Friday, June 21, 2013

Popular Cinema Survey: James Bond Retrospective #2 – "From Russia With Love" takes a major step forward

Welcome to Popular Cinema Survey, an ongoing Fade to Lack feature in which I explore the worlds of blockbuster and commercial cinema. Our first ongoing subject in this series, as introduced here, is the most successful blockbuster cinematic venture of all time: The James Bond films. We shall spend 23 weeks watching and discussing all of the canonical 007 pictures (as produced by Eon), in order, once per week on Fridays. We continue today with the second film, From Russia With Love, from 1963.

From Russia With Love does what all good sequels should do: It uses the excellent foundation laid by its predecessor and goes darker, deeper, and bigger with nearly every aspect of the material. Bond’s actions in Dr. No have put him on the map, and international crime syndicate SPECTRE now wants him dead, devising an elaborate plot wherein they may obtain a sophisticated cryptographic device and kill 007 in one fell swoop.

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The complex yet grounded story is, perhaps, one of the most striking elements of From Russia With Love. Though it is Bond’s first globetrotting cinematic adventure, and operates on a much grander scale than Dr. No overall, its stakes are mostly personal. Bond expects a simple, routine mission, but finds himself in over his head as SPECTRE’s conspiratorial vendetta takes shape. His skills and emotional stamina are tested to much greater degrees, giving Connery new, more challenging shadings to play. He more than rises to the task, further illustrating Bond’s dark side while giving subtle, nuanced hints that sex, for Bond, is at least partially a buffer from the pain of his occupation.

In fact, From Russia With Love is a fairly serious film overall, prioritizing detective work, action scenes, and down-to-earth character interactions above sensuality and humor. It certainly does not deal in introspection the same way recent Bond films like Casino Royale do, but when Bond must engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat with relentless assassin Red Grant – a violent, realistic, and drawn-out fight filmed in close-ups without any accompanying music – it is clear the film is not interested in shying away from the brutality of Bond’s occupation.

Given the film’s tone, Grant is a wonderfully effective villain, played with cold, intimidating precision by Robert Shaw. He is, in many ways, Bond’s evil opposite force, the SPECTRE equivalent of 007, and his presence makes for one of the most structurally fascinating films in the James Bond series. Since Grant’s job, for much of the movie, is to tail Bond and make sure he survives until it is time to strike, the narrative feels both engaging and reflexive, as if a constant commentary is being made by watching the villain move through this world as ruthlessly and efficiently – if not more so – as Bond. When the characters finally meet, the tension could not be higher, and their final confrontation – not just the aforementioned fight, but the expertly written and performed conversation that precedes it – pays off on every last bit of build-up. And it is beyond brilliant that Bond recognizes Grant is an imposter because the man orders a red wine with fish at dinner – a perfect encapsulation of the ‘snobbery with violence’ attitude that defined the early films.

Grant is only one of many interesting characters, though. I am also quite fond of Pedro Armendáriz as a loyal, cunning MI6 station chief in Istanbul, and we get glimpses of figures who would only grow in importance going forward. This is our first sight of Blofeld, for instance, and the great Desmond Llewelyn makes his first appearance as a character who, though not called Q (he is Major Boothroyd here, technically his canonical name across the series), serves his familiar function. Bond is given ‘gadgets’ for the first time – each of which pay off in highly satisfying ways – and director Terence Young stages the first of what we can call ‘big’ action sequences, such as a wild and explosive battle with a helicopter.

The stunts are getting bigger and better, the action larger-scale and increasingly riveting, and it all works beautifully. From Russia With Love had double the budget of Dr. No, and it looks like it. Ken Adam sat this one out, leaving the film without any elaborate production design, and while this would be a problem later in the series (the first two Roger Moore films suffered terribly from a lack of Adam), From Russia With Love makes up for it with terrific use of location shooting. Ted Moore’s cinematography does the heavy lifting here, capturing the local color, flavor, and exoticism of locales as diverse as Istanbul and Venice. It is a lovely film, visually unique from its surrounding installments while setting a high bar for all location work to come.

My only significant complaint is the film’s lackluster depiction of Tatiana Romanova, an interesting character whose supreme importance to the plot could easily make her one of the absolute best Bond girls. As it stands, the script leaves her underdeveloped, and actress Daniela Bianchi is given very little to work with (like Ursula Andress, she too is dubbed). One never gets a strong sense of why she falls so immediately in love with Bond – it is her cover at first, but the transition to actual love is treated as an afterthought – and since we know so little about her, 007’s reciprocation comes across as half-hearted. Not a bad character by any means, but a major missed opportunity to add extra emotional and thematic complexity to an already excellent film.

No matter. From Russia With Love is a legitimately great movie – not just by Bond standards – one that feels surprisingly modern even as it epitomizes a beloved, bygone era of cinematic espionage.

Next Week:

James Bond Will Return

Have you seen From Russia With Love? Do you have thoughts to share on the film? Please do! Sound off in the comments with your take on one of the best James Bond movies, and come back next week to share your thoughts on the most iconic Bond movie of them all!

Jonathan R. Lack is a film and television critic from Golden, Colorado. His book, Fade to Lack: A Critic’s Journey Through the World of Modern Film, is now available in paperback and for Kindle e-readers from Amazon. He can be followed on Twitter @JonathanLack.

Popular Cinema Survey appears every Friday, exclusively at

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan R. Lack. All rights reserved. 

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