Thursday, May 21, 2009

Reeling Backward: "From Russia with Love"

Nobody expected "Dr. No" to be anything more than a pleasant little spy flick, so when it became an overnight sensation, launching the James Bond franchise, the studio was eager to cash in. So the follow-up, "From Russia with Love," was pushed out exactly one year after the 1962 release of "Dr. No" -- an incredibly short turnaround, even by the generally quicker standards of that era.

In fact, the first four Bond films came out in 1962, '63, '64 and '65. They finally decided to give Sean Connery a year off before coming back with "You Only Live Twice" in 1967. Then they gave Connery the boot, reportedly because he was too old, even though the actor was still in his 30s. He came back for 1971's "Diamonds Are Forever," and again in 1983 for "Never Say Never Again."

Connery was an unknown Scottish actor when he achieved stardom, but in "Russia" you can start to see him making the Bond role his own. There's a streak of cruelty and misogyny to the character, even more starkly than in "Dr. No." Bond's assignment here is to romance a Russian agent to get his hands on a Lektor, a decoding machine and classic cinematic red herring (i.e., no one knows exactly what it is or what it does, except that it's important and everyone wants it).

What Bond doesn't know is that the agent, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), has been co-opted by the evil crime syndicate SPECTRE into believing she's working for Mother Russia. In fact, their plan is to help Bond steal the Lektor, then have their own agent kill Bond to claim it and sell back to the Soviets at great profit.

So there are scenes where Bond goes from wooing the girl to slapping her around in the blink of an eye. There's little attempt to mollify audiences into thinking Bond is doing anything other than using her. Sex becomes just another weapon in his vast arsenal.

A few interesting additions for the second Bond film. We have the first appearance of a "Q" figure who outfits the superspy with some new gadgets. In this case, he gets a nifty briefcase that emits a stun gas if you don't open a certain way, a hidden stash of gold coins and a pop-out knife. Pretty crude stuff compared to what would come later. But then, the movie only cost $2.5 million to make -- more than doubling the budget of "Dr. No."

We also have the first appearance of what would become a spy film archetype -- the older female villain with a lesbian overtone. Here it's the Russian colonel Rosa Klebb, who would seem to be the basis for her spoof version in the "Austin Powers" films, Frau Farbissina.

There's a boat chase with lots of explosions that's pretty impressive for 1963, and a side visit to a camp of gypsies that becomes high camp itself. All the gypsy women are barefoot and ready to knife one another over possession of a man, which must make for a pretty generous dating pool for gypsy guys. Knowing how competitive men are, they probably count how many chicks have been killed over them as a measure of their manliness.

There's also a top-notch villain for Bond to contend with, with the incomparable Robert Shaw as Red Grant, a psychotic criminal turned assassin by SPECTRE. It's hard to believe with his blinding blonde hair and rock-hard physique that this is the same actor who would portray the crusty, creased Captain Quint in "Jaws" a dozen years later.

Red has several chances to kill Bond and hesitates, and even saves his life during a melee at the gypsy camp, just so they can have their mano e mano showdown. And it's quite a doozy, taking place in the constrained quarters of a train sleeping car.

"From Russia with Love" is hardly one of the better James Bond movies, but it marked the evolution of the character from vanilla spy agent to iconic rogue.

3 stars

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