Across the Bond: From Russia with Love
5:00 PM on 09.27.2012
An American and Brit talk Bond
Our next film in Across the Bond is the next film in the series (cause we're going chronologically), From Russia with Love. Xander and I don't differ too much on this one, as we both think it represents the best Bond has to offer. The movie is universally praised as one of the best and there's a reason why.
As you'll read below there's pretty much nothing to dislike about the movie, in which Bond heads straight first into a trap involving Russian, SPECTRE and, of curse, a gorgeous woman. If you're going to watch one Bond in your life, I'd suggest this one. Xander has a lot to say about this one, which makes me feel less of a man. Now I know what every Bond villain has felt like when hit with the perfect one-liner.
From Russia with Love is my favorite Bond, though it isn’t the most “Bond” of the Bond films in terms of what the franchise became. While Goldfinger really started Bond as we know it, it’s From Russia with Love that best combines a hard-edged Bond with great action and an appropriate level of gadgets. In fact, when watching Goldfinger right after From Russia with Love the jump to ejector seats from a crafty, but plausible attache case is particularly ludicrous. The simpler gadgets are more in line with the Bond of the first two films, though. I just love how harsh Connery is throughout From Russia with Love, and the screenplay is easily one of the strongest. Even the one-liners come off strong -- a far cry from the cheesiness that followed.
There’s a lot of good going on here, from the obvious insinuation that Bond has a threesome with to wild gypsy women to his Turkish contact Kerim Bey womanizing so hard he makes Bond’s antics look subdued. Then there’s Robert Shaw’s Red Grant, who pretty much defined what a Bond henchman should be. The movie is sharp and well-paced, and one of the only Bond film that actually feels like a legitimate spy movie. But the best aspect has to be that the Bond girl’s unwavering love for Bond is actually written into the story as a set up to catch Bond. Sure, her later head-over-heels infatuation with Bond is something we would only accept in a Bond film, but it works because it is a Bond film.
Of course no discussion of From Russia with Love would be complete without talking about Bond and Grant's fight in a train car. I just got the chance to see this on the big screen, and after years of being told that the fight was amazing, I finally understood why it was. It’s tightly shot and cut magnificently. On the big screen it packed a punch I’d missed watching it at home. Even in today's action world of highly choreographed fights and super charged punches there's something almost primal about this scene. Fights like this weren't done this well for years to come after it, and it's one of the ways Bond helped shape what we know as action cinema.
I know I’m the American here, but I also have to point out how Bond’s suspicion of Grant as a spy comes from the fact that he orders red wine with fish. If there’s one thing that separates Bond from other spies it’s interactions like this, and it’s just so British.
Red wine with fish is one of my favourite lines in the Bond series, not least for Sean Connery's look of utter disgust at himself for not immediately shooting his dinner guest in the face for such a disgraceful cenatory faux-pas. Each actor brings something different to their Bond, and though in no way supported by anything in the movies, I like to think of Connery's interpretation as a slightly working class/blue collar version of the character, a man whose manners and tastes have been learnt rather than inherited, making him slightly self-conscious about them. (Roger Moore, in contrast, was the aristocratic Bond). It also demonstrates one of From Russia's less frequently acknowledged qualities, its wonderful sense of humour. From Bond's hints at a dirty trip to Tokyo with M, to Kerim Bay's majestically filthy one-liner after his mistress begs him to come to bed ("Back to the salt-mines") and Bond's riposte when entering Kerim's office the following morning to find the back wall destroyed and the mistress run away ("Found your technique too violent?"), it's easily one of the most quotable Bonds, despite rarely being given due credit.
The movie follows the plot of Ian Fleming's novel quite closely, though there are a few interesting differences. The 'red wine with fish' line is a movie creation, despite being as perfect as anything Bond's creator ever came up with. Donald 'Red' Grant is given a lot more backstory, with the first third of the novel dedicated to how he came to be chief executioner for SMERSH, the Russian secret service. (In the movie, he works for criminal organisation SPECTRE, which only entered Fleming's canon with Thunderball). Grant is set up as the anti-Bond, and has the pointless but sinister characteristic of being at his most dangerous and feral under a full moon. Rosa Klebb is also characterised more precisely as a sadistic torturer who uses her repugnant sexuality to extract information. She's hinted at being bisexual - the novels' sexual politics are very much of their time - and first appears in front of Tatiana wearing lingerie, making some rather blunt advances. ("Turn off the light my dear. [...] We must get to know each other better."). Fleming tactfully describes her as looking like 'the oldest and ugliest whore in the world'.
From Russia was hurried into production after John F Kennedy named the novel as one of his top ten, and with the cast and crew having cut their teeth on Dr. No, the key elements of the formula were already in place and the source material so strong (one of Fleming's best, which is saying something) that the resulting film is not only the best movie in the Bond series, but one of the most accomplished, well-rounded action movies ever made. The final third is as explosive as any modern release, swapping between trains, trucks, boats and helicopters, with each sequence offering something different, but equally exciting. The only thing missing is Fleming's cliffhanger, where Klebb succeeds in stabbing Bond with the poisoned blade in her shoe, yet the movie probably works better as a self-contained piece, despite the final scene's hilariously dismal back-projection.
The movie even offers a bit of series continuity by having SPECTRE target Bond as a result of his killing Dr. No. Sylvia Trench also makes a return appearance, intended to be a recurring character - whom Bond was possibly intended to marry in On Her Majesty's Secret Service - before finding no place in Goldfinger. If anyone states Quantum Of Solace was the first direct sequel to a preceding Bond movie, be sure to correct them before their ignorance extends to ordering the wrong wines. A few other trivia notes: the novel's title has a comma after Russia where the movie's doesn't. One of the gypsy fighting girls is played by Martine Beswick, who previously appeared as a dancing shadow girl in Dr. No (having auditioned for a main part) and later as Paula in Thunderball. Anthony Dawson, Professor Dent in Dr.No, plays Blofeld here (although the voice is dubbed), and his right hand man is Walter Gotell, who later portrayed General Gogol throughout the Roger Moore / Timothy Dalton eras. Finally, the insanely charismatic Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz (Kerim Bey) committed suicide shortly after From Russia was released, having been severely ill at the time of filming, but his legacy lived on when his son was cast as a corrupt South American presidente in Licence To Kill. The Bond 'family' has been pretty tight knit over the years, yet even twenty-two iconic movies down the line, From Russia marked the moment when all the elements came together to produce a genuine masterpiece of its time and genre.
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