From Russia With Love: The High Point of the James Bond Franchise

From Russia With Love is only the 2nd James Bond movie, but it might very well be the best.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Two films in and the James Bond franchise reaches its artistic highpoint. Downhill from here? Certainly for some; others won’t see what the hype is. Yet critically, From Russia with Love remains the darling: a gritty, almost-plausible tale of gypsies, SPECTRE, and sex tapes. It boasts a whole array of brilliant characters and a fight scene to make Daniel Craig crap his paints. Anyone who claims the film is slightly dull has my opposition and my sneaking respect.

The Villain (s): SPECTRE. A real team effort here. From Russia With Love remains the definitive exploration of the creatively acronymed gang (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). Sorry, SPECTRE the movie.

Chief of Operations Rosa Klebb is calculating, cold-blooded and owns some killer footwear. She’s basically the evil version of Judi Dench’s M. Fitting, then, that Red Grant is Daniel Craig’s Bond gone psychotic, more hitman than henchman. Kronsteen is the sleekly sinister Chief of Planning who moonlights as a chess grandmaster. And we also have the first appearance (or in this case non-appearance) of the ultimate Bond Big Bad: Blofeld, the literal Number One.

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The Girl: Tatiana Romanova. Very strong. Tatiana is one of the more plausible Bond girls and her character is a driving force of the film. That’s ‘her character’, not ‘the character’: Tatiana’s personality – naïve and innocent yet brave and resourceful – is manipulated firstly by Klebb and then later Bond. Perhaps a little passive compared to later heroines but don’t forget she is a consulate clerk: espionage is not her world.

Indeed, Tatiana’s great strength is that she feels like a real person. Does get a little “I love you, James!” but I suppose that’s Bond doing his job properly. One of only two Bond girls to kill a main antagonist so respect for that.

If the Bond films ever socialized together (and who’s to say they don’t?) From Russia with Love is the one that would make all the others feel bad about themselves. You know the type. You’re polite to their face, grumpy behind their back, and secretly wish you were them.

Just check out the party. While your Moonrakers and your Goldeneyes are downing Jagerbombs at the bar,From Russia With Love reclines by the fire, drinking a red Mouton Rothchild (sans fish, naturally) and expounding on its recent sabbatical practicing carpentry in a remote Italian village. The other films look on, envy and hate in their eyes, until one – You Only Live Twice, perhaps – leans over and hisses in your ear: “That smug git and his critical acclaim. He thinks he’s too good for gadgets and plans of world domination. But you know what pays the bills? Piranhas, that’s what.”

Watch James Bond From Russia With Love on Amazon

Their envy is understandable. From Russia With Love possesses that least Bondian of qualities: integrity. Critics fawn, and retrospectives open with lines about artistic highpoints. If most Bonds are essentially formulaic pop acts, cranking out the same old hits – ‘Oh What A Lovely Underground Lair’; ‘Look Out For That Great White Shark’; ‘Everything Goes Bang!’ – then From Russia With Love is more like a jazz tune; taking you down the backstreets, nurdling along at its own cool, unhurried pace then bursting violently to life. Yet such insouciance comes with a caveat. Few could pretend Rod Stewart is cooler than Miles Davis. But who sold the most records?

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Previously I noted the number of classic Bond elements established in Dr. No. And then From Russia With Love goes and ditches the vast majority! Nobody has a particularly silly name. None of the villains suffer any disability. Bar the early Sylvia Trench cameo Bond is basically monogamous. There is no climactic battle. Istanbul is a fine city but not exactly Jamaica, the Bahamas, or outer space. SPECTRE’s fiendish plan involves a cryptographic device and a minor sex scandal.

Okay, so we’re not exactly talking John Le Carré: there’s still a gadget-filled briefcase, a fish-loving supervillain, and death by poisoned shoe. But From Russia With Love remains the closest the series ever gets to playing it straight; if not quite realistic then certainly not ludicrously overblown.

There are flaws. The film is dated, a fraction slow and slightly confusing in places. Neither of the two climatic battles – versus helicopter and boats – are particularly effective. And the pre-credits scene, in which Red Grant strangles a man wearing a Bond mask, is extremely odd. Why the mask? In fact how do SPECTRE know what Bond looks like? Did Dr. No send over some holiday snaps? In the pantheon of “silly Bond moments” the mask barely registers, but in such a tightly plotted film it does stand out a bit.

Yet this is pendency. There is so much to applaud, starting with our initial meeting with SPECTRE. Recent superhero films ably demonstrate how too many villains can spoil the plot. From Russia With Love makes a four baddie combo work by using brief but efficient characterization and not trying to engineer everyone into repeated encounters with the hero.

As a result, SPECTRE feels far more of a ‘real’ organisation than Quantum ever managed. I don’t know the inspiration behind Blofeld’s white Persian cat. (Any ideas?) Not present in the books, I assume the cat was intended to define a faceless character – an idea that if anything worked too well. Cue endless imitators – Baron Greenback, Dr. Evil, the Claw, Mr. Tinkles, etc. – to the point where anybody stroking any feline, even a cuddly toy, is usually spoofing Blofeld. Here and in Thunderball, Blofeld is played by Anthony Dawson, aka Professor Dent of Dr. No.

Yet in a film full of baddies, a good guy steals the show. Kerim Bey is the ultimate Bond ally, period. Eccentric, charismatic, owner of astonishingly potent sperm that has provided him with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of sons. (“He is my son…He is also my son. All of my key employees are my sons.”)

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Forget Felix Leiter: Bond and Kerim are the great bromance of the series. You can easily imagine the pair hitting the Istanbul bars, swapping stories, consuming a few too many drinks, and sauntering home, a woman on each arm. Bond’s look of alarm on hearing of Kerim’s death is genuinely touching; ditto his gentle shoulder squeeze of Kerim’s corpse.

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But the greatness of Kerim Bey isn’t merely confined to film. Pedro Armendáriz, the actor who played the part so magnificently, was terminally ill from cancer throughout the production. Reportedly in constant pain (the limp is no affectation), Armendariz only worked on the film to provide financial security for his family after his imminent death. He barely completed his scenes before being hospitalized for the last time. His work done – film finished, family secured – Armendáriz smuggled a gun into the hospital and shot himself. Dying as he lived: on his own goddamn terms. An absolute hero, onscreen and off.

Immediately after Bond’s arrival in Istanbul, someone tries to blow Kerim up (being pals with 007 is a serious health risk). To celebrate his survival, Kerim takes Bond to party at a gypsy camp. Cue a long, strange night that provides one of the series’ most notorious set-pieces: the fight between two gypsy girls.

This is a true catfight: lots of hissing, scratching and hair-pulling, little in the way of clothing. Shameless titillation or a genuinely brave, unflinching attempt to force Bond outside his comfort zone? (Both character and franchise.) Um…a little of both, but mainly the former – casting two models (one was an ex-Miss Israel) as the rivals does rather betray the filmmakers’ hand.

Anyway, the fight is interrupted by an attack on the gypsy camp from Krilencu – a rival gang-leader to Kerim Bey. The subsequent battle between Krilencu’s gang and the gypsies is rather confusing; indeed the scene could be from a Western, burning wagons and all. At one point Bond looks a goner but a concealed Red Grant takes the attacker out. Hindsight will prove this a mistake.

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Bond’s first encounter with Tatiana is one of the sexiest moments in the series. It is the meeting of two incredibly hot people who have essentially been pimped out to each other. One is wearing a towel; the other is lying in bed, naked. Sex isn’t so much on the menu as being served up on a platter. Apparently this scene is the standard screen-test for any auditioning Bond and Bond girl. The multiple layers of the meeting – the mutual suspicion, attraction, agendas – would certainly exercise the thespian muscles. Unfortunately I can no longer watch the scene without imagining how the other five Bonds would play it. Moore is particularly hard to envisage.

An excellent film moves up a gear once aboard the Orient Express. Robert Shaw is brilliant as Grant, but he’s even better impersonating Captain Nash. A little too smooth, a little too obsequious: something about the man doesn’t sit right. Bond clearly doesn’t trust Nash but can’t quite work out why. The audience knows, of course. What we don’t know is whether Bond can expose Nash, or how and when the latter will make his move. The obvious tension between the two men is masterfully played by both actors and is riveting to watch. Nearly as riveting as Grant taunting Bond at gunpoint.

In too many Bond films (in too many films period), having a gun trained on you is only a minor inconvenience. So many outs. Knock the firearm from your enemy’s hand (Goldfinger), pull a ladder down on them (Live and Let Die), outdraw a courtyard full of soldiers (Casino Royale), just relax because no way on God’s green earth will anyone simply just shoot you (um…there’s a few…).

Not so here. I don’t mind Grant divulging the whole plan to Bond because Grant is so clearly in control of the situation. He’s won and now he intends to enjoy victory; firstly by mocking Bond, then indulging in a little light torture: “The first bullet won’t kill you. Nor the second. Not even the third. Not till you crawl over here and you kiss my foot.” Not quite as celebrated as Goldfinger’s famous retort but certainly far more chilling.

Most critics claim Bond outsmarts Grant but this isn’t quite the case. Bond’s offer to pay for a last cigarette isn’t part of some cunning plan. He’s just buying time (and, understandably, might really crave a smoke). Only when Grant inquires about the other briefcase does Bond remember ‘hang about, that one’s booby-trapped!’ You can see this realization quite clearly. Admittedly Bond’s eagerness to open the second briefcase is pretty smart, causing Grant to smell a rat and open it himself. But I think that cigarette is the last request of a condemned man, not – initially – a sudden stroke of genius. Do we see Bond pass from anger, to bargaining, to a fleeting acceptance?

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(Juxtapose the cigarette with similar moment in an utterly different film. At the climax of You Only Live Twice, Bond again requests a cigarette while at the mercy of the enemy. Only he’s inside a volcano, not on a train, and facing an entire army rather than one man. Blofeld cheerfully acquiesces. Bond fires the cigarette – a concealed weapon, naturally – at a guard, using the subsequent confusion to flick a lever that opens the volcano roof and allows a waiting army of ninjas entry. He’s instantly restrained but the damage is done. And they still don’t bloody shoot him.)

The fight is rightly celebrated. Early Bond fights can look embarrassingly choreographed; the Grant brawl is breathless and brutal, two men inflicting maximum harm on each other in a very confined space. Every punch hits home. Furthermore there is obvious hatred between the pair; personal battles always carry more bite. Despite his celebrated physicality, Craig’s Bond has yet to trade blows with a true foe, an equal in strength and charisma. Skyfall and Silva was a missed opportunity.

Artistically, From Russia with Love is the best Bond. However, this is partly because it is so atypical a Bond: take out SPECTRE, maybe lose the briefcase, and you’ve got a straightforward Cold War thriller, albeit a very well-written and acted one. Had the following films copied the From Russia blueprint, would the film itself be so acclaimed? Of course not. It is because the Bond franchise became so detached from reality that we celebrate the one film vaguely grounded in it.

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A better question: were From Russia With Love not a Bond film (and again, this doesn’t require a vast leap of imagination) would we still remember it? Honestly, I suspect not. Despite its status of critical darling From Russia With Love today lives off the franchise’s cultural capital, a capital largely acquired through use of the fluff and fireworks the film itself largely rejected (and, by doing so, attained the status of critical darling).

Ultimately, the From Russia With Love approach was unsustainable. You cannot make a 23 film series (or even a ten film series) of gritty espionage thrillers and expect the audience to keep coming. You’d simply run out of ideas. But once detached from credibility even the sky is no longer a limit (hello, Moonraker). For the franchise to arrive, realism must depart. Sure, maybe a couple moreFrom Russias would’ve been nice – but even then one dud, one misstep, and goodbye Mr Bond. Better, I think, that the films begin playing the tunes that would make 007 an icon. Lasers and piranhas and all that jazz.

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Best Bit: “You may know the right wines…but you’re the one on your knees.” The confrontation with Grant is the true climax of the film. Bond has never looked so mortal.

Worst Bit: The helicopter. A fairly rubbish attack – will grenades ever work? – especially coming after the Orient Express excitement.

Final Thought: I hope that poor truck driver can swim.