The good, the bad, and the Bond: Re-evaluating 007 – From Russia with Love
NOW THE AWKWARD first steps are out of the way with Dr. No, it’s time to examine one of the most acclaimed films in the series, beloved by fans and critics alike. Often considered to be the high point of the Connery era, it is, of course, From Russia with Love.
Daniel Abbott: Buoyed on the back of Dr. No’s success, MGM proffered its immediate follow-up with double the budget (which was promptly exceeded), double the locations and double the production problems. Returning director Terence Young’s filming helicopter crashed into a river, Sean Connery was almost decapitated by a rotor blade and thousands of Turkish onlookers flocked to watch the filming. More ambitious by far than its predecessor, From Russia with Love also bettered it in every conceivable way, providing the truly emphatic introduction that the cinematic Bond needed.
The score is brasher and wilder, taking the playfulness of Dr. No and running with it. Young’s direction is more assured, taking a firmer grasp on the material and tone, adding a variety of settings in Istanbul beyond mere panoramas, including cloacal sewers doubling as surveillance sites and a rural gypsy camp. The spirit of adventure and exoticism imbues the film, lending buccaneer flavour to a twisting plot with Bond and double-agent accomplice Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) on the run from SPECTRE and their silent pursuer, Donald “Red” Grant (a chilling Robert Shaw).
For all its escapades, however, the film is surprisingly restrained. Bond doesn’t arrive until 20 minutes in, an even longer delay than his Dr. No introduction. Bond and Tatiana do not meet for an hour, half the run-time. The narrative is built on suspense and slow-burn, but the pace never rambles as it was wont to do in Dr. No. The constant presence of Shaw’s Grant, lurking in the shadows, is undoubtedly the main catalyst, his silent grimace a constant reminder of the threat Bond faces.
The humour is (usually) perfectly pitched between embarrassing innuendo and razor wit, Connery in particular exercising machismo repartee in his Savile Row suits. Pedro Armendáriz’s turn as Kerim Bey, the head of intelligence in Istanbul, provides a running commentary of one-liners and smiling pleasantries. (The film was his last; dying of cancer, likely contracted as a result of filming The Conqueror, he smuggled a gun into his hospital and shot himself.)
We also get first appearances from Desmond Llewelyn’s Q (nee Major Boothroyd) who hands Bond the life-saving booby trap attaché case, the first instance of a true Q gadget. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Anthony Dawson, credited as “?”, voiced by Eric Pohlmann) also appears, stroking his lovely white cat. Both these characters would become recurring icons in the series, helping to further craft its self-contained universe.
Already distinguishing themselves from Ian Fleming’s novels, the early Bond films reached their peak with From Russia with Love, its lean intelligence and camaraderie drawing from both The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and North by Northwest (homaged in the helicopter chase; Hitchcock was approached to direct). Later films would emulate the outlandish, goofy fun of Goldfinger; had they inherited the smarts, charm and Cold War grit of From Russia with Love, we might have had a very different franchise.
Jozef Raczka: Well, at least when last time I asked, “Is that the best you can do?” it, thankfully, was not. From Russia with Love opens immediately better than Dr. No with a tense stalk through the darkness and a pre-credits cliffhanger as James is shot. Obviously we know ol’Jimmy isn’t going to die because it would really halt the film’s momentum, but for those of us able to disengage our critical ‘film knowledge’ heads, it’s a great opening.
If we continue to consider the positives of FRWL, it has a rip-roaring finale full of betrayal, intrigue, helicopters and knife-shoed nasties! If this film was just the first 15 minutes and the last 15, it would be a really difficult job to find much to be critical about. But, luckily for me, the middle of this film exists too.
Immediately after that brilliant, exciting opening and another vintage Bond opening credits sequence, we go back to talking in corridors, misplaced innuendo and thinly veiled threats. Any tension that was built feels like it was dissipated nigh-on instantly. I understand that the high-concept antics of Bond require quite the bit of exposition to explain the who, what, where and why of the villain, but it still feels in retrospect like a series of conversations in need of some action.
As always, John Barry’s soundtrack is stellar, if a little heavy on employing the main theme as a leitmotif, and the cinematography seems a lot smoother than last time round, but the film feels a little dated. It’s quite definably a 60s film and it doesn’t really wear such a title well feeling more like a relic than a time capsule. It doesn’t help that, in terms of 60s gender politics, it plays James Bond slapping a woman away from a phone (especially with the role played by noted woman-slapping advocate Sean Connery) is played as a gag.
Which brings me to my major problem with the Bond franchise – Sean Connery. The original and to some, the best, James Bond is my least favourite. I’m not saying he gives a bad performance, but where others have managed to find a charm in Bond’s ‘antics’, Connery always leaned too heavily on the sleazy side of performance while assuming that you were going to like him anyway.
His attitude towards the character is the personification of a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude and, yes, I know that there’s always the argument to be made for “it’s a product of its time” but, heck, I’m looking at it from a modern context. I’m not saying the more modern films actively improve these attitudes, but at least they have the decency to judge Bond a little harder for his actions.
It’s hard to really analyse something when you know your main critique boils down to, “I just don’t like the guy,” but I don’t. Thank goodness for Roger Moore coming up soon, that’ll be a nice change of pace. Maybe I need to go watch Zardoz again. See if that helps.