Wednesday, 9 November 2011

From Russia With Love

It has the same writers, the same director, the same star, but FRWL is a huge improvement on DRNO. What makes it better? The swagger, the confidence that could only be occasionally glimpsed in the first film is here in spades. In other words this is, from beginning to end, a James Bond movie. Both Connery and Bond are much more comfortable, and the latter is transformed from a cold British policeman into a suave international spy.

Yes, unusually for the series, this film actually places Bond in the world of international espionage, complete with encryption machines, dead letter drops, proxies and coded password exchanges. Despite the seeming realism of the film, Bond is already a spy with both a global reputation and a nemesis in the shape of the cat-stroking (but as yet unnamed) head of SPECTRE.

It's this singular deviation from the source material (in the book, the operation against Bond is pure SMERSH) that provides the fantastic edge to FRWL but, whereas in DRNO the fantasy lifted us out of the boredom, here it threatens to spoil what is actually a taut East/West spy thriller. As with DRNO, real world concerns are present. SPECTRE's plan is to create a scandal that would embarrass MI6 by filming 007 having sex with a female KGB agent. It's remarkable enough that this film could be released just weeks after Lord Denning's report into the Profumo affair - but remember the original novel was written in 1957, six years earlier. Unlike DRNO, the subject of British security weaknesses is handled much more confidently here. 'They' (SMERSH/SPECTRE/whoever) want to attack us because we are a threat, we are strong - that's the message here. And it is very clear and very deliberate that the baddies are keen to target a particular agent too: James Bond. Already the character has become associated with ideas of British prestige and security and his on screen victories therefore become all the more important.

The early scenes include a chess match, now a clichéd metaphor for the Cold War, between Soviet and US pawns – Czechoslovakia and Canada respectively. (On the scoreboard, incidentally, the players are billed as “Czechoslovakia Kronsteen” and “Canada MacAdams” which would make pretty great names themselves. Might steal that.) If we could ignore SPECTRE then the remainder of the plot would be a murky continuation of that chess game, but immediately we are dragged to ‘SPECTRE Island’ which is seemingly a terrorist training camp adapted for a Japanese game show. It is a silly place where training means letting everyone loose together in a confined space with flame throwers, machine guns and swords: a preposterous mêlée through which VIP tours coolly pick their way. It's like something from Monty Python. There's more SPECTRE silliness later on but until then Fleming's book asserts itself and we get the straight, if colourful, spy film we might have expected.

Other than a slight stumble when Grant calls Bond "oh-oh-seven" (c.f. WOTAN's "Doctor Who is required!") this is really coming together now. The legendary Desmond Llewellyn makes his début as Q and brings with him the first bona fide gadget of the series: an attaché briefcase loaded with guns, knives, tear gas and gold sovereigns. We have the all-out pitched battle at the gypsy encampment and, joy of joys, the brilliant fight between Bond and Robert Shaw's Red Grant on board the Orient Express. It's a brutal crashing battle in a tiny space and, almost certainly, the best fight scene in the series.

Grant himself is the best thing in this movie, something the director, Terence Young, seemed to notice as the character wasn't supposed to appear in the first half of the film and had to be hastily added into the scenes in Turkey. Throughout FRWL he is a brooding and ominous presence: from the opening teaser sequence (another Bond staple appearing for the first time) to that fight, he lurks and prowls, shadowing Bond like a jungle cat. Here, in only the second film, we are offered Grant as an 'anti-Bond', a reflection: identically dressed, but blond, he is an equal and an opposite, capable of offing our hero. Shaw, given little to say, is brilliant, physically powerful, able to dominate a scene even when he's hiding in the background. My favourite moment is when the train stops at Belgrade. Bond gets off to search for his contact and wanders along the platform. Grant appears in the window of the carriage behind him and silently follows, effortlessly melting away every time 007 turns his head. It's excellently done and the real achievement is to provide a menace which seems more powerful than Bond. The only weird thing is just how much he reminds me of, er, Daniel Craig...

As for the rest of the cast, well, Lotte Lenya (as Colonel Klebb) is great, but she's in this a lot less than I remembered. Still, she gets her own fight scene and has the wonderful shoes with the hidden blade - surely the most memorable movie footwear since Dorothy's ruby slippers. Daniela Bianchi plays Tatiana, the unworldly KGB cipher clerk duped by SPECTRE into seducing Bond. Like Ursula Andress before her, her English was deemed poor enough to have her dubbed over by another actress, but her performance is strong despite that, bringing a convincing naive vulnerability - hang on, that's just the same as last time. Oh well. Tatiana does have a sweet girlish quality - practising her (fake) married name, trying on dresses - but this sort of demure pliable Bond woman is going to get boring quickly.

Another source of charm is Pedro Armendáriz as Kerim Bey, MI6's man in Station T, Turkey. The character is the perfect foil for Connery's Bond: smooth, reliable, tough and with an old fashioned view of gender relations. Still, it's hard not to be fond of the man and his family spy network. It's a lovely performance by Armendáriz, astonishingly so given that he was in tremendous pain throughout, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The condition worsened during filming and Armendáriz was sent to hospital. He did not return to the set and committed suicide before his scenes could be completed.

As Bond leaves the Orient Express, so the film abandons Fleming's story and sets off across country. There's a so-so North by Northwest pastiche and then the full force of Blofeld's sinister organisation is unleashed, giving us... the SPECTRE Regatta. Perhaps this was thrilling in 1963. It's not impossible. But I doubt it. Poor Walter Gotell (who'll reappear later in the series as a KGB chief) has to take command of this jolly flotilla whilst commentating through a megaphone. It all comes across a bit Balamory. The boats are named SPECTRE 1, 2 and 3 for one thing so as bullets splash into the water we hear commands like "A little to your left, SPECTRE number three! Keep right, SPECTRE number two!" as if he was the guy in charge of the pedalos on the boating lake. He also gets to tell off one of his henchmen for firing too accurately. "We don't want to hit them!" Oh no, why would you want to do that? It's all very genteel.

* * *

Pre-Credits Sequence: The job here is to sum up in the first third of the novel in three minutes. Basically, people are plotting to take revenge on James Bond. It says something about the success of DRNO that we are immediately supposed to care about the threat to this James Bond fellow.

Theme: It's another vague medley, and the organ arrangement of the FRWL theme makes this sound like a variety show. And yes, we have semi-naked women wibbling and wobbling between the credits but this is not Maurice Binder, kids. This is Robert Brownjohn. You knows it.

Deaths: A whopping 25. That's a 278% increase on DRNO. It could be higher as well (but see below). 12 are killed during the fight at the gypsy camp alone.

Licence to Kill: At least 9, 5 of which are dispatched during the big fight. There are various woundings that might have proved fatal had the camera stayed on the victim longer. For example, Bond pushes a flaming cart into three men during the gypsy/Bulgarian battle, but they don't drop to the floor and could conceivably get away relatively unharmed. Similarly, during the boat chase at the end, there is certainly 1 fatality, but the fate of approximately 9 other men is not revealed. Let's be generous.

Exploding Helicopters: 1. The first, hopefully, of many.

Shags: 1. Although it is hinted that Bond has been 'given' the pair of gypsy girls for the night, when we next see them they are still fully (and elaborately) dressed so I'm not counting them.

Crimes Against Women: Unforgivably, Bond hits Tatiana across the face. He's cross about Kerim's death but even so, there's not much at stake to justify smacking her about. He also attacks Rosa Klebb with a chair, but that's rather more understandable as she has got very pointy shoes on. The belly dance is hardly offensive, but the cat-fight that follows is entirely gratuitous: half-naked women fighting to the death over a man that they will cook and sew for?

Casual Racism: Minor officials get a bad press here: the clerk in the Soviet embassy is pig-headed; the conductor on the Orient Express is corrupt. The Bulgars are Soviet patsies. The gypsies are wild and rough but they're hospitable and happy to fight on Bond's side.

Out of Time: This whole movie was made dated. Aside from Bond's pager and the odd topical news reference (all that Piccadilly stuff we no longer get) this could be the '50s or even earlier. It oozes old world charm. (Incidentally this might be a factor: Ken Adam was unavailable, working on Dr. Strangelove, so FRWL lacks his bold modern stylings.)

Fashion Disasters: The Bulgar spy is preposterously conspicuous in his beret and thick spectacles, like something from 'Allo 'Allo. The problem might be Soviet bloc opticians though because Klebb's are made from jam jars. Connery can't wear hats, it just looks silly. But the ship captain's hat he wears (with his Saville Row suit at one point) is terrible. 

Eh?: Bond leaves the shower running when Tatania sneaks into his room. For ages. >> Tatiana arranges to meet Bond at the Hagia Sophia and is shown walking through Istanbul to get there - except that in almost every shot, the Hagia Sophia is clearly seen over her shoulder, even the one where she is seen going inside. I don't think there are two of them are there? Also she asks a policeman directions on how to get to the enormous pointy mosque on the hill dominating the city.

Worst Line: SPECTRE's Admiral of the Fleet speaks nothing but tosh, of which "Ahoy Mr Bond!" is probably the nadir. His mysterious boss spouts "Twelve seconds. One day we must develop a faster acting venom." Bond says "Ciao" again.

Best Line: No real zingers. The secret code ("Have you got a match?" "I use a lighter.." and so forth) is fondly remembered by men of a certain age.

Worst Bond Moment: Use of the exciting and dynamic James Bond theme merely exacerbates the utter dullness of a scene where 007, yawn, examines his hotel room for bugs. 

Best Bond Moment: Connery gives Bond lots of clever little characterizations, telling darts of the eyes and so forth, but the most wonderful touch comes after the climactic fight with Red Grant: exhausted but victorious, Bond coolly leans against the door and straightens his tie even as he's catching his breath. 

Overall: This is the moment of harmony, where Fleming's book and the film series are perfectly balanced. As a result we end up with a confident and stylish Cold War spy drama. But this isn't sustainable. The films need the exotic, the excess to keep going and, from now on, things will begin to get brasher and bolder.

James Bond Will Return: Here, argh, is what it says (just imagine wobbly home movie footage of Venice in the background):




Hmm. Could be snappier perhaps?

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