21st January 2018
Brady Major takes an in-depth look back at From Russia With Love
By Brady Major
In this fourth part of an in-depth review of 'From Russia With Love', we focus on the Bondian elements and analyze the ingredients for this film's version of the 007 formula.
Gun Barrel Sequence
I love the gun barrel sequence for 'From Russia With Love'. We immediately get a slightly sped-up shot of the Bond theme as the dots race across the screen, then Simmons is spotted, he turns, fires his shot and the blood drips. Afterward, quite magnificently, the booming Bond theme fades into the background like a spy racing to the shadows as the pre-title sequence begins. I love how the fading music here perfectly sets up Grant chasing the SPECTRE agent through the gardens, as it conveys the stealthy mood that scene and the entire film transmits to the viewer.
The pre-title sequence for From Russia with Love is one of the all-time greats for how it plays with expectation and trickery. It’s such a great fake-out to see who you think is Bond being preyed upon by an adversary, and it’s even more intense and shocking to see him come upon by Grant and killed ruthlessly. The reveal that the man isn’t Bond is one surprise twist of many to come in a film jam-packed with them, always leading you to question everything you see on the screen; like Bond, you learn to never take things at first glance. The atmosphere of the sequence is on another level, best exemplified when Grant snaps a twig while tailing the SPECTRE agent and the music booms alongside the crack as the paranoid agent’s head turns to the source of the noise.
The sequence wins points for doing what other Bond pre-title sequences would never dare to do, which is leaving Bond out of the picture entirely to shed a light on the lives and operations of the villains that will be his enemies throughout the rest of the film. At this early stage in the series, there wasn’t the expectation that audiences needed to see Bond as soon and often as possible like there is today with a series 24 films strong. Just two films in, Young and his team could experiment and do things you would never be allowed to see in today’s movie climate. From Russia with Love is a special film because we get to live with the villains as much as our hero, and because of this, we get to set our sights on the training rituals of SPECTRE’s agents as in this sequence and witness first-hand what their hierarchical structure looks and feels like underneath big dog Blofeld. Only From Russia with Love has delivered this, and it’s one of the many reasons why it’s so special.
This section of the film also gives us a window view into Grant’s psyche, offering a sense of just who we’re dealing with here. I’ve always been curious why the agent he’s tracking in his training regime is wearing a mask to make him look like Bond. After all, the man couldn’t readily simulate the exact response time or instincts of 007, so what’s the point of him playing that role? I like to think that Grant requested the mask specifically if only in order to really “feel” the moment of the kill and to adequately prepare for the instant he’d face the genuine article later on. Bond’s legend also looms large inside SPECTRE, known throughout the ranks as the killer of top agent Julius No, so Grant may also be working out any anxiety or untamed excitement he may express at the idea of murdering 007 and avenging a colleague, feelings which could come out as he prepares for the kill. By simulating the death of a man dressed like Bond, Grant may then be desensitizing himself to being around Bond, making the agent feel more like a simple target than a serious threat worth concerning himself with, and far easier to wrestle to silence.
Or he’s just a fruit loop. That could be it too…
When I think about the locations of From Russia with Love, I am instantly transported to the smoky train stations of Zagreb and Belgrade. I can hear my shoes clapping against the ruined stone roads of Istanbul’s districts and hear the echo of my whistles in the wide expanse of its mosques.
As in Dr. No, Young and his team bring alive the sights of Istanbul and truly take us with Bond on his journey. We’re with him as he navigates the Grand Bazaar with its vast color spectrum of opulent quilts and rugs. We go hand in hand with him on the boat as Kerim rows us along the waters of the ancient reservoirs to spy on the Russia consulate. We lick our lips as we sit with Bond, Kerim, and Vavra while the belly dancer gyrates just inches away, giving off an insatiable attraction. Everything feels alive and enchanting.
Istanbul in the days when it was only known as Constantinople was the world center of mass trade for nations from vastly different worlds and cultures, and that massive variety of cultural color is heavily visible in this film. The location feels like a true melting pot, and the vibrant palette of colors we see in the bazaars and the gypsy camp and the gradations of cement grays and smoky whites that paint the train stations evoke a great sense of atmosphere.
Moreover, as vibrant, engrossing and inviting as the locations are, the film also successfully carries a prevalent sense of dread. The atmosphere, these gradations of grays and browns we witness in the many locations and the thick shadows of the Istanbul nights all come together to produce an ominous feeling like Bond could be shot from a faraway corner or crevice at any moment. Nowhere in Istanbul feels safe to travel or take rest, and not just because Grant is likely hiding in wait near every bend in the road or curve of the street.
Above ground or under, the locations of Istanbul and the surrounding areas wear menacing faces that make Bond and his allies feel sensitive to harm, and that compounds the intense danger their landmarks give to the film and Bond’s adventure at large.
For From Russia with Love, the gadgets we see Bond utilize are perfect because they feel like real spycraft items an agent of the day would have on hand in a Cold War climate.
Q’s briefcase is the exquisite main item in Bond’s utility belt, the perfect spying kit for him to have in the thick of the danger he’ll be facing. Its many functions, hidden compartments and booby traps are immaculate, as is the AR-7 rifle resting inside it, a real-life survival weapon still made today by military personnel. Production designer Syd Cain produced this nifty gadget to great effect, Terence Young’s own “Q” on set. The strength of these gadgets is in the fact that they aren’t outlandish or implausible tools that Bond would only use for a very specific trial that the script lazily sends his way through the film. Instead, From Russia with Love sends 007 out into the field with just another gun, a knife, and some local Turkish currency, all locked inside a stylish case that allows our trained killer to mask himself as an enterprising tourist or man on business.
An honorable mention must also go to the cunning little electronic bug detector Bond uses to snuff out the surveillance items in his hotel room while touched down in Istanbul. A staple of the Terence Young Bond films are these little moments where Bond checks out his residence abroad to see if any enemies are listening in or watching him, and his miniature detector is a very organic way to present such a scene in this adventure to show our hero once again snuffing out the traps that have been laid for him.
Like everything in From Russia with Love, these gadgets feel believable, organic and necessary for the unique challenges that await Bond. They also carry greater importance on the plot for how they are used in pivotal character moments that present a real sense of drama through their specific uses. The AR-7 rifle is a go-to weapon to dispatch Krilencu in Istanbul, and also features in the first wave of action sequences that close the film as Bond is tailed by a SPECTRE helicopter. And of course, the attaché case is front and center in the most climactic moment of the film as Bond carefully manipulates Grant into falling for his trap. Like few other Bond films, these gadgets are intensely critical to Bond’s survival, more than mere tools to ease his way or show off a flashy effect, and the dire situations he’s able to escape using them give the many sequences overwhelming danger and drama.
The action in From Russia with Love can best be described by the adjectives messy, economical and brutal. As Bond himself notes in the film, “Let’s just say that Istanbul’s a rough town.” The action we see in this film, and its rough and messy nature, inform this statement well.
The scenes of action we see feature people going at each other like animals to the death, their every punch or kick and squeeze of the trigger designed to end their opponent with extreme effectiveness, post haste. These acts of violence are often brutal and untamed, connecting with the feeling of animalistic savagery From Russia with Love gives off when I watch it. Each sequence of the movie relates to this idea in notable ways.
The gypsy camp fight is one of my all-time favorite action sequences in a Bond film because it ticks the boxes perfectly for messy, economical and brutal conflict. The vivid and rousing sequence plays out much like a Wild West shootout, with chaos unloading as gun smoke covers the torn up and blown out camp space. Bond is a marvel, devilishly navigating himself through it, running all over the place tripping people up, hammering them on the head with his Walther, shooting them center mass from a downed position classic Connery style, and using his environment of carriages, arrows, and knives to effectively sabotage the enemy forces into incapacitation. Sean’s Bond is so much fun to watch in this sequence because he feels like a visibly cunning and effective dispenser of his foes, a true man of action. How the team was able to take what is a short and slightly limp bit of action in the novel and form it into the first big action sequence of its kind in a Bond film must be commended. It’s a raucous filled shoot ‘em up that brings a bit of western flair to the spy genre, anchored by the dynamic nature of the sequence and Bond’s continual fight for survival.
Another short but sweet sequence of action is Krilencu’s death, plotted by Bond and Kerim from the shadows. It’s such a great spy idea on Fleming’s part to have a man hiding behind the guise of a billboard depicting a beautiful woman. It’s also a nice character detail that Kerim is adamant about him being the one to take the fatal shot; he needs to do it on principle to get even for the past attempts Krilencu made to harm him and his family. The build-up to the action thanks to Barry’s score is rich, and the moment is tense until Kerim strains to pull the trigger and we spot the release of relief on his face. It’s a fantastic moment of visual power, as Bond’s body acts as the stabilizing instrument to settle the sniper rifle’s scope. As a friend to Kerim, he literally and figuratively shoulders the weight of the moment and gives the man a shot at revenge.
Other sequences in the film, like Bond’s battle with the rabid copter that follows him all along the gorgeous greens of the countryside is great, as is the boat sequence that leads into Bond touching down in Italy. These sequences can sometimes give you the sense that the filmmakers threw them on to add one last bit of action to the film, but they are cleverly done and don’t overstay their welcome, giving a nice elemental feeling of survival to the film as Bond battles enemies coming from the air and across the water.
But anyone who’s anyone knows that nothing compares to the granddaddy of them all. That’s right, folks, the fight on the Orient Express. The fight that still holds up and always instantly comes to mind when I think of this film and James Bond on the whole because it perfectly transmits the messiness and danger of the world he occupies in the rawest way possible. It is straight-up genius to have a no-holds-barred fight between two alpha male spy killers play out in the cramped compartment of a train carriage. The entire film from the very start builds up to this face-off so that when it finally comes, it’s like viewing a high-stakes boxing bout, instantly cementing itself to the viewer as a vital scene of iconography in the franchise. Like the gypsy camp fight in the film, the team chose to take a short sequence from the book and really expand on it. What is a minor scuffle rushed to Grant’s death in Fleming’s original is made a moody, dynamic and brutal fight for survival that does so much in a cramped train compartment to excite and upset the audience as Bond fights for his life.
When the fight kicks off, it’s pure, unadulterated cinematic magic because of how the script perfectly built to it and the way in which both Connery and Shaw fed the dangerous energy between their characters that explodes in the compartment. Amidst a giant cloud, Bond and Grant do battle like two beasts on the wild plains. The claustrophobic bout is rough and loud, cloaked in shadow and seeped with blood. You can almost feel the slithery sweat flying off their brows, smell the remains of the tear gas choking the air and hear all their concussive grunts as they use just their bare hands to wrestle the life out of each other. We hear every muffled groan and crack of glass, feel every punch, deflection, counter and shatter of bone as the battle plays out in the vibrant blue hues of that darkened space. We strain in our seats and seize up as Bond finds himself in a merciless chokehold like Grant has a wire wrapped around our throats as well, then breathe an exhausted sigh of relief when 007 turns the tables and brutally finishes his opponent. Bond's eventual victory becomes our victory, a celebratory moment of triumph shared of sheer iron will and ingenuity over arrogance and sadism. We all want to prod Grant with verbal repetitions of "old man," if only to pay him back for all the moments he had the gall to label 007 thusly, and thankfully MI6's finest gets the last word in. It truly doesn’t get any better than this.
The predatory nature of From Russia with Love in mood, atmosphere, and feeling is encapsulated best by this iconic train fight, a signature moment of the film and franchise as a whole. It remains a legendary sequence for a reason, over 50 years on.
As with Dr. No before it, the best laughs inside From Russia with Love come in the way of physical humor or in lines of black comedy that Bond and his allies spout during or after moments of extreme fatalism.
A great moment of entertainment happens early when Bond’s hat toss falls flat once he realizes that he’s playing to an audience of two, with M looking on quite indifferent to his attempts at giving Moneypenny a show.
Furthermore, it’s delicious to hear Bond ask, “Who won?” when he sees Kerim’s destroyed hide-out, and even more so later on when he says, “She should have kept her mouth shut,” following Krilencu’s death after the man mounted a failed escape from dear Anita’s chompers. Other favorites are when he says to Kerim, “I’m not mad about his tailor, are you?” after they tie up Benz in his own wardrobe, or the line, “Yes, she had her kicks” that he throws out following Klebb’s demise. I also adore Bond’s delivery of, “Day and night. Go on about the mechanism” as he grows annoyed with Tatiana’s constant requests of lovemaking. I also grin every time I witness From Russia with Love’s Bond/Moneypenny scene, where Bond comforts a jealous Moneypenny by saying, “Darling, Moneypenny, you know I’ve never even looked at another woman.”
My personal favorite moment, however, is when Bond condescends Grant in the train car even in the face of death, asking what lunatic asylum SPECTRE got him out of, and then, once the man is dead, how he spits an “old man” at his corpse for good measure. The scene where Bond and Grant have the former exchange reminds me fondly of the talk Bond and Dr. No have in the first film, where Bond’s disgust at the doctor’s character and his scheme rises to the surface and he can’t resist sending ad hominem attacks his way.
Kerim is also used to good effect in the film as a storyteller who enjoys torturing people with his big mouth, as he does to Benz in the train compartment in a funny moment.
One of the many reasons why I think From Russia with Love is still so well respected, and why it remains timeless, is because of just how real and raw it feels. So much of what we see in this film feels ripped from the history books, and the geo-political fractures in relations feel distinctly Cold War in nature as the tensions between the Brits and the Russians and the Turks and the Bulgars resonate off the screen. Conflict rules the day, here.
Everything depicted in the film is perfect, and I’m never taken out of the action through disbelief in what’s happening. Dr. No carries this same feeling for much of it, but I do admittedly grimace during the radiation bath scene from the sheer implausibility of the moment in the middle of a film that usually feels so straight down the middle and raw. In From Russia with Love, however, there are no moments that leave us wanting for more reality. For my money, it’s the most “real” Bond film we have, and its tight and perfectly constructed spy thriller plot presents geo-political subterfuge that at times feels like a documentary on the Cold War. In fact, Fleming is said to have been inspired to write the original book from a real-life scenario he heard about involving an American intelligence agent who was killed and thrown off the Orient Express by an enemy faction.
The overall plausibility of From Russia with Love’s plot is lent credence by the scheme that is featured inside of it.
From Russia with Love features one of the greatest villain schemes in the franchise, and I am scrambling to find another that matches it. Everything is so finely crafted in this film, from the motivations of SPECTRE, MI6, the gypsies, the Turks, the Bulgars and the Russians all explosively playing off each other. It’s like a western and spy thriller made a baby, giving us a scheme that features groups manipulating each other into fatal ambushes that feels true to real life spy situations. I fully believe something like what SPECTRE is planning here could’ve happened in the midst of the Cold War, where an outside party played nations off one another and planted compromising film to mask their plot under the veil of a gaudy scandal.
I said in my initial character analyses of this film that viewing From Russia with Love is like seeing two master chess masters going head to head, moving their rooks, bishops, knights and pawns across the board to utter conquest, setting up devastating counter-maneuvers and offensive attacks. Watching Bond, Kerim and Tatiana race aboard the Orient Express is like witnessing a maestro shove a queen chess piece up and down the board, just as seeing Bond choke the life out of Grant is like watching a player use his white knight to knock down a black king and claim checkmate.
Part five will cover the cinema craft of 'From Russia With Love'.
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The opinions expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MI6-HQ.com or its owners.