' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: From Russia With Love (1963)

Friday, December 11, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: From Russia With Love (1963)

Though “From Russia With Love” was merely the second movie in the gargantuan James Bond series, it was already beginning to move Agent 007 into the realm of the mythic, opening with a feint where the preeminent baddie, an emotionless assassin named Red (Robert Shaw), coming on like Ivan Drago’s father, kills Bond only for us to realize the very recognizable Sean Connery face is, egads, a mask. That sets up the British agent as some sort of nigh unkillable antagonist, where Red is concerned anyway, the highest prize, a superhero of sorts, requiring special training by way of play-acting to ensure he can be slain. Even then it’s another ten minutes or so before Bond shows up onscreen as first we see the nefarious SPECTRE put his nefarious plans into place, taking council with No. 3 Rosa Klebb (Lotta Lenya) and No. 5 Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal). Then again, if all this waiting adds drama to Bond’s entrance, once he appears he is just taking it easy, drinking champagne and having a roll in a flat-bottomed boat with a comely lady. It doesn’t take him long, though, to get a call from headquarters, which he accepts despite the lady’s presence, bringing home how Connery plays the part throughout – managing to mix business with pleasure even if, at the most crucial moments, he knows how to keep them apart, a subtle actorly decision adding so much.

The plot is, of course, convoluted and beside the point, the title stemming from a Soviet cryptograph machine stolen from the Brits by SPECTRE to sell back to the Brits. It suggest something less than global stakes or world domination, a game of cat and mouse between two adversaries, epitomized in the Bond Girl, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), who is working Bond while unwittingly being worked by SPECTRE. Ostensibly she falls in love with the secret agent despite herself, though her mawkish murmurings of “James” not quite conjuring the necessary lusciousness, hueing a little too closely to Priscilla Presley in “The Naked Gun” territory. Still, the question of whether she will ultimately turn on Bond lingers, adding to the suspense, more the point than the big action

Like the preceding “Dr. No”, “From Russia With Love” was directed by Terence Young, albeit with double the budget. That money shows. When No. 5 is summoned by SPECTRE in the middle of a chess game, it might seem like a set-up for later, No. 5 being drawn into some chess game opposite Bond, or at least an emblem of how such spy games are akin to the Queen’s Gambit, or something, though really it just seems an excuse to show off an ornate set. That sense of lavishness, alas, never quite translates to the bigger action setpieces, a shootout amid gypsies that involves a catfight of the less said, the better, and a speedboat chase which despite a concluding explosion hardly rises above passable. No, like Young found a way to cleverly bend his budget to great effect in “Dr. No”, his “From Russia With Love” works best on a small scale.

That includes his eventual showdown with Red, one set entirely within the claustrophobic confines of a train car where Bond is forced to utilize his each and every advantage, from the Q-approved briefcase to preying upon the heretofore emotionless Red’s sense of greed. No matter how cool Connery might be throughout, here he lets you see 007 sweat, which is not any less right than Roger Moore moving through action sequences like Bobby K. Bowfinger in “Fake Purse Ninjas.” In the end, however, no one, not even Connery, sweats like Rosa Klebb. If No. 3 is essentially told by SPECTRE get Bond or else, her climactic assassination attempt, kicking and swinging that memorable shoe knife is in no way as ridiculous as a shoe knife sounds. Dr. Evil might have rendered Dr. No’s power moot but Frau Farbissina, it turns out, has not counteracted Rosa Klebb. No, in this moment Lenya oozes desperation shading into something like violent resentment that this guy will not just die, virtually flailing as she tries to off Bond, before succumbing to a bullet, the brutal suddenness and finality of death brought to bear, Lenya’s final mannerisms evoking something close to indignant hubris. Me? Dead? Though the playful capping scene between Bond and Tatiana in a Venice canal is tradition, a reminder not things are not so serious, after Klebb’s outro, I couldn’t really take it seriously. 

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