Saturday, 15 September 2012

50 Years of Bond: "From Russia With Love"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, and the 23rd Bond movie, Skyfall, is set to hit theatres this November. I thought now was a pretty good time to revisit several of the Bond films. I'll probably not cover every film but I'll discuss the most important films in the franchise as well as my personal favourites, which do overlap frequently. Next up: From Russia With Love.

While I don't always think of the James Bond films as sequels to one another, I feel From Russia With Love can be considered one of the finest sequels ever made. For me, it's a better film than it's predecessor, Dr. No-it has a more interesting and layered plot, stronger villains, and more effectively suspenseful and energetic action sequences. Like Dr. No, it's still a relatively stripped down affair-the next film, Goldfinger, would be the film that took the series in to a more heightened reality- which allows the film to work as a genuine cloak & dagger spy thriller.

The playing field of the film is established very well in the pre-titles sequence, the first in the series, when James Bond (Sean Connery) is making his way through the grounds of an estate, only to be killed by Donald "Red" Grant (Robert Shaw). It's unsettling and quite shocking to see Bond killed but it's not actually Bond, only a man with a Bond mask on. Grant is an assassin working for SPECTRE, the organization for which Dr. No worked. With this opening sequence, the film establishes that Bond will be a target in this film, raising the stakes from the previous film. After the title sequence, we witness a chess game featuring SPECTRE agent Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal). The chess game, which Kronsteen wins, is a good metaphor, both visually and thematically, for the film, because the whole movie is like a chess game, with SPECTRE moving Bond and the other players around the board. Of course, the chess metaphor can be extended to the entire cold war era.  

It's this authentic spy thriller tone which I love about the film. It's not about Bond facing a villain who's out to take over the world. Rather, it's about Bond being used as a pawn by SPECTRE in a effort to get hold of the Russians' Lektor decoding device. SPECTRE's plan is to manipulate Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a cipher clerk who works with the Lektor, in to convincing the British she'll defect with the Lektor, but only if she's assisted by Bond. SPECTRE will have Bond steal the Lektor and then kill him, taking the Lektor and selling it back to the Russians. In essence, SPECTRE gets wealth as well as revenge against Bond for killing Dr. No. This is all set up quite early in the film, creating an element of suspense as to when Bond will find out what is happening. Thankfully, Bond, and the film, acknowledges this is most likely a trap, but as Kronsteen says, the British want the Lektor so badly that they're willing to take the risk. This acknowledgement from both sides to it obviously being a trap is humourous-and shows that Bond isn't naive.

The dynamic between Bond and Tatiana is one of the more interesting in the series in that Tatiana is manipulating Bond even as she is falling in love with him- at the same time she herself is being manipulated by SPECTRE. When Bond finds out and slaps her, with her only being able to say that she loves him, their relationship goes beyond many of the simplistic relationships in the Bond franchise and becomes quite saddening. I like the scene between her and Bond when she's talking in to a recorder about the Lektor, only to keep asking Bond things like "Will you make love to me in England all the time"- and we see Bond's boss M (Bernard Lee) and others listening to the recording. Tatiana asks Bond if she's exciting as "all those Western girls" and he mentions that he had "an interesting experience"  with M in Toyko, to which M shuts off the recording. I like that little bit because it gives us a little bit of backstory regarding Bond and M's relationship.

Regarding the villains, what makes this Bond film stand out amongst the others is that the henchman, Red Grant, is the main villain of sorts. Ernest Stavro Blofeld, SPECTRE Number 1, could be regarded as the main villain of the film but in essence he's more of a shadowy figure pulling the strings and he and Bond never come face to face. This film introduced the concept of only seeing Blofeld's cat and his hand stroking it. Anthony Dawson, who played Professor Dent in Dr. No, plays the physical Blofeld while Eric Pohlmann provides his voice. The early Bond films did a solid job of being self-contained stories while also having SPECTRE and Blofeld be a narrative thread strung through the films, culminating in Blofeld's full reveal in You Only Live Twice. The villains of this film are always in the corners of the film, manipulating events to their advantage. Grant even keeps Bond from getting killed during an attack at a Gyspy camp. Lotte Lenya is unnerving and authoratative, while also slightly vulnerable as SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb and Robert Shaw is a convincingly intimidating presence as Grant. I love the fight Bond and Grant have on the Orient Express. There's no music, just the sound of the train and the grunts of the two men. While Bond has used his gadgets to get out of tricky situations in other films, this fight reminds us Bond isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. It's one of the most brutal sequences in any of the Bond films.

I also like the relationship between Bond and Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz). head of Station T in Istanbul, who works with Bond on the mission. They form a solid comradery. Bey is killed offscreen by Grant on the Orient Express, and while the reveal of his death is understated, when Bond puts his hand on Bey's shoulders, it speaks volumes about the loyalty and friendship between them.  

Director Terrence Young, who directed Dr. No, returned to helm this film and I really like Young's visual style in this film, particulary in  how he shows people being constantly shadowed in the film:  




There's a sequence near the end of the film where Bond and Tatiana are being followed by a helicoptor. Bond distracts the helicoptor and is eventually able to destroy it. Supposedly this sequence was inspired by the classic crop duster scene from Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, and it's easy to see it's influence. Even today, the helicoptor sequence still holds up. I like the point of view shots from inside the helicoptor as it zooms past Bond.

This may be Connery's best performance in the role, even better than his work in Goldfinger. He makes Bond feel human yet still infuses that humanity with confidence and wry humour. I like the little bits of continuity such as the return of Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). Throughout the series we get the sense that Bond's relationships don't last so it's interesting to see what happened between him and Sylvia after Dr. No-though to be fair, it'd be even more interesting to see what happened to Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). There's also the mention of Dr. No, which ties the two films together. Overall, this is a very fine thriller and while one can argue whether From Russia With Love is the best Bond movie ever, viewing it again, I see it as one of the best over all movies in the franchise. James Bond will return in: Goldfinger.

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