doesn't do much spying either. The usual sequence of events boils down to: M tells Bond that something dodgy is afoot, normally tipping him off from outset as to who the bad guy is; Q gives Bond some funky gadgets; Bond walks into bad guy's favourite casino/golf club [delete as applicable] and announces himself as "Bond, James Bond" (told you he doesn't do undercover); Bond cleans out bad guy over the card table/roulette table/links [delete as applicable], pissing him right off; Bond dallies with a couple of beauties, at least one of whom is duplicitous; Bond gets caught by the bad guy, who invariably explains in great detail his plans for world domination before either (a) locking Bond in an easily escapable broom cupboard conveniently situated next to the armoury, or (b) suspends him over a pool of sharks/piranha [deleted as applicable], a low-burning night-light under the taut rope; Bond utilizes funky gadgets courtesy of Q branch, effects an escape, foils the bad guy's plans and blows the fully kitted-out secret base to smithereens.

'From Russia with Love' - the second and for my money the best of the Bonds - does things a bit differently.

There's no secret base. There's no megalomaniac seeking world domination; here we have a triumvirate of villains - the Machiavellian Blofeld, the spitefully cunning Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and the brutally efficient 'Red' Grant (Robert Shaw) - and their plan is twofold: the theft of a Russian decoder, and the disgrace and demise of Bond. In order to achieve the former, they manipulate Bond into acquiring it for them.

And how does one go about manipulating an agent of 007's calibre? Piece of cake - dangle a pretty girl in front of him. Step forward Tatiana Romanova (Daniella Bianchi); a beauty queen in real life, but not the typical Bond girl to be sure. She's just as much a victim of manipulation as Bond. Tatiana is pretty much the innocent victim in all of this, and Bianchi, though limited as an actress, certainly imbues the the character with a human element.

Thanks to all the intrigue, the intricacy of the plotting and the delightful idea that Bond - every inch the uber-mensch in all his other outings - is basically being fucked with from start to finish, 'From Russia with Love' feels like a proper espionage thriller. It has the cynical brilliance of a le Carre novel. Double-dealings abound. Betrayal lurks at every turn. Director Terence Young keeps the tension racked, most notably in the cat 'n' mouse Orient Express sequence, climaxing in a vicious bout of hand-to-hand combat between Bond and Grant (the means by which Grant gives himself away - ordering red wine with fish - remains a classic bit of Ian Fleming snobbery) - a powerhouse scene, jarringly shot and edited. The seeds of Bourne-style visceral action cinema are present here.

The Grant/Bond fight is only one of a number of striking set-pieces: the theft of the decoder and the attack on the gypsy camp are standouts. Likewise, the extended finale - Bond's duel with a helicopter ("I'd say one their aircraft was missing" - surely the only Bond one-liner to reference a Powell & Pressburger film), followed by a speedboat chase - generate tension and excitement without recourse to blowing up a fully kitted-out secret base. And let's not forget that nasty little coda featuring Rosa Klebb and the kind of footwear you can't get at Clarke's.

'From Russia with Love' is probably the only film in the series where you could have a protagonist other than Bond - you could slide George Smiley or Bernard Samson or one of Graham Greene's world-weary and morally compromised anti-heroes into the lead role - and it wouldn't harm the film at all, wouldn't detract from its status as a first rate 60s spy thriller. It's the most un-Bond of the Bond movies ... and, paradoxically, that's what makes it the best.

There's a Bond-fest going on over at my other blog, Guilty Pleasures; the first five Connery outings are under consideration in the first entry.

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