Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Brandon Peters dissects the 007 series part 02: From Russia With Love

From Russia With Love1963
Director: Terrence Young
Starring: Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Robert Shaw, Lotte Lenya
Rated PG

Welcome to SPECTRE Island!  ~Morzeny


Bond Girls: Sylvia Trench, Gypsy Twins, Tatiana Romanova
Kills: 18
Car: None
Locales: Istanbul, SPECTRE Island
Odd Villain Trait: Red Grant is super strong, super stealthy, super blonde goon henchman
Song: “From Russia with Love” performed by Matt Monro

The success of Dr. No allowed Eon productions to stay on course with their five film plan for bringing the 007 novels to the big screen. The next would be From Russia with Love, due in part JFK’s mention of it as one of his favorite novels in Time magazine. With twice the budget this time around, From Russia With Love would build on the successes of the first film, amp up the new franchise, introduce some new ideas, and actually create the rare sequel that clearly tops the original.

From Russia With Love introduces us to SPECTRE, mentioned in passing by Dr. No last time. In this second installment we discover SPECTRE has operatives all over the globe and some are high ranking officials in the government. Their plan this time involves snagging a Soviet Lektor cryptography device while at the same time pitting England and Russia against each other while also killing James Bond. One such mole is Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) of Russia. Klebb is put in charge of the mission by the cat petting, camera avoiding head of SPECTRE, #1 (later will be named Ernst Stavro Blofeld). Klebb convinces Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a Russian decoder, it is her country’s duty for her to appear to have defected and give the Lektor whereabouts to James Bond, whom she is to pretend she has a schoolgirl crush on. Klebb also hires a SPECTRE goon, Red Grant (Robert Shaw), to make sure Bond steals the Lektor. Grant is also to kill Bond and Tatiana when he secures the Lektor.

The picture begins with the traditional gun barrel sequence which in turn leads to a teaser scene. Welcome to the status quo for the 007 series. In the future we’ll see it used for elaborate stunt sequences, a small piece of plot, or the introduction of our villain. Here we get the introduction of Klebb’s henchman, Red Grant. He hunts a SPECTRE trainee dressed as James Bond through a maze, strangling him to death from the shadows with his watch that has a retractable wire cord. The opening credits sequence features some scantily clad women slowly dancing with the credits projected onto their bodies. This is the seed planted for future installments. It isn’t the complete birthplace, as it isn’t as avant-garde and is lacking song lyrics to the musical number (it DOES have lyrics, but that version appears briefly on a radio during a scene and over the end credits), but the idea is almost there.

Another trope introduced in From Russia with Love is the spy gadgetry. Desmond Llewelyn takes over the role of Major Boothroyd of the Quartermaster branch of MI:6. From here on, he’ll be primarily referred to as “Q”, a role he would play 36 years before his untimely death just after the completion of The World Is Not Enough. His first gift to James Bond is a suitcase that features a small sniper rifle, 50 gold pieces, a throwing knife and a tear gas failsafe in the event it falls into the wrong hands. Funny enough, Bond would eventually use all of these items at the same time in order to take down Grant late in the film, keeping the viewer waiting to see it in action. In addition to the Grant’s watch, the villains also have a boot that sports a poison tipped knife. SPECTRE agent #5 is killed with this weapon and Rosa Klebb attacks Bond at the end of the film with it before being shot by Tatiana Romanova.

Red Grant is the first of what will be many brute henchmen. Guys similar (even with the blonde hair) will be showing up in future installments. In a combination of directorial choices and a patient performance by Robert Shaw, the character comes across as something more than one note. He hangs in the shadows patiently waiting for his crack at his target, James Bond. We don’t hear him speak and whenever it’s required, load noise is distorting whatever could possibly be audible. Rosa Klebb and Kronsteen round out the villainy as the heads of the operation. Kronsteen, a professional chess player, is very intriguing and played by an actor with a great memorable face. Truthfully, he isn’t really utilized. He is introduced and disappears until the last 15 minutes of the film where Blofeld has him killed. Klebb has just a bit more time with us. Klebb’s character, the old, vicious, uber bitch with red hair would be reprised (different character that calls back) in a future installment and the subject of Bond parodies.

Sean Connery’s second run as 007 shows him getting more comfortable in the role, and he’s a bit less serious this time. He still has some respect for women, but shares a bit behind closed doors. We once again get to observe Bond’s cautiousness when it comes to airports and hotel rooms. His one-liners are about double as to what they were the last movie. He gets into plenty of physical action, but by the end is clean as a whistle, so that grittiness when he completed his mission in Dr. No is not present here.

The women in this movie are horny as hell. Every female character with dialogue is looking for action. Tatiana Romanova’s mission is to seduce Bond, but she falls for him. Unlike Honey Rider, Romanova is actually relevant to the plot other than to be ogled. In hindsight, I rather wish they would have played a little more with the audience not being sure of her intentions. Dr. No’s Sylvia Trench returns (I don’t believe you’ll see another Bond Girl “character” return) at the beginning of this film with only one thing on the brain. 007 finds himself the benefactor of some mild prostitution at a gypsy camp when offered two quarreling women for the night. Bond’s Istanbul correspondent, Ali Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) has a mistress who shows up in one scene just begging for some fornication. Even Moneypenny sits gets her jollies off when listening to a rather sultry recording from Bond feature some dirty banter between him and Tatiana Romanova. Heck, this film even has a sex tape as a part of the plot. I was surprised at how much overt sexuality there was. But, then again we were getting ready to hit the Free Love era.

I mentioned last time around that Dr. No falls short as an attempt at creating another North By Northwest. Director Terrence Young gets it right on his second attempt. The film’s plot is fueled by a MacGuffin (Lektor). Once said MacGuffin is acquired, it becomes an all out chase, with Bond trying to escape the Russian officials, Turkish government and SPECTRE. The intensity doesn’t let up. For a film in 1963, it holds on to its suspense pretty well. The train scenes, especially ones with Grant looming in the background, feel very Hitchcock inspired. And in a touch of homage/knock off, Bond gets into a chase on foot from a helicopter just as Cary Grant was chased by a crop duster in North By Northwest.
A big part of what makes this second go-around superior to its predecessor is its faster pace and superior action set pieces. As mentioned, once Bond steals the Lektor device, the film turns into one long chase. After escaping the Russian embassy our heroes board a train carrying Red Grant. Grant assumes the identity of a MI:6 contact “Nash” to try to infiltrate and kill Bond leading to a close quarters fight in one of the bedroom compartments on the train. Following that is the North By Northwest helicopter battle. Bond takes to the sea just after and is involved in a boat chase against SPECTRE agents. And just when you think all is settled, Rosa Klebb shows up dressed as a maid in Bond’s hotel room. The action contains almost no rear projection, plenty of explosions, crashes and genuine stunt work. For a film in 1963, this was a rare feat.

The action was big onscreen, but there were a lot of action accidents and tragedy off-screen. Director Terrence Young was involved in a helicopter crash during the shooting of a scene. He was able to walk away, arm in a sling and continue to direct. Daniela Bianchi fell asleep at the wheel driving to the set one day and wrecked. Due to facial bruising, she had to take 2 weeks off shooting. During the “helicropter” scene, Sean Connery was almost actually hit by a helicopter. Pedro Armendariz was cancer-stricken at the time of the film’s production and took the role as a chance to further provide for his family after his passing. After the film was complete, he shot himself with a gun he had smuggled into the hospital.

From Russia with Love was a huge success. It was the biggest film of 1963 in Britain, grossing $12.5 million worldwide. Before it even made its way to release in America, the third 007 adventure was already in production. This follow-up may be a slight bit more fantastical and take itself a little less seriously, but it remains a thrilling and enjoyable adventure. This was the favorite film of most of the people involved with the series (including Sean Connery). A lot of hardcore fans will tell you it’s the best. I’m not going to make my personal picks until this thing is over. Going into this retrospective this was probably a top five Bond film for me.

Brandon Peters will return in Goldfinger

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Christian Grundner said...

According to IMDB, Grant was played by Robert Shaw. I was checking up on that because I always wanted to see Sebastian Shaw in some other role than old Anakin and was surprised reading his name here.

Brandon Peters said...

My mistake, Christian. Thank you for catching that. No, we definitely have Quint from Jaws here in this film. That's my Star Wars brain clouding my mind!

Collin said...

Loving this series. Keep up the good work Brandon!

Rick said...

Easily my favorite Bond movie, since I feel it is one of the few in the entire series that actually involves espionage and not "Bond openly fights a super-villain." Also, I'm really enjoying this series so far, thank you Brandon for writing it and Scott for bringing it to my attention

cormac said...

keep up the good work


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