Cinematic Century

1963 – From Russia With Love

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Note: This article more or less ran last year in my Bondathon project, because it seemed ridiculous to write a similarly structured article about the same movie twice.

 

So far during the run of this Cinematic Century project I’ve encountered a few movies that I’d already spoken about here on the site. Usually they were from the earlier days of the website, and I was able to find some new way to discuss the film, and hopefully some new insights into it. But, things are a little different this week. When it came to picking my favorite film of 1963 there was no other choice for me than the second film in the James Bond franchise, From Russia With Love. The only weird thing is, I’ve already talked at length about From Russia With Love last year. To the point where it felt ridiculous writing another article about it. And this gave me a weird conundrum. Should I rerun that article, or should I lie to myself and you all and say a different film from 1963 was my favorite? I decided to do the potentially lazier but more truthful thing, and rerun today’s article with some slight alterations. For two reasons, I guess. First, I love this movie. There’s not use denying the fact that this is not only my favorite film of 1963 but one of my favorite films of all time. And second, I have a whole bunch of blindspots for 1963. It’s kind of shocking how many films from 1963 are ones that have been on my list of films to watch, and have just never gotten around to. I know it’s shameful to have never seen things like the Birds, 8 1/2, or The Great Escape, but I’ve just never gotten around to them. I’m sure they’re great, and I want to see all three. But I can’t imagine that they’re From Russia With Love good. At least to my weird self. And the other movies I’ve seen from 1963, while incredibly solid, aren’t really up to snuff. I mean, the Pink Panther is a terrific film, we all know that, but it can’t hold a candle to seeing James Bond go on his greatest adventure.

This film, like most of the early ones, is based on the Ian Fleming novel of the same name, and I think it’s probably the film that’s most similar to it’s source material. Bond movies are often rather liberal with their adaptation of the Fleming novels, often leading to scenarios where you can barely recognize similarities between the two. The Fleming novels often have a lot of issues, and have frequently aged even worse than the films in regards to social norms, so you can’t really fault EON for not wanting to translate them perfectly to the screen. But this one is different. This novel, which I would also consider my favorite, is a truly great read, and probably the most important of the whole series. It was the fifth book of the series, and is largely considered the book that brought the series some respect and love in America. And it’s all thanks to President John F Kennedy including it on a list of his ten favorite novels. And since the early 1960s was a time when people respected their politicians and wanted to be like them, people jumped on the series and started enjoying the novels, putting them down a path that eventually lead to this film being made. And, after the surprise success of Dr. No, United Artists decided to double the budget of the first film to bring From Russia with Love to life. And it paid off. The film was bigger, crazier, and generally more lavish than the first, but it was an even bigger success. The public loved the film, and helped prove that this was a franchise that could keep on its feet, setting us up for a franchise that’s been going for more than fifty years.

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The film begins in what is actually a rather odd place. Because we don’t see James Bond for quite some time. Instead we open up on the various villains of the film. Dr. No established the existence of a wide-spread criminal organization known as SPECTRE, and this film starts off with an examination of said group. We get to see SPECTRE’s plans right from the beginning, as we see the mysterious leader of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, meeting with two of his top-level lieutenants, the recently defected Russian intelligence agent Rosa Klebb and the master-planner Kronsteen. It appears that SPECTRE is angry that James Bond killed Dr. No and ruined their plans in the previous film, so they’ve come up with a new plan that will help them get a Russian Lektor decoder while also humiliating Bond and getting revenge. So they simultaneously send Rosa Klebb to Turkey to convince a Russian office-worker named Tatiana Romanova to convince England that she wants to defect with a Lektor as long as James Bond is the one to help her, while also getting a SPECTRE agent named Red Grant to keep and eye on Bond and make sure everything goes according to plan. Which is when we finally catch up with Bond, who is being told about Tatiana’s proposal. Bond and M obviously smell a trap when a Russian agent claims to have fallen in love with a picture of Bond and wants to give them a decoder they’ve been after for years, but the chance to get a Lektor is too great, so Bond decides to go through with it, and heads off to Turkey!

Once in Turkey Bond meets up with his local contact, Kerim Bey, who introduces Bond to how the Cold War works when you’re this close to the USSR. They travel around Istanbul, keeping away from Bulgarian spies, hanging out with gypsy informants, and settling scores that Kerim has built up over the years, and just generally plan out how things are going to work. And while all of this is going on Bond is unknowingly being stalked by Red Grant, who is keeping Bond alive for the true revenge. Which is right when Bond finally meets Tatiana. Which of course means that the have sex in his hotel room, which just so happens to be filmed by SPECTRE. Bond starts spending time with Tatiana, confirming that she actually knows where the Lektor is, and that she wants to defect with him. And gradually, she actually does decide to defect with James, and helps him and Kerim cause an explosion at the Russian consulate building, giving them time to steal the Lector. At which point they have to flee and get Tatiana and the Lektor out of Turkey, which means they’re going to have to get on the Orient Express. Unfortunately they get spotted by a KGB agent, who manages to kill Kerim on the train before getting killed himself. So Bond sends word that he needs a backup agent, which is intercepted by Red Grant, who is finally ready to make his introduction. Grant pretends to be a British agent, just like Bond, and offers to help. And after drugging Tatiana Grant gets the upper hand on Bond, and reveals his true intentions. He’s going to take the Lektor, bring it to SPECTRE, kill Bond and Tatiana, and use their sex-tape to discredit both the British and the Russians. Bond manages to defeat Grant, through sheer luck and after having a brutal train-fight, and then makes the executive decision that they need to get the hell out of there. Bond and Tatiana grab the Lektor, escape the train, and after a boat chase they end up getting to Venice, where they’re finally free. Well, except for when Rosa Klebb and her poison-bladed shoe show up, but Tatiana proves loyal to James after all, and saves him, letting the British win yet again. Giving SPECTRE more reason to hate Bond.

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There’s just so much to love about this film. I could watch it over and over, and never tire of it. I think this is the best that Sean Connery is in the franchise, and he puts in an amazing performance as the spy we all love. I adore Pedro Armedariz as Kerim Bey, and he quickly becomes one of my favorite Bond allies of all time. Daniela Bianchi maybe isn’t the best as Tatiana, but she’s far from the weakest Bond girl we’ve gotten. Really everyone in the film is putting in a tremendous performance, but the real star of the show here is Robert Shaw, playing what may be my all-time favorite Bond villain. I mean, Red Grant is just perfect. He’s the evil James Bond. He has the same set of skills, he’s just as deadly, and he even gets the upper hand on Bond. The only reason that Bond escapes that train battle is because of luck. Grand doesn’t know that there’s a secret way to open the standard-issue attache case that 00 Agents get, and Bond manages to trick him into opening the wrong way. The two are almost perfectly matched, and Robert Shaw puts in a genuinely intimidated and frightening performance. There are some issues with the film, like the more or less needless segment at the gypsy camp, or the final speed-boat chase that really feels disappointing after the train-fight, but there’s nothing about these issues that distract from the fact that this movie is amazing.

But the thing that really interests me about this movie is just how realistic the film is. The novels, by and large, take place in a reality that more matches out own than the films. I mean, Dr. No was about a Chinese supergenius with metal robot hands who had his own nuclear power plant, and was using it to topple American rockets. Which, you know, is a tad cartoonish. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love James Bond movies, and they are frequently ridiculous. But there’s something great about how down to Earth and realistic the plot of From Russia With Love is. There’s no grand evil scheme involving secret bases and nuclear missiles, it’s just a story of revenge. SPECTRE is mad that James Bond foiled their plans, so they come up with a scheme to kill an agent. It’s a film where James Bond is helping a Russian agent defect in exchange for giving the British government a cryptographic device. That is something that I could easily believe actually happened during the Cold War. We get to see James Bond do actual spy work, and detective work, and that’s not something you see every movie. Usually when you’re looking for some actual espionage, you go to John le Carre or someone like that, it’s not typically James Bond that you’re going to. But From Russia With Love somehow takes all the trapping of the Bond franchise, which were still being established at this point, and used them to tell a fairly down-to-Earth and realistic spy story. There’s realism and grittiness to this film that makes you think that it should come from the 1970s, and not 1963, but that’s part of why I love it.

From Russia With Love was written by Richard Maibaum, directed by Terence Young, and released by United Artists, 1963.

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