Saturday, March 24, 2018

Re-Viewing Bond - FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)

One year after the release of Dr. No and its worldwide success, EON productions returned to Ian Fleming's superspy series with From Russia with Love. Once again hewing very close to the source novel, they produced a compact, witty film that combines the finer qualities of Fleming's work with the sophisticated sense of style that director Terence Young brought to the Bond pictures.

Again the story focuses on the international terrorist organization SPECTRE and its ongoing criminal activities. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the leader of the organization, is first introduced here (seen only from behind), devising a smart Cold War plot to pit Britain's MI-6 against the Soviet KGB for profit and to exact revenge for the death of their agent Doctor No. Ex-KGB official and new SPECTRE member Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) is put in charge of a scheme to get James Bond to steal a Russian "Lektor" code machine, which she will then take from him. The plan is simple — get beautiful, low level Soviet embassy employee Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to feign love for Bond and promise the Lektor in exchange for British citizenship and James' company. Miss Romanova is based in Istanbul and has daily contact with the encryption device, so she will be able to be convincing as a mole. Since it isn't common knowledge that Klebb has left Soviet employment it's a simple matter for her to force Tatiana into the ruse without the girl realizing she's helping SPECTRE rather than Mother Russia. Knowing that something so obvious has to be a trap, secret service chief M (Bernard Lee) still sends Bond to Turkey on the off chance they might get the machine. In Istanbul Bond makes contact with Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz), the head of British operations for the country. Bey tells Bond that he should enjoy his stay in Turkey as a vacation because the chances of this defection being real are ridiculous. But almost immediately SPECTRE assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw) launches attacks on both sides to manipulate the situation to the terrorists' advantage. When a bomb goes off in Bey's office, the escalation of violence convinces the agents that something must be done and makes them both realize this mission isn't going to be a milk run. Hastily Bond and Bey firebomb the Soviet Embassy and spirit the Lektor and Tatiana aboard the Orient Express, heading west. But Grant is following close behind, with orders to kill both of them and claim the Lektor.

From Russia with Love is one of my favorite films in the Bond series. It's serious, clever and never descends to the cartoonish levels of some the later movies. Viewed as part of the series it is a slight improvement over Dr. No with better pacing and a more interesting plot. Strangely, the idea of SPECTRE pitting rival nations against each other is not taken from the book. In the novel it's the Russian spy agency SMERSH that puts the plot in motion but I really prefer the movie's twist as it adds a level of nastiness that I like in espionage stories. Amidst Bond's interlude with a band of gypsies, his careful romance of Tatiana, and the sly machinations of Grant as he gooses Bond along, there's a smart undercurrent of exactly what I like to see in spy tales. Both Bond and Grant are very intelligent and know that at times they are being played, but also feel that they are good enough at their jobs to win through. Watching smart people battle each other in a logical way is the best part of a well-written spy thriller. One of the things this film does well — that other Bond films don't — is focus on the human element in the story.

As the series progressed there was a tendency to focus on the action and spectacle until at times the motivations and the plot became nothing more than a thin trail of crumbs linking giant stunt pieces. From Russia with Love is the antithesis of that approach and serves as a good template for what the current Bond producers should strive for. This film keeps the audience in their seats with suspense and character instead of chases and explosions. Of course, the film does have a few pyrotechnics but the most memorable action scene is the incredibly brutal fistfight between Bond and Grant in the small confines of a train compartment. (That's a far cry from a laser gun battle in low Earth orbit!)

This film also sports two firsts for the series: the first pre-credits sequence and the first appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as Q, here called by his actual name, Major Boothroyd. The importance of Q to the films is obvious to those of us who love the gadgets, but it was amazing to learn that the pre-credit bit was not originally planned. Editor Peter Hunt came up with the idea when piecing the film together. Never let it be said that film editing isn't a creative or crucial job!

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