From Russia With Love

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, the second James Bond movie, was released in England in October of 1963, arriving in the U.S. the following May.  A major hit; with subsequent re-releases it ultimately earned $78,900,000 worldwide, vanquishing the $2,000,000 invested 39 times over. Here is where we discover that ‘SPECTRE #1’, ‘Ernst Stavro Blofeld’, enjoys petting his cat while sadistically teasing sweating subordinates: “Siamese fighting fish, fascinating creatures. Brave but on the whole stupid. Yes, they’re stupid. Except for the occasional one such as we have here who lets the other two fight. While he waits. Waits until the survivor is so exhausted that he cannot defend himself, and then like SPECTRE… he strikes!”  Statements like this work best if delivered in a faux-civilized, pan-European accent.

Dr. No‘s Terence Young returned as director, guiding Sean Connery, a memorable supporting cast and a gifted crew in what’s justifiably considered a classic. *

007 heads to Istanbul to procure a decoding device from a Soviet defector. During his stay, he works with hearty local intelligence chief ‘Ali Kerim Bey’ (Pedro Armendariz) and contacts the defector,’Tatiana Romanova’ (Daniela Bianchi): mutual seduction ensues. Bond doesn’t know the girl is the pawn of ‘Rosa Klebb’ (Lotte Lenya), working for SPECTRE to kill him in revenge for his success against ‘Dr. No’.  Klebb’s main assassin is ‘Red Grant’ (Robert Shaw), who has been deemed “one of the best men we’ve ever had. A homicidal paranoid. Superb material.”

The material is superb indeed, from the flamboyant credits sequence, backed by John Barry’s sinuously elegant and exciting scoring, to the finale, with Matt Monro’s baritone unloading on the title tune composed by Lionel Bart. In between: wit, sex, exotica, rousing rough stuff and some of the best characterizations in the series. Ian Fleming’s novel (which preceded “Dr.No”–the movies were consistently out of sequence with the books) was straight-up Cold War riff with the USSR. Adapted by Johanna Harwood, the screenplay by Richard Maibaum, with much input from director Young, kept the Russians but played down political tension (quite high enough after the Cuban Missile Crisis), substituting SPECTRE (which wouldn’t show up until four books later: whatever) as the umbrella bad guy outfit with unlimited resources and manpower for major world-dicking .

The action element was considerably expanded so that Bond could survive a pitched battle in a gypsy camp, evade a swarm of rats, and handle a helicopter pursuit and a boat chase. Things are tongue-in-cheek, yet don’t veer too far into outlandish; the plot is reasonable—extortion and assassination instead of dominating the planet. Thanks to the smart script, shrewd direction and the expertise and charisma of Connery, Armendariz, Lenya and Shaw, the characters come off flesh & blood human rather than cardboard cutouts.

Bond’s allowed some depth (Connery looks to be having a great time with Armendariz), Lenya makes a chilling villainess, and steely-eyed Shaw oozes cold menace.  The legendary Lenya, 62, had just returned to the screen after three decades, drawing an Oscar-nomination for her fine work as a corrupt countess in 1961’s The Roman Spring Of Mrs.Stone. Despite being in great pain from cancer, Armendariz, 51, puts all the remaining vitality he could muster into Kerim Bey. The intense Shaw, 35, had been in British films and TV since 1947 without breaking through: this role and the Bond boxoffice brought him international recognition and a step closer to eventual stardom.

The action highlight is the smashing hand-to-hand fight on the Orient Express between Bond and Grant. Connery and Shaw go at with a will, and Peter Hunt’s terrific editing makes this space-confined bruiser not just the meanest, most believable fight scene in Bondland, but one of the best choreographed movie brawls ever staged.

Though the inexperienced Daniela Bianchi is just okay (placid pawn Romanova is maybe the “nicest” Bond girl), the sex angle gets a definite hot goose with the “catfight” sequence in the gypsy camp between hard-to-choose pantherettes Martine Beswicke and Aliza Gur: it’s an un-p.c. highlight, the likes of which we can only hope will offend those who have nothing better to be tweezed over.

Vibrant, evocative and lush, John Barry’s score vies with his next one for Goldfinger as the best soundtrack in the entire series. With Ted Moore as cameraman, shooting was done in England, Turkey (employing Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern), Scotland (standing in for the Balkans), Switzerland, Spain (the rat swarm) and Venice. Filming included accidents with a helicopter crashing and boats sinking, cameras lost and crew being injured by flames.

With Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Vladek Sheybal (chess whiz ‘Kronsteen’), Desmond Llewelyn, Eunice Gayson (‘Sylvia Trench’), Walter Gotell, Nadja Regin (Kerim’s demanding girlfriend), Anthony Dawson (as Blofeld, face not shown, voice dubbed by Eric Pohlmann), Lisa Nelson/billed as Leila (the belly dancer).  115 minutes.

 * FRWL trivia—– “Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something.”

It didn’t hurt publicity that Ian Fleming’s 1957 book, the 5th in the series (and a neat 253-page read), was noted in “Life” magazine as being a favorite of President Kennedy. The movie wisely secured John Barry as composer for the next ten outings, set the template for doing a pre-credits action sequence, and for having the credits thereafter being decorated by barely clad women doing gymnastic moves. It introduced Blofeld and his white Persian cat, while seeing to it Bond would always have some new gadget to be bemused with and saved by, and that there would be a succession of well-armed helicopters and expensive speedboats on hand to be blown to fiery pieces.

21-year-old Daniela Bianchi, from Italy, had been a runner-up in the 1960 Miss Universe contest, where she’d been in competition with ‘supporting Gypsy hellcat’ Aliza Gur, Miss Israel. 48-year-old Welsh actor Desmond Llewelyn made his first of 17 appearances as 007’s armorer. Germany’s Walter Gotell, 39, playing a SPECTRE trainer, would move up the command chain in six later Bond flings, eventually heading the KGB. Sadly, it was the last role for terminally ill Pedro Armendáriz. Four months before the picture was released, he chose his own way out, man-style, with a pistol smuggled into his hospital room.

The first re-release, with Dr.No, came in ’65 after Goldfinger detonated and the spy craze went ballistic. Many old-school Bond fans (and numerous critics, who cares?) vouch for From Russia With Love as the best of the Connery Bond’s—plus, hey, The Man Himself considered it his fave. Beyond its other virtues, in the entire series it is the one that skirts closest to anything like reality (with closed eyes and a wish). I love it, too–and made sure my parents knew I had to have the toy attache case for Christmas—though I still think Goldfinger has the edge.

From my own 00-file—–decades later, on an extended stay in The Philippines, came the happy discovery that Matt Monro—who I only knew as the Sinatra-sounding guy on my LP soundtrack from this movie—was practically worshiped in The Philippines. Simple research revealed that while he didn’t register much in the States, he was a BIG deal pretty much all over the world.  Matt Monro–1930-1985.   On that same globe-trot, I went to Istanbul, and dutifully took the beneath-streets peek of the cistern setup laid down by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Very cool, but my Sean-homage was a bit sad in that sitting behind me on the boat were not Martine Beswick and Aliza Gur, but a beefy middle-aged couple from Iowa. Next life…….

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