Serial, Super Serial: From Russia with Love

Russia

Directly following the ending of Dr. No, James Bond is back in the adaptation of Ian Flemming’s fifth Bond novel, Terence Young’s 1963 From Russia with Love. That’s right, it’s a sequel, but from an earlier novel. This time, Bond must go to Russia to stop the evil organization SPECTRE from stealing a language decoder, because that is obviously a main concern for the world’s top super spy. But what Bond doesn’t know is that the plot has been designed to lure him into danger as revenge for the killing of Dr. Julius No.

Overall, I think From Russia with Love is a slight improvement over its predecessor. The mission is a little clearer, the set pieces are a little more exciting and the world opens up in interesting ways. Although I don’t expect a ton of continuity from the series, jumping off from the end of Dr. No works well here. We don’t learn much about the shadowy group in the first film, so seeing more figures and garnering the scope of their evil does a lot to clarify the world of the series.

[Bond, James Bond]

We pick up with Bond back in England, again hooking up with Sylvia Trench, who is one of the few Bond Girls to hold over more than one film. There are some nice jokes here made by Trench, wondering what happened with Bond after he quickly fled to Jamaica. This brings up an important question — whatever happened to Honey Ryder? Of course Bond can’t stay in Jamaica for the rest of his life, but I wonder how that goodbye went. I’m guessing Bond isn’t quite as smooth with break-ups as he is with hook-ups. Also, his joke to M that he is “reviewing an old case” blurs the line between his personal life and professional one. For a man that has to work around the clock, it makes sense that he would use this language referring to his womanly pursuits. It also suggests that picking up woman is something of a job to him — it may not be tough work, but it’s a drive that’s wired into his personality.

Similarly, it’s interesting that Bond never tells any of his women that he loves them. I suppose it’s not expected of him, but with the main Bond Girl, Tatiana Romanova, saying that she’s in love with Bond on numerous occasions, it is notable. You certainly never get the idea that Bond can even fall in love, even if he’s able to be loved.

In From Russia with Love we see many more instances of Bond as a super spy. In my previous post, I remarked that I enjoyed the occasions we saw him use wit to survive, and there are even more here. He’s always perceptive of his surroundings and always judges people accurately. During his mission, there are multiple characters who don disguises in order to catch him, but Bond’s always able to sniff them out. Even when his enemies get close to him, he never trusts them and does whatever he can to find out their true motivations.

He isn’t just a passive onlooker, though, as From Russia with Love also opens up the action. More hand-to-hand combat and bigger set-pieces showcase what Sean Connery can do with his body. The main villain of the film, played by the great Robert Shaw, is definitely Bond’s biggest threat this far in the series, and their climatic duel is exciting and convincing.

[The Mission]

As I’ve mentioned previously, From Russia with Love improves dramatically when it comes to the clarity of Bond’s mission — but there is certainly a lot that can still be improved. Mostly, the plot is hidden more with the inclusion of full set-pieces, like an excellent chunk of the film that takes place on a train heading out of Soviet territory. Instead of focusing on the whats-and-whys for Bond, you can think about the micro situations of Bond reacting to the movements of his enemies.

Also, while a major element of the plot concerns protecting a Russian decoding machine that would presumably be needed for world domination, the object proves to be a nice macguffin. Instead, SPECTRE’s major interest is trapping and killing James Bond, presenting a nice cat-and-mouse premise through most of the movie. Shadowing a lot of the hard plot with ulterior motives is really a strong play, allowing the audience to sit back, relax and not worry about specifics of the mission.

[The Villains]

From Russia with Love smartly gives us a deeper view of the criminal organization that was introduced in Dr. No, SPECTRE. And, oh, what potential for evildoing there is! At the start of the film we see the SPECTRE clan meeting, coming up with a plan to avenge Dr. No’s murder by the hands of our favorite super spy. Specifically, we see three representatives: Blofeld, Rosa Klebb and assassin Donald Grant.

Blofeld is the least seen during the film — quite literally — but he is indistinguishably the leader. Blofeld represents the second part of Mike Meyer’s Dr. Evil, with his pet cat sitting on his lap. In fact, we never get the opportunity to see Blofeld in whole, which makes him much more mysterious and evil.

Rosa Klebb is notable as she’s the only woman we see in the upper ranks of the criminal organization. Probably because of the power she holds, she is very much coded as a lesbian throughout the film. She’s different from any of the other villains we’ve seen thus far in that she’s both an administrative leader in the organization and a woman of action. She can order henchman to do her dirty work, but if she needs to, she has no problem trying to kill Bond herself. Dr. No obviously has a physical showdown with Bond at the end of the previous film, but no one would suggest he is Bond’s equal physically.

Donald “Red” Grant is the main villain of the film, though, and he is a worthy adversary to Bond in most every way. During the odd pre-credit opening scene of the film, we see what Grant is capable of, as he tracks a fake Bond during a training sequence and kills him with a wire. Not only is he quite able to use his skills to hunt Bond down, but he has the killer instinct to kill an innocent employee of SPECTRE during the exercise.

Grant is played by the great Robert Shaw, who is most known as Quint from Jaws. He brings all that intensity with 12 years of youth and athleticism. The most threatening thing about Grant, though, is his setting out to make Bond look like a fool — this motivation may be his ultimate downfall, playing with Bond a little too much, but it is a markedly different stance than we saw from No, who looked at Bond with admiration.

[The Bond Girl]

Unlike Dr. No’s Honey Ryder, Tatiana Romanova is a more traditional Bond girl — a femme fatale that works with the enemy (although unknowingly) but still presents a sexual desire for Bond. Being Russian, her exoticism is played as attractive to Bond and her sexuality preys on his weakness. With her backstory of being hired by SPECTRE to track Bond and lead him astray, it’s easy to think that her loving act is disingenuous, but it’s played quite sincerely, so she never feels like a real threat. The film could have certainly exploited this relationship a little more to present suspense from a different angle, but it chooses not to.

Her character arc is interesting in contrast to Ryder. As I mentioned last week, we know that Ryder is a killer deep down, but she represents a wild animal that Bond could tame, and her killer instincts are never shown during the action of the film’s climax. Tatiana is nearly the opposite. Through much of the movie, she’s very docile and expresses desires to settle down with Bond. By the end, though, her action is what saves him from death.

[The Gadget]

The second film finally introduces Q, the man responsible the gadgets that take Bond to another level. Our first product is a pretty simple one, a briefcase that has a number of secret compartments and a makeshift security system that sprays smoke into the face of any unwanted intruder. Although the gadget is simple, it comes through in the end — with Bond in certain danger, an easily accessible knife hidden the case proves to be the difference between Bond and Grant.

[The Song]

We also get the first of the trademark title songs, this one a croony ballad from Matt Munro. The theme’s mostly forgettable, a very standard love song piggybacking Frank Sinatra. It doesn’t really fit in with the style of the film, but it isn’t as abhorrent as other songs we’ll hear during the series.

“From Russia with love, I fly to you
Much wiser since my goodbye to you
I’ve travelled the world to learn
I must return”

Could this be a call out to Sylvia Trench, who Bond has now left behind in England twice? No, I doubt Bond is supposed to be seen as the author of this song.

[Random Thoughts]

- Blofeld’s introduction has him giving play-by-play to various fish fighting each other to the death. Yeah, this dude is evil.

- The opening title sequence has silhouetted belly dancers gyrating to and fro. Not sure what that has to do with Russia exactly.

- The names of the cast and crew are projected over the dancing bodies of the girls — this could be interesting commentary on Bond’s looking at women and their bodies as canvasses. Don’t think I should look into it this deeply.

- Post-credits, we see the high stakes world of championship chess.

- We first hear Munro’s “From Russia with Love” on a radio while Bond is chilling out with Sylvia Trench. Trying to figure out this level of meta is enough to make my head explode.

- SPECTRE has their own island? Yeah, these guys are pretty evil.

- During a shot of SPECTRE officials training, we see them working hard at various martial arts and carnival games.

- Bond uses his real name for his hotel reservation. Seriously, a lower profile may be smart.

- There’s a really odd scene halfway through the film after Bond arrives in Turkey at a gypsy camp. So here’s where the bellydancers come into play.

- During the bellydancing scene, we hear a number of boneheads make comments to the women. “Hey baby come ova’ here!!!” Are we in Turkey or Jersey?

- I’m kind of sad that Bond ends up besting Grant in the end. Grant is just as good at being a super spy, but he actually takes his job seriously.

- We see the amazing poisoned knife in the tip of the shoe thing here., and it’s accompanied by a great line: “Twelve seconds — one day we must invent a faster-working venom.”

- I do like the knife in the shoe, but it definitely seems to be more useful in real life situations than portrayed in the movie. Pretty easy to kick a dude.

- Excellent casting choice of “?” as Blofeld. I’ve always loved that guy’s work. He was great as Frankenstein’s Monster, too.

- Bond proves during the climax that strategic oil spills can save your life… as long as someone is chasing you and you have a magical gun.

tags: from russia with love, james bond, super serial, terence young

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