Saturday, December 26, 2015

Bond Watch: From Russia With Love (1963)

As I mentioned in my chat on Dr. No, Jamie got us the "50 Years of Bond" BluRay boxed set for Christmas.  We're fans of 007, and it looks like we're going to gradually make our way through the Bond movies in chronological order.

I should also mention, I'd seen this movie another time in recent years, but my comments were brief, to say the least.

It's amazing to see the jump from a sort of rough sketch of Bond movie we get with Dr. No (1962) to a full Bond film with From Russia With Love (1963).  Of course, if you start in the Marvel Cinematic U, even the much-celebrated Iron Man that launched the whole enterprise feels a bit primitive in comparison to what we're now getting.*

This adventure sends Bond to Istanbul in 1963 as the Cold War is underway.  SPECTRE has recruited a top SMERSH agent (Rosa Kleb, who has effectively defected to SPECTRE), but only the top Kremlin brass have that intel.  This agent grabs one of the top SPECTRE prospects, played by Robert Shaw, to execute the plans given to her by the chief SPECTRE strategist.  Their plan is... incredibly convoluted - but they'll have an attractive staffer at the Russian Embassy in Russia throw herself at Bond with the gift of a Russian code-device.

That's the first five minutes or so.  Bond arrives in Istanbul, meets his Turkish fixer, has some adventures with gypsies, sees folks who should be trying to kill him turning up dead - all this effort is put in so that Rosa Kleb can grab the code-machine and the Russians will think it's the Brits.  I think.

Anyway, it's all pretty exciting.  And, as I said before - feels like much more of a Bond movie than the first installment.  There aren't near-science-fiction gadgets, but there's some buy-able spyware like you might see in a CIA museum, the girl (Tatiana - played by Daniela Bianchi) is actually highly relevant to the action and has a character arc.  She's not just the dead-weight one could accuse Honey Rider of being.

Connery also seems a lot more comfortable this go-round.  His character is given more to do, he's able to have both some legit spy-type scenes as well as action sequences.  There's a fantastic brawl, reminiscent of the train-fight from Narrow Margin, between Shaw and Connery, and none of it feels like a cheat.

All in all, as of this writing - this is one of my favorite Bond movies (yes, of all Bond films, not just the two I've watched this sprint).  It never feels silly, just playful.  It hasn't tilted outside its own genre - in fact, it's busily re-defining the spy genre.  Connery is focused and it's got a nicely windy story.  Some good action, good supporting characters, and random stuff that still fits, like the gypsy-camp sequence.

And you have to like that the movie ends with an aging lady trying to shin-kick Bond to kill him.  I mean, that's just gold.

The sexuality of the movie is what it is.  I can't think of too many other movies from the era where sex plays such a big role, and there's a bit of a question mark at the end of one scene that I'd forgotten about but which has its own implications.

This movie, by the way, is the first to introduce Blofeld as the faceless, white-cat-cuddling super-villain and give the audience an idea of the scope SPECTRE was working on.

It's worth noting that for the first few years of the franchise's existence, EON was putting out a Bond movie a year for four years, then moving to about one move every two years til about 1985 (depending on how much fudge room you want to give that average).  It's an amazing rate of production, but it also suggests something about how not-crazy Marvel has been in keeping the Marvel name out there front and center, a sort of continuous marketing effort.  Risky, yes, but less so if you're not putting $175 million or more into every film.

*That's not a dig.  Superhero movies were and are weighed down with origin story and trying to establish a whole lot of business with hope for sequels.  In Iron Man's case, boy howdy did that work out...

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