Before starting off today, let me be amongst those that wish for a very Merry Christmas to you and yours and everyone in between as well! Hard to believe that 25 days have passed since I started this venture and for those of you that have stuck with me, it has been a study in the lusty busty world of James Bond 007! Why yes, I have been drinking, why do you ask? Anyway, let’s dive into the top of yet another meaningless netinterweb list!
Back in 1963, President John F. Kennedy listed his top ten favorite books. In and amongst all the various kama sutra translations and yachting manuals was one of Ian Fleming’s best Bond novels, From Russia With Love. Not believing their luck and looking for a follow-up to Dr. No, EON Productions decided to strike while the proverbial iron was hot, choosing From Russia With Love as the next Bond film. (By the way, the resulting film was the last one Kennedy ever saw before going on a certain Texas trip in late November 1963. Don’t see Oliver Stone mentioning that little tidbit in JFK, do you?)
Fortuitously, From Russia With Love is one of the best Fleming adventures. The Cold War thriller spent just as much time on the background plot as it did on the payoff. The first half of the book is more concerned with the entire set-up of the baddies before Bond even enters into the novel. This is rather fun because in the book, you already know where everybody stands, who the players are, and now you get to follow 007 figuring it out for himself along the way. The story concerns the Russian organization SMERSH setting up a defector with a code encryption device as a decoy to finally catch and be rid of Bond once and for all.
Using much of the Fleming novel as a basis, the producers knew they were on solid ground. The only caveat the film made was changing the organization from SMERSH over to SPECTRE This took the focus off of the actual Russians, which avoided heating up the Cold War in 1963 somewhat, and instead made the independently evil SPECTRE the one that was actually pulling the strings between the Russians and the British. SPECTRE also wanted this code encryptor for their own nefarious reasons. This slight script change definitely showed SPECTRE to be a even more cunning organization than was first displayed in Dr. No.
Sean Connery was back as Bond and he seemed to be fitting into the role quite nicely. Connery was definitely more confident with the character onscreen. Again this movie doesn’t make Bond out to be some superman. In both the book and the movie of From Russia With Love, we see a Bond that is being played and the entire story hinges on deceiving him throughout. Connery plays it with the uncertainty that a normal person placed in the same situation would react with. There’s vulnerability there and Sean definitely shows more dimensions than he probably ever did again with the character.
Accompanying Connery along for the ride is Pedro Armendáriz as Ali Karim Bey, head of intelligence in Turkey. Karim Bey is a wonderful character and Armendáriz plays him with verve and life. One wishes that there was more of him in later Bond adventures. Unfortunately, Armendáriz was discovered to be ill with terminal cancer at the time of filming. As he was visibly in pain, the production arranged to have his scenes finished as early as possible. Afterwards, Armendáriz went to check in at the UCLA medical center. There he killed himself with a pistol he smuggled in. A tragic end to be sure, but thankfully he gave a wonderful final performance to remember him by in this film.
Daniela Bianchi was cast as Tatiana Romanova, the unwitting decoy that was sent out to lure Bond into the trap. Bianchi is very lovely, effectively playing someone that is not aware of the entire situation. Bianchi is quite able, rather good throughout, and has a good chemistry with Connery. Not that it would be hard to have chemistry with Connery at this stage in his career.
First up on our baddie hit parade is Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb, former SMERSH agent now working for SPECTRE. She is the one that brings Romanova into the plot. Lenya plays Klebb almost as vile as she is in the book. A rather disgusting character throughout. Klebb’s the one with the famous knife out of the shoe gag that she uses to try to kill Bond, by the way. Coincidentally, she’s also the same Lotte Lenya that gets mentioned in the song “Mack The Knife”. If you don’t know that song, chances are you aren’t reading this anyway.
Next up is Red Grant, played by Robert Shaw. Grant is a hardnosed killer, busy ensuring that the plot goes ahead as planned behind the scenes in real time. The fight he has with Connery in a crowded train stateroom is expertly coordinated and edited. Of course, Shaw does take a moment to talk about how he was part of crew that was attacked by a great white shark but not before he was taken in a confidence game played by guys that looked a lot like the guys from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But I am digressing wholeheartedly and rapidly.
From Russia With Love gives us our first opportunity to see Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Well, to be accurate, we first see only the back of Blofeld’s head, but he is there, full head of hair and all. Yes, you heard me right, he has a full head of hair here. Come to think of it, he’s also fully coiffed in his faceless moment in Thunderball too. So then why the jump after that to having Blofeld be bald in You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? And then why give him silvery hair in Diamonds Are Forever? Then why go back to being bald again in his non-legal appearance in For Your Eyes Only? Does anyone else care? Do you? Who’ll say 76? That’s the spirit, 1776!
Perhaps Blofeld is actually Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor from the Superman movies. After all, Luthor does use a variety of different wigs to cover his baldness. I think it fits. Anyway, I know you don’t care, I just wanted to vent about the frustratingly unnecessary continuity nonsense in this films at times. You’re welcome.
In From Russia With Love, we also get our very first pre-credits teaser sequence for the series! Here we see Red Grant performing a live cat-and-mouse assassination training exercise. He is hunting Bond across a villa’s courtyard and actually gets a hold of him, strangling Bond to death. Or did he? It turns out it’s a guy in a very good Connery mask. Why SPECTRE would have their live targets wear Connery masks for any reason other than misdirecting a movie audience that they shouldn’t be aware of in the first place is beyond me. All I know is that the sequence was born of trying to solve an editing problem more than anything else but it is still amazingly effective over 50 years later. It set the bar rather high for all the 007 movies that followed.
The stunt sequences are quite good as well. There’s the boat chase that ends in an inferno caused by Bond’s flare gun, an shooting fracas at a gypsy camp, and a helicopter attack that is quite derivative of a similar scene in North By Northwest where Cary Grant is threatened by a crop dusting airplane. However unlike Grant, Connery did most of his own stunts in this, barely getting out of the way of the dive-bombing helicopter until the last minute. The difference shows in the movie, especially when you see how close Connery came to being impaled or decapitated.
The music is the first full Bond score composed by John Barry and was a triumph from start to finish. (Why didn’t they just hire him to rescore all of Dr. No as long as he was at it?) The title song is rather tame crooner fare, sung by Matt Monro. Monro is best known for being someone you hire when you can’t afford Frank Sinatra. And as long as we’re talking about the score, From Russia With Love goes back to a time when Bond was still getting “The James Bond Theme” blasted whenever he walked across a hotel lobby. I don’t care how many horns you get blaring that theme, I’m still just watching a guy either walking from the terminal to a taxi at an airport or wandering through his hotel room. If there’s going to be action, great! But don’t throw me off with the fully armed trumpet section when Bond is just pouring a cup of coffee in an obviously undramatic fashion.
Speaking of which and this is a minor gripe, but if you read Fleming, you know that above all else Bond simply adores having a big breakfast. Fleming even throws in Bond’s scrambled egg recipe as part of a story in a book. Bearing this in mind, why the hell would the producers have Connery order this breakfast from room service: “Green figs, yogurt, coffee, very black”? Um, yuck? And if this wasn’t bad enough, Bond entered his hotel room rather mundanely, which means the Bond theme was screaming just seconds before this disgusting order was placed. I think I’m grasping at dinky straws of discontent here but it is a niggling irritant with a movie that was so determined to be close to the book, yet it gets something like that so absolutely wrong.
But those are small potatoes. From Russia With Love, despite doubling the $1 million budget of Dr. No (that means it cost $2 million to make for those of you playing at home), managed to outperform Dr. No at the box office. Dr. No might have been perceived as a fluke success, but that was until From Russia With Love came along to cement Bond as must-see cinema.
The production stuck close to the source material and it paid off. I contend that the more Fleming the script contained throughout the series, usually a rather good 007 film emerged. When the producers didn’t do that, they ended up with Diamonds Are Forever instead. From Russia With Love is not only a wonderful espionage thrill ride, but it set the bar for realism that the rest of the series would be hard pressed to emulate. The stakes in the film were tangible, the locations were believable, and the actors were convincing. For this reason, along with so many others I already went over ad nauseum, is why I consider From Russia With Love to be the best interpretation of James Bond on the screen.
Well, thank you for going along on this amazing journey that started 25 days ago. I’ve covered a lot of ground with massive amounts of reediting in a short amount of time and frankly my brain is fried. But this was truly a labor of love. One can take my two cents that I’ve given from day one and try to make change, but at the end of the day, one man’s opinion is another man’s dog turd in a paper bag that’s been set on fire as a prank for his next door neighbor. But I’m glad for all those that decided to run along with me on this long adventure that has finally come to a close. Your thoughts and prayers and gift bags filled with copious amounts of cash have been most comforting!
And yet…even after all of this…I still keep thinking that I’ve missed a Bond movie. But how could that be? Hm. I even did that offbrand Never Say Never Again one. Weird. But still… I seem to remember something having to do with multiple directors and stars that quit the project midway through and Herb Alpert…and the Tijuana…Brass…
Hey…waitaminute… Oh, drat.