For some reason, I remembered From Russia With Love as a boring movie. Wrong. It’s a solid espionage movie straight from the heart of the Cold War. The film is realistic, eschews outrageous gadgets and unbelievable action set-pieces, and rests squarely on the capable shoulders of Sean Connery. The film holds up not only when viewed through the prism of the mid-60’s, but as an enjoyable and diverting film for 2010.
Mr. Connery, who already demonstrated his firm grasp of Ian Fleming’s spy in Dr. No, makes the role his own in this second film. The differences are subtle, but when viewing the films in close succession, one can detect that Mr. Connery has truly eased into the role. His walk and demeanor, already brimming with confidence, is more relaxed. The result seems to impact the staging of each scene. Whereas director Terence Young placed Mr. Connery in the center of every frame in the first movie, it’s almost as if Mr. Connery’s presence is so commanding that Mr. Young didn’t feel the need to do so this time around. This, despite the fact that there are many more characters to share the screen this time around. With such a firm foundation in its star, From Russia With Love is able to sprout wings and offer us delightful supporting turns from Pedro Armendáriz (Istanbul Station Chief Bey), Lotte Lenya (Rosa Klebb), Robert Shaw (Grant) and Bond woman Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova (although her voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford).
There is little in the way of Bond the Sophisticate this time around. No tuxedo, no casino scene, no Dom Perignon. In fact, Bond makes a critical error in not recognizing Grant’s strange choice of red Chianti with fish at dinner. No, this time Bond is just a highly capable agent, good with a Walther or a rifle, good with a woman (natch), and deadly serious about his job.
A quick thought to Bond and his women. Fans may notice Sylvia Trench as the character Bond is romancing at the beginning of the film. She was introduced in Dr. No and appears to be a steady relationship for him. In addition, for all of Bond’s ruthlessness, he rescues both Honey Ryder and Romanova when neither are important to him personally. Arguably, the latter is important from an Intelligence standpoint, though.
Two other aspects to Bond’s character change in the second film. In Dr. No, a great deal of attention was given to Bond’s awareness of his surroundings, his intelligence regarding potential threats, and his ruthlessness. In the second film, Bond is actually outsmarted several times and needless killing is done away with.
During the attack on the Gypsy camp, Bond’s life is in danger the entire time. In some instances, he shoots to kill when necessary. In other instances, he simply subdues an attacker. In some cases, there is some very odd and illogical choreography. When a Gypsy grapples with an attacking Bulgarian on a cart, Bond merely flips the cart over, sending both men into a pond. Why the Hell didn’t he just shoot the Bulgarian? Why leave the Gypsy — an ally of the British Station Chief — to fend for himself in the pond? It’s one of a few plot errors that do not reflect well on the film, but are not ultimately deal-breakers for this viewer.
The Shadow Knows
I was surprised that the film has several thematic elements that run through the film. For folks who aren’t film criticism majors, theme is important in that it can add layers of meaning to a story. It helps hold the whole movie together so it doesn’t just feel like a bunch of disjointed scenes driven entirely by plot.
Two themes are set up right from the start. In the pre-credit sequence, set in a mansion garden at night, Grant tails a man we believe to be Bond. After shadowing Bond for a bit, he strangles him. It must’ve been a shock to viewers at first to see Bond killed, until the dead man is revealed to be wearing a mask. Grant as Bond’s literal and figurative shadow is the first theme carried throughout the film. Grant is seen tailing or lurking behind Bond in many critical moments of the movie. In fact, during the Gypsy attack, Grant shadows Bond the entire time. We expect Grant to kill him from afar, particularly when he has a clear line of sight on Bond. Instead, however, he shoots a Bulgarian about to kill Bond. The most effective use of Grant comes in the film’s second half, which takes place almost entirely on the Orient Express. Grant lurks about in the corridors of the train, eyeing Bond as he strolls the platform.
In Dr. No, I wrote about the title character being Bond’s doppelganger, a mirror image of Bond. This time around, we might look at Grant as being Bond’s psychological Shadow, a term from Jungian psychology. The Shadow is that part of our personality that personifies everything we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves. Think about all those qualities you really can’t stand in someone else. That’s usually because they are your qualities and you project them onto someone else to avoid acknowledging those parts of yourself you don’t like and are ashamed of.
Grant is presented as a “homicidal paranoid” and a cold-blooded killer, who spends the first 90 minutes of the movie totally silent. When he finally does speak, it’s in a fake upper-class British accent, when in fact he is lower-class Irish — the accent he returns to after he gets the drop on Bond. Given the behavior we see from Bond in both of the first two films, especially Dr. No and the final act of From Russia, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Bond may be one step removed from being a sociopath himself. Grant is the baser, lower-class, irrational, cold-blooded killer that mirrors the refined persona Bond projects to the world.
The initial post-credit scene takes place in a championship chess match won by SPECTRE’s expert planner Kronsteen. It’s unusual to spend a full two minutes on a scene with an incidental character, but the scene exists to set up the chess motif the film carries. The plot itself is a chess match between SPECTRE and Bond, and virtually ever character in the film is the literal pawn of someone else.
The plot of the film is almost entirely driven not by Bond — the star — but by SPECTRE. It’s something a Hollywood studio would never permit in contemporary film. The idea that the villains should be several steps ahead of the star? Never! SPECTRE succeeds in breaking the fragile truce between Britain and Russia in Turkey, playing them off against each other, getting Bond to do the dirty work of stealing the Lektor — with the plan to steal it back, sell it back to the Russians, and exact revenge for Bond’s murder of Dr. No as icing on the cake.
And they almost succeed. Twice.
Everyone is a pawn in this chess game. MI6 and Bond are SPECTRE’s pawns. So are Grant, Klebb, and Kronsteen. Bey is Bond’s pawn. The Bulgarians are used by the Russians to keep tabs on Bey. The Gypsy’s are used for cover by Bey. And poor Romanova is everyone’s chess piece.
The only King? Blofeld.
Even Bond Has A Downside
There are a few boo-boo’s in the film, in the form of plot holes. It’s all rather sloppy, and surprising given how tight the screenplay is. Bey’s visit to the Gypsy camp, and the subsequent attack serves no purpose to the story. It’s merely an excuse for an unnecessary action sequence and for Grant to save Bond’s life, both of which could have been created more organically. Even worse, prior to the attack, two Gypsy girls have a catfight over a man. After Bond saves the life of their father, Bond requests the women stop fighting. So they are given to him to decide the matter. It’s not only vague as to whether he beds them both, but there are two pointless scenes where literally they fawn over Bond…but no decision is ever rendered. Huh?
On the train, Grant has ample opportunity to just kill Bey, Romaova, and Bond, but he waits to get them individually. Forgivable, I suppose. However, the helicopter sequence in the third act makes no sense. The operators of the helicopter carry grenades, but no guns? Huh?
Finally, the imaginative use of design from Dr. No is gone. From Russia is more conventionally designed, and lacks the visual pop of the first picture.
And of course…
Daniela Bianchi makes a fine Bond woman. She’s more classically beautiful than Ursula Andress, but alas, is not given much to do.
A special note about the fight scene between Mr. Connery and Mr. Shaw. It’s a great fight scene. Why? It’s realistic. It’s more wrestling than fighting, the geography of the scene makes it easy to follow, there’s no b.s. martial arts we see today, and there is no score. For some reason, filmmakers feel the need to slap exciting music on a fistfight. The sounds of the train, lacking any score, heighten the scene’s suspense. Plus, Grant is a formidable opponent.
As for the score, it’s a good one, although after showing such great restraint in the fight scene, the James Bond Theme is scattered all over the movie in the most unnecessary of places. It comes off as rather silly when all Bond is doing is walking into his hotel room.
All in all, this is a solid Bond film, and I’m guessing it’s going to end up very high in my final list.
James Bond will return in Goldfinger.
Side note: Viewers who love the Orient Express and/or computer games MUST purchase The Last Express, although it’s not available on newer OS platforms. This wonderfully detailed, story-driven game takes place on the Orient Express on the eve of WWI. Created by Jordan Mechner, who also created the Prince of Persia games, it provides all the intrigue (and more) of a great Bond movie.