From Russia With Love | The James Bond Zapiska

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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.

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.

– originally pblished 3/18/2011

Eric is a Denver based freelance writer and science fiction enthusiast who proudly holds a Creative Writing degree from the University of Arizona.