James Bond Overdose Part 2 – From Russia With Love (1963)

When I was younger, I wasn’t much of a fan of this one. It didn’t have any spaceships or secret bases, and the main villain never even met Bond face to face. I didn’t get it at all.

Silly me.

This movie is terrific–quite possibly Connery’s best outing as Bond. It’s sleek, exciting, well acted, and the much larger budget really shows.

Set primarily in Istanbul, Turkey (and not Russia, oddly enough), the film sees Bond (Connery) being drawn into an impossible-to-resist trap set by his good friends at SPECTRE (unbeknownst to him but knownst to us, to borrow a phrase from Spaceballs). They plan to use a beautiful but impressionable Russian spy, Tatiana “Tanya” Romanova (played by Daniela Bianchi with lines dubbed by Barbara Jefford) and a stolen Soviet Maguffin Lektor decoder, to both ignite tensions between England and Russia and to take out James Bond as payback for his dispatching Dr. No in the previous film. Pursued by the chilling anti-Bond Donald Grant (Robert Shaw) and the short-but-vicious ex-Soviet agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and her poisoned knife shoe, Bond and Tanya try to escape back to the west, evading assassination attempts and their own doubts as to whose side they’re really on. Throw in a gratuitous, politically incorrect Gypsy girl fight and a few notable Bond firsts, and you have a tightly written, fun action film that perfectly balances the serious with the goofy.

First, it should be noted that there are three big firsts in this movie that will set the tone for almost every Bond film that follows.

1. Q! Our beloved Major Boothroyd (played by the incomparable Desmond Llewelyn in his first of his 17 Bond appearances as the beloved Quartermaster) shows up with his first of many gadgets, namely the “Swiss Army” briefcase complete with pop out knives, exploding tear gas canisters, and hidden ropes of gold coins. His character is played fairly straight in his brief scene, but it’s clear that the lovably grumpy fellow we will all grow to love is in there somewhere, waiting to be let out.

2. Blofeld! Called only Number One in this film, the iconic Bond villain is hard to miss (thanks to his signature white cat, who probably had the sweetest film gig of any animal–cuddling in someone’s lap while being obsessively petted). He doesn’t get to do much in this film except control things from behind the scenes, but he still dominates every scene he’s in, primarily due to his unsettling voice.

3. Scantily clad women in the opening credits! While Dr. No did feature dancing women in silhouette, they were fully clothed and there was nothing suggestive about it. Robert Brownjohn’s opening credits sequence, however, has the names of the cast and crew projected onto the gyrating and undulating body of a darkly-lit belly dancer (Julie Mendez). The instrumental arrangement of Matt Munro’s charming end credits song featured here is bold and sexy, and the visuals certainly match**.

Where was I? Oh yes.

The biggest strength of this movie lies in its themes of deception and betrayal. The audience doesn’t really know who to trust or what to believe. From the unsettling pre-credits sequence, where Bond is seemingly garroted to death, to the moment where it’s unclear if Tanya is being manipulated by Klebb or if she is really betraying her, the audience is always left wondering who is actually who they appear to be. Although the audience knows that Bond will come out on top, it’s difficult to choose who to trust among Bond’s protean cadre of allies. Even Ali Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz), who seems to be a genteel, trustworthy fellow, never quite earns the audience’s trust until near the movie’s end, even though he does nothing to cause any doubt. The tension that results from this setup gives the plot a lot more complexity and thematic depth than its predecessor.

The primary villains are also excellently realized. Grant is Bond’s perfect foil. The only thing that sets each of the two apart is their loyalty. Both are cunning, dangerous, and manipulative. Both are able to bury personal feelings to complete a mission, even if said mission involves killing. It just so happens that Bond chose the right side and Grant chose the wrong side. Bond is sarcastic while Grant is sadistic. I like to think of Grant as a sort of mirror image of Bond (one with dark hair, the other with pale hair), which is why he’s able to get inside Bond’s head. And, I must say, the fight between the two of them on the train is brutal and tense. It’s probably the most understated final battle of any Bond film, but it works beautifully.

And then there’s Rosa Klebb. I’m still not sure what I think of her. She’s a fantastic villain, negative stereotypes aside. To Tanya, she’s sort of this strange anti-mother figure. Kleb’s sexuality is more overt in Fleming’s original novel, but it’s by no means absent in the film. It’s only a few leering glances and a hand on Tanya’s knee in one scene, but it’s clear what she’s thinking. Now, clearly, the negative stereotype of the predatory homosexual hasn’t aged well at all, but the idea of Klebb being a humorless sadistic outsider because of her internal struggle to repress her desires is certainly compelling. She’s a strong character (having risen to the rank of Number Three in SPECTRE) who avoids being manipulated by any man (save for Blofeld, who controls her with fear just as he does all his subordinates), and who is never defeated by Bond personally. Plus, she’s got her poisoned knife shoe. It’s hardly a scary weapon, but it is iconic. And also, I’ve read that her name is a pun on the Soviet phrase “хлеб и розы” (“khleb i rozy”, which means, “bread and roses,” a Soviet labor union slogan associated with women’s rights). I can’t help but like her, to some extent.

Tanya is probably the weakest part of the movie. It’s difficult to come to any conclusions about her. Either she’s a cunning agent who is able to manipulate Bond whilst simultaneously manipulating her superiors, or she’s a silly brainless pawn who’s hurled at Bond and who does little more than look pretty and act vacuous. If it’s the first case, then she’s a genius gamestress who only really decides to support Bond when she picks up the gun at the end and saves his life. Overall, I’m inclined to favor the second scenario. She’s window dressing, and her decision at the end is more of a petulant act of rebellion against her keepers than any sort of moment of personal triumph. Perhaps I’m being too hard on her. She’s just not my favorite.

In closing, I would also like to give a shout out to the film’s cinematography. The location shots in Istanbul are stunning. One scene, set in the historic Hagia Sophia basilica-turned-mosque, is breathtaking, taking full advantage of the fabulous architecture. The painted interiors are both gloomy and sweepingly beautiful, and the characters all seem minuscule next to its towering columns. It’s rare to see such gorgeous examples of Islamic artwork and architecture in movies nowadays.

Random Observations:

-The tour guide in the Hagia Sophia scene is hysterically boring. Like, I was often distracted by how monotone he was, missing key plot points in the process.
-Walter Gotell makes his first Bond appearance here as the thug Morzeny. He will later show up as the KGB General Gogol in the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton eras.
-I love the direct references to the previous movie in this, such as Blofeld vowing revenge against Bond for Dr. No’s death.
-Also, speaking of references to Dr. No, I just now realized that Sylvia Trench, from the beginning of Dr. No, is the girl Bond is hanging out with at the beginning! She talks about how he left her so suddenly to run to Jamaica. It’s odd to see Bond actually returning to one of his past flings (I wonder where he left Honey Ryder). The two have a good rapport in their brief scene. I kind of sort of want a movie where Sylvia Trench is Bond’s main squeeze and they have an adventure together… She’s such a minor character, but I love her.
-I want Bernard Lee’s maroon polka dot bow tie.
-Everything explodes in this movie!
-The movie ends with Bond in a boat with Tanya, just like Dr. No ended with Bond and Honey in a boat. I may have to look into this further. I see a trend developing…

Alright, that’s all for now! I will return next week with Goldfinger!

**To those who object to the commodification of women’s bodies in this and many other opening credits sequences, I would like to point out that I’ve always seen these surreal credits sequences as views inside Bond’s mind, and he certainly objectifies women. It’s not a good thing, but it is true to the character. He’s suave and classy and sexy and we root for him, but let’s not kid ourselves; he’s a manipulative misogynist at this point in his evolution. 


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