From Russia with Love Review
In 1963, the cramped compartment of speeding trans-continental train, The Orient Express, made cinematic history when it became the battleground for a brutal, pulverising and exceptionally memorable fight between the imposing bulk of Red Grant, agent of SPECTRE, and one James Bond, agent of MI6 and sovereign bastion of incorruptible British integrity. Ian Fleming's super-suave, egotistical misogynist glory-boy was off on his jollies again, flying the flag and sticking a very English two fingers up at the shivery climate of the real-life Cold War. Although cinema had embraced the character and Sean Connery's portrayal of him in Dr. No, the year before, it was From Russia With Love that provided the template for the ensuing series and the staggering, full-on skirmish mentioned earlier that would influence action movies in general and fictional future spies directly - yes, you, Jason Bourne.
“Red wine with fish ... well, that should have told me something.”
“You may know your wines, Bond ... but you're the one on your knees.”
Set six months after his defeat of Dr. No, Bond is now attempting to pick up were he left off with Sylvia Trench (a returning Eunice Gayson), but duty, once again, foils his plans. It had been intended that Gayson's Trench (if you'll pardon the expression) would appear throughout the movie series as a running gag, but this would actually be the last time that we would see her. Bond's mission, this time out, sounds like a simple enough one. A Soviet cipher clerk claims to have fallen in love with 007 and, in return for his, ahem, companionship, offers to trade the valuable Lektor decoding device that MI6 and the CIA have been eager to get their mitts on. Even though everyone, including Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), knows that this is surely a trap, the opportunity is deemed too promising to pass up. Bond, after seeing this clerk - Tatiana Romanova (ex-Miss Rome Daniela Bianchi), or “Tania” to her friends - in a photo, is also pretty keen to follow the operation up. However, in one of Ian Fleming's more astute and topsy-turvy plots, it is revealed very early on that, unbeknownst to either Tania, who believes she is acting under the auspices of Russian espionage agency SMERSH, or Bond and MI6, that this is actually a masterplan hatched by soon-to-be mortal nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (the unseen, but certainly heard Anthony Dawson) and his global terrorist network and haven for megalomaniacal nutjobs, SPECTRE, is behind it all. They intend to have Bond and Tania steal the Lektor, whereupon their own brutal thug Donald “Red” Grant (an awesome Robert Shaw), who is indeed an escaped psychopath from Dartmoor Prison will execute them and, with film of the pair in a sexual liaison pre-empting détente by a good couple of decades, SPECTRE will shame MI6 and sell the Russians back their own device. The rotters.
The budget now doubled from Dr. No's incredible world-wide success, uber-producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman bring back director Terence Young, editor Peter Hunt and screenwriter Richard Maibaum (along with Johanna Harwood, whose work Maibaum cleaned-up and re-arranged) and, together with Sean Connery's unflappable-yet-gritty take on the superspy, the franchise's eminent bankability and cultural thunderclap was guaranteed. Much of the series' trademarks were established with From Russia With Love. The pre-credits sequence - actually a fortuitous production-scheduling error - depicting the vicious Red Grant passing a final SPECTRE test by seemingly eliminating Bond with a wristwatch-mounted garrotte - was the first of such now time-honoured calling cards. The use of a pop song breathing life and suggestibility into the very title of the film - here a great success for Matt Monro - and the very credits, themselves, becoming a visual treat courtesy of Maurice Binder were also fostered. As was the launch of one of the series' most fondly thought-of characters, Desmond Llewelyn's Major Boothroyd, better known as gadget-master Q.
With the Cold War projecting impressions of European shadiness, the production actually headed into Istanbul, giving the film a warmer and more exotic appeal. It wasn't the Caribbean of Dr. No, but the polish and glamour of the Eastern province was still visually decorative with plenty of mosques, a luxurious gypsy encampment - the scene of a feral scrap between two demonstrative, and mighty-thighed vixens (Hammer's Martine Beswick and Aliza Gur, both models and beauty queens) and a furious gun-battle - and the evocative sunken villas beneath the city. But a trip across the continent aboard the Orient Express, the scene of that seminal tussle between Bond and the granite-hewn Grant is when the film truly comes alive. Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz (who tragically shot himself rather than face the agonies of terminal cancer only weeks after the film was completed) as 007's contact and ally Kerim Bey provides wonderful colour and personality, lighting up the screen with genuine bonhomie, his performance somewhat recalled by Giancarlo Giannini's Mathis in Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace. He has that Old School agent-enjoying-the-good-life style that would often be the hallmark of such characters in movies made a decade or more before. But this old-meets-new meshing works a treat with an authentic rapport between himself and Connery's more bullet-brained evolution of such a professional. Both love a good drink and the lure of a willing woman, but Bey is not as prone to getting into as much trouble doing so as Bond. In fact, you get the sense that his life has been downright rewarding and cosy until his British accomplice sticks his oar in. Mind you, as good as Armendariz is, you can plainly see him struggling to open the blood-bag on his arm for the scene when he takes a slug at the gypsy camp.
Connery is clearly revelling in the experience, too. There is a marked improvement in his casual, yet animalistic deportment and his rugged physicality is probably at its peak here. Even his body seems to sprout extra foliage - look at those gibbon's legs during his scene on the little boat with Sylvia! - at the thought of getting down and dirty and primal in the nastiest brawl in his tenure as Bond. His rascally nature and perpetually-self-amusing wit are still refreshing at this point, his put-downs, post-kill quips and lecherous eyes perfectly appropriate for such a smug, confident chancer and Connery's coup-de-grace, that raw, abundant ferocity - such a wonderfully stark contrast to his debonair credentials as an English gentleman - is something to behold, preferably from a safe distance. Manifesting such savage glee when he gets to grips with Shaw's thick-set bruiser that you could be forgiven for thinking that the makers have actually removed a series of grunts and growls from the soundtrack, Connery exhibits wild fury and the skills that have surely enabled Bond to get to top of his particular career ladder. No other incarnation until Daniel Craig, who maintains that watching From Russia With Love was his key into the character and the mind-set, has provided such proof-positive that Bond really can walk the walk as well as smarm the smarm. He even gives Tania a jolting slap to the face that elicits a frisson of our own fear of him, Connery's power to convey unpredictability as well as reassurance in any given situation is nigh-on perfect. Fleming always wanted his character to have this quality of on-the-hoof resilience and resourcefulness, and only Connery and Craig have managed to come up with the necessary goods.
“My orders are to kill you and deliver the Lektor. How I do it is my business. It'll be slow and painful.”
SPECTRE's colourful league of mega-villains is the stuff of legend. And here, besides Blofeld's diabolical head honcho, and Walter Gotell's assassin-instructor Morzeny, have the unforgettable Rosa Klebb (the once incredibly attractive Lotte Lenya) as the semi-lesbian Russian Intelligence colonel with a hankering for “sharp” shoes. Harsh and considerably un-endearing, Klebb has been absorbed into SPECTRE as agent no. 3, though is still cunning and conniving enough to convince in her normal day-job at SMERSH. Despite only limited screen-time and only one outing in the Bond series, she certainly has “her kicks” here and her presence and notoriety ensure her a lasting place in Bond's already considerable pantheon of villainy. Lenya's impromptu ramming of a knuckle-duster-furnished fist into Shaw's chiselled torso is a terrific moment that painfully establishes both her unquestionable power and authority at a recruiting level, and Red Grant's impossibly formidable pillar of pure weaponised evil. Grant is, hands-down, one of the most monstrous opponents that Bond ever faces - well, if you discount all those with gimmicks like claw-arms, metal teeth, voodoo powers or extra nipples, that is. Robert Shaw with his hair dyed blonde and his body honed and toned makes Grant a three-dimensional brute despite his cold-blooded desires to have Bond beg for mercy after first having had at least three bullets put into him. His watchdog attitude to pursuing his quarry is equally mesmerising. Whether appearing in a window in the next compartment down from an unwitting Bond and Tania boarding the train, or sliding malevolently out of the shadows of a church to make a killing before sliding back in again just as insidiously, he creates a figure of such magnetic malignance that he holds us riveted whenever he is on screen. The splendidly eerie tracking shot that has Bond walking down the platform to meet a contact whilst Grant follows slowly down the corridor of the train itself, his eyes boring demonic holes into 007's back the whole time proves just how charismatic he is even when he being so broodingly clandestine. Bond senses someone and looks around, just as Grant moves out of sight, but the impression given is that Shaw's SPECTRE assassin is almost electrically charged, his presence rippling through the air and tainting the atmosphere. We can feel it too. Shaw's magnificent impersonation of Captain Nash, a contact that he, himself, dispatched in Zagreb, is a stunningly delightful touch. Polite, posh and irritatingly talkative, the big man even manages to convince us that he is merely an ex-military yes-man, and we know exactly who he is!
“Explain better on the map ...” he says helpfully, bringing Bond in close enough to pistol-whip him. Watch how that once-smiling and annoyingly beguiling face suddenly changes into one of cold, implacable stone once assumed identities have served their purpose. Only his eyes betray a hint of pleasure at the prospect of torturing the great James Bond and look at the callous but efficient manner in which he nudges a gun barrel into 007's jaw as he frisks him, even though he is clearly unconscious, “Old boy.” But even such etiquette as this is thrown to the wind through a bullet-shattered window once the fists, feet and knees start to fly. Gasp as Bond jabs the blades of both hands into Grant's stretched throat, or plants a terrace-style toe into his proffered ribs. Wince as Red bounces Bond off every surface in the compartment. But try to suppress that giggle as Bond dives at Grant and comically misses by a mile. One of cinema's greatest smack-downs, folks, the gloves are off and Q forgot to pack the Queensbury Rules into that briefcase. Connery would go into such close-quarter combat with gusto again, and almost as viciously in Diamonds Are Forever when he battled Peter Franks in a cramped lift in Amsterdam, but this remains one of the series' and the star's most defining moments.
“Training is useful, but there is no substitute for experience.”
“I agree - we use live targets as well.”
Gadget-free, save for that Q-enhanced briefcase - gold sovereigns, throwing-knives and tear-gas fitted as standard - and the rather spoofy telephone bolted onto the dashboard of Bond's Bentley near the start and wickedly concise in its detailed brutality - the piano-wire garrotte a hideously clinical way to go - FRWL possibly marked the last time that Bond was delivered without any sort of overt campness. Connery was a rough diamond. He looked good in a dinner jacket, but you knew he didn't quite belong in one - just as Craig so ably demonstrates nowadays. He had style and finesse, but he also had the blood-rage and brawn of a caged tiger. He was the perfect Bond for the sixties, only time, a receding hairline, impatience with the sameyness of the plots and an increasingly lethargic attitude to the character that made his name took him away from the Fleming/Broccoli male fantasy-land. But here, speeding back to Blighty with a Ruski on his arm and all manner of obstacles in his way, Connery made James Bond live forever.
But there was even more to Young's iconic second batting than the gold-plated performances and hyper-kinetic fight-scenes.
There is a sexiness to the whole thing that is surprisingly bold, yet subtly played - Rosa Klebb's spidery hand on Tania's thigh and that still-amazing flash of nudity when the Russian pawn scuttles into bed from behind a sultry veil of perfectly see-through curtain. Yes, I know it wasn't actually Daniela Bianchi performing the titillating streak, but she more than makes up for it with that little black choker around her neck! Where Roger Moore's ladies were smooth-sheen photo-glamour-pusses, Connery's gals in these earlier films were quite uniquely sultry, sexual predators themselves. Moore's paramours were gorgeous but soulless. Connery's covert conquests were eye-candy, to be sure, but the starlets of the sixties were a different breed and even if they were just draped across a bedroom set, or falling at Bond's feet, there was the definite sense that they were - how should I put it - real women.. Bianchi's performance perfectly encapsulates this. Although a beauty queen in the recurring style that Broccoli and Saltzman saw as the perfect visual depiction of Fleming's exotic, fantasy-rich femme fatales, and a complete novice in front of the cameras, even dubbed by noted British stage actress Barbara Jefford, she projects both warm vulnerability and cold dedication. Her brusque detachment during the comically crafted dinner scene aboard the Orient Express - all sulky blankness and reined-in anger - ironically carries more personality and believability than most of Moore's leading ladies put together. Of course, Connery would encounter possibly the best ever female counterpart in his next Bond mission - the inimitable Pussy Galore (Honour Blackman) in Goldfinger. And it would actually be George Lazenby who would suffer the most at the hands and charms of an actress who could hold more than her own and grow effortlessly far beyond her character was written, perhaps up until Eva Green's doomed Vesper broke our hero's heart in Casino Royale, with Diana Rigg's fatal prize of Tracy Di Vicenzo in the simply fantastic On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
“I've had a particularly fascinating life. Would you like to hear about it?”
The interesting title sequence - the credits dripping across the undulating torso of an exceptionally flexible belly-dancer - set the tone for a film that will take sexuality as a constant reminder that nothing is ever as it seems. In Bond's world, there is as much espionage, double-crossing and dirty-dealing going on beneath the sheets as there is across the Alps, the deserts, the undersea lairs, the space-stations and the fake volcanoes. Fleming used sex as casual literary flirtation, always there though never detailed. The films, commencing with this one, despite Honey Ryder's grand, mango-shaking entrance in Dr. No, would use sex almost as much as plot-shifting masquerades as much as they would as mere PG-rated titillation. Bond may bed his way around the world, but what secrets slip from his lips as he does so? How else do his enemies always know so much about him? Most tellingly, of course, is FRWL's notion of SPECTRE making a covert film of Bond keeping his British end up with Tania in order to create a sex and murder scandal. As innuendo-ripe as many later Bonds would find this, Connery's finds it distasteful - “That must have been a pretty sick collection of minds to dream up a plan like that,” he says providing a soundbite that I'm surprised doesn't crop up on TV all the time. And this was also an incredibly risqué thing for the time. That sort of thing was certainly going on in the real world of espionage - well, it was an inspired way of warming up the Cold War, wasn't it - but for cinema's newest and most appealing hero to be caught up and implicated in such a sordid fashion was a move sure to make more than just Roger Moore's eyebrow twitch. Yet Young and co do so with verve and aplomb, keeping the context and the gravity of such a difficult situation pertinent as well as vaguely embarrassing.
“Twelve seconds. One of these days we must invent a faster-working venom.”
The great John Barry made his Bondian debut with this film. Taking the famous guitar twiddle signature tune from Monty Norman as his cue for complex, perhaps slightly anachronistic, super-spy-scoring, he incorporated what would become his trademark wall of lush themes and, coupled with the first of the series' trend for pop-ditty title tracks - here sung by Matt Monroe, but composed by Barry - fashioned Bond's iconic, timeless and enormously popular sound. But, for me, the single most important thing that Barry did here was to come up with the famous 007 theme, early Bond's secondary action cue. This morse-code inspired “Mission-in-Progress” cue, used twice in FRWL, saw active service in four more Bond outings - Thunderball (where it was extensively used for the lengthy underwater battle), You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker (where it received a sedate, romantic and almost geriatric rendition, rather like the John Barry equivalent of watching John Sergeant waltzing on Strictly Come Dancing!). Without a doubt my absolute favourite piece of music of all time - played daily in my house under normal circumstances and almost continuously when a new Bond movie is on the way - I truly wish that current Bond composer, David Arnold, could find time to pay it homage in a new score. Awesomely exciting, its impact here proved galvanising during the gypsy-camp shootout, even though it is strangely dialled-down, and then, in its full glory, during the actual theft of the Lektor. Even if it may sound inappropriate, this track will be playing at my funeral ... just after “We Have All The Time In The World” ... to give the congregation a shock as I break out of the casket in a dinner-jacket and a grin!
But what makes FRWL so immortally appealing, and one of the most highly regarded of the entire series, is that the fact that it tells a damn good spy story. There's subterfuge, double-dealing, assassinations, serious political skulduggery and, yes, even some actual bonafide spying - Bey's little periscope up into the Russian Embassy, for instance and Grant's perpetual shadowing of his targets. The development of SPECTRE and its evolution and headhunting from the old SMERSH is a wonderfully evocative element. The chess-game that Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) is seen playing near the start, before he is called into Blofeld's service, is the visual metaphor for a battle of wits that plays out across several nations, sacrificing lives along the way towards the final checkmate. Never more evident than in Bond's feint with Red Grant regarding the briefcases - a great gambit that actually depends hugely upon luck as well as poker-faced deception. Which is pretty much how Broccoli, Saltzman and Connery played it in these early days of Bond's swing-shift from bookstand to box-office.
Awesome film and very highly recommended.