Wednesday, May 9, 2012

THE BOND VOYAGE: #2 - From Russia With Love (1963)

The most noticeable thing about this second James Bond adventure is the confidence everyone involved has in the character and the storyline, a storyline which would become something of a commonplace in the franchise.  Dr. No felt rough around the edges, the grip on the character seemed loose - and deservedly so as this was the first film.  But the success of Dr. No must not be overlooked when considering the brilliance and deft skill of From Russia With Love.  Without the test run elements of the first film, producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman wouldn't have known what worked and what didn't with the character.  When people cite Sean Connery as the best Bond, they look at this picture and the one to follow.  From Russia With Love shows us all the elements of Bond fare: the action, the women, the gadgets, the score from John Barry, the villain, and indeed the debonair Bond.  This time around, James Bond is less coarse, more smooth, and Connery holds just a little more arch in that eyebrow.

We begin with the villains in a clever opening sequence.  SPECTRE, the evil adversary to Bond throughout the years, is planning to steal an encoding machine from the Russians, and they also plan on luring James Bond into a trap at the same time.  The plan requires Bond to snag the encoding device, and have it stolen by Red Grant (the great Robert Shaw), who is also in charge of killing 007.  This scheme requires, of course, an alluring Russian beauty, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi).  The plot leads Bond to Istanbul, where he hunts for the encoding device whilst avoiding the murderous eye of Red Grant.  Behind the scenes is Blofeld, the leader of SPECTRE, seen only from behind stroking a white Persian.  We get the sense he will return in a later picture.

Bond has his normal connections throughout the film, including his boss M (Bernard Lee) and the secretary, Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), whose long-standing sexual tension with Bond will make one of the better running gags of the series.  But somehow I think in these earlier films, before sexual harassment became a court case, the flirtation and advances of Bond might be more digressive.  A newcomer to this film is Q, who would appear from here on out.  Q is the gadget man, and here he shows Bond an exploding briefcase and a specialized rifle among a handful of other things.  The simplicity of these devices when compared to the more modern Bond films makes one long for simpler times. 

Under everything is the familiar score from John Barry, coursing through the veins of the film like the lifeblood of Bond himself.  The rolling energy of the score adds more urgency, suspense and style to the proceedings.  And speaking of suspense, there is considerably more action in From Russia With Love, as Bond becomes more of a skilled hero.  Connery had undeniable confidence as Bond in Dr. No, otherwise he wouldn't have gotten the part.  But he seems to understand what makes this super spy tick this time around, and he is having much more fun.  And it helps that the villains, mainly Robert Shaw himself, are more prevalent and influential to the narrative than Dr. No in the original film.

I got a kick out of the opening title sequence, decidedly sixties in its overt sexuality.  Bond was a character made for the decade, and I am beginning to wonder if the shifting times had more to do with the nosedive in quality Bond films.  But as it stands now, From Russia With Love is a strong entry, and we are only two films in.