Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Movie Review: "From Russia With Love" by David Pretty

From Russia With Love is Sean Connery's second outing as Ian Flemming's famed super-spy.  Even if its scale is more modest then its predecessor, there's plenty of memorable characters, cool gadgets, and cloak n' dagger action to appease Bond buffs.

In a refreshing nod to continuity, Russia follows the shadowy criminal organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and their attempt to avenge the demise of their super-villain poster-boy Dr. No.  Their plot: tempt MI-6 into dispatching their star agent to Istanbul in order to relieve the Soviets of their highly-prized Lektor cryptographic device.

Once it's in Bond's possession, they extort a beautiful Russian cypher clerk named Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to steal it back whilst implicating 007 in the theft.  As if that isn't devious enough, KGB double agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) dispatches a mentally unbalanced (and seemingly invulnerable) assassin named Donald Grant (Robert Shaw) to shadow and eliminate Bond once they recover the Lektor from him.

Fortunately, thanks to the aid of a Turkish operative named Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendáriz), our hero dodges endless pitfalls and manages to flee via rail aboard the legendary Orient Express.  Needless to say, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. isn't content to sit back and watch their plans unravel.  The upper hand swings back and forth like a pendulum as each side attempts to outwit and outmaneuver the other.

Although Russia features several innovations to the cinematic 007 formula (such as a pre-credits "grabber" sequence, the introduction of Q's innovative gadgets and a theme song with lyrics), there's a certain freshness on display here that's quaintly amusing.  Long before the series began to degenerate into self-parody, the plots were rife with point / counter-point espionage, believable levels or realism and gritty action sequences.

Witness the inevitable fracas between Bond and Grant, which plays out within the confines of two tiny train compartments.  Even today, their melee is vicious, shocking and filled with a genuine sense of peril.  Other modest-but-admirable action scenes involve 007 defeating an armada of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. gunboats and a truly harrowing sequence in which a helicopter attempts to smear 007 across the landscape.  The level of innovation with these set pieces (plus the fact that Connery was nutty enough to do most of his own stunts) definitely lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

Director Terrence Young keeps the pot boiling expertly, equally at home staging economic exposition scenes as he is with choreographing a wild gypsy catfight.  Istanbul, with its ancient mosques, underground cisterns and colorful train stations, also makes for a truly exotic and colorful setting.  As an added bonus, the sequence on the Orient Express is romantic, mysterious and claustrophobic.

Plus it's a real kick to see 60's era vehicles, styles and sensibilities captured for posterity.  A conspicuous absence of political correctness really makes you feel as if you're watching a cinematic time capsule.  Indeed, there's a great deal of appeal in watching a spy flick set in the very same era that makes Mad Men so compelling.  Having said that, it's also unnerving to watch the cold eye of the camera impassively document Bloefeld's Siamese fighting fish ripping each other to shreds or Bond casually backhanding Tatiana when he suspects her duplicity.

The performances here are all "win".  Connery displays ample bravado, cool humor and charisma, but he can also turn on a dime when called upon to be S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s patsy.  And although her voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford, Daniela Bianchi is certainly one of the most alluring, sympathetic and memorable Bond girls.  Both of the lead actors get plenty of help from the patient script to bring their respective characters to life.  Whereas these archetypes eventually became somewhat cartoonish, here both Bond and Tatiana seem like real, three-dimensional human beings and we can't help but root for them.

Like a precursor to John Rhys-Davies' Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pedro Armendáriz is also tremendous fun to watch.  He's casual, affable, and completely charming as Kerim Bey, which, regrettably, was his last film role.  The villains of the piece also deserve considerable praise.  Robert Shaw, who would go on to portray the grizzled Quint in Jaws, plays a stoic killer with iron resolve and unnerving calm.  His character is built up so effectively, it's hard to imagine that 007 will stand a chance against him in hand-to-hand combat.  Finally, as the inspiration for Frau Farbissina in Austin Powers, Lotte Lenya is delightfully cold, shrill and sadistic.  One could only imagine the eyebrows her early scenes with Daniela Bianchi must have raised amongst sensors of the day.

After watching From Russia With Love it's really no surprise that the Martin Campbell / Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale resonated so much with audiences.  Both films eschew splashy sets and gimmicks in lieu of intelligent plotting, character investment, solid performances and rough and tumble action sequences.  Both pictures are certainly the better for it.

   Tilt: up.

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