BlogalongaBond #2 – From Russia With Love (1963)
Another month, another Bond movie to watch…
From Russia With Love
(Terence Young, US, 1963)
007: the sequel – a movie that takes its time building Bondworld, just in time for a cracking second-half actioner
Given the ‘same but different’ stylings of most 007 movies over the years, the most striking thing about From Russia With Love is the extent to which it bills itself as a sequel. It’s a follow-up bursting with confidence after the success of Dr. No, and quite happy to take risks because it knows the audience will lap up the continuing adventures of Mr Bond, James Bond.
So – in a bravura opening gambit – Sean Connery’s Bond is apparently offed by psycho blonde muscleman Grant (Robert Shaw, looking more than Daniel Craig’s 007 than any other actor who ever played Bond). But the truth is no less far out. SPECTRE has persuaded some poor blighter to dress up in a Connery face mask and wander out under threat of certain death; their recruitment process must be interesting to say the least. Seems they’re mightily pissed off about Dr No being stopped, so now the game’s afoot to ruin Bond’s reputation – and his life! Don’t believe that gubbins about a decoding machine. This is an enemy as hooked on Bondage as we are, and worryingly obsessed with him.
It’s seventeen minutes – an entire act – before Connery gets to play Bond for real, and in another continuity nod he’s trying to get inside Sylvia Trench’s pants again. Alas, he’s off to see M and Moneypenny again, kickstarting a ritual that’s never gone out of fashion, although there’s a new face, too: Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, whose haughty disdain will one day make him a 007 legend. Here, though, he’s been eclipsed by the bonkers training centre at SMERSH (presided over by Walter Gotell, another stalwart of the series making his first appearance) whose bustling activity will eventually be copied by British Intelligence as the Bond movies get madder in scope and scale.
What’s fascinating is the emphasis on the bad guys’ planning. If Dr. No’s plot never really convinced, here – although it’s mad and fantastical – the internal logic, and sheer detail, make it convincing. Huge effort is being made to raise 007’s game by raising the quality of his foes: Lotte Lenya’s poison-toed harridan Rosa Klebb, Shaw’s fearsome brawn and the first appearance of Blofeld, albeit here confined to hand, white cat and an anonymous character actor who isn’t Connery doing an in-joke voiceover, even though he sounds just like him. (Thank you Wikipedia for ruining a lifetime’s delusion…)
As much detail has been paid to the exotic land visited by Bond. In Istanbul, apparently, the front-line of the Cold War is being played out in tit-for-tat violence and a near-comical duty to tailing the enemy’s car. Turkey kinda, sorta feels like a real place, or at least as real as the cartoonish confines of Bondworld will permit. In other words, a world where gypsy women will scratch out each other’s eyes for a fella, and the women rear children with such production-line efficiency that an entire business can be run employing only the boss’ sons. Part of the appeal is Pedro Armendariz’s joyous old-school performance as Kerim Bey, a man who lives for sex, booze and killing Communists. If anything, the mid-section of the film feels like the Kerim Bey show, and Connery has to ramp up the sexism to compete, getting a hot threesome with those gypsy girls and jumping into bed with Tatiania Romanova the second he meets her.
Ah, Tania, the hottest Bond girl of the lot – Daniela Bianchi might well have been my first crush, especially when she’s wearing that trousseau. The film majorly has its cake and eats it in the characterisation, because it’s often genuinely hard to work out if she’s a career girl shagging Bond “for Mother Russia,” or a dolly-bird fangirl as besotted with 007 as impressionable teenagers in the audience about to spark the 1960s’ sexual revolution. The gender lines for the series are being drawn up, and, while they aren’t exactly progressive, at least in this film there’s a frisson of dramatic energy that raises the Bond girl a notch above a notch-on-the-bedpost.
An hour in, very little has happened in terms of plot, but the franchise-building achieved here would be strong enough to outlast the Cold War and a semi-regular cull of the cast and crew. And the slow-burn pays off with an enthralling second-half. Murder! – and one hell of a brutal fist-fight – on the Orient Express! Helicopter attack! Boat chase! And a nasty version of Strictly Come Dancing in Venice! All solidly staged, all given spectacular swagger by the film’s other great debut: the late John Barry, who defines the sound of Bond with luxurious arrangements and swooning panache.
And with the architecture of Bond’s world in place – the people, the places, the villains, the women – Terence Young finally lets Connery off the leash to fill the expanded role befitting a superstar. The effect is startling. He’s far more comfortable in the role second time around, pouncing with wry indolence over his soon-to-be-trademark quips (“she should have kept her mouth shut”). But that smouldering presence gets its first genuine acting test in Connery’s scenes with Shaw, and he delivers: a theatrical duel of words which unfurls with real menace. No wonder that, by the credits, the makers can joke that this is “not quite the end.” Bond will return, and this is the film that made that less a producer’s hope than a cast-iron movie guarantee.