Thursday 17 January 2013

From Russia With Love

Russian Around

From Russia With Love
1963 UK
Directed by Terence Young
EON Blu Ray Region A/B/C

Okay... so following fast on the heels of Dr. No came the movie adaptation of the book that preceeded it. This, of course, created some weird continuity problems for the series (see my review of Dr. No here) but From Russia With Love is, as far as I’m concerned, the movie where the producers and director hit the ground running and made the quintessential Bond film which was the template for pretty much most of the rest of the series. I don’t quite think it’s the best Bond film ever (I reserve that for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)... but I do think it’s the best of the Connery Bond’s and, therefore, the second best movie in the entire series.

The film opens with the same gun-barrel shot (which, incidentally, featured stuntman Bob Simmons until they reshot it properly with Connery, for a later film) and then it goes into the first of the regular elements of the Bond films, the pre-credits sequence. Dr. No didn’t have one, of course, and it’s down to the idea of über-editor Peter Hunt, who decided to move it there from within the main body of the film and use it as a prelude/teaser. This helped define the shape of all other Bond movies that came after it.  This particular teaser also has the “shock” of having the audience see the Bond character die within the first few minutes although, unlike many other similar sequences where the character appears to have died before the main credits, that tension is lifted before the credits actually start.

Then it goes into the credits which are quite different from the opening of Dr. No and really set the tone for the title sequences which came after them, by having all the information involve a scantily clad, young lady with names and job titles projected on to her. The sequence doesn’t feature a title song (that would finally come with Goldfinger) but it does follow the tune of the Bond song used for the film and, although not used in the titles, the famous Matt Monroe performed song From Russia With Love must be one of the few times that a Bond song is heard in the film more than once... here it’s heard both as source music, on the radio when Bond is on the river with the original Bond girl Silvia Trench, and also over the end credits of the movie.

The music is also interesting in the credits because John Barry’s first proper Bond score, his excellent pre-credits music aside, starts off with a phrase before going into the main From Russia With Love theme which would come to be one of three main musical statements that people would associate with the character. Known, pretty much, as the "Bond Is Back" melody, this doesn’t actually appear in too many movies but it was always used in trailers and adverts for TV screenings for decades and is a significant piece of music for all Bond fans... and instantly recognisable. So recognisable, in fact, that David Arnold re-used it for Pierce Brosnan’s opening scene in Tomorrow Never Dies. This is not the only significant bit of Bond music Barry wrote for the series... more on that a little later in this review.

Now about that sequence with Eunace Gayson reprising her role of the original Dr. No Bond girl Sylvia Trench... this was supposed to be a regularly occurring set of sequences in the series as it progressed but, unfortunately, this is the last time that character and actress appeared in the Bond movies. Such a shame because I really think she adds a missing part of Bond’s character which is absent in later movies. She made the character a little more human when it comes to loyalties to women. Also in this scene you get to see Bond’s Bentley from the novels, for the first and, I think, the last time in the movies. After this movie, the cars became just another gadget from Q branch, which I’m not knocking but which I don’t, looking at the track record of the movies, think is a necessary component. Okay, so he has a Bondmobile but they are rarely gadgeted up and, when they are, a big thing is made of them... which works really well but, I don’t see it as a necessary ingredient. The gadgets are more the thing, I think...

And talking of gadgets... here you have the return of Boothroyd from Q branch, but this time played by the series regular Desmond Llewelyn in a role he would seriously make his own until his last appearance in the role in The World Is Not Enough. Also, he gives 007 what is really the first Bond gadget, which is an attache case which is quite heavily and usefully “weaponised” as they say today. I remember seeing this in the cinema in the early seventies and really getting into the idea of the briefcase... even more so when the film was televised and was accompanied by some great illustrations of how the case worked in TV Times in the early seventies.

So what regular features do we have so far, debuting in From Russia With Love? Well we have the John Barry score, we have a hit song (albeit not played over the titles yet), we have a title sequence which is very indicative of the way the future title sequences would go, we have Q and his gadgets... it’s all pretty much there now as far as the Bond formula goes. We also have a continuation of the kind of one-liners which would come to be a trademark of the Bond character which Connery and director Terence Young had started slipping in on the Dr. No shoot, and this really does cement the character in place for the remainder of the films in the “still going strong” series.

Robert Shaw plays Red Grant who, unlike the book, is never referred to as “Red” in the movie, which is an acknowledgement of his bright red hair. For the film the producers decided to go with a shock of bright blonde hair and Shaw is such a brilliant and cold actor when he wants to be, that he makes for one of the greatest villains in the Bond series, even though he only says his first actual lines more than three quarters of the way throughout the film... his presence is felt all the way through, however. This “hard man with a shock of white/blonde hair” is something which would be taken and come back to again and again in the Bond series... I’ll try to remember to point it out when I review them.

There are also some little oddities such as the main villains being SPECTRE again. They were SMERSH in the novels but, in a bit of early "PCness", the producers decided to let Russia off the hook, so the main villains in the movies for a while are SPECTRE (they even make a reference in this movie about their operative Dr. No) even though they only appeared in the book Thunderball (and get a mention again in the original novel of The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the most interesting novels in the series). Blofeld is only seen as hands and the actor responsible for Blofelds hands (but not voice) got to play the character twice (the only actor to do so, I believe)... here, and again in Thunderball (he also played a main character, Professor Dent, in Dr. No).

Another oddity occurs in the appearance of a famous film star, by way of a billboard poster from which one of Bond and Kerim’s foes tries to escape, via a trapdoor in the film star’s mouth. In the original novel the film star depicted on the poster is Marilyn Monroe... perhaps one of the reasons why President John F. Kennedy listed From Russia With Love within his top ten favourite novels. For the movie, however, the poster for another Broccoli/Saltzman/EON production is used, Call Me Bwana, with Anita Eckberg being the lady on the poster. Personally I’d have preferred Marilyn but since she’d died the year before, one can understand the film-makers reluctance to use her here.

The casting is great too... I’ve already mentioned Shaw as Grant but you also have Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya playing Rosa Klebb, with her venomous knife-shoe (which is the death of Bond in the original novel... again, see my review of Dr. No here). And Armendáriz as Kerim Bay has got to be one of the most likeable Bond characters ever put on film... apparently the actor struck up a good friendship with Bond creator Ian Fleming on set.

And then, as I said earlier, you have the first full John Barry Bond score (apart from a couple of places during a helicopter crash and a series of colliding boats where Monty Norman’s Dr. No score is tracked in) and this definitely sets the tone for the films to come. It also features his other big melodic contribution to the Bond series for the first time, in a piece which makes its initial appearance in a gun battle in a gypsy camp and which is then reprised when Bond stages a raid to get a Lektor decoding machine. The is Barry’s “007 theme” (as opposed to Monty Norman’s James Bond theme) and it’s a key theme for those early Bond films, a fan favourite and it was used by Barry in no less than five Bond films; From Russia With Love, Thunderball (and he really goes to town with some interesting progressions and variants on it in this one), You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever and, in it’s most diluted form, in terms of tension and orchestration, in Moonraker. Barry really owns the “sound of Bond” with this score, as he did for all his subsequent scoring adventures in the world of 007 over the years, of which he scored ten (not including his contribution to Dr. No).

From Russia With Love was one of the more gruelling shoots of the early Bonds with the production plagued by near lethal accidents (the director was stuck under the sea in a crashed helicopter on location and had to be pulled from the wreckage before he drowned), tragedies (Pedro Armendáriz who plays Kerim Bay was rushed through his scenes when he was found to have incurable cancer and, as soon as his scenes were finished, he checked into a hospital and shot himself) and various problems and days called off etc. This didn’t stop with the shooting either, and Peter Hunt had to get very creative in the editing room, even using a mask of an actress over herself to create a new shot and then running another shot both forwards and backwards to fill in holes in coverage which were there. The film also ran over budget, which was already twice the budget of Terence Young’s earlier hit, Dr. No.

Bearing in mind the lengths that the film-makers went to, to lick this movie into shape by the time of their release deadline, it’s a real wonder that From Russia With Love turned out to be an absolute classic in the James Bond cannon. Completely entertaining and still pushing that hardened edge to the Bond character which got lost along the way, some way in to Roger Moore’s run with the character. If you want to watch a really great Sean Connery James Bond film... it’s this one.

EON James Bond Movie Reviews on NUTS4R2

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