Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Two: From Russia with Love (1963)

It has been said, on many occasions, that the James Bond series has had only one direct sequel, with 2008’s Quantum of Solace picking up on the same in-universe day as the ending of 2006’s Casino Royale.  Whilst it is true that this was the most direct example of continuing threads – traditionally the series has, effectively, reset between entries – the first example of a Bond film directly referencing the previous entry came at the first time of asking.

From Russia with Love sees an expanded role for SPECTRE – introduced to audiences last time – and a first glimpse of mysterious Number One, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (here just a voice and a body, with no face shown: that body belonging to Anthony Dawson – Professor Dent in Dr No).  Although, in plot terms, interchangeable, in running order, with its predecessor – with the books being written and released the other way around – SPECTRE is explicit, in the film version, that its plan will allow for them to exact revenge on James Bond for what he did to Dr No.  That sounds like a sequel, doesn’t it?

That plot involves SPECTRE operative Number Three, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya, as a former colonel of SMERSH – Soviet counter-intelligence – whose defection has been kept a secret), recruiting, under her previous guise as a Soviet colonel, Istanbul-based clerk Tatiana “Tania” Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to approach British intelligence.  This approach, devised by Number Five, Kronsteen (a chess grandmaster, portrayed here by Vladek Sheybal), will involve Tania offering the opportunity for MI6 to get their hands on a Lektor decoding machine – effectively, a code breaking machine (known as a “Spektor” in the novel, and changed due to SPECTRE replacing SMERSH in the film adaptation).  She claims to have fallen in love with James Bond, and wants to defect, in order to be with him.

Hired by SPECTRE to protect Bond, until Bond has his hands on the Lektor – then charged with stealing it – is Donovan “Red” Grant (a pre-Quint-from-Jaws Robert Shaw).  SPECTRE understands that British Intelligence will know this to be some kind of ruse, but they also believe the British psyche to be such that they will not be able to resist further investigation.  Bond is booked on a flight to Istanbul, where he meets with station head Ali Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz, who fell terminally ill with cancer during filming, and died months ahead of the film’s release).  As Bond attempts to avoid the Anglo-Russian tensions being stoked by Grant, and stay alive long enough to complete his mission, the film takes us, via the Orient Express, through Belgrade and Zagreb, before finishing with the Bond series’ first trip to Venice.

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EON Productions, owners and custodians of the Bond series, could learn a lot from re-examining the approach taken through the earlier films.  Around 2006, they acquired, finally, the full cinematic rights to SPECTRE and, by extension, the Ernst Stavro Blofeld character (how they ended up without them in the first place is something we’ll cover down the line a little).  In response, 2015’s Spectre saw the organisation, and its head, teased, revealed and beaten in one film.  Contrast this with the 1960s: an era in which long-form storytelling, over several entries – franchises – really didn’t exist.  Yet Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, overseeing the EON company of that time, were smart enough first to tease SPECTRE in Dr No, then to tease Blofeld, right up to the third act of the fifth film, You Only Live Twice.  Blofeld is, finally, a central character in the sixth entry, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  The patience shown meant they could seed several entries with this developing threat, all the while taking care to provide a distinctive, discrete threat within each film, though they were using the framework, at least, of the Ian Fleming novels.  That patience is reflected in this film.

From Russia with Love is not yet the complete cinematic Bond formula.  In many ways it is further away from it than the first entry, and that lack of franchise thinking allows it to be a mature espionage thriller, albeit laced with action and some of the eccentricities in our villains that fans came to know and love as the series progressed.  This is the closest the series ever came to being in the style of a North by Northwest, the exceptional 1959 Alfred Hitchcock movie, starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.  There is even a scene with Connery’s Bond being chased by a helicopter that is clearly influenced by a similar scene with a plane in the ’59 film.

Action in this film is escalated towards, steadily, and when it arrives it releases tension – meaning the film earns its action beats.  The famous train fight between Bond and Red Grant has been imitated many times throughout the series, but the achingly patient, increasingly tense build-up, followed by a sudden release into a life or death struggle between two physical equals has never been bettered by any of the other train-based fights: the fight is memorable because we built to it.

There are some new parts of the formula coming into place, however, with the first appearance of Desmond Llewellyn, as Q (a role he would play for 36 years, missing only one entry in that period).  The distinctive henchman appears, with Klebb a diminutive character with poison-tipped blades in her shoes.  We get the first pre-title section – with a self- contained section where Connery plays a Bond double, trying to stay away from Red Grant, in a SPECTRE training exercise.  This is followed by a small step being taken closer to the traditional titles, with Robert Brownjohn’s sequence setting credits projected onto the body of a female dancer.  It’s not quite the sequences we know, but the structure for the openings to Bond films is moving into place.

There is also evidence that the behind the camera talent that would propel the series to greatness was assembling.  Though production designer Ken Adam sat this one out (working instead on Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove) Terence Young was back, but just as importantly, John Barry provided his first (of 11) scores to the series.  The structure of the films was forming, and the look and sound were both becoming what we came to know as quintessentially Bond.

The world premiere of the second James Bond film, From Russia with Love, took place on 10th October 1963: a mere 370 days on from the first.  This is an extraordinarily fast turnaround, even more so when we consider that the same director, Terence Young, led on both.  President John F. Kennedy had listed the book as one of his top-10 novels, leading to an offer from the studio to provide an advanced screening at the White House in November 1963, (with the film yet to be released in the United States at that point).  That screening took place on 20th November 1963, two days before Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.  There is a very strong possibility that this is the last film he ever saw.

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As a fan of the book, it is likely that Kennedy would have enjoyed the film.  It is a very faithful adaptation, with perhaps only On Her Majesty’s Secret Service coming as close to capturing the spirit of its respective novel.  In the book, Blofeld is absent, as is SPECTRE (with that character and organisation only appearing in three of the novels – Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice – and their appearance here merely to play down the Soviet angle, at a rough time in the Cold War), but the structure is almost the same, and, apart from some playing up of lesbian overtones to Rosa Klebb on the page, and a more extensive background given for Grant in the book – which the story really does not miss – the plot and character beats are almost identical.

From Russia with Love was made for a still-skinny $2 million (double the budget of Dr No, but still significantly less than £1 million at the exchange rates of the day), but Young declared himself happy with this, as he has felt able to do everything with the story that he had wanted.  Box office takings rose by a third to an impressive $79 million.  If this was considered an excellent return however, then, next time out, the doors would be well and truly blown off, as the Bond series was set to become a global phenomenon.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Goldfinger (1964).

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