Saturday, January 3, 2015

From Russia With Love - 1963

Background: with Dr. No being a commercial and critical success Eon had their budget doubled for the follow up and they elected to use it to make use of the exotic locations explored in Fleming's 5th James Bond novel From Russia With Love.

In terms of continuity some major alterations had to take place. SPECTRE doesn't appear in the book and that is at the heart of the story in the film. The events in Dr. No take place AFTER those in From Russia With Love and not before, so that needed some jigging about.

However the Cold War was well and truly underway and From Russia With Love talking about the British acquiring a Russian decoding machine, the involvement of the Russian, Bulgarian and Turkish secret services and then throwing SPECTRE into the mix, including Russian/SPECTRE double agent Rosa Klebb, then the story could almost have been nightly news in the era.

The real driver behind the choice, though was President John F. Kennedy naming From Russia With Love as one of his ten favourite books in Life magazine (in fact From Russia With Love was the last film he saw at the White House in 1963 before making the fatal trip to Dallas). That interview shot the book up the best seller list and almost ensured big crowds at the cinemas for the film version of it.

Story: director Terence Young decided to do an audience 'fake out' with his pre credit sequence. Viewers saw Bond in a garden, being stalked by a large blonde assassin. The killer eventually surprises Bond from behind and garrottes him. Now this had to have audiences scratching their heads wondering why the main hero was killed in the first few minutes, before the opening credits had even rolled. Then the killer leans down and tears a mask off 'Bond's' face revealing him as a body double. Of course that then posed the question in the audience's heads as to why someone would go to those lengths to kill a 'fake Bond'?

The answer comes after the updated credits. Some of the additional money had clearly been spent on those, because Dr. No's credits were, while colourful, fairly lack lustre. As the budgets for the films increased the credits (generally done by Maurice Binder, starting with Thunderball in 1965) became ever more lurid and ambitious.

Somewhere in Venice there is a meeting between some of SPECTRE's most highly regarded people. It is chaired by the mysterious No. 1 (his face is never seen, just his hands stroking and fondling a white cat. The voice and the hands were provided by actor Anthony Dawson, who had played Professor Dent in Dr. No), No. 3, Russian colonel, the vicious and sadistic Rosa Klebb and No. 5, Kronsteen, a chess grandmaster, who has devised a plan to 'get Bond'. We're never told exactly how high up No was in the organisation, but he was quite high, because killing him has put Bond on SPECTRE's radar and they want him out of the picture.

Kronsteen's plan involves appealing to Bond's vanity (in the early films they were aware of Bond's weak points and exploited them, it wasn't until later they attempted to turn him into some sort of flawless superhero) by having an attractive Istanbul based Russian cryptographer, Tatiana Romanova, send a picture of herself to MI6, offering to give them the Lector decoding machine on condition that it is personally collected by James Bond Agent 007.

The ruse works and the scene where Klebb pressures Tatiana is quite chilling and at the same time makes it clear that Klebb is gay and physically attracted to the young cryptographer, it is subtly enough done that audiences recognised the inference, but didn't trip the censors off. Something Broccoli was determined to avoid. The commercial failure of The Trials of Oscar Wilde had been one of the main drivers behind the dissolution of Warwick Films, the company that Broccoli and partner Irving Allen had run. The film failed largely because of the subject material.

In a recall to his arrival on Jamaica in Dr. No, Bond is met by a driver upon arriving at Istanbul. This time however the driver isn't working for SPECTRE, but was instead sent by Kerim Bey, the head of Station T (Turkish intelligence). Bond and Bey hit it off from the start, they are two men cut from the same cloth.

While Bey shows Bond around the city and explains how the intelligence set up in Turkey works, it largely seems to be a live action version of Spy VS Spy, with them all too busy spying on each other and killing each other off to get any useful intelligence work done, they are shadowed by SPECTRE's trained assassin Red Grant. He was the same one from the garden at the start and he was shown working out (or rather being massaged by an attractive blonde masseuse, who for some reason found it necessary to strip down to a bikini to massage him) at SPECTRE's training island, which made me think of the Spy School in Get Smart, and in fact it was probably what inspired that sequence in the sitcom. Rosa Klebb tested out his physical resilience by driving a fist with brass knuckles into his solar plexus and getting no response behind a grunt from him.

The filmmakers made the most of Istanbul as a filming location. Some tunnels under the city that were said to be 1600 years old by Bey were used as a plot point. There was also a large chunk of cross promotion done. One scene prominently features a large advertisement for the Bob Hope and Anita Ekberg film Call Me Bwana, not unusual as it was a big release with a star around at the time, that is until you realise that Call Me Bwana was one of only two non Bond films that Eon (the other was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) ever made.

All Bond really has to protect himself from Grant and various Russian and Bulgarian spies is his wits, his Walther and a tricked out briefcase that Q Branch supplied (more on that in gadgets). There's a scene in a gypsy camp where Bond is attacked and saved from death by Grant, Bey and assorted gypsies. I really think most of the scene could have been cut and it really seemed to exist as an opportunity to showcase a belly dancer by the name of Leila (real name Lisa Guiraut) and for a fight between two gypsy women over a man. I found that particular scene highly gratuitous and unnecessary. They may as well just featured something in a mud wrestling club if they wanted to do that.

In the early films they also took any and every opportunity to show Connery with his shirt off. As this wasn't that long after his body building days it's not all that surprising I suppose.

Eventually Bond meets up with Tatiana, in bed naturally enough, and I found her just turning up in his hotel room and in the bed at odds with the rest of her performance as the character, who is rather innocent and trusting, and while she's meant to string him along, she unsurprisingly falls for him and the two are soon on the run for real, while Kerim Bey is getting them out of Turkey by train.

Bey is killed by Grant and Bond initially believes Tatiana was the catalyst and smacks her around for it. This was another example of the sexism that was rampant in the early films and it only got worse until they finally reined it in in the late 60's.

Seeing these again I am struck by how badly most of the fight scenes are choreographed. Without a gun Bond appears largely useless, his much vaunted judo skills don't seem to help him a lot. The confrontation with Grant on the train changes a lot of that. It's short and brutal. No holds barred, every dirty trick in the book is used, and these two men are fighting for survival. Bond uses a gadget to turn the tables on Grant and garrottes him with his own wire.

There follows a chase by car, a cat and mouse duel with a helicopter (a lot of Bond films featured helicopter scenes after this) that was rather reminiscent of the famous scene in North by Northwest where Cary Grant is strafed by a plane and a boat chase across the Black Sea (it was actually a Scottish lake, which very nearly took the life of director Terence Young when the helicopter they were using to scout the location crashed into the lake) to safety in Venice.

Meanwhile with the failure of Kronsteen's plan he is disposed of and Rosa Klebb is despatched to finish the job that her assassin couldn't. Interestingly Bond doesn't save himself in this one. He held Klebb and the poison tipped spike in her shoe at bay with a chair, but she would have eventually managed to kick him with it if it hadn't been for Tatiana shooting her.

In typical Bond fashion it ends with Bond and Tatiana cruising down the canals of Venice in a gondola, kissing, while Matt Monro croons From Russia With Love over the closing credits, and for the first time we see that James Bond will return with the title of the next film.

Overall, on nearly every respect, From Russia With Love is a stronger and more even film than Dr. No. It also doesn't have to deal with any odd scientific points which don't stand up to much scrutiny. Plus the villains had a reason for their actions. Bond had become a thorn in their side and they wanted him out of the way, so took steps to make it happen. Unlike No, who seemed to create mischief because he enjoyed doing it.


Director: Terence Young returned to helm the second film and like in the first he had large say in the casting and the way the film went as well as continuing to put his own stamp on Bond. As mentioned earlier he also put his own life on the line when the helicopter crash landed in the Scottish lake that stood in for the Black Sea.

James Bond: I'm not sure what Connery's original contract stated, whether or not it was for more than one film. I suspect it was for one only, as it let them off the hook if Dr. No flopped. However it didn't, it made Connery a bona fide star, he was happy to reprise his role and I bet he got a hefty pay increase. He continues to grow into the role and he looks the part, although still a little uncomfortable with the corny one liners and the way women fall into bed with him, at times it looks like the actor himself can't believe it. He was quite stiff in many of the fight scenes, except for the one with Grant and that came up really well and still holds up now over 50 years later.

Rosa Klebb: Lotte Lenya was a German cabaret performer. Just how Terence Young cast her as Rosa Klebb I will never understand. As a cabaret act she was a very glamorous women and Rosa Klebb is anything, but glamorous, especially when she dons her bottle thick glasses. My wife remarked that she found it both surprising and brave, given the era, that in the second film a women was made the villain, and she was a hands on villain at that.

Red Grant: Robert Shaw was perfectly cast as the menacing Grant, and he does a great job. I didn't even realise until the rematch that he doesn't actually speak until 3 quarters of the way through the film and even then he keeps up the pretence of being an urbane aristocratic British agent, only really being uncovered by Bond when he orders red wine with a fish meal. Shaw later went on to greater fame in another blockbuster film, playing the shark hunter Captain Quint in Jaws.

Peripheral roles: no problems with Moneypenny and M, as Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee were only too happy to appear again. The office scenes with Moneypenny, M and Bond have a rather family feel about them. With M being the gruff old father and Moneypenny and Bond the two mischievous teenagers. Again the chemistry between Maxwell and Connery works perfectly. She asks and he responds, but neither of them ever expect it to seriously go anywhere.

The intention was to use Peter Burton again in the 'Q' role, but he was unavailable, so they called in Desmond Llewellyn. Llewellyn wasn't called Q, in fact I think he was credited as Boothroyd, but Q Branch was mentioned. He plays the role very straight as did Burton, comes in, shows Bond the briefcase, explains how it all works, then walks out again. Audiences had no idea what they were in for in future films.

This was the last audiences saw of Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench. She was an idea of Young's that didn't really work. Just as things start to get interesting between her and Bond he's called into action. This was also the first time I can remember seeing him use the Universal Exports cover.

Ali Kerim Bey: played by Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz. Unbeknownst to the producers when they cast him, Armendariz was in the late stages of terminal cancer while making the film. He was on extremely strong painkillers to allow him to keep working. Once his condition was discovered filming was altered to allow him to wrap up filming. He later committed suicide in hospital and never saw the film, although I believe there was a dedication to him. Knowing this makes his performance, which is excellent, even more meritorious. I was genuinely saddened when the character was killed by Grant.

Tatiana Romanova: this was the first time we saw Terence Young's predilection for casting beauty queens in key roles. Prior to embarking on a career in films Daniela Bianchi was known as Miss Italy in the Miss Universe contest, where she was first runner up in 1960. Her voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford, as Bianchi didn't speak a lot of English and what she did was accented in Italian, not Russian. For someone who was inexperienced (the credits list her as debuting, although she had done some work in Italian films before) and only had her facial expressions and body to work with she did a really good job and probably better than Ursula Andress who was a more experienced actress. She was also in my opinion one of the most beautiful women they have ever cast as a Bond girl, and still holds the record as one of the youngest, being 21 when she was cast as Tatiana.

The Curse of the Bond Girl: although Bianchi's career never took off, she did a handful of films during the 60's, being best remembered for a 3 episode guest shot on American TV drama Dr. Kildare, but she was in no way cursed. Not speaking English and generally working in Italy the roles were always going to be limited. She retired from acting in 1970 to marry a Genoan shipping magnate and the only screen appearance she has made in all that time was in a pseudo documentary called We're Nothing Like James Bond in 2012, she played herself.

Gadgets: there were some in From Russia With Love. Most prominent is the briefcase. It has rods of ammunition, belts of gold sovereigns and throwing knives hidden in it. It also contains a small sniper rifle and the piece de resistance is a canister of tear gas (disguised to look like a can of talcum powder) that will explode if the briefcase is opened incorrectly. It is that which gives Bond the advantage over Grant during their fight in the train. He also uses the knife hidden in the case to stab Grant in the arm. There's a recording device hidden in a camera, which Bond uses to record a conversation between himself and Tatiana then send to HQ in London. Kerim Bey has a periscope installed under the Russian embassy that he uses to spy on their intelligence meetings. The Lector itself is also a gadget of sorts. Rosa Klebb's shoe with the poison tipped spike is another nasty little gadget. One which almost passes notice is the phone that Bond has in his Bentley, car phones were at that time still the province of science fiction, not part of every day life.

Pre credit sequence: the bit in the garden is probably the first actual intentional pre credit sequence in the franchise, and it may have been the impetus behind what happened in Goldfinger, which cemented the idea in the minds of the filmmakers and became expected by the audience.

Music: there is a song called From Russia With Love. It's performed by crooner Matt Monro over the final credits as Bond and Tatiana float through Venice on a gondola. The James Bond Theme is played at the start and throughout the film when appropriate.

James Bond will return in Goldfinger.

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