Friday, 10 June 2011

From Russia With Love (1963)

The early James Bond films are approaching their half-century in the next couple of years, a bracing fact considering they’re still a kind of cultural maxim for racy thrills, even more so in the generally de-sexed landscape of mega-budget potboilers. The second in the epoch-defining series made by Eon Productions, the company formed by Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, this is more confident on all levels than its immediate predecessor Dr. No (1962), although it does also leaven the opener’s sweaty, stoic intensity. The most believable and human-scaled of all the Bond films, From Russia With Love seems slow-paced and lacking in spectacle by the later standards of the series, but director Terence Young’s cool sense of style and the drolly humorous script by Richard Maibaum help infuse Ian Fleming’s story with a rich, incidental sprawl of character and atmosphere as well as espionage shenanigans. The series still had one film to go, with Goldfinger (1964), before it struck the pop-art balance of elements that would, for better or worse, define it, but the loose energy of this episode struck me in revisiting it as near-perfect.

Here was the series’ first pre-title sequence, in which Bond seems to be stalked and then garrotted by the lurking, blonde-haired assassin Grant (Robert Shaw), only for this to be revealed as a masked stand-in in a training session for Grant at a SPECTRE facility. The series’ chosen angle of deflating Cold War anxieties by displacing them onto the ready-made third-party villains SPECTRE necessitated some rewriting from Fleming’s original, but nothing like the later wholesale abandonment of his storylines. The formula was still being experimented with here: this was the last time Eunice Gayson’s Sylvia Trench, intended to be the girl Bond always left behind, appeared, with Miss Moneypenny taking over the job entirely. Meanwhile, Desmond Llewellyn took over the role of Major Boothroyd, soon only to be known by his sobriquet Q, and this was also the first Bond film to sport a theme song, written by John Barry, sung by Matt Munro. But it’s still not appended to the opening titles, which are projected over a belly-dancer’s undulating flesh, but first heard as a snatch on a radio and then in the closing credits.

SPECTRE’s still-shadowy boss Blofeld (credited only as “?”, two actors were in fact playing Blofeld at this stage, the body provided by Anthony Dawson and the voice by Eric Pohlmann), glimpsed, inimitably, as a disembodied hand feeding pet fish to his white cat, calls away his operative Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) from the championship chess match he’s playing. This demands that Kronsteen pull off a brilliant checkmate in order to get away quickly. Kronsteen explicates to Blofeld the basics of a plan for SPECTRE to both spirit away a Russian “Lektor” coding machine from the Soviets, and get revenge on Bond (Sean Connery) for killing Dr. No in one stroke, by manipulating Bond into pulling off the theft himself, before assassinating him and taking the Lektor for themselves. Newly-defected Russian security Colonel Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) is key to this operation, counting on the fact that her defection is still only known to the highest echelons of Soviet authority. Relying on this, Klebb pretends to be issuing official orders when  she  contacts an embassy coder, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), and commands her to pose as someone who wants to defect, who will abscond with a Lektor only if Bond will come to collect them both, claiming to have fallen in love with his dossier photo. Kronsteen figures it’s so obviously a trap that the British won’t be able to resist springing it, and he’s dead right, as M (Bernard Lee) sends Bond into the fray in Istanbul, where Romanova works. Bond collaborates with Turkish intelligence tsar Kamil Bey (Pedro Armendariz) to pull off the Lektor’s theft, and stumbles into the middle of the small-scale war enacted between Bey’s gypsy operatives and his enemy opposite Krilencu’s (Fred Haggerty) Bulgarian hoods.

Connery was really getting the hang of his character’s mix of pseudo-gentlemanly poise, faintly insolent charm, and covert grit here, but where Dr. No left him in something of a vacuum of rival personalities until Joseph Wiseman’s late arrival, here he’s challenged to hold the screen against some formidable friends and foes. Armendariz, who was dying during production thanks to cancer caught on the set of The Conqueror (1956), doesn’t seem at all ill, appearing to have a blast playing Bey, the former circus strongman turned ringmaster of spies, with a security service staffed almost entirely by his many sons, and a horny mistress whose affections inadvertently save him from a bombing. Lenya, whose name had been inserted into Bobby Darin’s version of “Mack the Knife” because of her canonical association with Brecht and Weill, having appeared thirty years earlier in G. W. Pabst’s film of The Threepenny Opera (1931), here staked a new claim to pop culture fame, whilst still trailing the mystique of her earlier incarnation, in her hilarious performance as the very un-hilarious Klebb. A ruthless butch domme, she not-so-subtly paws Tatiana when interviewing her, and wallops Grant in the stomach with brass knuckles to test his physical stamina before sending him into the field. Shaw, as Grant, is incredibly taut and menacing, matching Connery’s slippery physicality. The film builds inevitably towards the carefully anticipated battle between Grant and Bond, setting up devices that will be used – Bond’s tricked-out suitcase, Grant’s garrotte cord in his wristwatch – and then employing them in their tussle, which turns out to be in a railway car compartment, anticipating the limiting environs of the trailer battle in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) as the two men battle with a convincing approximation of true viciousness in the confined space. Their fight has feral brilliance all the more exciting because of the way Grant’s barely concealed craziness and the Connery Bond’s barely convincing impersonation of an English gentleman collide, each finally unmasked in their eager jungle brutality.

Before getting there the story meanders, as Bey and Bond hide out from assassins in a gypsy camp, which becomes a kind of throwback idyll for arch masculinity and where even the women are more than a bit savage, as Bond is treated to the spectacle of a belly dancer (Leila), and then a battle between two gypsy women (Aliza Gur and Martine Beswick) fighting over the same man, the chief’s (Francis de Wolff) son, in a moment that doesn’t so much invite camp as embrace it like a frantic nympho. Bond, after saving the chief’s life, gets him to stop the fight, and the next thing you know both hellcats are tending to Bond like a storybook Islamic prince, proving that one man can be enough for two women. Such is the most adolescent, if quite funny, episode in the film. It’s surprising, however, that this early into the series the filmmakers were confident enough to build both key plot and humour value around Bond’s fabled sexual prowess, as Kronsteen’s plan revolves around it being believable that Bond could seduce a woman into treachery purely through mystique: of course Romanova’s gambit isn’t on the level, and yet, given a few real turns in the sack with Bond, it becomes genuine enough. The filmmakers cleverly reshuffled the less pleasing elements of Fleming’s creation, which was endowed with a self-satisfied chauvinism, into a more equitable, if not always more equal, fantasy of his-and-her pleasure, revolving around the hunt for unique sexual fulfilment, as the notion that everyone had the right to the big O without getting caught up in relationship angst, and the only price you had to pay was possibly being poisoned by some swarthy assassin.

Bianchi, 1960’s Miss Universe, had only appeared in a couple of minor Italian movies before this, and was unfortunate enough to be placed between the overflowing lushness of Ursula Andress and the feline growl of Honor Blackman. Like Andress she had a heavy accent dubbed over, so it’s hard to give a fair judgement on her performance, except that she radiates the necessary mixture of naiveté and cor-blimey sex appeal, and a certain eccentric energy, as when she plays with her hair, giving herself a moustache, as if she too mightn’t mind joining in the boy’s games. If there’s a problem with From Russia With Love, it’s that because of the series’ deliberate avoidance of moral and psychological questions, and the inevitable nature of its outcomes, it couldn’t quite imbue more prosaic spy business with the necessary sense of threat, and with such relatively realistic action as here, that’s a bit of a liability. Yet the film does sustain a dramatic tension that few of the Bond films quite wield, in detailing Bond’s easy working partnership with Bey, belonging as they both do to not only the fraternity of spies but the society of bull males, the menace of Klebb and Grant waiting in the wings for their chance, and the sheer colour of the film’s locations. Bond is a terser, more behaviourally convincing agent at this stage, not endangering himself and missions in being distracted by easy lays, even as his relationship with Tatiana has a stronger flavour of real romanticism to it. There’s a strangely striking scene in which Bey shoots Krilencu, who tries to escape his hideout via a secret hatch located in the mouth of a giant Anita Ekberg (actually a giant billboard for the Broccoli-Saltzman production Call Me Bwana), a touch worthy of Fritz Lang, even if Bond’s usual tension-dispelling quip is pretty lame.

The influence of the Bond films on the modern blockbuster movie format has not been small, so the relatively slow-burn structure of From Russia With Love seems doubly surprising and perhaps initially bewildering in that context, with only a sprawling fight scene between Bey’s gypsies and Krilencu’s to juice the first half. The otherwise careful pacing pays dividends however: as Bond and Bey’s plan to break into the Russian embassy literally explodes, Bond and Tatiana flee through a dynamited hole in the floor as Barry’s giddy music swirls with a sudden rush of venturesome energy and delight at the spectacle of these characters treating the Cold War as their own personal playpen. Bond, Bey, and Tatiana flee through ancient underground ruins ahead of a wave of rats, and the influence of this episode in particular on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), which of course would cast Connery as Jones’s father, becomes crystal-clear. The last reel finally offers a rush of impressive action, Bond’s battle with Grant segueing into a helicopter attack (intended as a tribute to North by Northwest, as Hitchcock had reportedly toyed with the idea of filming this novel a few years earlier with Cary Grant as Bond) and a speedboat chase that counts as one of the meaner series action climaxes. But the real conclusion is a bluntly physical tussle between Connery and Lenya, with Tatiana forced to make her choice, for better or worse, which one to shoot. Guess which one she plugs? Yes, it’s another victory for the successful hetero-normatives, so the playboys of the western world can sleep safe knowing their girlfriends will not be stolen by commie lesbians.

1 comment:

RosieP said...

"FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" is one of my favorite Bond films - ranked number 5 on my list - but it does have its problems. Especially in the movie's last half hour.