Better Late Than Never?: From Russia With Love

Better Late Than Never?: From Russia With Love

 

First, let me note that I'm no stranger to James Bond. I grew up in an era when Bond movies were staple programming on ABC, which meant I saw all the stunts, gadgets and gunfights I could squeeze in before bedtime—though I was usually doing homework during the talky parts. And in the '90s, after Pierce Brosnan took over, I was professionally obligated as a working film critic to see each new Bond film as it came out. But I've never gotten around to re-watching those early Bonds that I only saw in bits and pieces as a kid, mainly because the broadcast rights have nearly always been in the hands of basic cable channels that pan-and-scan and slice-and-dice, and I wasn't interested in seeing Bond butchered. (True, I could've rented the movies on DVD. But I didn't.)

So when I finally bought a Blu-Ray player earlier this week, I remembered the James Bond Blu-Ray set a publicist sent me a few weeks back, and wondered if I should make one of those Bonds my first Blu-Ray experience. When I mentioned my plan to Keith—and confessed that I'd never seen a Sean Connery 007 from start to finish—he insisted that I check out From Russia With Love straight away and report back. And, well… I've never been the kind of agent to shirk a mission.

Which brings me to the second thing I should note: From Russia With Love is super-awesome. And not just in the ways that I expected.

I knew the movie would ooze Kennedy Age cool, with nattily dressed spies dispatching their patriotic obligations more as a matter of duty than ideology. In the case of From Russia With Love, Bond is assigned to escort a Soviet defector and a stolen coding machine from Istanbul to the London office of MI6, unaware that she and the machine are merely bait designed to lure him into the clutches of the rogue agency SPECTRE, to be humiliated and assassinated by their specially trained operative Red Grant (played with thuggish élan by Robert Shaw, looking very different than he would in Jaws more than a decade later). When Grant and Bond finally meet—following Grant's attempt to masquerade as a fellow MI6-er, which Bond sniffs out as a deception because Grant drinks red wine with his fish—the two do the gentlemanly thing and chat amiably before trying to kill each other. (Oddly enough, Grant doesn't tell his story about surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.)

I also expected gadgetry in From Russia With Love, since I'd heard that this—the second of the big-screen Bonds—is the first movie to feature MI6's quartermaster, Q. The most important gadget supplied to Bond here is a briefcase that doubles as a tear-gas dispenser, which Bond tricks Grant into opening at the end of their little chat. (The gas is hidden in a container of talcum powder. These days, if I were a customs agent, I think I'd find the talcum powder more suspicious than a bottle labeled "Tear Gas.") The rest of the technology on display in From Russia With Love is more down-to-earth: disassembled rifles, poisoned boot-daggers… you know, stuff you'd find at Bass Pro Shops.

And of course I expected the requisite "Bond girls," though I wasn't prepared for the charming performance of Daniela Bianchi as the deceptive defector, Tatiana. She's sexy, yes—part of her mission is to seduce Bond, while SPECTRE films their lovemaking in order to spark an international sex scandal—but from the moment she's introduced, talking about her ballet training, Tatiana is also vulnerable and a little tragic. Critic Dave Kehr described Bianchi as "embodying the essence of centerfold sex, circa 1964," but it isn't just her curves that make her emblematic of the early-'60s Playboy ideal; it's her high hopes and wounded heart. Of course, it doesn't hurt that she's surrounded by sex objects who don't have backstories. From Russia With Love is replete with cleavage, appearing on cat-fighting belly dancers, lounging mistresses, and—of course—the go-go dancer who writhes beneath the opening credits.

Even poor, perpetually horny MI6 secretary Miss Moneypenny gets closer to the action than usual, overhearing a recording of Bond and Tatiana pitching woo while sharing state secrets. In fact, the Bond/Moneypenny flirtation is at a high in From Russia With Love—the title even comes from a note Bond scrawls to Moneypenny on a photo of Tatiana—with Bond teasing Moneypenny about his exotic and erotic adventures, and her pouting seductively in her office chair. More than the sexy banter, though, what I liked best about those scenes at MI6 is the ordinariness of the set design, which could've been borrowed from any '60s sitcom. There's something kind of wonderful about the idea that the fate of the world is in the hands of men and women who work in the offices of McMahon & Tate, rather than in a concrete bunker flanked by supercomputers.

Similarly, what most impressed me about From Russia With Love is how much like a real movie it is. Most of the Bond films I've seen all the way through are convoluted at best, confounding at worst, with plots designed merely to carry the hero to the next foreign clime and the next outlandish action sequence. The same could be said of most post-Bond spy stories; with their abundance of atmosphere and paucity of story, these movies and TV series are meant to be settled into like an easy chair, not understood.

But From Russia With Love is remarkably well-constructed, starting with a clever opening sequence that shows a man in a Bond mask being hunted and felled by Grant, continuing through a post-credits stretch that focuses on SPECTRE and leaves the real Bond on the sidelines for a full 18 minutes, and culminating in a tense train-bound section that compares well with the likes of The Lady Vanishes, Narrow Margin, and The Tall Target. The action in From Russia With Love is clear and well-motivated, even as the movie remains breezy and fun, littered with bad puns and haunted by the looming presence of cartoony, cat-stroking arch-villain Ernst Blofeld (listed in the credits as being played by "?," since his face is never seen).

From Russia With Love also explores a theme, ripped directly from the pages of Ian Fleming's novel—to which the movie is unusually faithful, judging by my cursory scan. Early in the film, we're introduced to SPECTRE agent Kronsteen (played by Vladek Sheybal), a chess grandmaster and brilliant strategist. And throughout From Russia With Love, the characters act as though they're aware they're just pawns in a larger game. In fact, when Bond first arrives in Istanbul, the local spies admit that they make things as easy as they can for their Russian counterparts, and vice-versa, because the Cold War thrives on stalemate.

Incidentally, I should mention that From Russia With Love looks and sounds fantastic on Blu-Ray, where every music cue is richer and every panoramic vista looks like it's arriving wet from the lab, circa 1963. If the appeal of the Bond films is as much about mood and location as action and story, then watching the Blu-Ray of From Russia With Love is like traveling 45 years into the past. It made me wish I'd spent less time as a kid doing homework, and more time paying attention to what my parents were watching on TV.

Now where did I stash that copy of Thunderball?

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