From Russia With Love and Dr. No – The James Bond Zapiska

Ah, the Cold War.  Growing up as I did in the Eighties, there was no greater Bad Guy in film or print as evil or subversive or insidious as the Russians.  They were the eternal enemy, lurking across the ocean at the business end of a fleet of ICBMs.  It was a time of uncertainty, of mistrust, of a vague feeling that global nuclear catastrophe could happen at any time.  Not just that you might die, or your brother in the service might die, but that everyone might die.  That the culmination of human endeavors to this point might just end after the hasty push of a big red button.

james bond

The Cold War was not a war of armies or military strategy, but one of ideology and secrecy.  We were we and they were they.  They thought differently from us, they structured their economy and their politics differently from us.  They took people from their beds and quietly shipped them off to gulags, they killed anyone who spoke out against the State.  They didn’t value life the way we did.

Let’s face it, since the fall of Communism, the only Bad Guys as bad as the Russians were in the popular culture during the Cold War have come from either the Middle East or Washington D.C.  And neither of them can hold a candle to the stern, malevolent, humorless, Godless juggernaut that was the United Soviet Socialist Republics.

And this brings us to From Russia With Love, the second film in the James Bond series, and the fifth Bond novel written by Ian Fleming.  Starring the widely beloved Sean Connery as Bond, and the disarmingly gorgeous Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova.  Directed by Terence Young (the second of the three Bond movies he would direct), with the team of Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Salzman in the Producers’ seats.  Released in 1963 at what is arguably the very peak of the Cold War.

Ian Fleming went on record as saying this was his favorite Bond story.  Connery said it was his favorite Bond film.  Cubby even puts it in his top three.  I’m not going to put up much of an argument here to dispute those opinions.  It’s a great story and a fantastic adventure, and the book and the film nicely complement each other, both being very similar to one another.  Seeing the film after reading the book better establishes the settings and character faces, while reading the book after seeing the film will better set up the motivations and inward thoughts of the characters.  A lot of the Bond films diverge greatly from the source material, but this one is pretty spot on, and I say kudos for it.

The first half of the book is set entirely in the Soviet Union, with the Russian SMERSH agency (SMERSH is a contraction of the two Russian words smiert shpionam, which translates to “Death to Spies,” and appears in a bunch of Fleming’s stories) planning a scheme to embarrass the West by destroying and humiliating one of their prized operatives, who is, of course, James Bond.  They don’t want a public success but instead a secret one.  The idea is to let the British Secret Service, as well as the CIA, and the French Deuxieme Bureau, and anyone else who might care to know, that the countries behind the Iron Curtain know what’s going on, and they can get to us at any time.

How are they going to do it?  They’re going to fool the West into thinking that one of their low level encryption operatives, Corporal Tatiana Romanova, is planning to defect and take their super secret encryption device called a Spektor to the West as incentive to let her stay.  Plus—as SMERSH’s story goes—she just happens to be in love with one James Bond, imminent British spy and continual thorn in SMERSH’s side.  Once Bond is in the trap, they’ll sic SMERSH’s number one executioner, British ex-pat and sociopath “Red” Grant on him.  If all goes well, Bond is dead and has been framed for the killing of Romanova, an act that makes it look as if Bond killed the poor girl just to get his hands on the Spektor.

Bond wings off to Istanbul, where he meets Darko Kerim Bey, a Turkish agent of the Secret Service who first reported the contact with Romanova to M.  Kerim Bey is a fun character, likable and gregarious.  There’s an extended scene wherein Bey takes Bond to a gypsy camp, and there’s a fight scene between two gypsy girls that leads to an attempt on Bey’s life and that whole digression seems like padding, but it does create a feeling of exotic locale that the Bond stories are known for.

After all this, a dangerous and tense trip back to the friendly West on the Orient Express, which I won’t go into a whole lot of detail explaining, because it’s a lot of fun and I don’t want to reveal any spoilers.

The film is very faithful to the book, like I said earlier.  Screenwriter Richard Maibaum got a lot of the book’s details right, the plot is similar, the essential characters are all there and no one behaves differently than they do in the book.  The main difference is the film’s bad guys work for the shadowy SPECTRE organization, and the book’s are from the Russian SMERSH agency.  It’s my understanding that this was a reaction to the politics of the times.  The producers of the films probably didn’t want their story’s enemy to be an offshoot of the Russian government.  I’m guessing to avoid the kinds of things that SMERSH is capable of in Fleming’s books.  Plus, let’s face it, the name SMERSH may instill abject fear in the heart of any Cold War Russian, but it sounds to me like the noise you’d hear if you stepped on a snail.  So they went with SPECTRE (which Fleming did make up and use, but only in the book Thunderball), and then had to change the name of the Russian encoding Macguffin from Spektor to Lektor, probably to eliminate more confusion.  We even get a tantalizing glimpse of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s hand petting his cat (anyone know what that cat’s name is?).  In the credits, we learn that Blofeld was played by ?, and that’s just darned awesome.  Plenty of more Blofeld to come in the future….

Part of the success of this story comes from the fact that it takes place in a believable scenario.  There aren’t any Psychotic Evil Geniuses hijacking space shuttles, there isn’t any plot to commit global genocide, it’s pretty much just a race to get an Enemy encoding device.  As James Bond stories go, it’s a small story with pretty small stakes.  But for me, that’s what made it so suspenseful.  It’s not that I have a problem with a bad guy who fetishizes gold, or wants to eliminate the human race before supplanting his own, but this story is smaller and more grounded in the real world, it just makes it seem more believable.  Plus, the interesting touch of spending the first half of the story on the motivations and preparations of the Russians creates some interesting drama later in the book.  Knowing that both Bond and Romanova have competing goals, knowing each of their motivations and keeping them straight is a uniquely fun exercise.  The only thing I kind of winked at was Bond’s baffling willingness to walk into Grant’s trap toward the end of the story.  Both the film and the book give Bond numerous clues that Grant isn’t who he says he is, and yet he casually strolls into the trap. Good thing he’s James Bond.

If you’ve never read one of Fleming’s Bond books, especially if you’re a devotee of Cold War espionage, I humbly offer my suggestion that you pick this one up first. Fleming’s book is taut, tense and absorbing.  His sometimes overly descriptive style works well here, giving you a very precise sense of place and scene.  His characterizations of the main baddies are very successful.  Rosa Klebb is sinister and repulsive, and I for sure wouldn’t want to meet Red Grant in a dark alley during a full moon.

As the film goes, it’s similarly successful.  This film had twice the budget of the previous submission, “Dr. No,” and it shows in the production values, the location shooting, and the pretty explosions and pyrotechnics at the end.  Terence Young’s direction isn’t flashy or intrusive.  He lets the actors be their characters, and his storytelling is economical, deliberately paced and  (which, come to think of it, is a lot like Fleming’s).

Connery is a lot of fun to watch.  The man is so damn cool.  That aloof, barely affected smirk, the playful cheekiness, the manly swagger.  It’s easy to see why if you ask twenty people who their favorite Bond is, Connery’s name will be mentioned seventeen times.

Daniela Bianchi is—let’s just go with—a treat to behold.  The role of Tatiana Romanova is not terribly demanding, and in the book she had dark hair, and whoever dubbed her voice let her Russian accent slip a few times, but personally, I’m willing to overlook all this because…those eyes.  Woof.  Any wonder she was a former Miss Rome, and first runner up in 1960’s Miss Universe pageant?  (Side note—Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 can see her in the James Bond spoof/cash-in-attempt “Operation Double 007.”)

We don’t get a lot of the usual cadre of Bond accompaniments in this film.  There’s no great car chase, there isn’t a huge shoot-out in the villain’s incomprehensibly enormous lair, there isn’t a scene in a casino where the antagonist and Bond square off over the baccarat table through squinted eyes.  Bond’s famous spy gadget here is a briefcase with a bunch of goodies in it, and this plays more of a role in the film than in the book.  As the bulk of Bond films go, it’s a very “Un-Bond” film.  Grounded in the real world, with villains that have believable goals and are supremely sinister.

Next: James Bond attempts to solve a global economic crisis (and has considerably more success than the current American government) in Goldfinger.

james bond

I’ll say it, and I don’t care who hears it: I love James Bond.  I love the style, the intrigue, the gadgets, the barely plausible villains.  I love dang near everything about Ian Fleming’s super-spy.  From the first time I was ever exposed to Bond as a kid, I was hooked.  I liked the fact that he was a hero that could control world events from sort of a behind-the-scenes position.  The stakes were high and slightly ridiculous.  He was a secret agent with a quick, resourceful mind, not a Schwarzenegger-esque action hero with ridiculous muscles and a huge, phallic machine gun nestled into his elbow.

Bond has been around for the better part of sixty years now, and he’s gone through numerous incarnations, and—damn it—he’s still cooler than darn near any other film hero I can name.

But, until recently, I’d never read any of Fleming’s actual writing.  I’d always been curious, and it was high time I explored Bond as written by the man who created him.  So I’ve embarked on a project to read all the Bond books and compare them with their filmed counterparts.  How do they stack up?  Is Fleming’s Bond much different from the filmed one?  Do the Fleming books work better than the films?  Are there any films that wholly outstrip Fleming?  Are the women in the Bond books as vapid and interchangeable as they are in the films?  I know which of the films are my favorite, but will I appreciate others better after reading the books?

My hope with this article is to spark some discussion and maybe introduce Fleming to the people who haven’t read his books, and if you’re one of those sad souls who hasn’t seen a Bond movie, or may have dismissed them out of hand in the past, to revisit the fun and adventure of the films.  I’m curious to know what other peoples’ favorite Bondmovies and books are.  I’m curious what the franchise means to people, and how its inspired or affected them.

So here’s the word on Fleming.  He’s good.  Not great, not awful.  He doesn’t have the style of Vonnegut, the poetry of Shakespeare, or the wit of Wilde, but he does have a knack for hooking a reader, creating memorable situations, and thrusting his hero into interesting (if not wholly believable, but that’s okay) plots.  When you go to see a James Bond movie, you know what you’re getting into.  Fun espionage action that’s smart and sexy and funny.  You don’t go expecting Kubrick-level artistry, or Woody Allen dialogue, or Christopher Nolan intensity.  You expect to be transported for a while.  To be taken on a ride, but still be expected to bring your brain along.  This is exactly what you get out of one of Fleming’s books.  Go in expecting Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.  Fleming can digress interminably, to the point that he spends so much time describing ancillary details he completely loses the plot.  Some of his stories feel so formulaic as to be downright dull, but every now and then he shows tantalizing glimpses of brilliance, which make the digressions worthwhile, but extremely frustrating.  If he wrote at his highest level all the time, these books would be classics rather than fun pulp fluff.

Doctor No was the sixth James Bond story Fleming published, and the first in the long series of films made.  Released in 1961, starring Mr. Sean Connery as Bond, Ursula Andress as Honeychile Rider and Joseph Wiseman as the titular Dr. No.  Ably directed by Terence Young (the first of three Bond films he would direct), and produced by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  The screenplay is adapted from the Fleming story by Richard Maibaum, who wrote most of the Bond screenplays from here to License to Killamong many others.

Since probably considerably more of you have seen the movie than have read the book, let me give you a brief synopsis of the book, and let’s see how the film compares.

The disappearance of a Secret Service officer named Strangways comes to the attention of M, who contacts Bond, offering him a light duty which is really more of a vacation since Bond is recovering from the injuries he suffered in the very last pages of the previous book in the series, From Russia With Love.  Bond is on his way to Jamaica, and having made contact with his old buddy Quarrel, Bond investigates the mysterious disappearance of Strangways.  The trail leads him to a mysterious island off the coast called Crab Key, which is owned by the even more mysterious Dr. No, who is known only because he has grown embarrassingly wealthy off the cultivation and sale of bird guano, which can be used as a super-effective fertilizer (in the movie, Dr. No owns a bauxite mine on Crab Key—I can only guess that this is because Cubby and Co. figured a movie audience wouldn’t be as intrigued as Fleming was with the ins and outs of bird crap).

Bond and Quarrel take off for Crab Key, despite the repeated warnings to stay away, and there they meet Honeychile Rider, who frequents the island looking for seashells that she can sell by the seashore (not really, but I couldn’t resist).  They delve deeper into the island, and after a meeting with a mechanized dragon, they are eventually captured, and taken to Dr. No’s lair.

Now up to this point, Bond has no idea that Dr. No has done anything except maybe, MAYBE, kill off a couple of British agents and some Audubon Society birdwatchers, and yet through the whole story, Bond is convinced that Dr. No is completely Evil, and has repeatedly promised himself that he needs to stop Dr. No for the good of the whole world.  It is only until after he’s captured and Dr. No has revealed his master plan for selling his ability to divert American missiles to the highest bidder that the story resembles anything like a normal Bond story.  For me, it seemed an afterthought tacked-on to give the story more weight and raise the stakes.  If there had been any suspicion that this was happening on Crab Key, the narrative might have had a little more thrust and been a better tale.  But oh well, what are you going to do?

I won’t give away any of the end of the book, other than to say there’s a dynamite description of a battle between Bond and a giant squid.  This probably doesn’t make any sense if you know anything at all about giant squid.  It’s a deep-sea creature that lives in the Pacific Ocean and shouldn’t have any business being anywhere near Jamaica.  But if you’re a person who likes a good adventure story, you’re probably a person who doesn’t mind this little bit of trivia, and more than likely you think there should be more fights with giant squid in popular fiction.  I certainly do.

Now, to me, this story seems like a strange one to start off the film franchise with.  There isn’t a whole lot of the stuff here that one normally associates with James Bond.  The story is pretty small, the stakes aren’t that intriguing and the story isn’t terribly thrilling.  There are no secret spy gadgets, no flashy cars, no scenes in casinos.  No Russians, no Blofeld, no gimmicky henchman.  Up to the point this film was made, Fleming had written nine other Bond stories, including GoldfingerLive and Let Dieand For Your Eyes Only.  The fact that they chose Dr. No to be the one they made first leads me to believe that they thought it was an easy one to do on the cheap, or that they had no idea that James Bond would turn into such a cultural icon.  I suppose I can understand and forgive this, although so many other of Fleming’s stories are better and more “Bond-y” than this one.

Our first glimpse of the celluloid James Bond comes in a casino scene that isn’t even in the book.  His first line of dialog is the immediately iconic, “Bond, James Bond,” and the first casino game we ever see the film Bond playing is, perhaps appropriately, chemin de fer, which is a variation on baccarat, which the book Bond plays in Casino Royale.

Dr. No the movie is embryonic as far as the Bond canon goes.  It gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what we can expect out of James Bond in all subsequent movies, thanks to Connery’s immediate likeability and charm.  His portrayal of Bond is embryonic, much like the rest of the film.  He hasn’t completely found the ease and suavity of the role here, but he’s close, and still a lot of fun to watch.

Ursula Andress is beautiful to be sure, but she sure doesn’t strike me as the world’s greatest actress (sure, she won a Golden Globe for her role in this movie, but when have Hollywood awards ever been about ability or talent?).  Her Honey Rider is remarkably similar to the one in the book, a kind of naive nature-girl with an animalistic side.  She’s remembered as the ultimate Bond Girl probably for the same reason Connery is remembered as the ultimate Bond actor—they were both the first in their particular roles.

Joseph Wiseman is wooden, unemotional, and uninteresting.  In other words, the perfect Dr. No, as Fleming wrote him.  Fleming’s Dr. No has slightly more personality and more interesting motivations, but that doesn’t much change the fact that he’s dull, and other than a sadistic plan to test the limits of Bond’s strength and endurance, not terribly menacing.  His mention of working for SPECTRE doesn’t do much more than set up subsequent Bond films (especially Thunderball).

Fittingly, there are a lot of introductions to the iconic James Bond items here.  The immediate success with women, the uncanny gambling luck, the exotic locations, the expository scenes in M’s office, the martini, the flirting with Moneypenny, the outlandish villains with dubiously complex schemes and an army of henchmen, along many others.  Among my favorites, and a scene from the book that I’m glad they included in the film, is the one where Bond is ordered to use the Walther PPK instead of his beloved Beretta .25.  In the Fleming continuity, during the last few pages of the previous book, From Russia With Love, Bond’s Beretta stuck in his holster at a critical moment, and although this should have cost him his life, it only cost him a few weeks in the hospital.  All this is hinted at in the film, but what is missing is Bond’s almost familial attachment to the Beretta.  The reluctance Bond shows to giving up the Beretta, it’s like M is asking him to leave an arm (or perhaps some other, let’s say, maleappendage) behind.  I suppose a spy would get attached to using a particular kind of weapon, but come on.  It’s just a gun.  Another fun side note, in the book, after taking the Beretta, Major Boothroyd—who would in later stories be referred to as Q—gives Bond the PPK, and a Smith & Wesson pistol.  Bond takes both to Jamaica, but only uses the Smith & Wesson. Such an iconic part of the Bond mythos happily glossed over in the book.  Sad, almost.

For the most part, Richard Maibaum sticks pretty faithfully to the Fleming story, but he fills in a lot of the blanks Fleming misses, and gives the story a better sense of direction.  A leads to B leads to C and so on.  Fleming usually starts off well at A, then takes a supremely long time describing B, and by the time C rolls around, you’re just happy to be back on the track.  Yes, stories told in novels can and must be different from stories told in film, but for the most part, the narrative structure of the rising action-climax-denouement is better represented in the films.  This is not to say the Fleming books are not worth reading, or in any way bad, his stories are just told differently with more detail and what feels like more authentic secret agent action.

And then there’s the thing with Quarrel.  I’m going to give away a spoiler here, so if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, just go ahead and skip this paragraph.  The way Fleming wrote Quarrel, he appeared first in Live and Let Die, the second book in the series.  Quarrel is in the Dr. No book, and he dies towards the middle of the book, a victim of Dr. No’s evil dragon tank monster.  Now.  Since, in the films, Dr. No comes before Live and Let Die, and since Quarrel dies in Dr. No, when Live and Let Die came around, the filmmakers re-introduced Quarrel as Quarrel Jr.  If you’re confused by all this, don’t worry, it’s confusing.

As the first of twenty two (so far) Bond films, Dr. No shows us a glimpse of the fun and adventure we’re in store for.  I don’t feel like it reached its full potential, but it’s a fun ride, and it’s a treat to see the beginnings of the iconic franchise.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I feel a sudden powerful need for a medium dry vodka martini with a twist of lemon.

Random Thoughts:

I love that Bond has a backup bottle of vodka in his room, just in case the one provided by the hotel has been poisoned.  Good rule for all of us to live by.

To all budding filmmakers out there:  Tires don’t squeal on dirt roads.  God, that bugs me.

What happened to Honey’s pants just before Bond finds her at the end of the movie?  I mean, I’m not complaining or anything, it just seems like something that should have been explained

– originally pblished 3/18/2011