For Fresh Eyes Only: From Russia with Love
If Dr. No was an introduction to the idea of James Bond as a guide to exotic vistas and cheesy fun action, then From Russia with Love feels like the introduction to the idea of James Bond as a vessel for genuinely thrilling spy stories. This is my understanding as to the dichotomy of Bond (this is based on limited evidence, mind you). He’s a character that can be as silly or as serious as you need him to be, as effortlessly perfect or as fallible, as suave or as... well he’s always suave. I’m interested to see if I have this notion correct or not, the further into the series I get.
The film begins with a shock by showing you the death of James Bond. Or rather, a man with a perfect James Bond mask on being hunted by the film’s big bad, Grant (a striking Robert Shaw) as a training exercise. The intriguing opener leads into the great opening credits, in which the credits are projected onto the body of a belly dancer. They genuinely are among the most fun opening credits I’ve ever seen, which is a nice contrast with the next few scenes establishing the seemingly unbeatable Russian spy force. And we also meet a guy with a cat, who’s whole thing I am confused by, but I’ll assume he is the real one in charge because it seems pretty obvious.
It’s nearly fifteen minutes into the film before we first meet the real James Bond, lounging in a canoe with Sylvia Trench, a character I’m dismayed to learn doesn’t continue. When Bond finally gets to the office he’s introduced to the first ever gadget of the series! I’ve been waiting for this. He is issued a briefcase that, thanks to a bunch of secret compartments, houses ammunition, a knife, a gun, tear gas, and some sweet gold coins. All of these tools will come into play somewhere along this journey and seeing them be used is a lot of fun. The more outlandish these gadgets, the better, I say.
The majority of the film takes place in Turkey, another great choice of location after Jamaica. Less scenic but a great choice for the political turmoil of the film. Bond is immediately thrown into the middle of political unrest unknowingly caused by Grant. Bond’s contact, Kerim Bay (Pedro Armendáriz) takes him to a gypsy caravan, home to the biggest set-piece of the film, a balls-to-the-wall assault in these dilapidated ruins. Everything’s burning, people are fist-fighting, sword-fighting, and gun-fighting. In the middle, Grant puzzlingly saves Bond with a sniper shot. Oh and there was an awesome brutal catfight in there for some reason, too.
Back at his hotel, Bond meets the film’s Bond Girl, Tatiana Romanova (the stunning Daniela Bianchi), for the first time as she’s waiting in his bed in a torn up room. He’s agreed to help her defect, but is it a ploy? A camera and crew behind the glass above their bed films them. The next day Bond busts in and steals the decoder that they’ve been working to get, I think (I tend to lose these plots quickly), and board the train out of there. Their plans have a wrench thrown in them by Grant, who disguises himself as the agent sent to gather the decoder. He kills Kerim, drugs Romanova, and pins Bond in his room. The jig is up and Grant explains the whole plan to Bond at gunpoint, a silly and often mocked trope I’m happy to see is actually true. The SPECTRE agent sets off the tear gas and the two engage in a hard-hitting and badass fist fight, which Bond gets the better of.
Bond and Romanova find their way off the train but have to do just a few last set-pieces before they’re home free. The first, a thrilling sequence in which a helicopter chases them. Bond manages to find shelter and snipes a grenade out of the air to blow up the helicopter. The second, a boat chase from the police. They cut the gasoline barrels from their own boat and blow them up to create enough distance and explosions to escape. And finally, just when we thought it was all over, Romanova’s boss, Klebb (Lotte Lenya) ambushes the two at a hotel room. She’s got Bond pinned, and Romanova shows her true alliances and saves him. Finally, the two enjoy a romantic trip on the canals of Venice.
I liked Dr. No, but I loved From Russia With Love. It’s a hell of a good spy story with amazing setpieces and great photography. Sean Connery gets it, and Daniela Bianchi is a great addition to the series (she has to stick around for at least one more, right?). Also, I can’t wait to learn more about Cat Man, the Cat, and the rest of SPECTRE. (A peek behind the curtain, I wrote this entry months and months after the first, and it was killing me not to continue watching this, especially with such a good mystery set up. Two down, 22 to go.)