BOND, JAMES BOND: From Russia with Love (1963)

Directed by Terence Young
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum
Adaptation by Johanna Harwood
Release Date: 11th October, 1963 (U.K)

With a budget of $1 million, Dr. No wasn’t a big budget affair, but it did prove highly profitable in terms of box office receipts and earned decent reviews from some critics. On top of that, the decision to cast Sean Connery in the role paid off. Some, including Ian Fleming by all accounts, were unsure of the casting of the Scottish actor with many casting wish lists consisting of the likes of Cary Grant and David Niven in the role, both of whom would have been too expensive, or at the very least reluctant to commit to more than one film, but which gives you an idea of what many expected James Bond to be.

Director Terence Young had taken Connery under his wing and in a Pygmalion-style story, refined the working-class actor into a class and style befitting Fleming’s character. For the most part Connery was wonderful in Dr. No, one or two moments maybe being gruffer than we had come to expect, but he carried the style, wit, and humour, as well as the physicality of the character, to a brilliant degree.

What’s more, a large part of the filmmaking team was retained for the follow up.

Terence Young returned to the director’s chair, as did screenwriters Johanna Harwood and Richard Maibaum and editor Peter Hunt, while John Barry was put on full scoring duties. Ken Adam was absent due to delivering what would be an incredible piece of production design on Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, while Maurice Binder was replaced with Robert Brownjohn, and would be for the next film as well before returning for every Bond film thereafter with Thunderball until 1989’s Licence to Kill.

In something that would probably never happen today when adapting a best-selling series of books to the screen, Eon Productions had taken it upon themselves to not follow the chronology of Fleming’s titles when putting the films into production. Dr. No had been Fleming’s sixth full-length novel, while the next film to be produced was based on the fifth book. In fact, when pre-production began on the first film, there had been a urge to produce Thunderball, but the trial involving plagiarism charges against Fleming by producer Kevin McClory put the skids on that and the choice was then made to go with Dr. No.

From Russia with Love had been in the headlines thanks to it being listed by then President John F. Kennedy in an article in Life magazine as one of his ten favourite books. It is one of Fleming’s very best novels and while the film would make several cosmetic changes to bring it into line with the style and story arc playing out on screen, the film version retains much of the flavour and narrative drive and is frequently listed as one of the very best films of the series.

Sean Connery cements his performance as 007 in From Russia with Love, while the film’s Istanbul setting gives it a vastly different geographical flavour compared to the sunny beaches of Dr. No.

What is remarkable about From Russia with Love is how it plays like a sequel to Dr. No but feels aesthetically different to the first film as well. The sequel had double the budget of the first film, this time having $2 million to play with, but it also dials down the sci-fi leanings and love of space age technology and pulp detective narrative leanings to instead function more as an old-fashioned spy thriller; the sunny beaches of Jamaica are replaced with the more gothic flavour of Istanbul, Dr. No’s island hideout giving way to the Orient Express, and a plot line involving space rockets morphing into one involving a decoding machine, the Lektor. The McGuffin of the piece had to be renamed from Spektor in Fleming’s novel due to the filmmakers having replaced Fleming’s choice of SMERSH as the antagonists of the books with the later novels’ use of SPECTRE.

Here, we are given our first glimpse of the criminal organisation after being briefly mentioned in Dr. No, and one can see the Bond producers laying down the groundwork for tropes and clichés that would become super engrained on the audience’s minds when thinking about these films, not to mention the impact it would have on many comedians who’d later come to spoof the series, such as Mike Myers.

We have to wait a while until we see our first glimpse of Blofeld’s face, but he is here, his dialogue delivered via close-ups of that famous white Persian cat, the dialogue being delivered by Eric Pohlman, while the hands on-screen would belong to Anthony Dawson who had played Professor Dent in Dr. No.

The imagery and tropes still seem quaint with lower stakes compared to where the series would go (the Siamese fighting fish here would give way to man-eating piranha in You Only Live Twice), but the sight of that cat is always strangely fun and it surreally seems at times like it’s the cat delivering the dialogue which gives the scenes a somewhat weirdly humorous and surreal charge.

For a series famous for being criticised as functioning more as action adventure yarns than spy films, there is a genuine espionage feel to the narrative here. It may feel different to what came before, but any potential genre imbalance is pretty much non-existence because everything here is blissfully confident and grandiose.

Where last time the gunbarrel opening segued right into Maurice Binder’s psychedelic title sequence, here, in a move that would become a staple of the series, it leads into a prologue that plays out before the credit sequence. Already you can see everyone figuring out the trademarks that would become part and parcel of the Bond package, and while the scene here relies not so much on Bond himself, it does have one doozy of a twist when the character that we think is Bond turns out to be Sean Connery playing a SPECTRE agent being hunted down by the character of Red Grant (Robert Shaw) in a SPECTRE training exercise and that Connery is playing a character wearing a rubber mask of 007.

Robert Shaw’s Red Grant: Homicidal paranoid, superb material.

It’s suspenseful, filled with a lovely sense of dread, backed by wonderfully moody John Barry music and is equal parts suspenseful, fun, and ridiculous.

Where so many later Bond films would be global hopping affairs, these earlier films do tend to set their locations for a large chunk of the running time in the one place, although the film eventually finds a way to travel thanks to its central Orient Express set-piece in the middle of the second act.

The atmosphere of Istanbul and its foreboding architecture, cathedrals and air of espionage skulduggery gives way to an aura of claustrophobia, what with its train carriages, compartments and corridors, eventually becoming the setting for a brilliant confrontation between Bond and Grant.

Connery cuts a suave figure yet again throughout, even more settled into the role, reaching its zenith with a definitive performance in the next film, but there are still moments that will give modern audiences pause for concern; the romance between himself and Tatiana Romanova (Daniella Bianchi) plays out in a witty, genuinely sparky way throughout, but the moment betrayal is possibly in the air, his attitude towards her becomes violent in a way that almost takes one out of the film for a moment, while the scene at the Gypsy camp involving two women in a fight for the love of one man is a scene that plays out like some sort of gratuitous fight sequence choreographed by Hugh Hefner for a film directed by Russ Meyer.

What still works wonders even today is the brilliant build and drive the film has in its second half. The first half has an enjoyable laid-back feel to it at times that is the possibly the biggest carry-over from Dr. No, what with Bond’s friendship with Kerim Bey (a wonderful performance from Pedro Armendariz in his final role, tragically taking his own life after filming was complete) and a genuine sense of chemistry and camaraderie between them, not to mention the running joke involving the numerous amount of sons that Bey has working for him.

There is also the brilliance of the scenes at SPECTRE Island and the first appearance in the series of Walter Gotell, who would go on to play the vastly different General Gogol in later films but here plays SPECTRE agent Morzeny and who delivers the immortal line concerning Red Grant that he’s ‘a homicidal paranoid, superb material’ with such gusto and good natured glee that you kind of wish we could have spent just a little bit more time at a location that stages the kind of psychotic tests like the Bond-double murdering one that opens the film, not to mention the use of live targets in targeting practice.

Then there’s the appearance of Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb, another of the franchise’s famous villainous faces. The character’s sexuality was very much front and centre in how Fleming wrote her, although like so many aspects of Fleming’s novels, the handling of that part of her character does leave a little to be desired in this day and age. Klebb’s sexuality is hinted at briefly in her scene with Romanova which crackles with understated menace and threat, but she makes for a wonderfully fun threat, and is even given one of the most famous confrontations with Bond come the end of the film.

The suspense and sense of danger builds magnificently over the course of that second half, particularly when Red Grant, played with a genuine laid back sense of psychotic menace by Robert Shaw and who haunts the film like a shadow throughout, finally makes his presence known to Bond. What follows is one of the greatest sequences in the entire Bond series when 007, having been cornered and trapped into potential death by Grant, gets one over him by using his attaché case to explode the case’s booby trap on the unsuspecting assassin, and then engages in what is still to this day one of the very best fight scenes in the series and which many entries in the franchise itself has paid tribute to in Diamonds are Forever, The Spy who Loved Me and Spectre.

Always a welcome face in a Bond film, From Russia with Love sees the first appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as Q.

It would be almost enough to end the film there, but it then lurches from one valiant set-piece to another, taking in a confrontation with a SPECTRE helicopter, a sequence that pays tribute to the influence Hitchcock’s North by Northwest had on the franchise, and then into a boat chase, before allowing the audience to catch their breath before giving us one final scene to grip us, this time throwing in the iconic image of Rosa Klebb and her poisoned knife tipped shoe.

The film was rightfully a box office smash and while Goldfinger was the one that solidified Bond as a genuine blockbuster series, From Russia with Love was the film that proved that the series had genuine legs. It’s still resolutely old fashioned, but in the most wonderful way, even featuring that old stand-by of showing us the trip of the Orient Express through an on-screen map and a red line going along its trail.

Even better, the film gave us our first glimpse of one of the most beloved characters and actors of the entire series; there is something always wonderfully comforting about the presence of Desmond Llewelyn in a Bond picture and while the relationship between Q and Bond wouldn’t be given the flavour and the comedic antagonism until Guy Hamilton got his hands on the series with Goldfinger, it’s still a joy to see him here. Even the central gadget of the attaché case is fun and starting to push the series somewhat more into the realm of the imaginative. Like so much that had been established over these first two movies, things were going to be expanded upon even further with the next film.

As for From Russia with Love, it’s a tightly constructed and invigorating entry in the Bond cannon, brilliantly scored to the first of a series of wonderful John Barry soundtracks, and showing that with a higher budget, the series could deliver the goods in an massively entertaining way. While Goldfinger is held as a high commercial benchmark for the series, rightfully so, you cannot underestimate the importance and impact of From Russia with Love. Its box office was substantially more than that of Dr. No, and was a massive return on the investment of its budget. There was a genuine confidence to proceedings here proving that the character and the series had substantial creative and commercial legs.

Bondmania was on its way.

Bond, James Bond will return with Goldfinger.

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