Part 2 in a 24 part series of secret agent ‘research‘, this is my second 007 film review. If you missed my first, you can read my review of 1963’s Dr. No here.
Over the holidays my family and I watched From Russia with Love (henceforth FRWL) after a day on the slopes. Movie night has become a tradition on this annual trip and, with the month drawing to a close, I needed to watch my second Bond film to keep pace with my monthly review commitment – all in the name of research mind you.
The previous nights’ films included the expertly-helmed Star Trek: Into Darkness and the quintessential schmaltzy Christmas movie, Love Actually. Filling Ricardo Montalban’s prosthetic chest plate (the proverbial shoes if you will) from The Wrath of Khan is no small feat, but Benedict Cumberbatch, of the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes fame, was fantastic. He simply chews up the screen in a cast already packed with charisma. When Cumberbatch is finally introduced it’s a bit like watching the All Star game when Lebron James checks in – ‘oh, I thought these other guys were good, but I guess there is another level.’
As much as I enjoyed these movies, it was my first time for neither, and I was greatly looking forward to the second Bond installment. FRWL is regarded by many as the best “film” of the entire series even if others (Goldfinger, Casino Royale) are better known and crowd favorites. FRWL also bears the distinction of being one of President Kennedy’s favorite books and was responsible for Fleming’s novels reaching a whole new audience.
As FRWL unfolded it was clear I was the most excited of all of us. Yawns were stifled, eyelids drooped, the dogs dozed, and there I was on the edge of my seat. I wasn’t disappointed.
Director: Terrence Young
Release date: May 27, 1963 in London
Contextual Matters: FRWL came out shorty after Dr. No so, as zeitgeists go, they are cut from the same cloth. And if anything, FRWL is more a reflection of the then current events than its predecessor. The cold war is in full swing with the Cuban Missle Crisis occurring the year prior. Other major events from 1964 include:
- Plans are announced to construct the World Trade Centers in NYC.
- The Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan show thus initiating the British invasion.
- President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law.
- Nikita Khrushchev is deposed as leader of the Soviet Union; Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin assume power.
- Roald Dahl (screenwriter for Diamonds are Forever) writes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Kills (17), Conquests (4), and Cocktails (0): As Bond films go, FRWL indexes fairly high on kills and conquests, but is light on the sauce. For a moment I couldn’t think of how he got to four conquests. Bond’s previous flame from Dr. No, Sylvia Trench, was easy to recall. As was Tatiana Romanova being the principal Bond girl of the film – then I remembered the two gypsy women offered to Bond for “comfort.” Their menage a trois (it is the 60s after all) is implied, but not seen.
Sartorial Splendor, Outmoded Mode: As Bond films go, FRWL might win the best dressed award. Not only does it lack any fashion flops, it hits all the right notes with great suits and brilliant looks from Bond, the would-be assassin Red Grant, and, of course Tatiana Romanova played by the ‘Miss Rome’ pageant winner, Daniela Bianchi. Even Bond’s brief tryst with Silvia Trench, a rare carry-over from the previous film, looks straight out of Town & Country. For James a two picture fling amounts to a long-term relationship so the choice is noteworthy.
Where FRML truly shines is in womens’ accessories. Rosa Klebb, sports not only a shoe with a retractable poison knife (less comfortable than you might expect), but also a pair of tremendous glasses. The glasses are the only real sight gag of the film and they do not disappoint. She could be Woody Allan in drag – minus the neurosis.
The Wrong Side of History: FRWL lacks the volume of offenses of its predecessor, but in one pivotal scene you’re painfully reminded that you’re watching a film from the 60s. The gypsy cat fight conjures up notions of boy crazy women with little future outside of securing a husband. The fact that men are watching their fight for amusement doesn’t make it any easier. Of note, James is taken aback by their violence; doing what he can to stop it. The fact that they both sleep with him afterward snaps you back to the 60s era reality quickly. James demures.
Inspirational Moments: The close quarters combat on the train scene is fantastic. While it’s not Jason Bourne quality choreography, it does have me missing Kenpo Karate – an art well suited from such confines. I need to get back to my dojo hunt. The introduction of the Walther PPK also points out an alarming and obvious gap in my firearm collection.
Best lines: In FRML we start to see a bit more levity introduced. It’s as if Bond is becoming more comfortable in his Saville row suits as the film progresses. The banter will become a hallmark of the films over the series, but regrettably take a step toward the sophomoric in the tail-end of the Moore area; and certainly during Brosnan’s turn.
- Tatiana: “The mechanism is… Oh James, James… Will you make love to me all the time in England?” Bond: “Day and night. Go on about the mechanism.”
- Bond: [After killing the poison shoes of Rosa Klebb.] “She’s had her kicks.”
- Bond: “Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something.” Grant: “I might not know my wines, but you are the one on your knees.”
The review: While FRWL lacks the modern day entertainment value of a genetically engineered super villain, that’s actually the secret to its charm. It has neither the preposterous plot of its predecessor (Dr. No), nor its successor (Goldfinger), but more than compensates with well-crafted villains and a plot that is considered by some to be more Lecarre than Fleming. Robert Shaw as Bond’s would-be assassin Red Grant and Lotte Lenya’s spectacularly-bespectacled Rosa Klebb shine in their respective roles.
Additionally, the charm offensive and pure aesthetic of Connery and Italian-model and Bond girl Daniela Bianchi, is runway material. They’re a walking, talking, Harper’s Bazzar photo-shoot.
What makes FRWL unique is that despite introducing a number of the better known Bond traditions it has a different feel from most of the other films. The quips aren’t over-wrought, the gadgets not over engineered, and the villains note-worthy, but not ridiculous. Even the action scenes, while tremendous in the day, are actually quite spare. And it all works.
The plot ostensibly focuses on grandiose cold war themes, but in reality is more of a revenge picture than anything else. SPECTRE has returned and seek to avenge their fallen colleague Dr. No. The film centers on the pursuit of a Russian decoding device located at their embassy in Istanbul. SPECTRE, posing as SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence agency, has recruited a stunning young consulate-worker by the name of Taitiana Romanova to assist them in luring James into a trap. By playing the Russians and Brits off of one another, and appealing to James’ libido, SPECTRE intends to secure the device and kill Bond in the process. The film transpires in Istanbul, a location used later in The World is Not Enough and Skyfall.
Much of the film is a cat and mouse game of sorts; Bond appearing to somehow remain a step ahead of SPECTRE assassins and agents, or is he? Viewers are also left to wonder how far Romanova’s adoration goes; is she really falling for Bond or merely using him for SMERSH (really SPECTRE’s) gain?
The film picks up steam toward the latter third when Bond and his Istanbul contact hatch a plot to steal the device from the embassy. The ensuing chase (and race to get the device back to Mi6) takes the duo from Istanbul to Venice involving not only the Orient Express (and an epic train fight sequence that cannot be missed), but also attack helicopters, and a floatialla of gun ships. When Bond and Romanova finally arrive safely in Venice, with the coding device intact, there’s but one more surprise waiting for them. It’s a befitting end to a film that otherwise had been arguably more plodding than engaging (at least for standard Bond fare).
The traditions introduced in FRWL are crucial; providing a winning formula that will be mined for decades to come. Ernst Stavo Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE is introduced…nearly. The first of more than one film villains to have his face withheld for the film’s duration, only Blofeld’s hands are seen; whilst stroking a long-haired white cat naturally. Thus beginning the second super villain tradition, the animal-loving homicidal maniac (see Drax in Moonraker, Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, etc.). I imagine this is supposed to be a humanizing element, but I fail to see how affection for an entirely subservient animal makes Blofeld more relate-able. Drax’s French mansion? Now there’s something to aspire to.
FRWL also marks the introduction of Desmond Llewelyn playing the role of Q. Q was actually introduced in the first film, played by Peter Burton, but Burton wasn’t available for FRWL due to a scheduling conflict. Also, Burton’s role was devoid of a single gadget. Not to sell Burton short, he did replace Bond’s beloved Berreta with the more reliable Walther PPK. So, while Burton’s screen time was brief, his legacy is secure. Lleyelyn filled his shoes nicely and cements a long-honored tradition of provisioning Bond with the just-right gadgets for his pending mission. From this film forward, the role is Lleyeln’s to own – all the way until his 17th film, the regrettable ‘The World is Not Enough.’
FRWL’s value to the series is massively aided by hindsight. While the set pieces are less impressive by today’s standards, and the womanizing reprehensible, it arguably has a more lasting value on the series than its predecessor which is no small feat – there are very few follow-up films that can lay this claim. Factor in the stellar villains and co-star chemistry and FRWL deserves its place among my top five Bond films of the series.
Detailed synopsis: Like nearly all films in the genre, FRWL opens with an action sequence. Bond is alternatively stalking and being stalked by an unknown blond assassin. Eventually he’s caught in what appears to be a corn-maze of cypress trees and strangled with a garrote. Only upon his death is the big unveil. The dead man is not Bond, but another man in disguise and the murder appears to be an elaborate training exercise complete with flood lights and dozens of observers. Someone wants Bond dead and is doing their homework, but who?
Enter SPECTRE. You remember SPECTRE don’t you? The SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion? Bond foiled the lads at SPECTRE in Dr. No and it seems they want revenge. Oh, and world domination. So, the usual basically. After the opening credits we find a duo playing chess in what looks like Liberace’s drawing room; one man well-coiffed and sophisticated the other less so. He receives a subtle, but urgent communique and promptly dispatches his opponent in two maneuvers. We’re meant to think this might be either another double-O agent, or perhaps a new-found foil of some form. We learn it’s the latter as the denouement unfolds. The chess-playing sophisticate is a ranking member of the SPECTRE organization and has designs on stealing a soviet decoding device, known as a Lektor, enlisting the assistance of a Soviet Agent (surreptitiously), and killing Bond in the process.
Meanwhile, Bond is summoned by Mi6 whilst convalescing with Dr No’s Sylvia Trench. Sylvia, overwhelmed by her attraction, initiates what will become a time-honored tradition of the genre; women opening pining for James and setting aside their dignity in the process. Bond, naturally, acquiesces despite that fact that Mi6 beckons.
After a brief but charming flirtation with Moneypenny (played so well by Lois Maxwell) Bond meets with M to receive his orders. It seems a Russian Agent wants to defect and claims to not only be in love with Bond (how she comes by knowledge of the “secret” again is glossed over). but also have access to the Lektor decoding device. Realizing it’s a trap, MI6 sends Bond anyway. Those daring Brits are not one to back down from a challenge.
Before setting off, Q enters and presents Bond with a special black leather attaché case filled with all manner of toys and gadgets, including 20 rounds of ammunition, a flat throwing knife, a .22 folding sniper’s rifle, 50 gold sovereigns, and a tear gas grenade hidden in a tin of talcum powder. This grab bag of secret agent treasures is in contrast to future films where Bond is typically outfitted with one or two items. I surmise that future directors realized the side-show of gadget demonstrations in the background, while Bond and Q reviewed a smaller sampling of items, provided all the fodder they need to fuel Bond’s quips and Q’s exasperated retorts.
Bond proceeds to Istanbul to work with their man on the ground at the consulate, Karim Bey. Upon arrival, it’s made abundantly clear that Bond is already a marked man. From an airport tail, to bugs in the hotel room, there’s nary a move that the Russians won’t be aware of. Luckily, Bey’s office at the consulate has underground access to the Russian consulate allowing Bond to do a little spying of his own.
Thanks to a naval periscope under the floor, Bond can see the players, including a Bulgarian assassin named Krilencu. The contraption, being a periscope, lacks audio so Bond can only see who’s involved, including the long legs of agent Romanova, but he cannot hear their plans. What must have seemed both terribly clever when the film came out seems so laughable in the Snowden and NSA era. Also, if you can install a periscope under the floor accessible via an underground cavern, is a bug really that much more difficult? Wouldn’t it actually be more valuable?
After their sight-seeing, Bond and Bey return to his office and quickly develop a certain rapport perhaps only rivaled by James’ relationship with CIA agent Felix Unger. It seems no one is immune to his charms. Bey whisks Bond away to gypsy settlement loyal to Bey where he can stay away from prying eyes. The settlement is an amalgam of gypsy stereotypes culminating in, wait for it, a gypsy cat fight. It’s tradition when two gypsy women fall in love with the same man that they must fight for the honor of marrying him. Looking at these women you’d think they were fighting over the last stool at the Clinique counter. Accuracy aside, it makes for good Bond fare. As, naturally Bond will spend the night with one of them.
All this cat fighting has sparked a film idea! Modern day debutantes duke it out over jock boyfriends in southern climes. It’s 90210 with femme fatales and Lee Press-On nails. With dystopic love-stories all the rage this is a sure-fire hit. We’ll call it Gypsy High! I’m clearly onto something.
Before the fight ends, the compound is attacked by a led by the Bulgarian assassin Krilencu. Karim is shot in the arm, but survives while Bond is unhurt but only be the grace of an unknown savior. The camera angle doesn’t reveal who initially so we can only assume its someone with perhaps even more nefarious intentions. The gypsies fend off the hoard with Bey and Bond’s help. As a reward for saving so many, Bond is rewarded with both of the women from the cat fight. An apt reward for a hard night’s work.
Returning to the city, Bond and Karim track down Krilencu. Bond lets Bey avenge his fallen comrades killing him with Bond’s Q-issued fold-up rifle. Later, when he returns to his room Bond finds Romanova in his bed – waiting. Romanova is clad only in a choker which I’m sure was no accident in the wardrobe department. Everything about her blind adoration and allegiance says “I’m playing you”, but Bond naturally does what Bond does throwing caution, and likely birth control, to the wind. Toward the end of the scene we find Klebb and Grant recording them through a one-way mirror which only ads to their unintended kink that runs through the course of the film.
An SNL skit just occurred to me, the bastard children of James Bond form a support group and track him down to extract revenge. Or, maybe just the keys to the Aston Martin. According to various sources the number of Bond conquests ranges from 44-63.
The next day, Romanova heads to a rendezvous at a nearby Mosque. Bond accompanies her, but is not alone. They are tailed by a man who is killed by Grant, unseen by Bond once again. On the body they find, all to conveniently, plans for the Russian Consulate. As Bey and Bond review the plans later he cautions Bond that finding the plans was all to easy and that James might falling for Romanova; compromising his judgement.
Bond meets Romanov on a ferry the next day getting her to her to tell him all about the Lektor and tapes their conversation for M back at the home office. M confirms that the description of the device sounds accurate which only emboldens James on acquiring one at the consulate. He and Bey hatch a plan to retrieve the device during a staged explosion.
Bond enters the consulate ostensibly to apply for a visa right when Bey sets off the explosion. In the confusion he rescues Romanova, retrieves the Lektor device, and escapes in the catacombs. After a rather Indiana Jones like onslaught of sewer rats (who knew Spielberg was so derivative?) Bond and Romanova board the Orient Express to hightail it out of town. Bey has arranged to provide cover for the couple booking them as a married couple much to the delight of the boy crazy Romanova. Unbeknownst to them, Grant boards the train as well. Bond still has never seen Grant, who looks a bit like a psychopathic Doby Gillis, so he’s briefly fooled when Grand presents himself as a fellow agent there to help him smuggle the Lector to safety.
With a Gatsby like shtick, Grant tries to ingratiate himself to Bond and Romanova and invites them to dinner. Suspicious, Bond sends them onto dinner while he secures
a rather obvious bit of foreshadowing his bobby-trapped belongings. Over an awkward dinner Grant slips up and orders red wine with fish; an etiquette faux paus that a double-o would never make. This is perhaps one of the best impostor reveals in cinematic history. The psychopathic evil-doer exposed, not by being traced by the radiation signature from some doomsday device (as that almost never happened in every episode of 24), but for missing finishing school. Grant clearly didn’t go to Eton like Bond. What Bond fails to notice is that Grant slips Romanova a mickey during dinner. Back in the private cabin, while Bond is tending to the passed out Romanova, Grant knocks him out. When he finally awakens, Bond is at the end of Grant’s gun.
In what becomes a much maligned Bond tradition, Grant, feeling full of self with the clear upper hand, reveals to Bond the remainder of the plan. Romanova is a pawn in this game (female fans of the film rejoice, their love is real!). Grant and Klebb intend on killing them both them framing the murder/suicide as a crime of passion – the film of their love-making from earlier as evidence. SPECTRE has been playing the Russians and Brits off of one another to secure the Lektor device for their own purposes. Grant only saved his life so Bond would lead him to the device. Of course! This entire affair was a trap. Wait, we knew this from the start.
Enter Q. Bond makes an appeal for one last cigarette; a gesture of professionalism that even a psychopath cannot begrudge. The gold sovereigns, in the recently secured case, are payment. Naturally, Grant insists on opening the case himself and gets a face full of tear gas. It’s easy to see this scene coming in the new millennium, but I wonder how it played with viewers at the time. The tear gas canister opens and a fantastic fight sequence ensues. It’s clear Bond has met his match as the two men go back and fourth neither of whom appears to have a clear upper hand. Grant tries to garrote Bond with a wire hidden in his watch, but Bond is able to stab him with the concealed blade from the attache case, then ends up strangling him. When the train arrives at Grants intended demarcation point, Bond and a still weary Romanova, make their break.
Bond quickly dispatches the SPECTRE agent sent to meet Grant taking his flower truck to make their escape. Bond drives, while Romanova dozes off on a bed of flowers. I’m just guessing they were poppies. At dawn Bond and Romanova, find themselves under attack from above by a SPECTRE helicopter. In a scene reminiscent of North by Northwest, Bond eludes the helicopter, dodging the Molotov cocktails being dropped from above, and brings it down in a single shot (we’ll ignore the fact that the rifle was just a .22).
Bond and Romanova continue to drive until they reach a boat on a remote dock; taking their getaway nautical in a speed boat laden, in yet another subtle nod of foreshadowing, with extra barrels of fuel tied off on the back. Bond dons the Captain and Tenielle cap and points the boat toward Venice. Not surprisingly, SPECTRE isn’t going to quit so easily.
Bond and Romanova make good progress toward Venice but are followed (again!) by SPECTRE agents in a small flotilla of speed boats. Bond tries to lose them, but is under heavy fire. The bullets eventually blow holes in the fuel barrels which seems to spark an idea (puns!). He lures in his pursuers, unstraps the barrels, and then uses a flare gun to set them ablaze. Finally free, after motoring all night, Bond and Romanova arrive in Venice. More modern day film fans will note that this destination was reprised towards the tragic end of Casino Royale.
Just as the two seem set to enjoy their lavish suite on the Grand Canal, the maid enters. It’s Rosa Klebb disguised as a maid attempting to steal the Lektor device. Romanova recognizes her, but fails to say anything thinking that she is a SMERSH agent. Klebb holds James at gun point and gets the seemingly reluctant Romanova to help her escape with the device. Finally, just as it appears Romanova was indeed playing James, she has a change of heart and disarms Klebb.
However, Klebb isn’t going to go out easily. She reveals her poison tipped shoe-blade and attempts to kick Bond while he pins her to the wall with a chair. This entire scene was a bit silly. Once the element of surprise was lost with the toe knife, dispatching Klebb looked about as simple as holding the forehead of a toddler while he swings wildly at a much taller and longer-limbed opponent. I’ll admit to snickering here. Romanvoa eventually shoots Klebb saving James, just as he saved her.
The film ends, like many in the series, with James enjoying the spoils of victory. Bond and Romanova take time for a gondola trip just as the credits begin.
Next up? The most-loved and third film in the series, Goldfinger.