Tuesday, December 2, 2008

James Bond review: From Russia With Love (1963)

(For my other Bond reviews, and my apologia for the project, see the tags on the right.)

CUT TO THE CHASE: The best of the Connery Bonds. If that makes it, by definition, the best of the Bonds, so be it. You’ll get no argument from me.

BOND, JAMES BOND: The first movie was such a hit that the second one decides to get a little meta on us. They kill Bond off in the pre-title sequence. They don’t bring him back for another ten minutes. When they do, they play with the idea of Bond’s celebrity - SPECTRE’s ruse is of a Russian intelligence clerk who has fallen in love with the glamorous British agent. MI6 and Bond don’t believe it, and of course we know it’s a trap - but in the end of course that’s exactly what happens, the girl does fall in love with Bond. The point being: who wouldn’t?

“Suppose when she meets me in the flesh, I don’t come up to her expectations?” he says, when M shows him the girl’s picture. As if.

And that’s Bond all over: women want to be with him, men want to be him. Connery showed us why in the first movie, but the movie itself was not a perfect success; here he has a movie worthy of his Bond. And it only adds luster to his Bond.

We might note, however, that already we have one definitive change in Bond’s character. The brief hints of loneliness we got in Dr. No are snuffed out here, replaced by the bonhomie he shares with Kerim Bey. For the moment, though, that dark side is not missed: we’re too busy enjoying Bond’s luster, and his lust for life.

What Makes Bond Bond: “Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something.”

BAD GUYS: An embarrassment of riches here, deployed in interesting ways, before the Bond baddie became a formula. First and foremost we’ve got Robert Shaw as Grant, formidable and fun to watch; not as colorful as many later Bond villains, but the more believable because of it, and it makes the movie work.

He’s just the henchman, though; the real villain is the immortal Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb, ex-KGB, now working for SPECTRE. She’s suitably iron-clad and scary, but with a delicious hint of the sensuality and energy that must have filled her work with Kurt Weill. She’s one of the Bond series’ crowning glories, really - note the barest hint of sapphic interest she injects into Klebb’s appraisal of Tatiana.

But even Klebb is only a henchman. She works for SPECTRE, and for the first time we meet the head of that august organization. Or at least, we meet his hands. And his cat. A brilliant visual signature for the films, by the way, as evidenced by its ubiquity in Bond parodies. Later, of course, we’ll see a lot more of Blofeld, but he’ll never have the impact he does here.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Sylvia Trench is back (luv that name), the only time a Bond girl has made an encore appearance, although she’s really a minor Bond girl, and at least two other actresses have appeared twice, although as different characters.

We’ll pause to take note of the two gypsy girls Bond meets outside of Istanbul; the implied threesome is not only incredibly daring for 1963, it helps raise the gratuitous sex quotient of this film to a respectable four, among the highest of the series.

Of course the indelible Daniela Bianchi is the main Bond girl here, as Tatiana Romanova, the Russian spy who succumbs to Bond’s charms. Like Ursula Andress, Bianchi’s English was insufficient for the part, so her lines were looped by another actress. And looped well: that sultry voice is a big part of the character’s appeal. Another big part is quite small: that velvet choker. Vavavoom. Bianchi, with her Italian sophistication lurking just behind her character’s Russian sex-kitten veneer, is one of my favorite Bond girls.

AND VIOLENCE: Lots of memorable action sequences. Bond’s fistfight with Grant is a classic, the two of them thrashing around in the dark in the train, weird reflections in the shattered window and all. The assassination of Krilencu, as he crawls out between Anita Ekberg’s lips. Klebb’s shoes. The shoot-out in the gypsy camp. This movie is packed; it’s only here you realize how tentative Dr. No really was.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Q! For Quartermaster, of course. Only one real gadget, a tricky attache case. Naturally it comes in handy. But that’s hardly the point. The point is Bond’s attitude toward the whole thing: the politely concealed bemusement with which he listens to Q’s explanation of the gadgets, his game attempt to look relieved at having correctly followed the simple instructions. Bond uses the gadgets - he needs them - but he never welcomes them. He’s above them. Bond is not his gadgets.

Bond is a response to the late 20th-century crisis in masculinity, every bit as much as Fight Club was. But Bond doesn’t need Fight Club: as much as he loves his martinis, his suits, and later his cigars, he is not them.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: The Orient Express: can’t get much more exotic a locale than that. Istanbul, Yugoslavia before it became the former Yugoslavia, and then Venice.

ETC.: If anything, the James Bond Theme is a bit overused here - people liked it in the first one, so they made sure we got enough of it this time. They still haven’t quite arrived at the full music formula, however: the opening title music is an instrumental, although a vocal version appears over the closing credits. There it’s sung, quite authoritatively, by Matt Monro… The title sequence itself is the first of the truly classic title sequences; it’s not Maurice Binder, but it’s a masterpiece of simplicity, logos projected onto belly dancers… No room for Felix Leiter, but Pedro Armendariz is the most memorable of all the Bond liaisons anyway… If you watch it right after Dr. No, and try to forget about the rest of the series, you realize this movie is, first and foremost, a sequel. From the way they overuse the music, to the way they take care to bring back even a throwaway character from the first film like Sylvia, to the way everything is bigger! and better! (more girls, more fights, more locations, more gunplay), it’s clear they’re doing what a sequel does, which is try to give the audience more of what they liked, with enough twists to keep it from feeling like the same thing. The marvel is that the sequel so far exceeded the original that more and more sequels became inevitable. This film was the pivotal one: Dr. No’s success ensured that this film got made, but if this film had failed, I wouldn’t be writing a series of James Bond reviews.


1 comment:

Cat said...

You make me really want to watch this movie! And much to my husband's chagrin, I'm not into the Bond thing at all, so that's an achievement of your writing, not the promise of gratuitous spy sex.