Sunday, July 3, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: From Russia With Love (1963)

In one of his more peculiar missions, agent 007  was commissioned with the task of recuperating an important decoding machine, a Lektor, from a low ranking officer of the Russian embassy in Istanbul, a certain Tatiana Romanova What’s more, it appeared that the instigator of this mission was the Russian clerk herself, who hoped to defect to the West with asylum in Britain in exchange for the decoding machine. The only condition was that agent 007 specifically had to escort her. It appeared the girl had fallen in love with 007 from seeing a picture of him in a file at the embassy. Even our clearer heads agreed that the operation hinted at a trap, but the opportunity of owning a Lektor was too great to pass.

It was only near the completion of the mission, once 007, Romanova and Kerim Bey (Chief of Section in Istanbul) travelled towards western Europe via train on the Orient Express that the true nature of the ordeal was revealed: a plot to assassinate agent 007 and discredit the British Secret Intelligence Service. A recently discovered enemy, SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) had been pulling the strings all along, the chief organizer being a high end officer named Rosa Klebb, who worked as an undercover agent for the terrorist organization at the Russian embassy in Istanbul (hence how she came into contact with Romanova). One of SPECTRE’s most distinguished assassins, Donald Grant, finally made his move to dispatch of 007, Kerim Bey and Romanova, who had been but bait all long and not privy to Rosa Klebb’s true allegiance.
From Russia With Love, directed by Englishman Terence Young, works on the foundations which were set in place with Dr. No and pushes them to newer, more exciting and sexier heights.  It also sends Bond (Sean Connery) into a mission which has him in his natural element: a nest of spies where code speech is used frequently, allies and foes are dispatched in cold blood in the dark alleyways at night and most of the investigating and learning must be done in covert manner. Finally, it plays with the audience’s expectations and with the typical structure of an adventure film in that the story begins with the villains diligently outlaying their plot to assassinate James Bond and embarrass the Her Majesty’s Secret Service with an outlandish sex scandal. The next scenes show 007 receiving orders from M (Bernard Lee) to take the bate which SPECTRE (all the while still believing it is in fact the Russians who are leading them on) has laid for them. The opportunity to own a decoding machine is too great to pass up on and despite all this smelling exactly like a trap, they’re going for it anyways (which, in some ways, speaks to the pomposity the British are sometimes criticized for). The audience already knows that SPECTRE is playing everyone, including poor Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), for the fool. We also know they have sent their most fearsome pawn into the mix, the stoic and intimidating Grant (Robert Shaw). He stalks Bond and his allies throughout the mission and waits for the right moment to finally make his presence known to our hero, and even then it is under the guise of a fellow British agent. What the audience is therefore awarded is an excellent chess match in which each pawn is carefully following the exact path they have to, only that some aren’t clear on the true intentions of some of the other pawns while even those latter pawns don’t know there are others after them!

Added to this complex but deliciously devious plot are the locations, allies, action sequences and score which, on absolutely all accounts, are superior and richer than what we saw in Dr. No, which in of itself was a fine adventure film. Istanbul is one of the most unique cities in the world, with its fascinating architecture and hybrid Middle Eastern/European culture. The cinematography and audio track certainly take advantage of the sights and sounds which the city has to offer (the scene taking place the cathedral is a perfect example of this: superb mood, tone, contrast of shadow and light, etc), lending a truly ‘exotic’ atmosphere to the movie, something the Bond films are famous for. Thematically the location of Istanbul is an intelligent one as it stands at the midpoint between East in West during this epic Cold War spy game. As the wily and charismatic Chief of Section Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendàriz) puts it: ‘We play the game a little differently here.’ Soviet spies follow western spies and vice versa because it is duty, but do so with a more nonchalant attitude towards the business. When SPECTRE begins to make their movies however, things rapidly fall into a terribly violent and destructive turbine.
The allies are among some of the best has seen so far and ever will. Kerim Bey, as played by Armendàriz, is sort of the old pro who takes the young gun 007 under his wings. His knows the quarters of Istanbul, both the beautiful and the ugly, and without him Bond probably wouldn’t have gotten as far as he does. But Bey is also a fun loving character, who enjoys life, women, good food, gypsy camps where scantily dressed women wrestle to the death, and medium sweet coffee, not to mention that he has a huge grin on his face most of the time. He is the type of man who has lived a full life and speaks from experience, but who still kicks it around with enough spunk and energy to make one want to hang around with him. While it makes for entirely different dynamic than that found in Dr. No (which had Connery teamed with Jack Lord), it is one I actually prefer. Tatiana, played by the indescribably beautiful Daniela Bianchi, serves as the Bond girl, and while she never acquired the same iconic status that Ursula Andress did, I honestly think she holds her own throughout the film. There is a fine line between toying around with Bond, as she does often when they first meet, and genuinely feeling for him and wanting to switch sides. She plays the part quite well and while Tania is not as strong a female lead as some other Bond girls with regards to ‘strength of character’ and independence, she works very well in this roller coaster spy plot.

What Terence Young and his team do very well (although the following praise should also be given to Ian Fleming, author of the novel From Russia With Love) is build up the final 30 minutes of the movie which are absolutely jam packed with non-stop action sequences. Much of the first 2/3 consists of fun, sexy and dangerous encounters and meetups that slowly bring each side closer and closer to the battle lines which have been drawn behind the scenes by SPECTRE. It’s a great ride that really feels like a cool spy film, something that is more difficult to say about some of the future Bond films. Once the proverbial shite hits the fan, it gets really intense and never lets up until the final few seconds of the film. A suspenseful and superbly acted standoff between 007 and Grant, the subsequent brawl in the train cabin, a chase between a truck and a helicopter dropping grenades, a boat chase which literally ends in flames, and one of the most peculiar physical confrontations between a young, athletic man and a petite older woman. All that is crammed into the final 30 minutes or so of the story, but it all works so well because everything has been building up in a crescendo of moves and counter moves between rivals. 
As some readers of Between may know already, From Russia With Love is in fact my favourite film of all time. It has virtually everything  I look for in a movie: a strong leading character, fun side characters, fun villains, fabulous locations, a great score, intense action, intrigue, a side serving of comedy. I cannot get enough of this movie and probably never will.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Well, you choose the best bond as your favourite film. Yup, Connery is even better than Dalton.

Dan said...

No arguments here. This is one of the best Bond films out there, and it also works as a pure spy film. Excellent work all around, and there's actually some real tension during the train scenes with Grant.

edgarchaput said...

@Andrew: the choice was pretty clear. It the best Bond.

@Dan: Yes, I like the fact that this adventure has more of a spure 'spy' flavuor to it as opposed to the the more action-oriented flavour that almost all of the followinf ones would.