From Russia with Love

Brace yourselves, it’s going to get all sequel-flavoured up in this bitch.

From Russia with Love (1963)

I think From Russia with Love is my favourite Connery Bond. In terms of the public consciousness,  it tends to get lost in the shuffle between the more iconic early Bonds like Dr.No and Goldfinger. I feel that the Bond films are in a slightly different league than most films when it comes to reviewing them. What I may think is a good Bond flick may not be your idea of one. However, being as objective as I can, From Russia with Love is probably the best straight-up spy thriller of the 22. Some people have argued that it’s the best of the series and while I can definitely see where they’re coming from, I can’t agree. It’s damn good, but lacking a few key elements for me to be the ultimate Bond.

“Ah, the old game: give a wolf a taste and then leave him hungry. My friend, she’s got you dangling.”

After Dr.No’s climactic boiling in the previous film, global terrorist organisation SPECTRE step up their game with a plan to end 007 (Sean Connery). SPECTRE head, the mysterious cat-stroking Blofeld (?*) orders Number Three, Colonel Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) to trap Bond using the two things he’s susceptible to, a much sought-after decoding machine called the Lektor and a beautiful Russian named Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi). All the while, Bond is being stalked by SPECTRE assassin Red Grant (Robert “Quint off Jaws” Shaw). The film is pretty solid, giving more of what we were given before but bigger. Connery has settled into the role by this point and gives us a more assured, less self-satisfied 007. Daniela Bianchi is good but pretty forgettable as Romanova and as such isn’t the first name that comes to mind when discussing 007’s women. It’s a damn shame too as I think Bianchi in this film may be one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Bond gets a loyal ally in the form of Kerim Bay (Pedro Armendariz), the head of the Turkish station. Armendariz is instantly likeable as Kerim Bay and it’s both a shame and a blessing this was his last role.

I think the film belongs to the villains though, with Lotte Lenya’s stern and psychotic Rosa Klebb and Shaw’s equally psychotic but more debonair Red Grant. In fact, Klebb gets my favourite little bit in the whole film where she’s barking orders and threats at Romanov and she pauses to put on the thickest fucking comedy glasses. Grant is an interesting one as he’s kind of a dark reflection of Bond. Often Grant will be seen mirroring Bond’s moves or stalking him like a shadow. After the great fake-out intro in which “Bond” gets garroted by Grant, it’s really cool to see their storylines slowly move towards crossing paths for realsies. The culmination of this is the oft-lauded train fight where Bond and Grant duke it out in the claustrophobic confines of a train carriage. The whole sequence from Grant’s deception to him being hoisted by his own petard (or more accurately: “garroted by his own watch”) is a joy and right up there when I list my greatest Bond moments.

From Russia with Love also adds a few more elements to the ever-growing list of Bond hallmarks. This film introduces fan-favourite gadgetmaster Q (Desmond Llewelyn) in an understated way, having him show off a standard-issue briefcase with all sorts of fancy tricks. This is the series’ first Bond gadget too, so hey, that’s something. Blofeld has his first appearance too, although we don’t see his face for a few more films yet. From Russia with Love also ushered in the famous Bond title track, sung by Matt Munro, although it scores the end credits, not the opening ones. Speaking of the titles, the film really kicks off a formula with the cast’s names being projected onto the various jiggling parts of some bellydancers. Again, the use of the Bond theme still seems a little off, now playing when 007 is being driven around. That’s not to discredit John Barry, who takes up the musical mantle for the first time with this film, lending a charm and dynamic that many other Bond films after this one would also benefit from.

“Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something.”

A lot of the action is quite dated (with the possible exception of the Grant/Bond scrap) but there’s still some fun to be had. There’s a big sequence where a gypsy camp is torched and attacked that’s still a fairly decent bit. It’s hard to imagine how the tame gypsy catfight that precedes the raid was considered shocking. There’s also a very well done helicopter sequence, which was no doubt heavily influenced by North By Northwest. If I had to criticise it (and I do), I’d say the pacing’s slightly off, with a lot of scenes taking a lot longer than they need to and killing the pace dead. It’s a minor quibble though. This is Bond before the silliness started to creep in and it works very well. It’s easily one of the best Bond films, despite it not being my personal favourite.

*The film actually credits Blofeld with a question mark, but he was actually played by Anthony Dawson, Dr.No‘s Professor Dent

Dr. No

Most of my urges are dark, solemn secrets between me and my internet service provider. However, I had an urge the other day that I felt safe to expose to the light of day. I’ve decided to review every Bond film in chronological order, one a day, for 22 days. Why? Well, I recently got the complete set on Blu-ray and it’s the 50th anniversary of Bond this year, which is as good as an excuse as any. Let me address two things: 1) Yes, I probably do need a girlfriend or at least a night out with people once in a while and 2) I’m not going to do the two “unofficial” Bonds, namely 1967’s Bond parody Casino Royale and Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again because, above all other things, they’re shite. Let’s start at the beginning with Dr.No, shall we?

Dr. No (1962)

It’s tough to imagine what a cultural phenomenon James Bond was back in 1962. The books were already pretty famous, but the Dr.No film introduced him to the masses. In many ways, Bond was seen as an anti-hero, what with all the drinking, gambling, fighting and such. Still, this ain’t a history lesson. It’s hard to factor in ’60s popular culture when present popular culture has put the entire decade on a pedestal. This is a film review and I’m going to review it using my 2012 eyes (I’ve pre-ordered my 2013 eyes).

“I admire your luck Mr…?”
“Bond. James Bond.”

After being sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of fellow agent, Commander Strangways, James Bond (Sean Connery) discovers there’s a lot more than just a simple vanishing afoot, all of it having to do with the mysterious Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). Along the way Bond also recruits local fisherman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), CIA man Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and bikini-clad diver Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). Many would argue that Connery is the quintessential Bond and it’s difficult to argue otherwise with his portrayal in Dr.No. He’s suave, sophisticated and slick. I always thought he played Bond a bit too self-satisfied for his own good. There are moments in the film that seem like he’s gliding through scenes on a cloud of pure smug. These are fleeting though and I personally love Connery’s take. Ursula Andress manages to do well with what she’s given. She somehow injects her role with a believable toughness and vulnerability in what is basically an eye candy part. I love Joseph Wiseman as the nefarious Doctor. He’s really quite cold and creepy. Some of my favourite bits of the entire film are when No and Bond are verbally squaring off against each other, especially when it becomes apparent that No is disappointed in Bond as an adversary and calls him “just a stupid policeman.”.

As a spy film it still works well. It’s a taut ’60s thriller with double-crosses and backstabs par for the course. There are some amazing moments, including Bond waking up in his bed to find a massive tarantula crawling up his body and the super famous Honey Ryder introduction where she emerges from the ocean in a bikini and hunting knife on her hip. Apparently, her intro alone struck so much of a chord with audiences that bikini sales massively increased after the film released. There’s a surprisingly dark moment as well, where Bond is lying in wait for Professor Dent, before confronting him and shooting the guy down in cold blood.

It’s crazy to see just how many of the classic Bond hallmarks started here at square one. We have the gunbarrel intro, exotic locations, the iconic theme, a kaleidoscopic title sequence as well as M, Moneypenny and Felix Leiter. There’s also a megalomaniacal villain with some sort of gimmick (in this case, motherfucking robot hands) and a big, science-y looking lair. There’s even a Bond quip or two. No title song though, just the Bond theme playing over some charmingly lo-fi titles with colourful dots, then some multi-coloured dancing woman silhouettes before finally and surreally morphing into a Calypso version of “Three Blind Mice”. Actually talking of music, having come to expect the famous theme to appear when Bond is doing something cool and Bondian, it’s strange to see its use here, usually popping up when Bond is doing something utterly mundane, like reading a document or simply walking across a room.

“That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.

So is it still good? Yeah. It’s entertaining and fun. If you can forgive the slightly hokey ’60s espionage stuff with the overdramatic judo moves and a vague understanding of science. That’s not to mention the casual racism.Quarrel is portrayed as rather simple, coming across as a superstitious native and a dogsbody, with Bond ordering Quarrel at one point to fetch his shoes. That aside, it’s a decent film with some genuine intrigue (if you haven’t seen it thousands of times on ITV over the years), action beats and a satisfying conclusion. It’s not difficult to see how this film started off one of the most popular and profitable film series ever.