Thursday, 8 November 2007

Why 'From Russia With Love' is the Best James Bond Film

I am in a mood for talking movies and decided to put in my vote for the best James Bond movie. In my opinion it is 'From Russia With Love' released in 1963 (and in 1964 in the USA). It was the second Sean Connery James Bond movie to be released with a budget of US$ 2 million, double that of its predecessor 'Dr. No' (1962). It tends to receive much less attention than the one which followed it, 'Goldfinger' (1964) which established the pattern for the James Bond movies made up to the late 1980s.

Why I like 'From Russia With Love' is probably because it is not typical of the series. It has no big base with a huge battle at the end and the technology is kept to a minimum (a talcum powder can that releases tear gas, a suitcase with a knife that springs from it, a large camera with a tape recorder in it; the pager and carphone were actually already available at the time) and in fact the opposition have the best bit of kit, a watch with a garotte wire in it. The movie develops the sinister organisation, SPECTRE, which was added in contrast to the Ian Fleming books which featured SMERSH which had been an actual wartime Soviet unit to eliminate oppoising spies. The world had just experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and was at the height of the Cold War, but Richard Maibaum's screenplay suggests a more complex world than the simple bipolar world of the USSR against the USA and the Soviets are exploited as much as the British are in the film. Even today, the extra twist that even Bond does not realise until the closing stages of the movie, adds something that some makers of contemporary spy movies could learn from. It increases the interest for the audience without losing them in complexity.

The leading female character, Corporal Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi, though dubbed as were many foreign actors in Bond movies) is a cypher clerk for the Soviet consulate in Istanbul and whilst attractive is a little naive and is exploited by Colonel Rosa Klebb (acted by Lotte Lenya - there are few true female villains [as opposed to uncertain female characters who change sides] in Bond films until you get to Fatima Blush in 'Never Say Never Again' - 1983; Mayday in 'A View To a Kill' - 1985, even she turns good at the end; Xenia Onatopp in 'Goldeneye' - 1995 and Elektra King in 'The World is Not Enough' - 1999) SMERSH/KGB operative who has gone over to SPECTRE. It is the ensemble cast which adds to the movie. Klebb might be the evil plotter and dangerous, but she is not infallible nor invincible.

Similarly, Kronsteen (played suitably by Czech actor Vladek Sheybal), the chess master who plots the whole conspiracy which is mainly aiming to kill Bond and get the Lektor code machine for SPECTRE is killed due to the failure of the plan in a very chilling way. The third villian, Donald 'Red' Grant (played by Robert Shaw) is portrayed as a psychopath, another ruthless killer, but again one who is flawed, because of his greed for money. The interplay between Grant and Bond around who is in control and also about class and in effect snobbery, is interesting. The battle between Grant and Bond on the train might be a foregone conclusion but certainly does not appear that way. Thus, unlike many of the Bond villains to follow, this trio may be devious and evil, but are ultimately still human and so in their reflection Bond is human too, he may be cleverer and stronger than us, but he is still one of us, so we can more easily dream of being like him.

The two sides of the same coin is also illustrated very well when Grant is shadowing Bond on the platform of the Yugoslav station, their hair colours, Grant blond, Bond dark contrast, but each seems to be the reflection of the other in this battle of spies. This leads to a more interesting dichotomy and one that is returned to in the Pierce Brosnan era when the morality has again been brought back into question.

Another element that makes the movie appealing is that it does not stretch across the globe. The action takes place between Istanbul and Venice. This is naturally a region which harks back to the thrillers of the pre-First World War and inter-war period as much as to the Cold War. Turkey was the West's ally in the Near East; Bulgaria (Bulgars appear in the Istanbul scenes) was the USSR's ally there; Yugoslavia through which Bond travels was Communist but not beholden to the Soviets and then Italy, is the refuge, a NATO member. So it is an area in the front line of the Cold War and one with a long history of intrigue and adventure, revived for the 1960s in this film. In this, the character of Kerim Bey (played ably by Pedro Armendariz who unfortunately was ill during shooting and committed suicide soon after the movie was released) adds to the flavour and the ensemble nature of the movie. Whilst he is a virile agent, he is also very loyal to family and friends and the audience mourn his death. This adds a personal element to Bond's actions. In fact revenge is a theme which reoccurs, such as Bond's assistance in Bey killing the Bulgarian agent and that SPECTRE wants revenge for Bond's killing of Dr. No.

Bey's role also aids in making it clear to us when watching the film, that Bond is operating in this man's environment, rather than being super-efficient in every context in which he finds himself. (Probably the only other time Bond has such a lesser standing is when in Harlem with the black Felix Leiter in 'Live and Let Die'). Again, this shows Bond as being more human, though very resourceful. Overall 'From Russia With Love' owes more to thrillers of the decades that preceded it and to other spy stories than to the larger-than-life, fantastical monster than the Bond films were to become from 'Goldfinger' onwards before touching base again with 'The Living Daylights' (1987). The film has an engaging plot, a range of interesting characters and, importantly, is of its time. To viewers in 2007 the Balkans of the 1960s draws us in because it is different both in time and place; being dated is part of the movie's charm. The use of locations, light and shadow all add the cinemagraphic appeal of the movie too. Thus, 'From Russia With Love' even 44 years on receives my vote for being the best James Bond movie.

P.P. 07/10/2012
With all the brouhaha around the 50 year anniversary of the release of the movie 'Dr. No', I was interested to read Peter Bradshaw putting forward 'From Russia With Love' as his favourite James Bond movie for much the same reasons as myself:

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