Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bond-arama: No. 00? From Russia With Love (1963)

Finally, we come to From Russia With Love. This one makes a strong case for being the top Bond film, but does it offer enough? In many ways, this is the most flawless Bond film; there is almost nothing to criticize. It also has all the elements we’ve come to expect from top Bond films. And the public rates this one very highly. But is it “big” enough to be No. 001 of 0023?

Plot Quality: From Russia With Love has one of the best plots in the series, if not the best plot. The story involves an attempt by SPECTRE to steal a Lektor cryptographic device from the Soviets and revenge themselves against James Bond in the process. The plan calls for having a cipher clerk (Tatiana Romanova) at the Soviet embassy in Istanbul help James Bond steal the device. To get her to do this, they trick her into believing that she is working under orders from Soviet intelligence. They achieve this with the assistance of the recently defected Rosa Klebb of SMERSH. Tatiana is to tell the British that she wants to defect and that she can deliver the Lektor, but she will only do so if Bond picks her up personally. Once Tatiana and Bond have the device, SPECTRE will kill Bond and take the device.
MI-6, of course, sees this as a SMERSH trap, but they think that it’s worth the risk if there is the slightest possibility of getting the Lektor, so they send Bond. Bond travels to Turkey, where he meets the station chief Ali Kerim Bey. Bey explains how the spy game is played in Turkey and helps Bond set up the theft from the embassy. As they plan this, the cold war in Turkey heats up because of the efforts of SPECTRE agent Donald “Red” Grant, who begins killing agents to spark the conflict, but simultaneously protects Bond from being killed so he can carry out the plan.
After the Lektor is stolen, Bond and Tatiana need to escape Turkey. They take the Orient Express. The plan here is to stop the train near the border and to leave the train for a waiting vehicle which can sneak Bond and Tatiana across the border to safety. However, Red Grant has killed Bond’s contact and now kills Kerim Bey. He tries to convince Bond that he must abandon Tatiana, but Bond becomes wise to him. They fight in an epic hand to hand struggle. Bond kills him and Bond and Tatiana escape the train using Grant’s contacts. This leads to a helicopter attempting to kill Bond and finally a boat chase.
In the end, Klebb tries to kill Bond herself in his hotel.

Bond Quality: This is Connery’s second film and it’s Connery at Peak Bond. In Dr. No, Connery focused on presenting cold-blooded Bond. Yes, he was still suave and had some sex appeal, he also gave hints of his loyal side with Felix Leiter, but the primary feeling one got of his Bond was his cold-blooded relentlessness. In this film, Bond maintains that cold-bloodedness, but he simultaneously adds a playful sexuality and a strong sense of loyalty. In effect, he completes the character in this movie and sets in stone the traits a good Bond is required to possess. This is the best Bond will ever be. Ironically, Connery never again presents the complete character in the rest of his films.
One of the things which helps Bond in this film is his relationship with the very likable Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz). Kerim Bey is part spy, part rogue, and part father figure, and he quickly becomes Bond’s best friend. The two mesh well both in terms of temperament and how their lines feed each other. They are a perfect match and you enjoy seeing them together. This rounds out Bond perfectly.
The Bond Girl: The Bond girl here is Daniela Bianchi, and she’s gorgeous. She also has solid chemistry with Bond, probably better than any other Bond girl. She’s also the first Bond girl to be the focus of the story as she is the bait used to trap Bond and she has a role in resolving the plot by choosing to shoot Kleb over Bond in the ending. Throughout the film, she’s also called upon to present a range of emotions, which is kind of rare in Bond girls. All told, she’s an excellent Bond girl.
Villain Quality: There are several villains presented in this film, though the main one is Red Grant. Aside from him, you have the mysterious head of SPECTRE, whose face you never see. He is a menacing character made all the more fascinating in that you don’t see him much. Then you have Kronsteen, an arrogant chess playing mastermind who sets the plan into motion. You also have Rosa Klebb, an evil woman who has defected from the Soviets to SPECTRE, and a bevy of minor hit men and the such. Each of these is a colorful character who provides us with a compelling glimpse into SPECTRE and the world of international spying. We even get to see a SPECTRE training facility.

In any event, Red Grant is the real villain and many people name him as the best villain ever. What makes Grant stand out compared to the rest is the savage nature of his character. This man is a hot-blooded killer who prefers to humiliate his victims and feel their last seconds of life drain from their body. He also seems to suffer a strong inferiority complex when it comes to the British agents and that makes him particularly savage to them.
Even better, Grant is played by Robert Shaw, who is easily one of the finest actors of the past fifty years when it comes to giving a part exactly what it needs. Shaw is one of those actors who vanishes into a role and he does that perfectly here again. He is completely believable as Grant.

If From Russia With Love has a problem, it’s the lack of a “big” plan on Grant’s part. When you get down to it, Grant is cool, but he’s just a thug. And SPECTRE’s plan sounds very much like something spies would do, but at the same time, this doesn’t feel like a story with major consequences. Yes, if Bond can steal the Lektor, that would be a major triumph, but there’s little in this one for the audience. It also doesn’t really have any iconic moments. That said, the story is fast-paced and tight, the characters are engaging and the story never wants for action or twists and turns, despite this. Also, the Lektor does have a MacGuffin feel to it, but probably not enough to bother the audience. So the story is strong even if it lacks the larger-than-life scheme, the larger-than-life villain, and the larger-than-life ending compared to the others.

So how should this film rank? Well, it’s a fantastic film with nothing to criticize. This film boasts the best Bond, a tremendous Bond Girl, some wonderful supporting characters, and the toughest, most visceral villain of them all. If there is a criticism it’s that this film doesn’t have the over-the-top stuff that the other films do. But does that set the film apart in a good or bad way? In terms of popularity, this one is always in the discussion of top films, but you rarely hear it win. So where should this film rank? Is it worthy of the top spot? You tell me.

43 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

This is our last Bond! Next week, we'll talk about the rankings.

Anonymous said...

I would rather a smaller plot that all fits together than a larger than life plot with holes in it. So this one works really well for me. But I cannot rank a top 3, it would change on any given day depending on what I was in the mood to watch.

Great series though Andrew, will be reading next week too.

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Scott! I'm glad you liked it. I found it really interesting to write because as I went through it, I realized a lot of things about the series that I didn't know before -- like how bad some of these films were, how close some of them were to being top films, and how many of them are essentially re-writes of prior films.

This one is my personal favorite, by the way.

tryanmax said...

The only way to raise the stakes for the audience would be to impose some sort of countdown on obtaining the Lektor. For example, in order to thwart a secret Russian plot, MI-6 must crack a secret code, but there isn't enough time so stealing a Lektor is the only chance. However, such a contrivance would weaken the film by making the false defection plot look too convenient and it would turn the plot to capture/kill Bond into a stupid, unnecessary risk on the part of the Russians.

It seems like a narrative impasse: either involve the audience directly and strain the credulity of the story, or maintain plausibility but relegate the audience to observers. I struggle to think of a film that spans that gap successfully, especially in a high-stakes action film. Fortunately, there exists a ready solution for holding an audience with the latter option: create compelling characters. As you say, FRWL is Connery at his best as Bond, and he is surrounded by many equally colorful characters. If FRWL is to be ranked #1, it is because it successfully played the gambit of putting the audience on the sidelines and making them care about the outcome of the people on screen.

shawn said...

My favorite is "You Only Live Twice", but by most standards this is the superior film. It has a relatively straight forward and believable plot, good villains, a lack of silly gadgets, a sexy Bond girl and Connery as Bond so I would rank it number 1.

ScottDS said...

This one might be my favorite Connery Bond film. All the elements (save for Ken Adam who was unavailable) are there, Bianchi is hot, Shaw is a badass, Desmond Llewelyn makes his first appearance, etc. When I watched all these movies for the first time a while back, I definitely took notice of this one.

Ironically, with the Lektor as a plot device, this movie could've worked as a WW2 spy flick 20 years earlier!

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's a really good point. It would be very difficult to find a way to personalize this plot for the audience without making the trap aspect of the story feel tacked on. In fact, it almost sounds impossible because the higher the stakes, the less likely you would be to try to add a revenge element.

Interesting, For Your Eyes Only makes the audience care by making the device a British device, and they shift the revenge element to Merlina avenging the death of her family. You couldn't have made this one the return of a British device however, not without totally changing the story.

Ultimately though, it's not a problem here because the characters are strong enough that you feel pulled into their story. Unlike so many other Bond films, these characters are actually fleshed out, given real personalities, and given time to develop. Kerim Bey is probably the most memorable non-villain in the entire series. I actually quote him regularly.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, This is my personal favorite for those very reasons. This is just a strong, nearly flawless entry all around. It doesn't aim as high as some of the others, but it really hits a home run on what it does.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This film has the perfect "spy story" plot and could fit into any era. You could even do it today, with the hero stealing an encryption device/code from anyone you choose an as enemy.

In terms of the ranking, to me, this is number one, but I know the public doesn't usually pick this one.

Kit said...

Andrew,

I love this one. Good plot, good action scenes, and good characters. And as I said earlier, I have always preferred Tatiana Romanova over Ursula Andress from the first one.

SPOILER: Tatiana saves Bond at the end. How many Bond girls do that? She and the

Rustbelt said...

Terrific review, Andrew! This is, without doubt, Bond at his best. My only regret is the movie this could have been- if the filmmakers had only followed the novel and not worried about being politically correct.

The first half of thebook delves into the inner sanctum of Soviet intelligence. Bond has caused some problems, but not anything serious. (This is the fifth book in the series.) Fleming really shows the suffocating state security and fear in the USSR. (No one in their right mind walks past the intel headquarters in Moscow. They cross on the other side.) My favorite part is how the heads of the GRU, MGB (KGB, Fleming must've used a different translation), and SMERSH all scheme against each other at the planning meeting.

The book also has a much better explanation for Grant's insecurity towards the Brits: he's Irish! He defected from Ireland to the USSR because he likes to kill people. He also has a compulsive need to kill during the full moon (mental disorder unexplained); the Soviets use him in their prisons at those times.

The humiliation factor is also stronger in the book. In fact, it's THE reason for the mission. Basically want to send a non-public shockwave through the intelligence community so NATO knows they mean business. Bond is picked almost at random as the agent to die. The movie's revenge for Dr. No seems okay, but I think they could've just cut it out.

BTW, the book ends with Kleb stabbing Bond and the reader uncertain as to his fate. Like Conan -Doyle 'killing' Holmes in 'The Final Solution,' many think Fleming was tired of writing about Bond and wanted to get rid of him. Of course, both writers later changed their minds.

And a final note, this is the only Bond film filmed partly in the USSR. It turns out. President Kennedy loved the book and helped the filmmakers get special permission. (And in another case of history repeating itself, President Reagan loved 'Hunt for Red October' so much, he ordered the Navy to give full cooperation to McTiernan's crew.)

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I have always preferred Tatiana Romanova over Ursula Andress from the first one.

Totally agree! Tatiana is awesome. :D

Tennessee Jed said...

O.K. Connery at peak Bond; check. Tatiana as best Bond girl; check. Red Grant as best villain. Absolutely. As Rustbelt mentions, the book does do a better job of filling out his backstory, but that is more than offset by a truly great performance from the great Robert Shaw: "I'll have some of the red kind, old man ..." "I'll put you out of your misery if you crawl over here and kiss my foot ..." If that isn't enough, Rosa Klebb, and Kronstein are just great characters, not to mention Ali Karem Bey, AND a gypsy chick on chick fight. Case closed. You mention that Grant lacks a bigger plan. To me, this is part of the strength of this story. No master plot to turn the west into pudding, just a ripping good cold war plausible spy yarn. It's the best in my opinion,AND it's not even really all that close. Of course, I could be wrong :)

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Rustbelt!

Interesting addition comparing the film to the books. I'm not sure how much going into the Soviet stuff would have worked in this film. It would likely have felt like filler I suspect unless they changed the focus of the film entirely. I think if would have made a good film, but a very different film. As it is, I have no complaints.

On Grant, I don't think they mention him being Irish in the film, but they play up a class warfare aspect with Grant railing against Bond for knowing which wine goes with which food, but that not helping him when push comes to shove. I think it's very effective. It makes Grant out as an outsider who felt abused by the upper crust of British society and it explains why he prefers brawn to brains, i.e. because he like to show those brainy types that they are the inferior ones to his brawn.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Personally, I agree with your assessment completely. I think the lack of an over-the-top scheme makes this one of the most intense Bond films ever because it relies on the story and the characters rather than "the big shiny" to win over the audience.

PikeBishop said...

Rustbelt, I too loved elements of the book that were left out. In addition to the "cross to the other side" reference, I remember when the head of SMERSH was about to order Grant to be terminated, as he was a psychotic and politically useless, but then the chief thinks, "There is a lot of killing to be done in the USSR.....................Hmmmmm!" Cold blooded.

Also Rosa Kleb's lesbianism is on full display in the novel and only hinted at in the film.

Kit said...

Andrew, Jed,

Tatiana is the most underrated Bond Girl. Even if her lines were dubbed by another actress.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I concur. She's easily my favorite. :D

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, It is definitely hinted at in a very uncomfortable moment when she brushes Tatiana's hair and examines her body.

Kit said...

Any theories on just why Tatiana Romanova is so underrated?

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I suspect that two types of women got noticed in the Bond franchise. The first type are the Hefner girls. These are the kinds of women you would find at the Playboy mansion as they were considered by "those who made the culture" to be the most desirable women. Basically, these were the half-naked, big-breasted tramps with names like Pussy and Honey.

The other type that got noticed were their polar opposite, which are the feminist version -- masculine, aggressive women who refused to see Bond as a sex symbol, i.e. the "liberated" women.

Tatiana isn't either. She's got the kind of beauty that people actually find beautiful, rather than tramp look of the Playboy girls. But she's not a "liberated" woman either as she's not constantly trying to assert her independence of Bond. In other words, she's June Cleaver rather than Bettie Page or Jane Fonda.

Kit said...

Interesting theory.

Tennessee Jed said...

It's funny, I re-read all the Bond books about five years ago, and kind of remember Klebb as almost asexual. I guess the problem with Bond binging (even the books) is that you can get a little hazy on the details.

AndrewPrice said...

That would be my guess. Since those seem to be the women everyone talks about from the series.

What are your thoughts? (Or anyone elses.)

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I think I mentioned this to you before, but it is why a Bond film of Moonraker based on the book would be the only serious rival to FRWL as the top Bond story. Unfortunately, it wouldn't play today and would be considered too dated. But when the book was written, it was spot on.

Kit said...

You all might like this song called "I Wish I Was James Bond by Scouting for Girls set to clips of James Bond. (3min 30sec)
"LINK"

Tennessee Jed said...

that was fun, Kit

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, There are more than enough films and books for it all to blend together, that's for sure.

I haven't read Moonraker, but I remember you describing it and it wouldn't work as written, but it could work if you changed the character to something like a tech mogul who was helping the Chinese.

Kit said...

Andrew,

Helping the Chinese? We can't have that! They are a major investor!

Kit said...

Jed,

Thanks!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Who else would be the modern enemy that could threaten the country?

Kit said...

Well it can't be the Chinese because then the movie wouldn't get a release there!

You just don't understand Hollywood. ;-)

El Gordo said...

"In other words, she's June Cleaver rather than Bettie Page or Jane Fonda."

Well said! Daniela Bianchi totally pushes my buttons. To call her "hot" feels crude and insulting. She really gets my madonna / whore complex going into overdrive. Get away from her you brutes!

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, That's it exactly. Daniela Bianchi feels like so much more than a sex object. She's gorgeous, but she also has a level of innocence that is just irresistible. And you're right, it feels insulting or crude to call her hot.

John Jameson said...

This has been a fantastic series of reviews, and enjoyable reading even for one coming rather late to the party! Your systematic analysis makes for interesting comparisons between the films. In this case, I think you hit the proverbial nail with the observation that FRWL is the most flawless Bond movie in the series. It has a classic spy movie feel, twisted by the essentially Bondian element of a larger-than-life criminal organization.

It seems to me, however, that the flawless plot contributes to its main weakness. As you note in your review, FRWL has no iconic moments. Indeed, beyond the theme tune (and perhaps the poisoned shoe blade) there is not much that is memorable about the film.

The same could be said about Dr. No, and I wonder if part of the appeal of Bond movies is some outrageous element in the plot, like the iconic volcano lair in You only live twice.

For the top spot, that leaves us with Goldfinger, which has a fantastic plan (the idea to irradiate the gold is utterly cool) and several iconic moments, but is completely undermined by the ridiculous resolution and ending. Here I am not just referring to Bond's implausible seduction of Pussy Galore. Whenever I think of Goldfinger, I can't get out of my head the sight of the soldiers guarding Fort Knox falling over like dominos as they pretend to be gassed by the planes flying over them. Cringeworthy stuff!

In retrospect, I think it is unfortunate that the top three movies have ended up being the first three. FRWL is clearly better than Dr. No, in my view, but it and Goldfinger both fail to deliver an ideal Bond experience - albeit in different ways.

John Jameson said...

Consequently, in the rule-breaking spirit of Commentarama, I'd like to consider not just the top three, but the top five! I didn't have a favorite Bond film before reading Bondarama (just to give an idea, my personal likes include movies as far down the list as Octopussy!). The excellent analysis here has led me to appreciate just how good a "Bond-experience" one movie in particular delivers.

So I'd like to make the case for Thunderball as the best Bond movie. Unlike Dr. No and From Russia with Love, Thunderball is packed with memorable, even iconic moments. The hijacking, submerging and camouflaging of the Vulcan is an awesomely memorable sequence. The death of Volpe, the shark pool, and the underwater battle also stick in the mind. Unlike Goldfinger, Bond really works for his victory, and the ending does not undermine the rest of the film. This is because Bond has a potent weapon: Domino, and the fact that Largo was responsible for the death of her brother Derval. He exploits this weakness ruthlessly, manipulating Domino to help him and seek revenge. Ultimately, she is the weapon that he strikes with, surprising Largo like thunderball.

This provides us with an interesting Bond girl, something that will be taken up in later movies. Also inspiring for later movies are the cool and useful gadgets introduced in Thunderball, in particular the underwater breathing kit.

The weak points in Thunderball are all pretty minor ones. Largo should not have let Derval be killed, but should have killed Bond when he had the chance. Another criticism is the ending. However, I think the ending completes the story arc nicely, with Derval's death coming back to Largo. Furthermore, the endings of the other four movies in the top five are all worse, with the possible exception of FRWL: this also has the Bond girl save Bond from imminent death, but I find Thunderball more interesting, because recruiting and manipulating Domino was Bond's game plan all along.

Convinced?

AndrewPrice said...

John, Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed the series! I did too. And thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Doing the series, I found it really fascinating breaking down these films and seeing what makes Bond work and what doesn't. I'd never done that before and it was interesting to see how the films held up to close inspection compared to just watching them. Some films didn't fare as well as I thought they would.

I was particularly interested to see how many films had such glaring flaws that could have been fixed with just a little thought if anyone had stopped to think about it, and how many films could have jumped way up the list with only minor tweaks. It was also interesting to see how many of these films were copies of earlier films.

I like your Thunderball argument a lot. As you'll see on Thursday, I personally rank it much higher than I think the public ranks it. Perhaps it should be higher. The only thing giving me pause is that it never seems to get considered when people talk about the best films.

You are correct though that Thunderball is another nearly flawless film. Its mistakes are forgivable.

In terms of the public preferring over-the-top Bond, that does seem to be true sadly. There seems to be this idea that if the film doesn't involve something truly fantastic, then it was a good film. That's kind of a shame because the smaller films are often the more interesting.

On Goldfinger, I do love his plan, but like you I cringe when the soldiers fall down. I also laugh when I see how little security they have. It's a bit like a heist film where they find the vault open and guarded only by a puppy. Perhaps they did that so they could trap Goldfinger and find the bomb, but it doesn't seem they were prepared for that either.

John Jameson said...

For better or worse, OTT has become part of the Bond brand. Some films handle it better than others (let us compare say, Live and Let Die with Die Another Day). The more interesting smaller films don't need to be rated highly as "Bond films" because they stand up in their own right as good films period.

AndrewPrice said...

John, I think that's true. The OTT stuff is part of the Bond brand whether we like it or not and some films handle it better than others.

Agreed about the smaller films. I can watch Casino Royale or FRWL on their own without a second thought. But I would only watch something like The Man With The Golden Gun as part of a Bond-athon.

El Gordo said...

Andrew, that is because she was meant to be the mother of my children. Cursed be the fate that let her be born thirty years too soon!

Oh great, I see she married a Genoan shipping magnate. Who can compete with that? A genuine Genoan ... curse him, too!

Koshcat said...

This too is one of my favorites but it may be a bit dated. I don't think my kids would really get the anxiety of the West vs. USSR spy games of the cold war.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, That's a good question if kids today would see it as a cool James Bond or as something dated.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, That is a shame! LOL!

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