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Reviews > From A to Bond: From Russia With Love
tederick | 17 Oct 2012 | 690 Views | 3 Likes | 0 Dislikes
From A to Bond: From Russia With Love
Which one is this? The spy movie. The rip-roaring sequel.
Who’s who in this one? Connery (Bond); Lee (M); Llewelyn (Q); Maxwell (Moneypenny).
Where did you first encounter this one? On DVD in the early 2000s.
Who’s the bad guy, and what does he want? Blofeld, in his first appearance. SPECTRE is playing Britain against Russia in an effort to steal a LECTOR decoding machine. No performer is credited as Blofeld in this installment (the end credit is a charming “?”) but he was played here by Anthony Dawson.
Who are the Bond girls? Daniela Bianchi as the Russian in question, Tatiana Romanova. Eunice Gayson is back as Sylvia Trench, the very first Bond girl. And of course we all remember Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb.
Opening number? A fusillade of horns and percussion bring us into an orchestral arrangement of “From Russia With Love,” set against the film’s credits being humidly projected onto the bodies of various dancing girls. Spellbinding.
What’s memorable about this one? The Robert Shaw train fight. Man vs. Helicopter. Daniela Bianchi. Boat vs. Boats.
What did you rate it out of ten, from memory? It’s well-regarded but I’ve never been much of a fan. 6 maybe.
What do you rate it now, having seen it again? I was out of my mind. This is easily a 9 or even a 10 – an amazing film. One of the best in the franchise.
I’ve returned to the sunny 1960s for the second proper James Bond picture, From Russia With Love, which followed Dr. No by a year, being released in October 1963. Terence Young directs again, and with the exception of Ken Adam, the No gang is all here – and it shows. This is a hot, classy, confident sequel, and the filmmakers seem to be as excited about making it as we are to be watching it. I have no idea what was up my ass about this flick till now – I’ve rarely enjoyed a second viewing of a motion picture this much in my life.
The Bond franchise is purportedly a series of spy movies, and yet are very rarely about the sorts of plots we normally associate with the spy genre; but then, James isn’t much of a spy anyway, being rather more of a capeless superhero. From Russia With Love, though, fits within the archetypes of the spy film like a slender feminine hand into a supple leather glove. The film is set, and cast, perfectly. It sends Bond to Istanbul and makes rich, gorgeous use of that city as a kind of Cold War Casablanca – an intermediate zone between East and West where the stalemate is fought daily in all activities, and as a result, perhaps not taken as seriously as it is elsewhere. Russian spies follow Western spies around town and vice versa, taking notes and then retiring for the evening; unofficial peace is maintained, and only broken when Russian-backed Bulgars start impromptu blood feuds with British-backed gypsies, as we see in the film’s first big action sequence. We meet Kerim Bey (played by Pedro Armendáriz, who sadly passed away before seeing the film released), Bond’s contact in Istanbul, a seasoned czar of Istanbul’s unofficial espionage subculture, and a delightful character. “I’ve had a particularly fascinating life,” he tells a captive Russian agent he must keep occupied for several hours to allow Bond to go about his work. “Would you like to hear about it?”
From Russia With Love vividly transcibes the rich ecosystem of a spy novel. Bond and Bey go out in the middle of the night to assassinate an enemy mastermind, shooting the agent as he emerges from a trap door in the side of his apartment building, which just happens to require his popping out of the mouth of a woman’s face on a gargantuan billboard. Bey makes frequent use of the Basilica Cistern, a vast reservoir built beneath the city by Constantine, which makes for a dazzling, real-for-real visual; so too is the Hagia Sophia mosque, where Bond arranges to meet Tatiana, to spearhead the theft of the LECTOR. Bond’s quick smash-and-grab heist of the device from the Russian embassy is all the more entertaining for being so glibly brief.
The enemies are richly appointed. The opening sequence, on “SPECTRE Island,” sees Walter Gotell’s first appearance in the franchise (he would later do a run as General Gogol in the Roger Moore years), training Robert Shaw in the art of murdering Bond in a brilliant opening sequence that reveals itself as a training exercise when a bank of klieg lights flick on from the main compound. Rosa Klebb, a former SMERSH agent now working for SPECTRE (and what a couple of lines on the resumé that would make!) approves Shaw for duty by beating on his chest with brass knuckles and finding no reaction. Shaw, who says nothing for the first 90 minutes of the picture before popping into a bit of double-agenting in a lengthy, taut dialogue scene with Bond on the train, is terrific. And yes, there’s that fight – a knuckleduster free-for-all in the train car lit by nothing but the blue emergency lights, as Bond and Red Grant beat the hell out of each other with their bare hands. It’s vivid and visceral in a way that movie fistfights wouldn’t be again till the Bourne years.
Throughout, Connery and Bianchi make for one of the all-time best pairings of Bond and leading lady. Tatiana is delightfully un-coy – the early sequence where Klebb interrogates her on her feelings about sleeping with a man she is not in love with is revealing – and Bond’s first glimpse of Tatiana through a silk curtain, nude and slipping furtively into his bed, is alluring in a way that explicit nudity could never hope to be. There’s such unabashed pleasure in the sex of it all – of Tatiana seducing Bond, who pursues her into the bedroom wearing only a towel and his gun; and of the slow, naughty pullback revealing the enemy agents watching them make love from behind a two-way mirror, recording it all.
It doesn’t hurt that Bianchi is quite completely stunning in the role – more Ursula Andress than Ursula Andress, a kind of Bond Girl 2.0. I tend to remember her, and all of the Bond girls, as more demure than Tatiana is portrayed here – she might not know precisely who she is working for, but Tatiana is more of a schemer, and such a willing participant in this game of sexual subterfuge that it’s hard not to fall dizzily in love with her while watching the film. Against her, Connery’s Bond remains a man’s man who defines the art form. (As is true of all the great Bonds, Connery makes ordering breakfast sound like an act of decadent pleasure, a gentleman’s pursuit. Here: “Breakfast for one at nine please. Green figs, yogourt; coffee, very black.”) That this Bond is one of the few in the franchise who will cruelly slap a woman, even his lover (especially his lover?) to get information is a particular signpost of a clear, compelling, and revoked psychology to which we in the 21st century no longer have unalloyed access. Bond’s movements in From Russia With Love carry a frisson that has vanished into history.
From A to Bond counts down the Bond movies, in alphabetical order, every day of the week leading up to the release of Skyfall. If you live in Toronto, From Russia With Love is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 26 and 27, November 11, and December 26. If not, the entire series is available on blu-ray.