From Russia with Love (1963)
PG. You know, those movies that have nudity and a sex shaming plot that often end up with a PG rating? Oh, I can't forget the murders by garroting that are also in this movie. That's pretty typical to get an R-rating as well. I mean, the entire SPECTRE training ground stresses that they train with live ammunition. These are all things that are pretty typical of a PG rating. Okay, sure, I watched this movie as a kid multiple times. But look how I turned out. You know what? Back that up. It's James Bond PG. Also, the movie has a pretty backwards attitude towards the Romani people, referring to them as gypsies throughout.
DIRECTOR: Terence Young
For years and years and years and years, I considered From Russia with Love to be the greatest Bond movie. Heck, there was a time in my life that I considered it to be one of the greatest movies of all time. (I was in a bit of a Bond phase at the time.) But since I got this blog and started teaching my film class, I've been trying to watch these movies with a bit of a critical eye. And I have a confession to make: the last time I watched From Russia with Love, I got a little bored. It was in that moment that I thought that my new favorite Bond movie was Casino Royale. That slight dip in ranking made me question everything I thought about Casino Royale. I thought that maybe I was being a snob. After all, while From Russia with Love is probably one the better Bond movies by a lot of people's opinions, most people give Goldfinger all of the props. But maybe all it took was some time away from the film to appreciate it anew. While I can still confidently say that Casino Royale might be the best Bond film, From Russia with Love is the best that Classic Bond has to offer.
While writing about GoldenEye, I stated that there was a tonal shift between Licence to Kill and GoldenEye that was a firm break from what I consider Classic Bond and nu-Bond. In my head, these are different franchises that wink at each other from time-to-time. But I think both Classic Bond and nu-Bond owe a lot to From Russia with Love. As much as I love James Bond movies, they have one really dangerous flaw that is hard to reconcile with: they constantly want to out-do the previous film while holding aggressively onto the formula. What ends up happening is that these film become outrageously cornball, as can be seen in stuff like Moonraker or Octopussy. Heck, even Diamonds are Forever is a far-cry from the Ian Fleming source material. I'm not saying that Fleming's writing was the most tame stuff in the world. His final full length adventure has Bond getting amnesia and living in a Japanese fishing village after killing Blofeld. It's not like he shied away from melodrama. But the James Bond of the film franchise was almost a cartoon character. I'm not saying that is a bad thing. I fell in love with the concept of these films, so who am I to complain about absurdity?
But From Russia with Love is this really special thing in the timeline. It is a very different film from its predecessor, Dr. No. Part of this comes down to setting and how setting influences mood overall. But moreover, Bond grows into a more international character in From Russia with Love. In Dr. No, the titular villain comments that Bond is "...nothing but a stupid policeman." While Bond certainly isn't stupid, Dr. No kind of treats him like he is a policeman. He's following clues and it seems like he stumbles upon something that is far greater than anything he's ever dealt with before. But the sequel, From Russia with Love, makes his world that much bigger. The events of the first movie now seem commonplace for him. And this is what makes From Russia with Love this perfect nexus of Ian Fleming's character and what Broccoli and Saltzman wanted out of the character. Fleming almost reads like a goofy Tom Clancy novel with a healthy dose of racism and sexism woven in. But central to his story was the world of international espionage. When we think of Bond, we often think of Bond versus the Russians and the tenuous diplomacy of the Cold War. From Russia with Love is where we get that idea. While the films revisit Russia as the villains throughout the series, no time is closer to the actual situation than what we see in From Russia with Love. The Russians aren't moustache twirling in this movie. In fact, Terence Young portrays them as equally capable as Her Majesty's government, both being played as dupes by SPECTRE.
It's amazing that I'm so just cool with SPECTRE. Fleming, an author who had a history with espionage in reality, wrote this organization (Okay, the original was SMERSH) that was an evil comic-booky shadow organization that just was crime-for-crime's-sake. Yet, so much about this is about the politics of two superpowers that are not allowed to shoot at each other on land that was tenuous. And it somehow works. The fact that SPECTRE is the bad guy gives it a complexity while also making it borderline cartoonish. Both sides of the Cold War are allowed to be sympathetic because they are both being manipulated by this shadow organization that you are asked to shut your brain off for. If you think I'm being flippant about SPECTRE, by the way, think about the Kronstein death scene. It's very over the top. Also, does Blofeld just have a fighting fish budget so he can keep using them as a metaphor for SPECTRE as a whole? I don't know.
One of the great Bond debates is about the Bond girl. I always find this to be gross. For being such a die-hard James Bond fan, it always puts me off ranking the Bond girls. I easily have a least favorite Bond girl with Christmas Jones from The World is Not Enough. But I just realized that Tatiana Romanovna might be my favorite Bond girl. Romanovna really sits in this really interesting space. She is outside of the world of espionage. In many ways, she acts as the audience's avatar. Bond can't be our avatar. He has it all too much together. But she is this woman who is only trying to do the right thing while not getting shot. It becomes clear that she genuinely has feelings for Bond, despite the fact that it is a dangerous thing to fall in love with James Bond. She puts on this strong front and gets a job done that she is woefully ill-prepared for. Yeah, there are moments where she comes across as the fragile woman, but most of that is under the influence of sedation. But the biggest thing is that she never comes across as a silly Bond girl. She isn't given this over-sexualized name. While she's obsessed with Bond, there's a reason that she acts the way that she does. And these are the glory days where you can still lie to yourself that Bond isn't only using these women for Queen and Country. (I mean, he totally does. It's straight up his mission. But there's a hint that Bond might actually love her back.)
Similarly, the Q-Branch fight, coupled with the Red Grant fight, all seem within the realm of possible. The relationship between Bond and Q hasn't been started yet. I know. That's my favorite part of these films too. But Bond's first gadgets all seem kind of practical. A briefcase with a knife and an anti-tamper device? Cool. That makes sense. Even Red Grant establishes the idea of the Bond heavy that he has to take out. But Red Grant is one of those Jaws-like characters who actually just seems like he's a really strong and well-trained dude as opposed to completely gimmicky. I love Robert Shaw in this movie. As much as people see him as Quint in Jaws, I always thought of him as Red Grant. (For you Man for All Seasons folks out there, simmer down.)
There is just so much that works in this movie and it's all because it is the toned down version of what Bond would eventually become. The fights seem larger than life, but plausible. The bad guys are great and nuanced. There's an attempt to ground the world of this grandiose sci-fi world that would eventually get so big and overinflated. There's no giant fight sequence, which makes the smaller fight sequences all that much more powerful. Honestly, the series need not get more exciting than Bond taking out a helicopter that is chasing him over a mountain. Also, the supporting cast is just great. I actually get bummed when Kerim Bey dies because he's one of those all time great supporting roles. As much as Casino Royale will take the cake, I was right to consider From Russia with Love one of the great Bond films. It's solid and ticks all of the boxes while offering a slow and interesting narrative. Sure, it also introduces plot holes for later films, like General Gogol's alliances or why there even is the St. Sofia scene. But it doesn't matter. The movie really works.
7/10/2021 04:32:09 pm
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.