Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From Russia With Love

The overriding theme of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, is that James Bond is awesome.  The theme of the second James Bond movie, From Russia With Love, is that James Bond is awesomer than before.  Do you really need proof?  Fine.  One of the central plot lines in this movie has a low-level Soviet agent defecting to England because she fell in love with the photograph of Bond in her Soviet files --- and British Intelligence's reaction is "While unusual, I'm willing to believe it."  That's right.  Bond is so manly that the mere sight of him causes the ladies to defect (which sounds like a dirty fetish, but is instead just dangerous).  In short, James Bond's picture is more awesome than most men in person.

The film opens with a dangerous cat-and-mouse game where James Bond is stalking/being stalked by an agent of SPECTRE, the international organization of eee-veeel.  The SPECTRE agent, Grant (a young Robert Shaw) actually gets the upper hand and garrotes Bond to death!  Well, it turns out to be a random dude with a Mission Impossible II-quality Bond mask and a tuxedo, so it's not all that impressive.  Still, we learn a few very important things about SPECTRE in this scene.  First, we learn that SPECTRE is willing to kill people to better train their agents, which is a very eee-veeel thing to do.  Second, we learn that this exercise takes place on --- wait for it --- SPECTRE Island.  For an organization that keeps the names of its agents secret (we see Numbers One, Three, and Five in this film), that is a hilariously not secret name for their secret base.  I hope that's the actual name of the island, as it appears on maps.  And thirdly, SPECTRE fully expects to kill James Bond while wearing a tux.  Sure, that's a possibility, I guess, but why go to the expense of fitting a corpse-to-be with a nice tuxedo and then have his death bowel spasms soil the suit?  Wait...don't tell me...I can figure this one out...SPECTRE has their live bait wear tuxedos because...um...their international crime syndicate uses dry cleaners as legitimate business fronts for their terrorist activities!  I feel so smart right now.

Anyway, SPECTRE's ace planner/eee-veeel chess master, Number Five, comes up with a plan that will achieve three objectives if successful: it will increase tensions between East and West (this was the Cold War, you know), SPECTRE will get a valuable decoding device, and James Bond (Sean Connery) will die for meddling with Dr. No in the last movie.  The plan is to convince a loyal and beautiful Communist worker with access to the decoding device to pretend to defect to England; she will offer to steal the device, but only if James Bond is the agent assigned to aid her defection.  SPECTRE will kill everyone involved and steal the decoder, leaving the West to believe that SMERSH (Soviet counterintelligence) did the deed and vice versa.  Bond and MI6 (British Intelligence) assume that it is all a trap, but the decoder is worth the risk, so Bond agrees to go to.  Of course, a picture of the defecting Soviet, Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi), helps Bond make his decision. 
No wonder she wants to defect...they can't even afford pants in Russia!
As far as Bond plots go, From Russia With Love is one of the most straight-forward.  We know that Tatiana isn't terribly duplicitous.  We know SPECTRE is pulling the strings, and we know who their agents are in the film.  We know that Bond knows that this is all a trap.  This is all set up at the beginning of the movie, so there's no real twist in this film.  Instead, we get to see the best espionage-counterespionage Bond to date.

Once again, Sean Connery is James Bond, and he's so good in this movie.  He's not quite as cocky as he gets in Goldfinger, but still well aware of his charms.  Heck, he should be --- the story is based on the premise that his looks are undeniably defection-worthy.  Aside from that, though, this is perhaps the smartest and most realistic Bond of the sixties; he's a little more sophisticated, a little less campy, and he's a lot more confident.  How else do you explain this exchange?
Tatiana: My friends call me Tanya.
JB: My friends call me James Bond.
Tatiana: I think my mouth is too big.
JB: I think it's just the right size.  For me, that is!
Bam!  Now that is how to simultaneously distance yourself emotionally and yet also innuendo yourself into some sexy time!  James, you are the master.  That dialogue is a little dirtier once you know that Tatiana was naked under some bedsheets while they introduced themselves and SPECTRE agents were, for some reason, preparing to film them having sex.  I guess the "P" in SPECTRE stands for "Perverts."
...because when I think "Russia," I imagine belly dancers and cat fights.

The rest of the acting is actually pretty good.  Daniela Bianchi isn't a great actress, but she's believable as the too-good-to-be-true Russian doll; this movie is so many things, but it is also one of the great inflators of the male ego --- a beautiful woman chooses to endure great hardship and danger, just to satisfy her lust for a man she has never met.  Basically, she has to look sexy and act attracted to Bond.  It's not tough work, but she succeeds.  Lotte Lenya was good as Number 3, the prototype for Frau Farbissina of the Austin Powers series, but I was really impressed by Robert Shaw.  I've seen this movie a dozen times, but this was the first time I recognized him --- he's so young, and thin, and...blonde!  He is a worthy adversary for Bond and, aside from indulging in every Bond villain's weakness (monologuing), one of the most formindable foes he faces in the entire series.  The rest of the cast are the normal bit players.  Bernard Lee returned as M with Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny.  Desmond Llewelyn made his first appearance as Major Boothroyd from Q Branch (not just "Q" yet); his character was played by another man in Dr. No.  I was also surprised to recognize Eunice Grayson as the first woman we see Bond with in the film; she's the same actress and character that Bond met playing baccarat in the last film.  You don't usually see Bond girls popping up in more than one film.  I guess Bond was a little more commitment-friendly in the old days.  I mean, if you can count sleeping with four women in one film a "commitment."  We also see the mysterious Number 1 in this film, but never his face.  He doesn't appear to be very nice, though.

This movie has an awful lot of suggestive content for a movie made for mass consumption in 1963.  Aside from Tatiana throwing herself at Bond, not even making him undress her, there are a number of oddly lewd moments in From Russia....  For instance, the head of MI6 in Istanbul is in his home, trying to read his newspaper, but his stupid wife keeps pestering him to spend time with her in their bedroom.  He sighs and says, "Back to the salt mines," and kisses her.  Callous?  Yes.  Awesome?  Of course.  Then there is the time when Bond settles a feud between two gypsy women by (presumably) having a threesome.  I'm not saying his plan didn't work, but I don't know if his plan and the gypsy plan was one and the same.  And, of course, there is the sex tape.  What exactly was SPECTRE going to do with a sex tape?  Blackmail Bond?  I would have assumed that dirty man whore makes his own tapes, probably with gadgets on loan from Q Branch.  Do they expect him to have shame over his promiscuity?  Talk about not knowing your victim.  Granted, none of this, even the threesome, is as suggestive as the name Pussy Galore, but I'm surprised this didn't receive more protests for inappropriate content when it first came out.

This is the first Bond film where the man gets some gadgets to play with.  Q Branch supplies James with a briefcase equipped with a hidden throwing knife, 50 gold sovereigns, a tiny sniper rifle, and a teargas trap to nail anyone trying to snoop in the case.  No, it's not a laser wristwatch, but it is baby steps in the direction the series would soon take.  Overall, the briefcase seems fairly plausible and every part of it was used in the movie.

Okay, so it's pretty obvious that I like this movie.  It can't be perfect, though, can it?  No, it can't.  While I'm perfectly fine with Terence Young's direction (he and Connery work well together), and I enjoyed seeing how Young handled a more professional supporting cast than in the last movie, I didn't see the point in the boat chase.  Sure, I understand that it is part of the falling action and it helps show that the Double-0 agent is always in danger, but boat chases are always terrible.  Always.  Please, prove me wrong.  The movie also disappoints by having Bond drink an unnamed mixed drink, champagne, and gypsy wine, but never his signature drink.  This is also the only Bond movie (aside from the theme-less Dr. No) to not have the theme song sung in the opening credits --- it's instrumental, for some unknown reason.  It's not even a bad song, either.  I was surprised that two of the SPECTRE numbers (the big time agents) die in this movie; it leaves things a little too tidy for my liking.  This movie feels like they were planning to build up to something significant with SPECTRE in the next film, but killing the agents we know allows Goldfinger to be SPECTRE-free.  It's an odd choice to have them so prominent here, but with nothing to lead them into the next movie.

That is totally just nitpicking, though.  From Russia With Love is my favorite Bond movie.  You can make a case for Goldfinger (and I will when I review it), but this is the one that sets the standard of excellence in the series.  It's smarter than most, but also slower than most, I admit.  However, these are the most well-developed Bond characters we will see for a few decades, and that makes up for the lack of explosions and goofy henchmen.  This is the first Bond that actually feels like a real spy story, and it's a good one.  After this film, the Bond movies take on a life of their own, mostly independent of Ian Fleming's novels, but this is tough, gritty, suspenseful, and genuinely cool.

1 comment:

  1. My favorite is Thunderball, but this one is the best Bond. However, "boat chases are always terrible"? Unless they end with a bird doing a double-take, a la Moonraker! And oddly enough, I do not think I ever found the, "While unusual, I'm willing to believe it," line odd. It must be that I saw multiple Bond films before this one and just accepted it.