Wednesday, February 1, 2012

50 Years of 007 - From Russia with Love

50 Years of 007 continues as Cody follows Bond on the Cold War adventure of the second film.   

Bond creator/author Ian Fleming took a unique approach to From Russia with Love, his fifth novel in the 007 series, by keeping his main character out of the book until 11 chapters and 72 pages in. Before that, James Bond is only discussed by other characters.

In the film adaptation, we get Bond right up front. The gun barrel opening segues into a pre-title sequence, establishing a bit of the Bond formula that has lasted in the series to this day. Even when other elements have been shaken up, every film since From Russia with Love has still had a pre-title sequence.

The first character we see in the film is Bond. And something seems wrong. His gun is drawn, he appears unnerved, possibly even scared. He's being stalked among the topiary and decorations in a large courtyard by a calm, cunning killer called "Red" Grant. Bond is startled by noises, he fires off a wild shot. Grant outwits him, coming up behind him and garroting him with a wire that pulls out of his wristwatch. Lights spring on around the courtyard, revealing that the place is full of black-clad guards. A superior officer approaches Grant and congratulates him on dispatching his target so quickly, then bends down... and peels the James Bond face mask off of Grant's victim. OK, so the main character isn't in the film yet after all.

Another franchise constant, the title sequence, plays out. This one was designed by Robert Brownjohn and features the credits being projected onto the bodies of scantily clad, belly dancing women. Although a title song, sung by Matt Monro, was done for this film, it's not fully played until the end credits. For the title sequence, we get music from composer John Barry, who had done some work on Dr. No and would work on several more Bonds over the course of twenty-five years.

The first ten chapters of the novel were spent on the backstory of Red Grant and the formulation of a plan by the Soviet organization SMERSH - a combination of the Russian words Smert Shpionam, a phrase meaning "Death to Spies" - to strike at an enemy organization. They choose MI6 and agent James Bond as their targets, with the plan being to both kill Bond and destroy his reputation with a sex scandal, publicly humiliating MI6.

As with Dr. No, From Russia with Love is a faithful adaptation of the novel, with the screenplay by Johanna Harwood and Richard Maibaum expanding on the ideas and situations to make it more cinematic and, in some cases, more logical. One big change is the fact that the enemy organization in the film is not SMERSH. Rather, the producers decided to avoid directly dealing with real world politics while further establishing the villainous group introduced by dialogue in the previous film, SPECTRE. The SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, SPECTRE has no allegiance to any country or ideals. As Dr. No himself put it, "East, West, just points of the compass, each as stupid as the other." They merely manipulate the sides in the Cold War situation for their own gain. 

We get to see some of the inner workings of SPECTRE in this film, their soldier training grounds and some of the higher-up members. We even get to see the first glimpses of #1, the head of the organization. We hear his voice discussing plans and giving orders as he sits behind his desk, we see his hands, we see his white cat. His face remains offscreen, allowing the character to be played by Anthony Dawson, who had appeared in Dr. No in as the ill-fated Professor Dent. An uncredited Eric Pohlmann provides the voice.

The scheme that SPECTRE Director of Planning Kronsteen comes up with: a female member of the Cryptograph Section of the Russian Consulate in Istanbul will contact the local representative of MI6 and offer to defect and hand over a Lektor decoding machine to the British government if agent James Bond will come to Istanbul to personally oversee her defection. The story will be that she has seen Bond's picture and file and has fallen in love with him, like a schoolgirl with a crush on a movie star. The girl is chosen by SPECTRE #3 Rosa Klebb, who was Head of Operations for Soviet Intelligence before defecting. With Klebb's defection having been kept a secret by the Russians, the girl will still believe that the traitor is her superior and will follow the orders given to her. The idea being that Bond and the girl will both be killed before they can get to England. SPECTRE will have manipulated both the Russians and MI6, gotten revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No, and will have the Lektor to sell.

The girl Klebb picks is a beautiful and naive young woman named Tatiana Romanova. The assassin who will eventually kill both Bond and Tatiana: Red Grant.

The film catches up with Bond at the 18 minute point, where we find him having a relaxing day out with Sylvia Trench, who he has finally decided to contact six months after the events of Dr. No. There was a plan at the time to have Sylvia appear at the beginning of every Bond movie (despite not being a character from the novels) for the first five films, a steady girl for Bond to get called away from every time, then in the sixth film she would be the main Bond girl who's with him through the entire adventure. That plan fell through, and when Bond is called in to MI6 by Miss Moneypenny and has to bring this date to an end, it's the last we ever see of Sylvia Trench.

Bond gets the briefing from M that Tatiana has contacted the head of Station T in Turkey, offering to defect with the Lektor and saying that she's in love with Bond. Bond and M know that this has to be a trap, Bond figures that the girl would have to be "mental" for her story to be true, but the chance of getting the Lektor is too good to pass up. They have to go ahead with Tatiana's defection and see how things play out.

M then calls the Equipment Officer from Q Branch into his office. This is the same character, Major Boothroyd, who was played by Peter Burton in Dr. No, in which he replaced Bond's Beretta with the Walther PPK. However, Burton was not available when From Russia with Love was filming, so the character was recast with Desmond Llewelyn, who would go on the play the role (and gain the nickname Q) in seventeen films total, making his last appearance in 1999's The World is Not Enough. This time, Q gives Bond a briefcase loaded with ammunition, a folding sniper rifle, gold coins, a throwing knife, and a tear gas catridge that will go off if the case is opened incorrectly.

After some quick flirting with Moneypenny, Bond is off to Istanbul. When he lands at the airport, as in the airport scene in Dr. No, there are people around who take notice and will come into play later in the story, and there is a bit of a reversal of the situations in the previous film. 

Bond is taken to meet with his local contact, Kerim Bey, who is one of the most likeable allies that he has ever had in the series. The character is wonderfully played by Pedro Armendáriz. Unfortunately, there was tragedy behind the scenes. During filming, Armendáriz was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had worked on the 1956 film The Conqueror, which was shot on soil contaminated by fallout from nuclear tests, and Armendáriz was one of the nearly 100 members of the cast/crew who were diagnosed with cancer by 1981. Armendáriz was determined to continue working on From Russia with Love and his doctor cleared him to take a couple weeks to do so. The production schedule was rearranged and all of the Kerim Bey scenes moved up to be shot over the two to three week period. His role was successfully completed and Armendáriz left behind a great, memorable performance.

Bond hasn't much to do in Istanbul other than wait for Tatiana to make contact with him, but there's enough strangeness and intrigue going on to keep him busy. He's being shadowed by two separate threats: Red Grant and a couple local Bulgars working for the Russians. Kerim Bey's men are regularly followed by the Bulgars and in turn Bey's men follow them, they have a "sort of understanding". This truce is destroyed when Grant kills one of the Bulgars.

Kerim Bey's office is bombed soon after. Luckily, Bey's restless mistress had just called him out of the explosion's range. When Bey with (perhaps false) reluctancy agrees to go his mistress, he speaks a line that I repeat often, when I'm about to get back to doing something that I'm not enthused about: "Back to the salt mines."

After doing some spying on the Russians, Bey takes Bond to a nearby gypsy camp, a place where he can hide out from the Bulgars. Things are not harmonious at the camp either, even aside from the fact that we see that the place is being watched by Bulgars as soon as Bond and Bey arrive (they are not privy to the information that the audience is). Two of the gypsy girls are feuding over the same man and will settle their argument in the gypsy way: with a fight to the death. The girls, Vida and Zora, are played by Aliza Gur and Martine Beswick, and this wouldn't be Beswick's only turn as a Bond girl. She returns as a different character in Thunderball. 

Vida and Zora have an intense scuffle, but are interrupted when the Bulgars attack the camp. Bond coolly moves among the violence, helping out gypsies and dispatching Bulgars when the situation arises, all the while having an unlikely guardian angel: Grant is watching from afar with a gun, keeping Bond safe. Bond can't be killed yet. That's Grant's job to do later.

Having saved the gypsy chief's life during the battle, Bond is made an honorary son of the man and in turn makes a request: he asks for the girl fight to be called off. The chief declares that Bond will make the decision of which girl wins the dispute, and both of them are his until he makes the choice. "This might take some time."

A great, moody suspense scene plays out the next night, as Bond and Bey, armed with the sniper rifle Q supplied, stakeout a building that the dangerous Bulgar Krilencu is hiding in. Painted on the side of this building is a large ad for Call Me Bwana, a Broccoli/Saltzman production starring Bob Hope and Anita Ekberg that came out between Dr. No and From Russia with Love.

When Bond returns to his hotel room, Tatiana finally makes contact. She's waiting for him, naked in his bed. The interaction between Bond and Tatiana here has been regularly used to screen test potential Bonds and Bond girls ever since. Tatiana is following orders by hooking up with Bond, but her faked crush on him almost instantly becomes real. Unbeknowst to Bond and Tatiana, they're being filmed through a two-way mirror. A British agent making love to a Russian agent. Bond has played right into the sex scandal part of SPECTRE's plan.

In the novel, Tatiana was able to just walk out of her work with the Lektor in her bag, since the Russians were in on it. For the film, getting the Lektor is a bit more complicated, but Bond and Bey work it out, with Red Grant observing from the shadows.

With the Lektor in hand, Bond and Tatiana are set to escape from the country on the Orient Express. It's on this famous train that Grant is meant to step in and finish his job. In the novel, this was the first time that Grant re-appeared in the story since the early chapters. One of the best changes that the screenwriters made for the film was to make Grant a presence throughout, stalking around and racking up kills, making sure that no outside elements took the plan off track. Due to the slight changes, the violence from the Bulgars also makes more sense in the film than it does in the book. 

Grant openly approaches Bond and introduces himself as a fellow British agent named Nash. Grant isn't entirely convincing in his act and he comes off as a bit odd, he's got an annoying predilection for calling Bond "old man" and Bond takes note of his paux pas of ordering red wine with fish at dinner, but his act gets him close enough to strike.

Revealing his true identity, Grant pulls a gun on Bond and promises to make his death slow and painful, "a particularly unpleasant and humiliating one" like Blofeld requested. He intends to shoot Bond in various non-vital points of his body until he begs to be put out of his misery. When Bond manages to fight back against him, the brutal brawl between the men in the close quarters of the train compartment is one of the best choreographed, shot and edited fights in the series and remains one of the most popular.

The fight with Grant has always felt like the big climax of the film to me. It's perfect, it's exciting, it's all that was really needed. What follows it is another of the big changes from the novel: two big, back-to-back action sequences as Bond and Tatiana make their escape from the train. First, their truck is chased down by a couple SPECTRE soldiers in a helicopter. Managing to deal with that threat, Bond and Tatiana get on a boat and are soon chased down by three SPECTRE boats. While fine sequences on their own, this added action has always felt unnecessary to me, especially when there's still a confrontation with Rosa Klebb (and the poison-tipped blade on her shoe) to come at the end.

But an abundance of action in the climax of a film isn't something to complain too much about. From Russia with Love is widely regarded as one of the best films in the series, an opinion that I definitely agree with. Some modern fans get perturbed when the line "Bond, James Bond" is left out of a new movie or if there's no "shaken, not stirred" martinis. From Russia with Love proves that you can have a perfect Bond film without either.

It's also the most grounded spy thriller in the series, with a very smart, realistic set-up. The cinematic tweaks that Harwood and Maibaum made here and there to Fleming's story improved on already great source material. President John F. Kennedy was a fan of the Bond novels and had named From Russia with Love as one of his top 10 all time favorite books. Unfortunately, the film version was the last movie that he watched, screening it at the White House on November 20th, 1963. He was assassinated two days later.

Much of the same core crew from Dr. No returned for From Russia with Love - director Terence Young, cinematographer Ted Moore, editor Peter Hunt. One notable absence is production designer Ken Adam, who was busy working on Dr. Strangelove when the second Bond was filming. Art director Syd Cain took over, with a more naturalistic look. Cain has said that he prefers when his sets aren't noticed, they're just background to the actors. This approach works, as the Istanbul locations are beautiful enough on their own. Cain did take the opportunity to design a very impressive set for the scene where Kronsteen is introduced at a chess game.

Sean Connery is in top form as Bond and, as discussed, he has a great ally here with Pedro Armendáriz as Kerim Bey. Though her character is completely out of her element, Daniela Bianchi is very appealing as Tatiana. Like Ursula Andress (and most of the other actresses in Dr. No) before her, Bianchi was dubbed due her accent. In Bianchi's case, her Italian accented voice was replaced by the voice work of Barbara Jefford.

The villains are a memorable, detestable lot: Vladek Sheybal as the smarmy Kronsteen, Lotte Lenya as the unpleasant Rosa Klebb. As played by the great Robert Shaw, Grant is an unnerving presence and a very imposing physical threat. Grant and Klebb are two of the best villains in the series.

After the success of Dr. No, the producers were confident enough in their franchise to inform the audience at the end of this film that, even though they had reached the conclusion of From Russia with Love, there were more Bond adventures to come. They were right to be confident. From Russia with Love was one of the highest grossing films of the year, and the promised third film followed 11 months later. 

1 comment:

  1. "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" is my favorite Bond film featuring Connery. It's not perfect - mainly the film's last 30 to 40 minutes - but I still love it.