More noise than signal

From Russia With Love

I’m rather falling behind on this Bond project, and so early into it too. Let’s attempt to arrest that slide by looking at the second cinematic Bondular outing, From Russia With Love.

This time round we are introduced to the concept of Bond’s reputation preceding him to the extent that he can hardly be called a secret agent, as MI6 get word of a Red Communist clerk offering to defect from those evil Russians to the Brits, bringing along a top secret decoding doohickey on the condition that she’s met by Mr. James Bond, Esq., whom she has taken a bit of a shine to.

Realising that life is very rarely that simple, Jimmy suspects a trap, but having no pressing luncheon appointments that day presses ahead with it anyway. Naturally, he is correct, the Russian lass being a unwitting pawn in a game designed by the international criminal mastermind Phil Spector to play Britain and Russia against each other to warm up the previously rather boring Cold War in Istanbul.

Terence Young returns on directorial duties, and he claims that of the Bond films he directed, this is his favourite. He could make a pretty solid case for it being the best Bond film period, but seeing as he isn’t typing this, I suppose I’ll have to fill in. I don’t have the exact quote to hand, but Young says something along the lines of the screenplays and Connery’s performance are adding in the one thing that isn’t in Fleming’s novels that went on to define the film series – charm.

From Russia With Love is where the charm offensive begins in earnest. While Connery’s Bond in Dr. No isn’t exactly a complete cold blooded psychopathic killer, he shows certainly shows moments of steely dispassion. These vanish in From Russia With Love, making it more like the Bond we’ve come to know and love.

That may not necessarily be a good thing. Sure, Bond is now a far more likable protagonist. However it seems as part of the trade off he’s also lost any sort of sense that things are not going to work out exactly in his favour at all points, even while in the middle of a murderous melee that requires the SPECTRE agent to save Bond’s life. This is the start of the end of Bond’s dramatic credibility. It seemed that Dr. No’s Bond might fail. Savour that sensation, as there’s going to be almost none of it over the remainder of the series.

At least in this film, there’s some trade off in as much as even if Bond wanders around with a God Mode cheat code enabled, he may well inadvertently trigger a full on international crisis with his flagrant disregard for Russian embassy territorial sovereignty.  For a globe-trotting superspy, the Great Game doesn’t seem to be high on Bond’s list of priorities. He goes on to tackle a number of one-off SPECTRE backed madmen, but there’s very little political manoeuvring to speak of.

I suppose that’s the difference between Bond and The Ipcress File. It also means the From Russia With Love presents another degree of differentiation from the formula that would go on to be so successful and ultimately repetitive for the series.

As a franchise, Bond isn’t big on supporting characters sharing the limelight. There’s the Bond girls, sure, but until relatively recently those on the side of the Right and Just were more of the damsel-in-distress type than the kickers-of-ass and takers-of-names. The closest we’ve got to a co-hero is the CIA’s Felix Leiter, who’s more often than not a combination of sounding board and phone line to the inevitably fashionably late Marine Corps.

As such, it’s both a delight and shame that Pedro Armendariz’ Istanbul section chief Kerim Bay is reasonably heavily featured and killed over the course of the piece, respectively. Almost as magnetic a personality as Bond himself, I’d far rather have watched a spin-off series starring him than the once mooted, now spiked Jinx franchise expansion starring Halle Berry.

I can’t go quite so far as to agree with Young. While this is still a tremendously enjoyable film, from where we sit there’s more of interest in Dr. No and from a purely dramatic standpoint there’s more danger to get your teeth into. From Russia With Love veers a little too heavily into intrigue, while at the same time being  too over-the-top to be believable. Of course, it’s positively understated compared to later Bond outings, but at this embryonic stage of proceedings it’s still judged against other spy films rather than the now sizable reservoir of Bond movies.

That aside, there’s little else wrong with From Russia With Love, which provides a more enjoyable and arguably far less dated, Soviet bogeyman aside, watch than most of the Brosnan-era Bonds. If, by some unbelievable set of circumstances you have avoided exposure to this film thus far in your life, I recommend that you give it a chance. It should impress you.

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