Take a look back at how one member of the UK press received James Bond's second adventure, 'From Russia With Love', some 50 years ago
Laughing it off with Bond: Films by Penelope Gilliatt, The Observer, Oct 13, 1963
The sequence before the credits of Terence Young's From Russia With Love is so good that anyone but the James Bond filmmakers might be frightened they couldn't top it.
The scene is a maze at twilight, in a grand garden that looks faintly like a joke about "Marienbad." Sean Connery as James Bond, in a dinner-jacket, of course, is being tracked, around the topiary work by a lemon-haired killer, alarmingly well played by Robert Shaw. In less than two minutes the killer has caught Bond, pulled a wire out of the side of his watch and strangled him with it. End of the film, you would think. The twist that keeps our hero alive deserves some sort of medal.
The remarkable thing is that the film does manages to keep up its own cracking pace, nearly all the way. The set-pieces are a stunning box of tricks. There is one on the Orient Express and one in an Istanbul mosque, and one on a hill where Bond is attacked by helicopter, like the famous scene in Hitchcock's "North By Northwest." The way the credits are done has the same self-mocking flamboyance as everything else in the picture. They are laid over close-ups of belly-dancing - Bond lands up in Turkey - with the names getting buffeted by big Turkish hips shaken up around Turkish navels.
But after that the film goes bang into an extraordinary scene during an international chess tournament that seems to be being play in somewhere like the Doge's Palace in Venice, with flunkeys moving giant models of the chessmen and a Czech contender suddenly getting a sinister message written on a coaster underneath his glass.
Bond is on an assignment to steal a piece of equipment from the Russians. His real enemies, though he doesn't know it, are not the Russians but Spectre, an international crime syndicate that runs a training course in murder at a stately home behind the Iron Curtain. 007 sets out with a briefcase equipped by the British Secret Service with a talcum powder tin filled with tear-gas, a knife that flicks out at the side, 50 gold sovereigns in hidden pockets and a gun with an infra-red sight.
The film is full of the characteristic Ian Fleming merchandise detail. For breakfast Bond orders yoghourt, green figs and black coffee, and for dinner on the train he has blanc de blanc. He says about a dangerous Russian that he's "not mad about his tailor." The producers add an in-joke of their own when they use as a prop a giant poster of Anita Ekberg in one of their own films, "Call Me Bwana." While Bond keeps the poster in his intra-red gun-sight an enemy comes crawling out of a window hidden between Anita Ekberg's teeth. Bond picks him off, and says dryly that she should have kept her mouth shut.
The Bond films are brilliantly skilful. Among other things they seem to have cottoned on to a kind of brutal flippancy that is a new voice of the age, the voice of sick jokes about the Bomb and gruesomes about Belsen. Sociologists worry about the seductiveness of the lies in the films, but when audiences surely respond to more is the mockery in the lies. People understand perfectly well that the Bond films are telling them a string of whoppers: this is what makes them laugh. Everyone knows that the typical spy is probably a cold, frightened man living in a semidetached house in Ruislip, manipulated by his Whitehall bosses and disowned as soon as his foot slips: the invention of a spy who is never needy, never outwitted and never lonely is a grim piece of sarcasm. So is the pretence for a couple of hours that an international crime syndicate is more frightening than any real element of the cold war.
The course-grained humour in "Dr. No" was the best thing about it. The new picture has less of it, as though someone were worried that the sadism has gone beyond a joke - as indeed it probably has. By the time you get to Lotte Lenya as a desperate lesbian spy disguised as a maid, flicking a poisoned knife out of the front of a vile, square-toed walking shoe and kicking wildly around James Bond's groin, you feel the sadistic invention is growing strained, to put it mildly. As Bond himself says weakly at some point, trying to spike your guns by saying it for you: "Must be a pretty sick collection of minds to dream up an idea like that."
I think myself that the reason why "From Russia With Love" begins to slip off the rails halfway through is that Bond is made to look too thick-headed. There is a long sequence when he is a good 20 steps behind the opposition: you start to be more interested in the killer, who obviously has him on toast. Heroes in this sort of film can't afford not to be bright. You have to be able to admire heroes for something, and you can't exactly admire Bond for his character. I wish he thought his way out of more situations, instead of always kicking his way out.
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