Saturday, March 17, 2012

From Russia With Love: A Review


Let's Just Kiss and Say Das Vedanya...

Please visit the James Bond Film Retrospective for all the Bond reviews. 

How to begin the next chapter of the James Bond adventures?  By keeping all that worked in the first James Bond adventure: beautiful women, exotic locals, and intense action, and throw in a few more things: a truly worthy adversary and some very curious subtext (but more on that later).  From Russia With Love doesn't, unlike other sequels, pick up right after its predecessor (Dr. No), but we do have threads of our first encounter with Bond that tie in well.   However, one of the benefits of From Russia With Love is that we can see it without having to have seen Dr. No.  The film itself ups the ante on the franchise to have one of the best of the Bond films altogether. 

From Russia With Love (the book) got an unexpected boost when President John F. Kennedy confessed that it was one of his favorite reads (I'll leave it to you if the President,  no stranger to ladies, had some identification with 007).  Tragically, From Russia With Love (the film) premiered in the U.S. after his assassination, and it was also the final film that James Bond creator Ian Fleming saw before his own death in 1964.   Yet I digress.

SPECTRE, the nefarious super-criminal organization last seen in Dr. No, now has a new scheme: to steal a valuable code-breaking machine called Lektor from the Soviets.   In order to get a Lektor, SPECTER decides to play both sides against the middle: they will come up with a story so patently ridiculous that both the KGB and MI6 will think they are outsmarting each other when they are really unwitting puppets for SPECTRE.  The Russians will think the British are stealing the Lektor while the British will think the scheme is a Russian plot to entrap them.

The scheme is simplicity itself: the British will be told that a woman working at the Soviet Consulate in Istanbul has fallen in love with a photograph of one of their agents and is not only willing to defect but to turn over the Lektor.  This British agent: none other than James Bond (Sean Connery), and this Soviet secretary, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Biachi), thinks she is on a special assignment from the Soviet High Command, with Colonel Klebb (Lotte Lenya) as the head of this secret mission.  While the British are highly suspicious, the opportunity to get their hands on a Lektor is too tempting to pass up (just as SPECTRE thought).

Bond arrives in Istanbul, meeting up with the Turkish ally Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz).  Soon the rather tranquil truce between the West and East is shattered by a series of killings and attempted assassinations.  Both sides suspect the other, unaware this is further misdirection by SPECTRE.  Watching and waiting for his chance is Grant (Robert Shaw), a lethal assassin trained for one thing: to kill Bond and get the Lektor to SPECTRE (no rhyme intended).  Bond and Tania become enchanted with each other, and make an escape from Turkey to Venice, with Grant quietly following.  While Bond appears to be triumphant, Colonel Klebb makes one last stab (literally) to get the Lektor and dispatch of Bond once and for all.

From Russia With Love is a high step-up from Dr. No in that the script by Richard Maibaum (adapted by Johanna Harwood) always put us ahead of the characters.  WE know information that they don't, and as such, it becomes an anticipation game to the big payoff.  Right from the start we know the danger Grant poses for Bond at the film's opening scene.  WE know of his presence throughout FRWL and are kept waiting and waiting until they finally meet.  WE know SPECTRE is behind this scheme, so we're again waiting for everyone to catch up with us.  Director Terence Young holds our attention by giving us both sides: both the machinations of SPECTRE along with the plots of MI6.  With all this foreknowledge, the audience is one step ahead and thus we can wait in anticipation of when something will come.

It also improves on having a whole retinue of actors in FRWL.  The casting of Shaw as the nearly-silent henchman is brilliant.  It could have been easy to have cast a muscleman for the role, but instead the solution was to have a respected actor build up his body.  Shaw gives a brilliant performance: it isn't until near the end of FRWL that we hear his voice, so he has to project this intimidation by his body and eye movement.  In his quiet demeanor we can see the menace and danger Grant will pose, never getting excited but having a cool and methodical manner to his murderous ways.  Likewise, Lenya does a brilliant job as Colonel Klebb.  She is all business in her ruthlessness and single-mindedness in completing the mission (the Russian accent and mannish attire adds to her menace).

In one of those curious turns, the scene where Klebb is giving Tatia her assignment, there is a weird subtext of semi-repressed lesbianism in Klebb: the way she uses a whip, the way she 'accidentally' puts her hand on Tania's knee, orders her to take her jacket off, questions Tania about her sexual past, and caresses her shoulders.  Somehow, even today, the subtlety is rather daring in its suggestions. 

I digress to say that in many ways, Klebb's final scene could have come off as comical.  She enters Bond and Tania's hotel room in Venice dressed as a chambermaid, and menaces the super-agent with a poisonous spike hidden in her shoe.  If one thinks on it, being menaced by a shoe (no matter how dangerous) might have ended up slightly silly, but again since WE have been introduced to its danger in an earlier scene and Lenya has never been anything but evil and murderous throughout FRWL we see just how dangerous she is.  As a side note, we get a release of seeing this evil woman dispatched.

Balancing the dangers from SPECTRE's agents, we have Armendariz's brilliant (yes, it's the third time I've used 'brilliant', but FRWL is so well-acted no other word captures it better) as the bon vivant Kerim Bey.  Seeing how he appears to enjoy his life as a master spy, running the T Branch as almost a Pasha with his obvious delight in the company of beautiful women and having a series of sons working as his closest aides (blood, he says, is the best insurance in this type of business), it is almost beyond belief that he was dying during filming.  Armendariz was diagnosed with inoperable cancer while in Istanbul, and his scenes were rushed ahead to allow him to finish. 

To my mind, I would not have imagined that watching him on screen that Armendariz was only months away from death (his limp in some of his scenes easily explained in my mind as mere 'wounds of war').  He brings a jolly delight to Kerim, and when he does meet his end, it actually is sad given what pleasure he showed when involved in the espionage game.  Still, he could play serious too: he demands to take revenge on the man who tried to kill him in the Gypsy camp Bey took Bond to when giving the enemy the run-around.

Now, for the leads, Bianchi is a beautiful woman as Tania, but given that Barbara Jefford had to dub in her voice (I'm guessing her Italian accent too noticeable to pass as Russian), she was there for her beauty and little else.  She wasn't a motivating force in FRWL, but she did a good job as the duped Russian given she had little to no acting experience (and yes, she is quite beautiful).  Connery's Bond can be a bit of a jerk (at one point slapping Tania hard believing she had a hand in the killing of Bey) and a bit of a slut (hard to justify sleeping with a woman he'd just met), but he could also play Bond as a charming man and a ruthless and efficient man too.  Connery created a full character: one who can be smooth and shadowy, a lover and a fighter, one who delighted in beauty but was methodical as a killer.  It's almost as if he and Grant could be opposites of the same coin except Bond doesn't take pleasure in killing, merely seeing it as part of the job.

On the technical side, we can see the bigger budget FRWL had over Dr. No.  The sets are more lavish, the locations more exotic (beautiful cinematography by Ted Moore in capturing the magic of Istanbul and its many sights such as the Hagia Sophia), the music (by John Barry) more exciting.  While FRWL doesn't have a theme song in the opening, the title song (performed by Matt Monro) shows how well a theme song FRWL is.  In the opening, it's a jaunty instrumental number, but when sung, it becomes a tender ballad...and the only thing that changed was the tempo.

From Russia With Love is an excellent spy thriller, filled with danger thanks to Colonel Klebb and Grant, adventure (thanks to some thrilling fight sequences such as one in a Gypsy camp) and romance.  It is a rare film that to my mind, it is a sequel that is better than the original.  It never devolves into camp, it never winks to the audience that it's all done tongue in cheek, but takes the plot seriously.  The acting is en masse brilliant (not ashamed to say it), the story moves fast (keeping the audience in anticipation of how things will turn out even though we should know how they will turn out), and nearly fifty years later does not feel dated (minus some of the 1960s-style sets, and that's barely noticed while watching).

After someone watches From Russia With Love, they will never be able to say nyet to James Bond.

Next James Bond Film: Goldfinger


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