****/**** Image A Sound B Extras A-
starring Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendáriz, Lotte Lenya
screenplay by Richard Maibaum, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
directed by Terence Young
by Ian Pugh The first indelible image of From Russia with Love finds steely-eyed, platinum-blond killer Red Grant (Robert Shaw) taking a garrotte to James Bond (Sean Connery), slowly choking the life out of him without witty repartee or a single hope of close-shave escape. The victim turns out to be an impostor, live-target practice for Grant's escapades later in the film--but that momentary shock establishes right from the start that the rules have changed since last we saw 007. Here's a point in time when we weren't completely conditioned to accept Bond as undefeatable, when it wasn't unreasonable to believe that these globetrotting adventures could come to an unfortunate end at any moment. In fact, I wonder if it's reasonable to regard the unpolished Dr. No as mere prologue to From Russia with Love1, with the breezy, romantic life of a Cold War secret agent violently exposed as a lie.
It's then that we realize this life is nothing more than a carefully-orchestrated détente, destined to be shattered under the right circumstances. Bond knows that he's walking into a trap but expects that the Russians are calling the shots--that it's all part of the game. Instead, multinational terrorist organization SPECTRE is behind the wheel as the unaccounted variable: In their latest bid to play both sides against the middle, they've sent Grant to kill Bond and retrieve the Lektor to ransom back to the Soviets. After Grant cuts a swath of death and destruction in tailing his quarry, re-igniting cold wars and co-opting secret code words to ingratiate himself with the enemy, the final blow is to explain how Bond's expectations have been subverted at every step of the game. These days, we mock the Bond series for featuring a villain who recounts to the hero every little detail of the master plot, yet here it serves the purpose of destroying any pretense of control over the situation that we--and Bond--have adopted. "Oh, I don't mind talking," Grant sneers. "I get a kick out of watching the great James Bond find out what a bloody fool he's been making of himself." On his knees, at the mercy of a madman who is essentially his funhouse-mirror image, Bond is forced to drop his standard rules of conduct in order to snuff out the "fellow professionals" who threaten to replace him in a brutal new world of ever-shifting alliances and identities.2
From Russia with Love was the first film of the series to completely weaponize sex, a concept that closely follows its other themes. It begins with former Soviet SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), who utilizes a healthy mixture of physical threats and aggressive sexual advances to convince Romanova to be the bait to Bond's most obvious vices. When he finally meets Romanova in his bridal suite, ready and willing to be ravaged by the British spy, the film takes a long, sensual look at her mouth ("It's just the right size...for me, that is," Bond remarks)--and it's impossible to ignore an earlier scene in which an assassin crawls out of Anita Ekberg's own gaping maw, an escape hatch in a barnside movie poster that only makes him an easy target to be sniped by Bond and Kerim Bey. Further compounded by unwilling seductions and "girl-fights" at a gypsy camp interrupted by assassination attempts, the threat of carnal self-destruction is constant and eventually fulfilled when Grant reveals that Bond's night in the bridal suite has been immortalized on film, to be released to the press upon his death. "It must take a pretty sick collection of minds to dream up a plan like that," Bond muses; it is of course the perfect coda to this interruption of the Anglo-Soviet status quo: lust, violence, and politics alchemized with an uncomfortable familiarity.
SPECTRE's convoluted scheme was concocted by chess master Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal), who claims to have considered "every possible variation of countermove"--but the catch here is that he's incapable of understanding that his plan's executors and intended victims can still be complete wild cards when the situation calls for it. Consider that cipher machines and chess are both capable of countless permutations that nevertheless add up to a finite number; the whole film is about trying to reclaim immutable logic in a world where arrogance, love, and pure luck play immeasurably into the equation. Grant and Bond's climactic train-compartment fight is the moment those best-laid plans go right out the window--and what's left is a claustrophobic battle royale between two headstrong brutes beating the shit out of each other. Once the plan has failed, SPECTRE leader Blofeld kills the seemingly-faultless Kronsteen, while the subservient Romanova shoots her superior, Klebb; From Russia with Love is the contemporary counterpart to No Country for Old Men and The Dark Knight: All three films argue that even the agents of chaos are subject to their own treachery.3 It's too easy to ghettoize the Bond series as a piddling genre in itself, unworthy of conversation, but through its excitement and complexity, it's impossible to deny that this is great cinema--and perhaps the greatest of all spy thrillers. Considerably meatier than Dr. No but not yet shackled to a workhorse formula, From Russia with Love is ferocious and untamed in a way that the series would not completely rejuvenate until Daniel Craig's blood-swilling anti-hero took the reins.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Lowry Digital's restoration of From Russia with Love looks fantastic in its Blu-ray debut from MGM--indeed, almost as good as the film's forebear does. The only thing keeping the hyperbole in check is a tendency for the 1.66:1, 1080p transfer to lose detail in the darkest areas of the image, themselves a kind of deep charcoal instead of pure black. It's a bit velvety, in other words, but it's always attractive and the reds of the picture's Commie colour scheme pop like never before. (Furthermore, Daniela Bianchi's bare behind is now easily decipherable behind those lacy curtains.) As with Dr. No, the attendant DTS-HD MLA 5.1 remix sounds like glorified mono, distinguishing itself from the official DD 1.0 mono option mainly by adding a certain harshness of character. Dialogue is a tad sludgy in either incarnation; I wonder if they shouldn't have eased up on the noise reduction when digitizing these first two Bonds. Also on board is another patchwork commentary narrated/mediated by supplementals producer John Cork that's a little more indispensable than the previous one due to the relative brevity of "Inside From Russia with Love" (34 mins., 1080i), this film's retrospective making-of. Cork actually provides most of the nitty-gritty, revealing, for instance, that it was producer Harry Saltzman's idea to institute a fake-out motif of "killing" Bond at the beginning of each movie, as well as details of actor Robert Shaw's second career as a novelist and the reason why actress Lotte Lenya is immortalized in the song "Mack the Knife." A solid oral history of the production.
Video-based extras begin under Declassified: MI6 Vault with "Ian Fleming: The CBC Interview" (8 mins., 480i), an interview conducted at Fleming's Goldeneye estate before the theatrical release of 1964's Goldfinger but aired after Fleming's untimely death that same year. There's so much prologue that the actual dialogue with the author is quite short, if impressively dense: Fleming talks about his distaste for profanity, the romantic appeal of one-man armies, and the narcissism of Windsor knots, among other things; fans will eat it up. (The exit line is pretty good, too.) Next comes "Ian Fleming & Raymond Chandler" (5 mins., 480i), an audio-only conversation between the two writers--context? Unknown--backed by photos of each stupidly animated in the Kid Stays in the Picture style for the attention-deficient, I guess. Chandler sounds like a surly Howard Hughes against the cultured Fleming, who pulls teeth to get the less-than-gregarious Chandler to say something. Nonetheless, it's a historically fascinating meeting of the minds unlikely enough as to almost seem hypothetical, with Chandler marvelling at (or denigrating) Fleming's ability to crank out a novel in two months and observing that the Bond books "always have to have a torture scene." (Fleming traces this back to a fondness for Fu Manchu serials.) Fleming surfaces once more in the slightly redundant, incomprehensibly-titled "Ian Fleming on Desert Island Discs" (5 mins., 480i), in which he outlines his writing process and briefly relates his wartime experiences. Again there is no synched video accompaniment. Finishing off this section is "Animated Storyboard Sequence" (1 min., 480i)--uncredited storyboards for From Russia with Love's boat chase, in other words, done up as an animatic.
007 Mission Control has to be the dumbest special feature I've ever encountered. Basically, it non-linearly singles out highlights from the film, assigning them unique names and chapter stops along the lines of "Dining 007 Style." Clicking on these sub-headings becomes a numbing experience that transforms From Russia with Love into some quasi-Alain Resnais flick. Seriously: what the fuck? Moving on, under the umbrella heading Mission Dossier is where you'll find the aforementioned "Inside From Russia with Love", which is almost as riveting as the film itself. Would that I could so heartily recommend the Marie Clairu-narrated "Harry Saltzman: Showman" (27 mins., 1080i), a by-the-numbers hagiography for the Selznick wannabe, although Saltzman deserves his moment in the spotlight, his flamboyance undoubtedly having contributed to the alchemy of the early Bond outings. The thrust of the retrospective, meanwhile, is that this was a troubled production saved once through last-minute rewrites and again in post, where editor Peter Hunt reordered the introductory scenes and conjured transitional shots using a combination of outtakes and optical trickery. Reconstructed here, the mock Q demonstration that Hunt created for director Terence Young's amusement is hilarious, and the account of a near-fatal helicopter crash is harrowing. And I can't think of a batch of Bond beauties that has aged better than From Russia's. (Bianchi's talking-head, for what it's worth, is dubbed.) Three trailers, three TV spots, and three radio spots for From Russia with Love make up the Ministry of Propaganda, while an exhaustive "Image Database"--organized into The Filmmakers, Ian Fleming, Portraits, Pinewood, Dressed to Kill, Lovely...Lovely, Tatiana Meets Klebb, Rosa Klebb, Istanbul, The Gypsy Camp, The Orient Express, Scotland, Rats!, Back Projection, Smoke on the Water, The Lost Scene (the scant number of stills for which necessitates a lengthy preface), and Around the World with 007--rounds out the platter. Note that the film's running time is incorrectly listed as 111 minutes on the packaging. Originally published: November 13, 2008.
1. Particularly relevant considering that SPECTRE's evil plan is brought into motion in order to avenge Doctor No's death--and that Fleming's Dr. No was the first Bond novel after From Russia with Love, which had intended to kill off its hero. return
2. Find similar ideas in Hitchcock's complex expression of Cold War fatigue, North by Northwest--in many ways a companion piece to From Russia with Love. return
3. Suddenly, the Joker's oblique resurrection of Rosa Klebb's blade-tipped shoe makes perfect sense. return