Bond Rewatch #2 :: From Russia With Love
From Russia with Love — Terence Young, director; with Sean Connery as James Bond
The great Bond Rewatch of 2009 continues with From Russia with Love, the 1963 sequel to the hugely successful Dr. No. Like the challenge posed to all film sequels, the second Bond film needed to be bigger, faster and have greater action than the previous one and there really was no better director to take on the task than Terence Young, the masterful director who understood Ian Fleming’s vision of the Bond world and had already proven himself more than capable while directing Dr. No. The film also saw the return of Sean Connery as Bond of course; a role that he would continue to rule over for three more films until giving it up to an unknown, Australian model. More on that in a few weeks.
From Russia with Love is really everything you’d want in a sequel. The villainous plot this time around involves a lot of backstabbing and deception. Basically the crime syndicate known as SPECTRE is looking to steal a Soviet cryptographic device and sell it back to them all while seeking revenge for the death of their comrade, the fallen Dr. No. They plan to do this by having a soviet telegraph clerk named Tatiana Romanova (played by the stunning Daniela Bianchi, an Italian actress and runner up in the Miss Universe pageant; for serious). Tatiana is told by Rosa Klebb, the SPECTRE agent in charge of the mission, to pose as a defector looking to give information to MI6. The mission takes Bond from England to Istanbul and even into Belgrade via the Orient Express. There are many twists and turns and I don’t want to give much away but it’s really one of the more intriguing Bond stories that the films have produced.
The villains are greater in number this time around. The mysterious “Number 1” is the SPECTRE leader seen only from behind giving orders to his soldiers. In this film we get only his arm and a look at him petting his famous white cat. Bond fans already know that Number 1 turns out to be none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld, one of the greatest Bond villains, who later plays an incredibly important part in James Bond’s life. Again, more on that in a few weeks. The aforementioned Rose Klebb is an ex-SMERSH agent who is, like I said, put in charge of the operation. Along with hiring Tatiana Romanova, Klebb is also responsible for hiring the final villain and one of the most dangerous Bond assassins to date, the shadowing Red Grant (played by the always incredible and terribly missed, Robert Shaw — Jaws, The Taking of Pelham 123). Red Grant is a trained assassin who is seen at the beginning of the film hunting down Bond and strangling him to death with a wire. The “Bond” in question turns out to just be some poor sucker in a Bond mask. SPECTRE truly does take their training sessions seriously.
Far and away my favorite scene in this film is the spectacularly choreographed fight scene between Bond and Red Grant that takes place inside a cramped train car on the Orient Express. As the train barrels down the track into darkness, Grant overcomes Bond in the train car as they carry a drugged Tatiana back to bed. Grant has secretly drugged the girl in order to corner Bond alone in the train quarters. The fight scene that takes place has some of the best choreography Bond films, and action films in general, has to offer. Everything is very real here. The fight doesn’t feel corny and the actors don’t come off hammy in any way. There are several moments where, even though I know there are twenty-0dd more films to come, I found myself actually wondering if Bond was actually going to get out of the situation alive. Robert Shaw was always such a commanding performer and this film really shows his acting chops. The man has almost no lines up until the fight scene where like most Bond villains, he gives away a shitload of information; but for the better part of the film as he stalks Bond and Tatiana, his actions speak much, much louder than words. Eventually Bond tricks him into opening a suitcase filled with tear gas and Grant is strangled to death by Bond with his own garrote wire–a nice reversal of the opening scene.
Even though the train fight scene is my favorite, the real shining example of Terence Young’s vision for the Bond films is found a bit earlier in the movie when Bond, led by Ali Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendáriz in his last film role, he died of cancer before the film was finished), is escorted out of Istanbul and into a gypsy camp where he is hiding out from SMERSH agent Krilencu, a man assigned to wipe out Western agents in Turkey. While at the camp, two women begin a very violent fight over the love of a man. As this is happening Krilencu and his men attack the camp in an attempt to kill Bond and Bey. What takes place is a massively choreographed battle sequence with tons of extras and lots of action. There are explosions, gun play, fisticuffs, stabbing and Terence Young (along with the help of brilliant editor and Bond regular, Peter Hunt) conducts the entire thing with grace and precision. It’s truly a sight to behold and a thing of action beauty.
What’s great about From Russia with Love is that, unlike a chunk of Bond films, it really holds up. Forty-six years later and the film still manages to excite a jaded contemporary viewer like myself. Here nothing is campy, nothing is too over the top; everything just feels right about it. Tatiana Romanova is the first Bond Girl that falls into the “Smart and Good Looking” category. I know my last write-up also contained some Honey Ryder bashing, but deal with it. Unlike Ursula Andress, Daniela Bianchi is a very capable actress and (even though her voice is dubbed) really gives a great performance as Tatiana. And again I come back to how incredible Robert Shaw is in this movie. I watched this about a week or two before watching the original Taking of Pelham 123 for the first time and between these two films, and his role in things like Jaws and The Sting he really was a truly great and underrated actor. Red Grant set the standard for all Bond assassins to come and everyone from then on out was trying to do their best Robert Shaw impersonation in one way or another.
There are several films in the Bond catalogue and we’ve got a long way to go with this but I’d like to point out here and now that From Russia with Love is one of my personal favorites. Connery feels much more comfortable in the role this time around. I haven’t mentioned much of Bond in this write-up but in a way that’s because this film isn’t so much about Bond. All the villains are so great and the Bond Girl is a lot of fun. One person I’ve not nearly mentioned enough is Pedro Armendáriz. Ali Kerim Bey is a great Bond partner and a really flushed out character all his own. The story goes that Armendáriz found out he was dying of cancer while shooting the film and he insisted on finishing the job for the sake of the film and the sake of his legacy. Despite being in constant pain almost non-stop, Armendáriz turns in a spectacular performance. He plays Bey as an incredibly intelligent agent, a man of the people of Istanbul and also a proud family man. Unlike the previous film’s poor Quarrel, this time around Bond gets aid from a true gentleman and an incredibly talented agent. His performance in the film is right up there with Robert Shaw’s and will continue to be mentioned with great accolade for as long as people are talking about From Russia with Love.
From Russia with Love is now available on Blu-ray from MGM.
The Great Bond Rewatch of 2009 will return next week with Goldfinger.