Friday, June 15, 2012

From Russia with Love - You're gonna need a bigger train.

From Russia with Love - 1963

Bond: Sean Connery
Directed by: Terence Young
Produced by: Harry Saltzman & 
Albert R. Broccoli

From Russia with Love is often listed as on of the if not the best Bond film and it's well deserved. With the "Bond Formula" still jelling, this movie has a very unique feel. This is a movie that takes its time, explores its characters, and has a slight psychological-thriller edge to it that you don't really see in any other film in the series.

It's also a sequel. Now, you might think that all Bond films are sequels, but they're not really. They very occasionally reference earlier events and almost never pick up right where the previous one left off. In fact, From Russia with Love and Quantum of Solace are the only two true sequels in the bunch. I'm not saying you need to see Dr. No to enjoy From Russia with Love, but there are some layers you'll miss otherwise.

For instance, Bond's "girlfriend" Silvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) is back. Once again we first see Bond when he's off duty enjoying a picnic with Miss Trench. Their previous encounter in the first movie is referenced and Bond even has a visible scar from an injury in the first film. Of course, their date is interrupted by the call of duty.

From the moment Bond appears, the beginning of the film parallels the previous one nearly exactly. The key there is "from the moment Bond appears". He doesn't appear until 17 minutes into the movie. How's that for taking your time? Instead we have the first pre-title sequence introducing us to the film's henchmen Red Grant, played by the amazing Robert Shaw. That's right, Quint played a Bond villain ("I'll get you James Bond. I'll get you his head, his tail, the whole damned thing") His training sequence in the beginning was originally supposed to come later in the film, but editor Peter Hunt thought it worked better as a teaser up front, establishing the pre-title sequence convention.

But back to the parallels, which the film uses to build tension. As in Dr. No., Bond is called in to see M. He's told of the case, he gets a gadget (more on this later), he flirts with Moneypenny, he gets on a Pan Am jet and flies to an exotic location where he is met at the airport by a man with a car. In Dr. No that man was a bad guy. Is this guy? Apparently not because he and Bond exchange a convoluted series of code phrases. Phew. Then they get in the car and are followed. Will this turn into a deadly car chase? No, because in this instance the driver knows he's being followed and it's ok. See what they did there? If you hadn't seen Dr. No that sequence wouldn't have been tense at all. If you have, it toys subtly with your expectations. Brilliant.

At its heart, as you would expect, From Russia with Love is a love story. A woman, Tatiana Romanova, working in the Russian consulate in Istanbul wants to defect and hand over a top secret Lektor cryptographic device in the process, but she'll only turn herself and it over to Bond. The English know it's a trap but send Bond anyway. She thinks she's working for Soviet counter-intelligence but is really being manipulated by SPECTRE which has devised this plan to get themselves a Lektor and take revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No. So of course Bond and Tatiana fall in love in a complicated who's lying and who's telling the truth sort of way. Is it real? Is it a game?

Plus there are gypsies, a belly dance, a lovable Turkish man with a million sons, and an extended sequence on the Orient Express as Bond and Tatiana travel from Turkey to Italy. All the while, as Bond and Tatiana battle deadly attacks from Russians trying to stop them, Robert Shaw shadows them and protects them, keeping them alive so that SPECTRE can get the Lektor and kill them on the train.

Shaw doesn't speak until 1 hour and 20 minutes into the film, when he finally meets Bond on the train. How's THAT for taking your time? It's brilliant. You spend the whole movie wondering when he's finally going to talk and then he does and BAM the movie shifts into high gear. Bond doesn't know Shaw's a villain. He thinks he's a fellow agent because Shaw knew the same convoluted series of code phrases from the beginning of the film. Watching Bond trust him is agonizing, and leads us into an epic confrontation in a cramped train car that would only have been better if Shaw's stunt double had been wearing a wig that looked even remotely like Shaw's hair.

Now, I'm not saying this movie explores extreme emotional depths. This isn't some soul-ripping foreign film or anything. But compared to most other Bond films, this might as well be Amelie.

In my Dr. No post, I incorrectly said the Q was missing from the film. He was there, but he was played by Peter Burton and never specifically named. He shows up in M's office and gives Bond his new gun, a Walter PPK, his signature gun throughout the series. Burton wasn't available for From Russia with Love, so the role was recast with Desmond Llewelyn who would play Q in 19 films until his death in 1999 at the age of 85. (Incidentally, he died in a head-on collision, not of old-age.)

He's also not referred to as Q in From Russia with Love and in the closing credits he's listed as "Boothroyd". That's because "Q" isn't a name, but a job title. He's the Quartermaster of the Equipment Division or "Q Branch".  His name is Major Geoffrey Boothroyd.

1963 Context
President: John F. Kennedy
According to IMDB trivia, it was chosen as the second Bond film (it's the 5th novel) because President Kennedy listed it as one of his top ten favorite novels in Life Magazine in 1961. It was also the last movie he saw before he died.
Queen: Elizabeth II

General Hospital debuted.

Best Picture Nominees:
Tom Jones
America, America
How the West Was Won
Lilies of the Field. 

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