Saturday, 30 April 2011

Classic Bond - From Russia With Love: 1963

The massive success of Dr No (d. Terence Young, 1962) led to a significantly increased budget for the second James Bond film. The result,From Russia With Love (1963) saw the first unveiling of the full Bond formula was unveiled: the largely irrelevant pre-credits sequence, elaborate titles featuring semi-clad women, the spin-off title song (though not yet performed over the credits), the first appearance of a recognisable Ernst Stavro Blofeld (called 'Number One' for now) with trademark white cat, the first appearance of 'Q' (Desmond Llewelyn) with his endless supply of gadgets, Bond's callously witty one-liners, exotic locations, a full-blown John Barry score... the list goes on.

It also had advantages not enjoyed by many later Bond films, notably an intelligent script that retained the substance of Ian Fleming's novel while toning down the overt Cold War politics (the Cuban Missile Crisis had only occurred the previous year). The villains are still Russians, but are dissidents working for the stateless crime organisation SPECTRE, as opposed to the explicitly Soviet SMERSH in the novel.
Compared with Joseph Wiseman's anaemic Dr No, this film boasts the first major Bond villains in the form of Blofeld, the spike-shoed Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and man-mountain Red Grant (Robert Shaw). Grant in particular is one of the most effective heavies in the whole canon, with Shaw's obvious intelligence letting him convey as much menace through dialogue as he does in the scenes when he's trying to beat Bond to a pulp.
If Daniela Bianchi has less impact as the main love interest, she has the historical drawback of being chronologically sandwiched between Ursula Andress (Dr No) and Honor Blackman (Goldfinger), two far more memorable Bond girls. But she has genuine chemistry with Sean Connery, who recommended her for that reason. Connery himself now fitted the role like a well-tailored glove - Fleming had already shown his approval by retrospectively giving the character Scottish ancestry in the final novels.
The plot revolves around Bond's attempt at acquiring a Lektor decoding machine, effectively a McGuffin-style excuse for trips to exotic locations (Turkey, Yugoslavia, Venice) and expertly-staged suspense and action sequences involving speedboats, helicopters and the Orient Express. Later Bond set-pieces would be far more elaborate, but the quality of the script and acting set From Russia With Love apart from its predecessor and many successors: even today, it's regarded as one of the series' high points.

Eon Productions / United Artists

116 minutes

Directed by Terence Young

Title theme sung by Matt Monro



Published by


Volume 30, No.358, November 1963, page 155


SPECTRE, the all-powerful international crime organisation, devises a plan to lay its hands simultaneously on James Bond, the British intelligence agent, and on the Lektor, a top-secret Russian coding machine. Bond is to be killed, painfully, by Red Grant, one of SPECTRE's trained assassins, and the Lektor to be held to ransom. Rosa Klebb, former head of SMERSH, the Soviet spy network, and now a recruit to SPECTRE, orders Tatiana Romanova, a code clerk at the U.S.S.R. embassy in Istanbul, to contact British intelligence and offer to defect to the West with the Lektor provided that Bond will come in person to collect her and it. Suspecting a trap, British intelligence still cannot turn down the offer. Helped by Kerim Bey, British agent in Istanbul, Bond goes to work, surviving such diversions as a pitched battle in a gypsy encampment, and gets Tatiana and the Lektor out of the embassy under cover of a tear-gas explosion. Grant, who has kept constant track of Bond, boards the Orient Express with them, murders the British agent who was to have helped Bond cross the Yugoslav-Italian border, and takes his place. Having killed Grant after a savage fight on the train, Bond and Tatiana still have to undergo chases by helicopter and fast motor launch, and a final encounter with Rosa Klebb in person, before the adventure ends where it began, in Venice.

The success of Dr. No has no doubt given the James Bond team added confidence, if that was necessary, and From Russia with Love is made by people who clearly know that they now have a gilt-edged formula to play with. Money has been spent, sensibly, where it shows on the screen; and in contrast to many British thrillers, this one has a fine range of sets and locations, from a chess tournament in a Venetian palazzo, through the streets and underground lakes of Istanbul, to the Orient Express and the Gulf of Venice, to move around in. A pre-credits sequence, of a night stalking-match around the box hedges and fountains of a formal garden, ending with the light coming up on a row of dark figures lining the terrace of a Marienbad chateau, is brilliantly conceived and shot with enough precision to promise something really out of the way in thrillers. The credit titles, following the curves of a belly dancer, add to the air of high-powered insolence.

In fact, nothing that comes later is quite as effective, chiefly because the director, Terence Young, achieves speed without style, and blunts the sharper edges of personality except in cases where the script gives him a clear lead. Ian Fleming's vintage blend of brand-name expertise and sadistic adventure still eludes the film-makers, and the screen's James Bond, although leaving behind him the appropriate trail of girls and corpses, remains a trifle undernourished in terms of the Fleming myth.

All the same, From Russia with Love is a rattling adventure, getting quite enough drive into its scenes with helicopters, speedboats, cars, trains, bombs, guns, venom-coated knives, hidden cameras, and exploding suitcases, to ensure a proper state of breathlessness in the audience. Clever casting, particularly on the side of the villains, gives us Robert Shaw as a stony-faced blond killer, and Lotte Lenya, splendid in her final Venetian escapade. The head of SPECTRE, photographed at boot-level, fondling a white cat and brooding over his fighting fish, survives to fight another day. With a super-confidence which one can only regard as justified, the film ends with an announcement of the next Bond adventure: Goldfinger.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine

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