Ian Fleming’s “From Russia With Love” Starring Sean Connery as James Bond 007

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This film starts with James Bond being hunted and killed by a scary Robert Shaw. Of course, it is not actually James Bond that dies but a double wearing a mask. It appears that Shaw is learning how to hunt and kill the great white natural killing machine that is 007. This opening is little more than a fun way to disorient the audience, but when you think about it, it is one crazy-ass sequence. The notion that SPECTRE not only forces people to be live bait in their training exercises, but that they make these poor bastards wear absurdly realistic masks to create that touch of verisimilitude is dumb in a way that I kind of love.

After the credits, two SPECTRE bigwigs and their unseen cat-stroking leader hatch a scheme to kill James Bond while furthering their own goals. They want revenge for his killing Dr. No in the previous film and they also want a Russian cryptographic device. Their two-birded, low-stakes scheme hinges on the not-unreasonable supposition that all you need to do in order to catch a James Bond is to dangle a beautiful woman in front of him.

One of these three villains, Rosa Klebb, former SMERSH spymaster, current SPECTRE #3, and implied lesbian, has been helicoptered to SPECTRE Island, a henchmen training camp. She is escorted through the island past an array of absurdly evil training exercises, involving more live-dude targets. Eventually, she is presented with Robert Shaw’s character, named Grant. She looks him over, and then punches him once in the gut with brass knuckles. He does not flinch. Satisfied, she gives her approval, and promptly leaves the island, he business concluded. This is one of the greatest scenes of supervillainy I have ever seen.

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Klebb then goes to Russia, where she, pretending to still be a high ranking SMERSH agent, commands Tatiana Romanova , a beautiful cipher clerk, to pretend to defect to the west so that she can feed Bond false information. So, we have a Russian defector pretending to have not defected who is forcing a woman to pretend to defect but not to the terrorists that the real defector has defected to but rather to the West, ostensibly to help Russia but in actuality to steal from Russia. This is some Cold-ass War right here. Also, Klebb explicityl orders Romanova to sleep with Bond.

18 minutes into the film, we finally get to see James Bond Actual and he is on a picnic date with  Sylvia Trench, the baccarat woman from the previous film. First, the bad guys were mad at Bond for what he did in the previous film, now Bond is seen romancing the same woman twice. This movie has a lot of explicit continuity, something that runs counter to my expectations of what a Bond film is. I guess this is still a real movie, not yet a full-blown “Bond Movie”. It is kind of strange.

At any rate, we don’t spend much time with Miss Trench before Bond gets called into the office from his car phone. In the office, Bond gets to flirt with Moneypenny after tossing his hat onto a coat rack, and he gets an exposition dump which is totally redundant, since the SPECTRE schemers have already exposited all this stuff already.

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After the exposition, we meet Q, a series mainstay, although in this film, he is just the guy from Q Branch. He shows Bond a suitcase with hidden compartments and booby traps.  Bond is visibly impressed with all these gimmicks.  All this trick stuff seems totally novel and cool to him.

Bond flies off to Istanbul, where everything is so very very Cold War. Everywhere Bond goes it is all tails and mistrust and searching for bugs and dummy cars and code phrases. The good guys have installed a goddamned periscope in the Russian consulate for spying because that’s the sort of things good guys do during a Cold War. The movie is drenching us in paranoia, but it is all espionage travelogue. Nothing is actually forwarding the story, let alone the plot.

Eventually, the local station chief takes Bond to a gypsy camp to provide some local color. Bond is super-bored until two women have a vicious, ritual sexyfight over a man. For the first time in the movie, Bond perks up. Murderous sexytime hits his sweet spot.

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Before the sexyfight can conclude, a gun battle erupts for reasons that are not particularly clear. During the gun battle, Robert Shaw, lurking in the background, secretly shoots someone about to kill Bond from behind. After the dust has cleared, Bond, with the wisdom of King Solomon solves the sexyfight by sleeping with both women.

After the gypsy episode, there is more murdering and counter-murdering, which is a lot duller than it sounds. Eventually, Bond actually furthers his mission and meets Romanova. Within 60 seconds from their meeting, Bond transitions from having his gun drawn on her to making out with her. It’s super creepy, made creepier by the knowledge that she has been ordered to let Bond sleep with her on pain of death.

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Meanwhile, Shaw keeps killing people who want to kill Bond because while ultimately, he wants to kill Bond himself, he first needs the fake defector to finish her fake defection so that he can steal the cryptographic device that she is going to help Bond steal.

In a surprisingly brief scene, Bond and Romanova bomb a consulate and steal the device. This seems disappointingly easy and pretty morally questionable. In fact, nothing Bond has done so far this film has seemed at all heroic. From my post-Cold War, post-Women’s Lib vantage point, Bond seems decidedly a villain. Thus far, it has been nothing but murder, terrorism, theft, and quasi-rape.

Once Bond and Romanova have the device, they board a train and dick around with more espionage stuff and more sexytimes. This movie is so slow. The entire film could be edited down to about half an hour without losing anything of import, but in some weird way I enjoy soaking up this strange bygone Cold War flavor.  Or maybe I just like trains.

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Ninety minutes in, the movie shifts tone pretty hard when  Shaw presents himself as Bond’s contact on the train, having killed the real contact.  And with that, the movie actually become very tense and very cool. Shaw has proven himself to the audience to be a ruthless and capable killer, and Bond and Romanova are completely unaware of the danger he presents. It makes for great film, waiting to see how it plays out.

The charade is maintained for several scenes. Bond gets suspicious when Shaw orders red wine with fish, but not suspicious enough. Shaw eventually pulls a gun on Bond and gives a fun, contemptuous bad guy speech.

Shaw’s character is cool, cold and cruel. There are are very few differences between this man and James Bond. One of them is private sector and one is public, and one of them knows what wine to order with fish. I guess that’s supposed to be enough to make us root for Bond.

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Things look bad for Bond, but he tricks Shaw into setting off the booby trap on his brief case. It’s an old gag in an old movie but the way that Connery sells the deception makes for a fantastic little moment, one that leads directly into a delightfully savage brawl. Two beasts of men in tight quarters desperately try to kill the other with whatever they can get their hands on. Eventually Bond garrottes Shaw to death in a shockingly violent fashion.  It’s a great fight.

Unfathomably, there is then fifteen more minutes of Cold War stuff as Bond and Romanova finish their journey to the West. Bond fights a helicopter and engages in a high speed boat chase, both of which should be exciting and cool, but all this stuff seems a let down after the amazing train fight. Doesn’t the movie know it should be over?

It’s almost over.  After it appears that the danger has finally passed, Rosa Klebb, the newly promoted #2 villain in the world nearly defeats Bond by sneaking into his hotel room disguised as a maid and swiping the Lektor without a fight. It is hilarious.

But at the last minute Romanova spots her and chooses Bond over Russia, turning the fake defector into a real defector. Klebb tries to stab Bond with her shoe and Romanova shoots her. This should be a heroic act, but to me, she just comes off as a traitor to her people.

Afterward, Bond and Romanova fuck on a boat. The end.

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This is a weird movie. Neither Bond and Romanova show any signs of having morals or values of any sort. Bond likes killing and sex and Savile Row suits and Romanova likes James Bond.  The tone veers from dull to goofy to brutal and back with no sense of pace. The whole film is a big mess.

Yet for all of its flaws, there is some really interesting stuff in here.   I like the goofy villain stuff with Shaw at the beginning.  The sliver of the film where Bond and Shaw actually interact with each other is great.  And I can’t decided if the amorality of the protagonist is a strength or a weakness.  Hell, I can’t tell if the amorality is deliberate or not.  It is compelling and repellant at once.   Maybe this is the appeal of Bond.

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