From Russia with Love Review
“From England With Kennedy.”
September 16th, 2011
After the commercial success of "Dr. No" (1962), United Artists quickly approved a second Bond film, doubled its budget to $2,000,000 and granted lead star Sean Connery a $100,000 bonus in addition to his $54,000 salary on the sequel, as it was clear Connery was a major reason the film was received so well. But how they settled on Ian Fleming's fifth Bond novel--still considered the best of Fleming's thirteen 007 novels--was unique, and would subsequently set up staples for many, if not all future installments in the franchise.
Producers Albert Romolo Broccoli & Harry Saltzman first invited director Terrance Young to return to the franchise, and his touch is valued here. But the trio didn't have too dwell to long or hard about which novel they'd adapt next. As luck would have it, "Life Magazine" ran an article listing then U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's ten favorite novels. "From Russia With Love" was on the list. And so, the English based production would spearhead a film set mostly in Turkey with intentions to impress both the audience and President Kennedy, who's endorsement sent book sales off the charts, and probably contributed to the film's profits.
Fortunately, contrary to the implications of the film's title, none of the story is set in Russia. It was actually shot where it was set, in Istanbul, Turkey with much work done at Pinewood Studios to adhere to British Film Funding regulations, which meant that up to 70% of the film had to be shot either in Britain or the Commonwealth. As such, several iconic locations like the interior of the Orient Express, Venice, the Turkish MI6 Station, and the Gypsy Camp had to be crafted from scratch at Pinewood rather than shooting them on location, such as a real gypsy camp with real gypsy extras in Topkapi, Turkey. Despite this hurdle, the final product doesn't seem hindered by it.
Another hurdle to overcome was the villainous organization which Bond faces off against in the Connery Era and in Fleming's novels. Originally, it was SMERSH, which was the Soviet Union's real counter-intelligence agency which translated from two combined Russian words as meaning "Death To Spies." While Fleming's version of SMERSH is decidedly different than reality, the filmmakers chose to go with something different to avoid political quarrels, and settled on SPECTRE which is an acronym for SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. A perfectly evil organization with an equally cheesy non-goal for such a franchise. Needless to say, it only lasted through the sixties Connery Era with a surprise revival in 1971. But that's a later story. And of course, what kind of evil organization would it be if it didn't have its own exotic island getaway? Well, SPECTRE Island was another location which had to be shot at Pinewood Studios to make up that 70% regulation. It was a beautiful Venetian styled mansion set complete with a large hedge maze by production designer Syd Cain who was the art director for the predecessor who took over for Ken Adam who went off to Kubrick's production of "Dr. Strangelove" (1964). Syd Cain certainly showed off in this film considering the lack of on location filming, as he even spent $150,000 on a set featuring a chess tournament in one scene of little significance. So yeah, he was really daring, but he wouldn't linger in the franchise.
In his second outing, MI6 Agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) must rendezvous with Istanbul's Soviet Consulate Cipher Clerk Tatiana Romonova (Daniela Bianchi) to pickup a Lektor cryptographic device Romonova has agreed to give to MI6 upon her defection from the Soviet Union. What Romonova doesn't know is that ex-SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) actually works for SPECTRE and has recruited her as a pawn in a plan to steal the Lektor for SPECTRE. Oddly enough, this plot is revealed in its entirety in the first few scenes as opposed to Bond figuring it out for the audience slowly throughout the film, which became a staple for the future films. Granted we aren't privy to how the operation will be carried out, we can get a pretty good idea from this synopsis given at the outset. Nevertheless, a grand adventure full of espionage unfolds to make it worthy of being considered the greatest Bond film ever made.
Hunting and strangely assisting Bond for unknown reasons is SPECTRE assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw). He's tall, well fit, and expert sniper, and a more than suitable match for 007 in hand to hand combat. With bleached looking blond hair and a neatly kept business suit wherever he goes, Red Grant is in my opinion the most intimidating henchman in the series to date. Robert Shaw plays him very stern and devoid of emotion to the point where he finally does start acting normal it's like seeing some typecast cop play a legit crook. So if you want to assassinate the world's most successful secret agent, then Red Grant is just the guy to go with.
Though equally intimidating would be Lotte Lenya's performance as SPECTRE's #3 agent Rosa Klebb, whom is among the first nefarious cinema villains to sport a poison tipped knife in her fashionable shoe. Red haired, unattractive, visibly aged, stern as hell, and quite possibly the only woman--or person--who could give Red Grant crap and not get killed for it. She's mostly a behind the scenes character in the film, and is only intimidated by SPECTRE's mysterious cat loving leader #1, aka: Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Anthony Dawson--who played Dent in the predecessor) who's only in two scenes, as he's the recurring main villain of the Connery Era.
An interesting story surrounding the film's production features an act of kindness that's never been rivaled, and probably won't be. Pedro Armendariz played MI6's Turkish station head Kerim Bey who greatly assists Bond in his quest. But when producer Cubby Broccoli heard he was suffering from a terminal case cancer, and that Pedro only took on the role believing he'd have well enough time to finish it to leave behind money for his family, Cubby rearranged several sequences on the production schedule to finish Pedro's filming within the first two weeks of June 1963. The film had been in production for two months already. And on June 18th, when Pedro checked into a hospital for cancer treatment in Los Angeles, he shot himself dead when discovering he'd likely waste away on a cancer ward, as his cancer was so aggressive it was untreatable. He even limps frequently in the film because of it. Though thanks to Cubby, Pedro got his wish.
The reason this film is loved by so many and hailed as the best Bond was due to how the film surrounded Cold War espionage and is among the only Bond film to totally rely on the Cold War for the story, which is in toe with the very reason Bond exists at all. He's an MI6 agent involved with Cold War affairs. There is no extravagant plot by the villain, no gargantuan secret hideout which couldn't possibly be secret. Nor did this film focus on so many typical Nuclear Bomb fears that served as plot devices for many other Cold War spy films. Lack of great action is part of the realism here. And by great I mean large scaled.
Many new franchise staples like a helicopter sequence in every Bond film since besides "The Man With The Golden Gun" (1974) begins here, as well as the introduction to the beloved Major Boothroyd (Desmond Llewelyn), or 'Q' as many of us know him. Or more to the point, the introduction of something which has been copied in nearly every Bond film and several action films since, being that the one gadget that the gadget guy presents as being new or unique is the gadget used to off the villain, or is at least instrumental in the villain's downfall. Also, the more famous inclusion of a pre-title sequence. While the one here directly relates to the plot, in the future they'd typically be totally unrelated, or only a tidbit is related. This first one features Red Grant practicing his skills in the hedge maze after dark; a step up from the 'three blind mice' from the predecessor. And even more, such as the surprise action scene after the climax is over and you think everyone's been taken care of. And of course the colorful main titles of dancing women coupled with a theme song. Lastly, the variations of the line at the end of the final credits: James Bond Will Return. All these helped launch "From Russia With Love" to the top, as here they were all new and not recycled several times over. But the Cold War espionage atmosphere really made this film a triumph. And Connery didn't miss a beat. In fact, he seemed somewhat more serious as he was dealing with an espionage situation which was constantly heated rather than some tropical island getaway.
Well received by nearly everyone at the time, it opened number one at the box office and easily outgrossed the predecessor when it hit theaters in October 1963, just six months after the U.S. premiere of "Dr. No" (1962) which coincided with the second film's start of production. Cameras rolled from April Fool's Day 1963 till 23 August 1963. And on 20 November 1963, it became the last film screened at the White House for President Kennedy, and the last film he ever saw. He was assassinated in Dallas just two days later.