Saturday, May 27, 2023

60 Years Ago: From Russia with Love

Many film scholars and long-time James Bond fans will tell you that Goldfinger (1964) -- the third Eon film -- is the greatest of all the 007 films, but I respectfully disagree with that assessment. 

The very best of them all is actually Goldfinger’s immediate predecessor, From Russia with Love (1963). It premiered 60 years ago today.

This judgment is rendered for a number of reasons. 

First and foremost, this superbly-crafted entry in the young 007 series features a coherent, concise and extremely tense storyline rather than a series of action set-pieces loosely connected by an umbrella narrative. 

In particular, the film finds James Bond (Sean Connery) forced to survive on only his wits if he hopes to escape enemy territory: Istanbul. He makes good his escape by train, by foot, by truck, and finally by boat, with enemies in hot pursuit throughout. The last half of the movie features a relentless, unceasing push, as Bond seeks sanctuary in Venice.

And although there are some nifty gadgets on hand in From Russia with Love, namely an explosive attaché case provided by Q Branch, Bond still must mentally out-maneuver his most fearsome opponent, Red Grant (Robert Shaw), if he wishes to make use of it in battle. This fact makes the film’s climactic conflict all the more suspenseful. Cleverly, the manner in which Bond ultimately outwits Grant goes right back to matters of class and class resentment in England, a recurring motif in the Bond novels and films.

From start to finish, From Russia with Love also depicts a significant core idea, a conceit that helps to tie many moments together. 

A secret organization (SPECTRE) monitors and shadows Bond’s movements at every step, and sometimes even gets one step ahead of him as he undertakes his mission. He is a man under the spotlight, then, but he doesn’t realize it. This point is made clear by visual framing which frequently positions Bond in unknowing danger; danger that only the audience detects.

Also -- in terms of the film’s virtues -- the primary characters surrounding Bond in From Russia with Love, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) and Red Grant,  represent two sides of the same dangerous coin, a connection established visually by the importance of a “choker” to both. 

Finally, two more brief notations to make.  

From Russia with Love features one of the cinema’s greatest fight scenes: the claustrophobic brawl between Bond and Grant inside a cramped train compartment. Today the fight scene remains incredibly impressive in terms of stunt choreography and editing. It still plays as absolutely brutal.

And furthermore, this early Bond film is legitimately sexy, unlike some latter entries, which are more... let’s just say…a bit Disney-fied in their approach to sex.  The hell with "puri-teens!"  I want some sex and violence in my entertainment.

Here, Bond emerges from a hotel room shower in draped only a towel to find Tatiana in his bed. After observing that her mouth is “just the right size” (for him…), Bond beds her, blissfully unaware that SPECTRE is taping the whole affair.  

Today, this scene may not seem particularly graphic but there’s a palpable sexual chemistry between Connery and Bianchi, and the scene still goes further in terms of innuendo and deed than anything we’ve seen in the 21st century Bond films.  

In 1963, this scene in From Russia with Love was downright scandalous, and it helps to explain why Bond was considered so edgy, and perched on the very vanguard of pop culture.

They always treat a trap as a challenge.”

As the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West intensifies, a criminal organization, SPECTRE, makes plans to heat it up even more.  

A mastermind named Kronsteen (Vlaedk Sheybal) -- who works for an unseen master, Number #1 00 collaborates with former SMERSH operative Rosa Klebb to lead the British Secret Service into a trap. 

A Russian patriot, Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) will dangle out the possibility of the West recovering a cryptographic instrument, the Lektor, in exchange for a meeting with 007, James Bond (Connery) and his help arranging her defection. In truth, however, SPECTRE plans to humiliate Bond make East-West tensions worse.

The British understand they are being led into a trap, but do not know who is behind it, and send Bond to Turkey, where cipher clerk Romanova is stationed.  

There, Bond meets a British ally and local power-broker, Kerim Bay (Pedro Armendariz), who assists him in the theft of the Lektor.  

After acquiring the device, Bond, Tatiana and Bay board a train to West, unaware that Kreb’s agent, Red Grant (Shaw) has been shadowing Bond’s every move.  

When Kerim Bay is discovered dead on the train, Bond seeks help from another agent, Nash.  But Grant has murdered the real Nash and taken his place… 

“Well, from this angle, things are shaping up nicely.”

From Russia with Love plays throughout as one of Bond’s most dangerous (and hence suspenseful) cinematic adventures. Bond struggles to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together and make good his escape from Istanbul along with the object of his quest, the code-deciphering Lektor device. 

An ominous sense of menace haunts From Russia with Love thanks to several scenes -- from pre-title sequence to gypsy camp to denouement on the train -- that visually suggest a presence both literally and metaphorically hovering right over Bond’s shoulder…like a vulture.  

First, we see Grant hunt and kill a Bond lookalike in the pre-title sequence, a harrowing sequence until we see the 007 impostor unmasked.

Similarly, the final shots of this opener reveal the truth behind Red Grant’s hunt. At SPECTRE headquarters, spotlights suddenly activate, revealing that Bond and Grant were being watched all along by hidden masters.

Later in the film, Grant saves Bond at the Gypsy Camp, shooting down an attacker, and leaving Bond bewildered.  Bond writes it off as a lucky shot from an ally, but only we know the truth.  He is being kept alive by his enemies.

The most impressive of the visuals showcasing the “hidden” menace tracking Bond, however, arrives at a train station, late in the film. Bond is off the train, seeking to make contact with another agent. He walks among a crowd of travelers, and in a careful tracking shot, we see Grant on the train, moving with him, observing his every movement and word.  Bond is not aware of the danger.  We are. And the film’s sense of suspense goes right through the roof.

All these visuals contextualize Bond as being in danger “on the ground” while sinister forces “above” watch him and contend with him as though he is but a chess piece on a board.  

That’s an outstanding metaphor for the secret agent business, and the Cold War context itself. Accordingly, one of Bond’s nemeses, Kronsteen, is actually depicted in the film as a chess master. He moves pieces for a living, but the rub, of course, is that Bond doesn’t move predictably, like chess pieces do.  

The visual compositions depicting Bond in danger (but not knowing it…) contribute to the film’s overall suspense and sense of danger.  We worry for him, because he doesn’t know he is being taped, for instance, tracked (by Grant), or duped (by Grant as Nash).

The point seems to be that on the field, Bond doesn’t know, at any given moment which people in his life are actually going to prove trustworthy and so must therefore depend on his gut instincts.  

He should trust Tatiana, but doesn’t…at least at first. 

And he shouldn’t trust Nash/Grant, but at first he does. 

The question becomes why is he wrong in both cases?  

Is it because Tatiana appears Russian (hence an enemy), whereas Nash appears to be a fellow countrymen?  

Bond only begins to get suspicious when Grant betrays his lack of breeding, his lower-class origins.  In the dinner car, Grant orders “red wine with fish,” for example. 

Bond uses Grant’s lack of “breeding” to help defeat him, offering to pay him an exorbitant amount of money to let him live. In truth, he’s tricking Grant, hoping he will open the case and trip the explosive device, thus giving Bond the opening he needs. And Grant, for his part, clearly despises everything Bond stands for.  “You may know the right wine,” he barks, “but you’re the one on your knees.”

Importantly, the prominence in the film’s action of Tatiana’s choker/Red’s garrote points out that to Bond Tatiana and Grant are alike and therefore must be treated alike in some crucial ways.  They are “x” factors, or unknowns that must be quantified. 

The choker/garrote is a symbol of this fact. One item is but a decoration, an affectation. The other is a murder weapon. But Bond doesn’t always know which he’s going to be faced with (an idea also expressed in Klebb’s final weapon: a shoe with a poison knife).

One also might look at the choker/garotte symbolism in another fashion.  Bond gives a choker to those he interacts with, expressing his nature as a good guy.  Grant offers strangulation to those he interacts with, expressing his nature as a monster.

From Russia with Love’s sense of danger reaches its zenith in the moments leading up to the train car fight between Grant and Bond. Theirs is battle between two men whose capacities for lethality the audience knows quite well. We’ve seen Bond in action several times by now, and know he can handle himself in a fight.  But we’ve seen Grant in action too with his watch-garrote…killing a Bond double and other victims. 

So this fight is as much about the characters and their capabilities as it is about thrills. We’ve waited for the whole movie to see who emerges triumphant. Will it be the elite, urbane Bond, who has been successfully manipulated to the point of death? Or the thuggish but thus-far-successful Red Grant: a killer with a chip on his shoulder?

Who has the edge?  The killer instinct?

Grant has prepared for this fight for some time. Bond, on the other hand, must rely on his wits and instinct.  He doesn’t know his enemy the way Grant knows him. The actual fight is not only fast-paced, and brilliantly-edited, but buttressed by the fact that there appear to be no stunt doubles involved (though, of course, there were…)  It really looks like Connery and Shaw are slugging it out, and vying for superiority, and the sense of authenticity is incredibly powerful. The fight feels frighteningly and painfully real.  

When it is over, Bond emerges with bloody knuckles, and looks quite disheveled.  In From Russia with Love he is not yet the suave superman he would become, but rather a very human man trying to stay alive in a dangerous business.

The performances in From Russia with Love are superb, and Shaw is particularly strong as the cold-blooded but not un-inventive Grant.  Yet it is Sean Connery who holds the attention.  Here, his Bond is jocular, fresh-faced, and always lining up (or eyeing up) his next lay. 

Connery’s Bond is charming and funny, and yet this Bond is also at the whim of fate, unlike some of successors.  He is badly outmaneuvered on the train by Grant and survives not because he is stronger, not because he is better equipped, but because he thinks on his feet, and gets lucky. 

Watching Connery in action here, it is easy to understand why so many fans still retain such loyalty to his portrayal of 007.  He is thoroughly disarming, and yet also thoroughly relatable, right down to his sense of humor, appetite for sex, and obvious desperation when he realizes the cards are stacked against him.

When I write that From Russia with Love is the best film of the Bond series, it is largely because Bond is so relatable here, and because he faces such abundant danger.  It is a danger established not just by the narrative, but by the clever visuals. The form represents the nature of the content, and for me, that’s what the film-going experience should be all about.

But I also reserve such high praise for this Bond film because From Russia with Love has the good sense not to over-gird itself with unnecessary or bloating elements. The story is, simply, that Bond must walk into a trap to get a McGuffin, and then survive the trap. The film hits every point it needs to hit in service of that story.  It doesn’t hinge on slapstick humor or spectacular action scenes set over global landmarks like the Eiffel Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge to be interpreted as successful.  Instead, From Russia with Love is the meanest and best-shot Bond film, though I also boast great affection for Roger Moore, because I grew up with him, and believe that Timothy Dalton’s efforts are vastly underrated.

And so I agree with James Bond’s assessment in From Russia with Love.

 Looking back, one can see things “shaping up” nicely in the franchise. 

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