Skyfall Countdown Day 23: From Russia with Love

“I think my mouth is too big.”

24 days.  24 reviews.  The James Bond saga continues.

The closing credits of Dr. No began with what would turn out to be a highly premature announcement of “The End.”  After the first James Bond film exploded into a massive worldwide hit, a sequel was inevitable.  Armed with a bigger budget and one supposes an equal measure of increased confidence, producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman embarked on their second big screen Bond, emboldened perhaps by President John F. Kennedy’s choice of From Russia with Love as one of his ten favourite books.

Everything about From Russia with Love is bigger and better, beginning with a screenplay that adds layers of intrigue to Ian Fleming’s original novel about dastardly Soviets out to kill James Bond for causing them so much bother.  In the movie, the architects of this Cold War affair are now the notorious SPECTRE, led by cat-stroking (and Dr. Evil-inspiring) Ernst Stavro Blofeld, eager to pit East and West against each other, with Bond’s death merely a fortunate bonus.  To this end they enlist the innocent Russian corporal Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) in a scheme to lure Bond with the promise of a Russian “Lektor” cipher decoding MacGuffin as the prize, and assign ice-blooded killer Red Grant (Robert Shaw) to act as Bond’s shadow as he journeys through the underworld of Istanbul, unable to sense the slippery arms of the villains closing in until it is almost too late.  It’s a movie full of surprises and turns, riveting chases, locations lush and rich, performances pitched just right and a pace that never relents.  It’s also the only movie where Bond finds himself as a pawn of greater forces, almost an accidental hero, rather than the usual valiant knight riding in on the white horse to bring down the dragon and his kingdom of darkness.

The pressure of carrying the picture doesn’t seem to weigh on Sean Connery as much this time, and you can sense him beginning to enjoy himself, bringing sharper timing to his delivery of his lines and walking through scenes with much greater confidence.  The supporting players are a more capable lot this time as well, beginning with the only Bond actress to ever be mentioned in the Great American Songbook:  Lotte Lenya (of “Mack the Knife” fame) as the slimy Colonel Rosa Klebb, with her oily accent and spike-toed shoes.  Robert Shaw, light-years removed from Jaws’ Quint or A Man for All Seasons’ King Henry is a triple threat:  sinister, sadistic and silent, conveying an unnerving menace absent from other screen villains who were frequently neutered by censors in that era – slinking through the first half of the movie seemingly as a mindless brute and yet able to turn on an English congeniality when he finally introduces himself as “Captain Nash” and makes the fatally revealing mistake to culture snob Bond of ordering red wine with his fish.  Bond and Grant’s final fight scene aboard the Orient Express is to this day cited as one of the best such encounters ever put on film.  One can even see inspiration for future Bond villain Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning turn in No Country for Old Men in Red Grant’s dead-eyed stare.

The greatest accolades however have to go to Pedro Armendariz as Bond’s Turkish intelligence contact Kerim Bey, a jovial old spy with a penchant for nepotism (employing his sons in every key position) and an appetite for women that rivals 007’s.  He radiates Old World charm, with a wily sense of humor, deep sense of honor and ownership of the movie’s most quotable dialogue.  What is even more remarkable about the performance is that Armendariz pulled it off while he was dying of cancer.  He created such an indelible imprint on the Bond series that the producers have been trying ever since to include character performers who could possibly measure up – they even cast Armendariz’s son in a small part in 1989’s Licence to Kill.  Leading lady Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana (again, dubbed by another actress) is a more modest sort of Bond girl, not quite as awe-inspiring in her uniforms and suits as Ursula Andress in the white bikini, and uncomfortable in scenes where she is required to play the seductress.  But she’s adequate for a story where Bond’s romantic entanglement takes a distant backseat to the more fascinating spy saga.  Preserving the requirement for pulchritude in excess, ravenous feminine wiles are displayed in a girl-on-girl barefoot fight scene in a gypsy camp.

Several important tropes that would come to further shape and define the cinematic James Bond are introduced in this movie:  the pre-titles teaser, the title song, the character of Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his gadgets, and perhaps most important of all, the John Barry musical score.  Barry’s duties on Dr. No were confined to arranging the famous James Bond theme, but here he was given full control over the music and crafted a gorgeously orchestral score, fleshing out the Bond theme with explosive horns and layering in percussive instrumentation evocative of the Turkish locale to create a stylish, suspenseful, indubitably 60’s sonic accompaniment to Bond’s adventures.  Matt Monro, sounding something like an English Andy Williams, sings the song over the closing credits, and while “From Russia with Love” didn’t exactly burn up the charts, it laid the groundwork for an entire catalogue of sometimes brilliant, sometimes regrettable themes to follow.

In From Russia with Love, the rougher edges of Dr. No have been smoothed out, the production values amped up and the entire enterprise given a massive jolt of adrenaline.  In the annals of Bond fandom, there are two major camps – those who like their Bond gritty and down to earth, and the ones who relish extravagance and the kitchen sink approach.  This movie is something of a benchmark for the former, a standard to which all that follow are often compared.  (Indeed, when auditioning new actors to play Bond, the producers typically use the scene where Bond and Tatiana meet for the first time; DVD box set owners have likely seen both James Brolin and Sam Neill’s attempts at it.)  From Russia with Love is absent perhaps only the concept of the individual, flamboyant villain who battles Bond on an intellectual level as well as a physical one – contrasted as the remorseless counterpoint to Bond’s relentless crusader.  But it is a solid spy tale replete with twists Alfred Hitchcock would have approved, and it remains the work of artists at the top of their game creating an indelible entertainment that can still excite an audience after so many of them have long since departed this realm.  Top marks, 007.

Tomorrow:  Goldfinger and all that glitters.

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