Friday, April 06, 2012

BOND-A-THON: From Russia With Love

During the latter stages of ‘From Russia With Love’, James Bond (Sean Connery) and defecting Russian cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) are biding their time on a trans-European express train with a stolen decoding machine, waiting to disembark at the crucial moment to effect a strictly passport-free border crossing. Agents of SPECTRE, who have been using both of them as pawns in a meticulously constructed piece of espionage, attempt to prevent their escape and retrieve the machine.

A pick-up truck, parked across the tracks as if broken down, its bonnet propped open, stops the express. Bond anticipates the trickery. Dropping noiselessly off the train, he sneaks up on the SPECTRE agent on his blindside and slams the bonnet down on the guy’s hands before cold-cocking him with the butt of his Beretta. It’s all done with a ruthless efficiency. Earlier on, Bond slaps a distraught Tatiana – hard, really snapping her head back – to get information. Earlier still, he assists his opposite number in Istanbul in an unsanctioned revenge killing and tosses out a glib one-liner as the two of them stroll off.

For me, Connery in ‘From Russia With Love’ defines Bond. He’s basically a cold, ruthless bastard who employs a mixture of low cunning and unflinching brutality to achieve his ends. But it’s not for this reason that ‘From Russia With Love’ is my favourite Bond movie (yup, this retrospective is peaking two films in; thanks for joining me, folks, it’s been emotional). The film wins out for me because it’s what most of the Bond movies aren’t: a proper, straight-up, according-to-Hoyle espionage thriller.

That might not sound like I’m making much of a claim, but consider the basic Bond template: M calls 007 into his (or her, when we come to the Dame Judy Dench incarnation) office and lays down a few minutes of exposition: something naughty’s happening and the main suspect is a multi-billionaire industrialist/scientist/metallurgist/newspaper baron [delete as applicable]. Bond goes waltzing into the middle of said megalomaniac’s operation, announces himself as “Bond, James Bond” (whoops, there goes the cover), a bit of cat and mouse ensues, Bond gets laid, Bond gets captured, Bond frees himself, the bad guy’s secret base gets blown to shit.

Except for the getting laid bit …

… none of this malarkey happens in ‘From Russia With Love’. Which makes it the most un-Bond of the Bonds. And decidedly better for it. (Although in other respects, it establishes the pre-credits sequence, dancing girls in silhouette during the credits, a celebrity theme song – take a bow, Matt Monro – and Q department goodies as franchise tropes.)

What happens instead is that SPECTRE head honcho Ernst Stavro Bolfeld (Anthony Dawson – his face unseen and billed as “?” in the credits, presumably to detract from the fact he’d already appeared, and been dispatched, in the first Bond movie as Professor Dent) approves a plan by chess champion and all-round devious swine Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) to exploit Cold War tension between Britain and Russia, get their mitts on the much sought-after Lektor decoding machine, disgrace Bond and thereby enjoy a little payback for Dr No’s demise.

And what bait do you dangle in front of Britain’s top secret agent? That’ll be a pretty girl, then. Former Russian operations head Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) – now working for SPECTRE – recruits Tatiana to seduce Bond. She also recruits Aryan psychopath Grant (Robert Shaw) to ensure Bond, Tatiana and the gadgetry don’t make it back to Britain.

Sent to Istanbul, when Tatiana is working at the Russian embassy, Bond makes contact with Turkish spymaster Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz, having a whale of a time playing as big a ladies’ man as 007). En route to the acquisition of the Lektor (was Thomas Harris a fan of the movie, I wonder?) – which, incidentally, is a Macguffin worthy of Hitchcock – there’s all manner of red-herrings, with everyone in Istanbul seemingly spying on everyone else, and a subplot regarding rivalry between gypsy tribes, incorporating a narratively redundant but leeringly lingered-upon bitch fight between two gypsy girls.

‘From Russia With Love’ was Ian Fleming’s fifth novel. While its predecessors had sold decently in the UK, he’d failed to crack the American market and, as he wrote to Raymond Chandler, he worried that he was running out of ideas. The book has a more experimental structure than the others, its first third dealing entirely with the plot against 007 and Bond himself not showing up for a good 100 pages. The last chapter intimates that Fleming was ready to call time. The final line is “Bond pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed headlong to the wine-red floor”.

All things considered, it’s an odd choice for a second instalment in what producers Saltzman and Broccoli were unambiguously developing into a franchise. (The closing credits teaser “The End … but not quite the end … James Bond will return in the next Ian Fleming thriller ‘Goldfinger’” is more than just a statement of intent; it’s an exercise in branding that your average Madison Avenue ad man would have been proud of.) They made damn sure, though, that the last scene of the film was nowhere near as dark as the novel’s.

As with ‘Dr No’, Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood collaborated on the adaptation, with Terence Young calling the shots. Series regulars Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell return as M and Miss Moneypenny, while Desmond Llewellyn puts in his first appearance as Q. Eunice Gayson carries over her role as Sylvia Trench from ‘Dr No’, in the only intimation the franchise offers of a relationship outlasting the heat-of-the-moment frisson of Bond’s mission du jour.

Connery’s much more at home with the character this time around, and there’s none of the padding (excepting the gypsy girl smackdown) that punctuates ‘Dr No’. World domination silliness is given short shift. Genuinely suspenseful set pieces – Bond and Grant’s vicious hand-to-hand in a cramped train compartment; Bond’s duel with a helicopter; a speedboat chase – deliver more excitement than multiple explosions. Gadgets are minimal and used contextually instead of as the hi-tech deus ex machinas of the later films. In Bianchi’s Tatiana (albeit a dubbed and slightly stilted performance), we have a Bond girl who’s integral to the plot rather than just buxom set-dressing.

Best of all, though, the Bond of the novels gets the fullest filmic outing he’d have until Daniel Craig and Martin Campbell took the series back to its roots with ‘Casino Royale’. The polarity between character and actor that informed ‘Dr No’ seems harsher in ‘From Russia With Love’. Connery’s panther-like muscularity is more evident; his working-class tough-guy aura is never far away; and the suave, socially adroit façade of James Bond is never in more danger of being punctured than in his exchange with Grant after the latter (temporarily at least) has out-manoeuvred him.

“Red wine with fish,” Bond muses, remembering Grant’s restaurant car faux pas; “well, that should have told me something.” Voice as steely as his eyes, Grant contemptuously replies, “You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees.”

As the youth of today would no doubt put it: PWNed, Mr Bond.

I originally reviewed ‘From Russia With Love’ in July 2008 as part of my Personal Faves project. Here’s the link. I’ve deliberately not referred to it in writing this article.


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Neil Fulwood said...

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