Part 2 of my meta-textural and overly indulgent review of the James Bond movies.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
There are those who maintain that “From Russia With Love” is the best James Bond film of them all. The reasons usually cited are that it’s true to Ian Fleming’s novel, it’s not overcome with the camp and the outrageousness that subsequent Bond films have indulged in, Connery is in top form, there are a pair of memorable villains and it’s got more of an intelligent story to it. All of this is basically correct but From Russia With Love is not the best Bond movie of all time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very good, in many ways it’s a benchmark to aspire to but there are things that take the edge off it truly being classified as the best. It’s only the best if you’re the type of person who likes to react against general consensus; the Bond snobs if you will.
As far as follow up movies go, From Russia With Love is a vast improvement over Dr No. Whilst retaining much of the lush colour from the previous movie, the action is vastly improved and now we’re used to James Bond on the screen we don’t have to learn about him and can instead sit back and see him in action. There was an element of mystery about him in Dr No (international man of mystery) but here he’s the solid one in cast adrift in a sea of mystery all around him. For much of the movie he has no idea of what SPECTRE’s big plan is; he doesn’t realise it is SPECTRE behind Tatiana’s apparent defection and the theft of a Lektor decoding device. Early on, Bond has to be guided through the movie by Kerim Bey; surely the best ally character in the Bond movies.
The plot of FRWL departs from most Bond movies and indeed a lot of other movies of this genre. Normally Bond pieces together the villain’s plot bit by bit, inching towards the final reveal and confrontation. He often knows from very early on who he’s going up against and the bulk of the story is taken up with trying to get to the core of the villain’s operation to stop it. But it’s not until the fight on the Orient Express with Red Grant that Bond finally realises what’s going on, and even then Grant has to tell him. This renders Bond as a dupe for much of the movie, even going so far as to play into SPECTRE’s hands at every turn (up to being unwittingly filmed having sex).
In later movies we’ll see Bond being physically and emotionally vulnerable but here the viewers are getting something they’re not used to seeing with Bond: Being at such a disadvantage in terms of information. The super-smart fast thinking dispenser of so much trivia isn’t on show here. It’s something Daniel Craig will dabble in down the line but you won’t see this in a Moore or Brosnan…or even Connery movie, after this.
This does come with some problems though: In an attempt to be a slick, Cold War, cat and mouse kind of movie, it sometimes gets lost in its own trickery. As I said, Bond has to be guided through the plot by both allies and foes alike. There are shady characters, such as the mysterious Russian agent sent to follow Bond who contributes hardly anything to the plot but who is tantalisingly shown to the audience as if he’s going to do something important at some point. There’s also a lack of a single villain to focus Bond’s attention to the mission. Instead there’s a quartet: Blofeld (still unseen and unnamed at this point), Klebb, Grant and Kronsteen. Kronsteen, played brilliantly as always by Vladek Sheybal, is given too little screen time and he’s dispatched for effect rather than logic. Grant is an imposing figure of menace but his presence isn’t truly felt until the Orient Express scenes. Klebb is a great character, the benchmark for all Bond villainesses, but he’s not even aware of her until the final scenes and they never get a satisfactory confrontation scene. She pulls a gun, he knocks it away, she tries to kick him with a poison tipped shoe and Tatiana finishes her off. It needed more of a build up to that resolution.
Speaking of Tatiana, this is another area where FRWL doesn’t quite hit the highs of the movies either side of it. Honey Ryder is memorable, striking, statuesque, feral, vulnerable and ground breaking in terms of how a mainstream movie of that time presented female characters. Moving ahead to Pussy Galore, she’s probably the most famous Bond girl ever: Sexy, dangerous, smart, questionable and a match for Bond in many areas. Tatiania is beautiful, she’s necessarily vulnerable to make her a damsel in distress but at the end of the day, she’s a dupe but unlike Bond she never gets the chance to piece it all together and to take charge. Her defection is unconvincing as well; she only went along with Klebb’s plot because she genuinely believed Klebb was still with the KGB and she was still loyal to Russia. The plan to steal the Lektor, lure James Bond to Istanbul and to bump the two of them off was SPECTRE’s plan, not the Soviet Union’s. But she defects purely on the basis of a quick affair with James Bond. This could have been handled better and more convincingly.
When I hear critics and fans praising From Russia With Love as the best Bond movie it’s usually because they think the story and plot is the strongest of them all but I actually think the plot isn’t as strong as people make it out to be. The maguffin of the Lektor decoder is fine, and will be used again in For Your Eyes Only and Goldeneye, but there’s a lack of focus as to how it all pans out. What makes this movie work so well are the set pieces that keep the story in some sort of shape. The Bond death pre-credit teaser, the briefing by Q about the special briefcase, the SPECTRE training camp, the periscope in the catacombs of Istanbul, the gypsy camp fight, the attack on the Russian embassy, the fight on the train, the helicopter chase and the final boat chase. Whenever the story starts getting a little meandering, we get a corker of an action scene.
Now a special mention for the fight scene between Bond and Grant on the Orient Express. Simply put, it’s one of the greatest fight scenes in film history. You have two brick outhouses of men in Connery and Robert Shaw, in a confined space, trying to kill each other with their bare hands with no quarter given. It’s messy and unruly made all the more so by brilliant editing by Peter Hunt, who threw out all the conventional rules about cutting an action scene and chopped the film up as he thought best to give a sense of brutality. You are watching the birth of cinematic ultra-violence, which Bond movies would have a near monopoly over in mainstream movies until Lee Marvin’s trail of destruction in Point Blank.
From Russia With Love is a quantum leap forwards from Dr No, without a doubt. It’s worked out what a Bond set piece should be, how a Bond movie should look and feel like, it’s discovered the template for action scenes and it’s purged the last vestiges of 1950s movie style that tinged Dr No from the Bond system. But it’s not the best Bond movie of all time. That honour will go to its successor.