Posted by: dougery | December 17, 2010

Better Late Than Never: From Russia With Love (1963)

From Russia With Love (1963) is a marked improvement in the Bond franchise from Dr. No in just about every conceivable way. It has more girls, more weapons chicanery, more bad guys, and at least 4 different endings. Which is not to say it is just chock full of whizzbang stunts and action. The movie carefully crafts an actual romance between 007 and a Russian embassy clerk named Tatiana Romanova, a relationship where we actually care about the couple and hope they succeed, well, I mean, as much as one can in movies like these. If this is the film that sets down the ‘Bond Formula’ I can see why as the movie never flags and packs as much as it can into 112 minutes. Yet first let us discuss how it departs from it’s predecessor Dr. No.

Right from the start we know who the main attraction is. Whereas previously in Dr. No we had to wait almost 10 minutes until Bond ever even shows up, here there is no question as to who the audience has paid to see. 007 is the first character on screen (or at least we are meant to think it’s him). The dark-suited agent is running around a lavish garden full of statuary and high hedges being pursued–or perhaps pursuing–a mysterious blond foe. This garden party comes on the heels of a shorter opening sequence, a rather slick credits feature where names are projected upon writhe across the sashaying form of belly dancers.  This will be recalled later when Bond and friends will hide out in a gypsy camp while their Russian adversaries tactfully wait until the evening entertainment is through before shooting up the place. But back to the opening scene. Gasp! Bond is killed! Oh no! But not really as it is just some poor grunt in a Bond mask being garroted in a training exercise by 007’s first truly dangerous male villain (with apologies to Dr. No who seemed clumsy, frail and mostly inept in that ‘boy in a bubble’ space suit.

Robert Shaw is brilliant as Red Grant (although confession, I’ll always think of him as Quint the shark hunter from Jaws), who has the usual melodramatic build-up, being referred to as basically a psychopath while laying in the sun and flexing his big oiled muscles. Amazingly, Grant is simply an assassin and far down the pecking order, hired by ‘Number 3,’ a cruel woman named Rosa Klebb for use in a plan concocted by Kronsteen (or ‘Number 5’) who just so happens to be a chess master. Phew. The silliness with ranks and numbers seems intentional and all but it is needed to support the enigmatic ‘Number 1,’ who we only see from the chest down stroking the Fancy Feast cat. This is all terrific and hilariously over-the-top. It is curious to note that while this megalomania is ripe for parody (everyone from Inspector Gadget to Austin Powers has tried their hand) it also feels simultaneously satire-proof. It already is ridiculously campy. Riffing on it would only dilute what makes it great.

Interestingly enough, From Russia With Love has very little to do with Russia. The film is set in Instanbul with the Hagia Sofia on display in virtually every sweeping scene. Like the Jamaica of Dr. No, this is meant to be a very foreign, Third World environment, I mean there are like, Muslims here and stuff.  An escape on the Orient Express followed by a boat chase, a helicopter chase and finally, an altercation in a Venice hotel spread the action out all across the rest of  ‘Europe.’  Scottish hill country is pawned off for Belgrade, Zagreb and the aforementioned gypsy camp, but then again all backwoods Europe is the same, right? Sigh.

Ladykilling-wise, James Bond raises his own personal filmic Black Book tally to 7 after sleeping with then abandoning on-again-off-again British girlfriend Sylvia Trench just before being rushed to Turkey. While there he is called upon to settle a gypsy dispute where two women are fighting over the same man. Odd, they seem just fine foregoing that dude and double-teaming James for the rest of the evening… And then there is Ms. Romanova. We are still miles away from a female love interest who can hold her own in a fight  as this time around Tatiana is drugged and little more than a stumbling zombie for the latter half of the film while 007 disposes of assassin after assassin.

There is a very curious scene toward the beginning of the film where Klebb (Number 3 and SPECTRE bogey-woman) is flirting with Tatiana, touching her face and leering at her in a less than savory way. The beautiful blond Romanova spurns her advances and the film seems to be making a very unsubtle comment on suitable sexuality. Klebb is doomed right from the start of the film, as she is incapable of seeing Bond as the dashing hero because of her sexual inclination, while Romanova will be won over to the ‘good guys’ for the simple reason that she is straight not because of any moral or ethical reason for betraying her country.

Many consider From Russia With Love to be the greatest of the Bond films and it is easy to see why. It has the luxury of just starting some of the trends that would become mainstays for the rest of the series long run. What might become tired in later films here is fresh, and audiences loved it as evidenced by the fact that From Russia With Love was released twice, the latter time paired up with Dr. No as a teaser for the soon to be released third installment Goldfinger. And it did even better at the box office the second time around. Still, it is sad to think that only two films in, I have already witnessed the apex of all that is Bond. We’ll just have to see about this.

Bond Grade: 007 (out of 007)

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