22nd December 2017
Brady Major takes an in-depth look back at From Russia With Love
By Brady Major
In this is the second part of an in-depth review of 'From Russia With Love', we focus on James Bond's adversaries: Donald 'Red' Grant, Colonel Rosa Klebb, and Kronsteen.
This master calculator played by Vladek Sheybal reminds me very much of Mads Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. His egotism is so pronounced, deliciously so, and I enjoy watching his plans fall under the weight of his miscalculations on account of Bond every time I pop in From Russia with Love. Sheybal really brings out the character of Fleming’s original from the book and his cold indifference expertly; you believe that this man would not only blow off SPECTRE to win his chess match but that he would also sell his family down the river without regret. The brain of SMERSH in the novel, and SPECTRE here is without heart.
Following the pre-title sequence, Kronsteen is the first person we see, and I love how the film opens proper with the chess game he is playing that is very symbolic of the spy game Bond plays, and the trap he’ll be placed in the middle of during the movie with so many moving pieces and moments of checkmate throughout. If there’s any Bond film that feels like watching a chess game played by two maestro players as they move pieces strategically to usurp enemy control of the board until victory is reached, it’s From Russia with Love.
I love how once Kronsteen gets the note and knows he’s expected by SPECTRE, he almost seems to finish his opponent early just to make the appointment. This makes me think that he’s such a skilled chess player that he has to reign himself in to avoid playing his best with lesser opponents just to entertain himself and make the game worth watching for others. His arrogance is mighty. When his death finally comes, it’s magnificent. A simple moment of biting tension arises when he thinks he’s arguing for Klebb’s demise instead of his own in front of Blofeld. He and Bond never meet in person, but I love how 007 still manages to write his death certificate, as indirect an action as it is. Like many villains to come after him, Kronsteen’s sizeable ego was the final nail in his coffin.
Colonel Rosa Klebb
Lotte Lenya is in fine form here as a menacing bitch of a woman, a true metal heel of the Soviet-and now SPECTRE-ranks. Klebb casts a wide shadow for such a diminutive woman, and when she gutturally shouts her orders and whips out that stick of hers, she surprises you with the kind of force she is able to output.
Throughout the film, Klebb is chillingly characterized as an invasive woman. She backs down from nothing and boars her way into the personal zones of others to get the information she needs. Her meeting with Tatiana is the perfect example of this invasive personality. The scene carries a tense and uncomfortable mood as Tatiana’s privacy is demolished and Klebb closes in on her physically and mentally to ensure she has control over the girl and can count on her to follow the orders she’s been given. Klebb uses the mission at hand to weed into Tatiana’s private life, leafing through files that relay to the reader her sexual conquests. The off-putting unease of the scene only increases in severity as Klebb dances her fingers off Tatiana and holds her around the shoulder, invading her space. The look on the innocent woman’s face says it all; it’s not a touch she likes, and subtextually it carries a far darker message. Klebb’s actions seem to say, “I own you now.”
Even creepier is later on in the film when, unbeknownst to Bond or Tatiana, Klebb is having a sex tape filmed of them in secret from behind the bedroom glass. Klebb is locked into the moment, and you can feel her eyes piercing Tatiana in a way that clearly relates her true sexuality and attraction to the woman to the audience. She’s using the sex tape as a perfect opportunity to get off on her kink, in a very uncomfortable and creepy fashion. She’s the pinnacle voyeur Bond villain.
Klebb is so used to being in control, and we never see her out of that environment for the vast majority of the film. When she interacts with Blofeld, however, we see that the dominatrix can, in fact, be dominated. The fear in her eyes and the pools of sweat she expels in front of her master as he seems to be ordering her death is a nice bit of karma for a woman who comes off as untouchable. When the power center shifts, Klebb can be just as compromised and rattled as her own prey.
Klebb’s demise in Italy is a nice finale for the wretched character, though the overacting on Lenya’s part after Tatiana shoots her is somewhat amusing. I still get a bit hot under the collar and feel the tension as Klebb’s knife shoe brushes the legs of Bond as he tries to block her in with the chair. No matter how many times I watch the film, I always worry Bond is about to be struck by the point!
In a film full of immaculate casting, Lenya was just another perfect fit alongside Robert Shaw as Grant, Vladek Sheybal as Kronsteen and Pedro Armendáriz as Kerim Bey. Her performance is spot on, and you can subtly see the invasive nature of Klebb from the original novel coming out in her every word and glance. She brings out the cruel nature of the woman and the literary Klebb’s fascination with torture, and when she speaks to Bianchi’s Tatiana you can hear the same motherly tones that Fleming ascribes to the woman when she interrogates the enemy in order to coerce information out of them. The film didn’t overtly adapt the lesbian undertones of the character beyond her body language, so we don’t see the scene brought to life where Klebb actively tries to seduce Tatiana in a lurid dress. Even still, the script is able to bring those details of the character out in different ways that bent to the censors of the time. What we can’t see of Klebb’s sexual appetites directly we can note in scenes like the filming of Bond and Tatiana’s sex tape, where the character is right there behind the mirror, taking it all in and “getting off.” Even the Soviet’s meeting with Tatiana, laced with so much awkward attraction, shows us who Fleming’s original was thanks to Lenya’s perfect body language. The way she purrs to Bianchi’s Tatiana to undress, how she circles the girl to eye her up and down and how she takes her hand and explores the girl’s body to claim her as her own tells us all we need to know.
If ever there was a performer in a Bond film who acted vastly different from their character in real life, it would be Lotte Lenya. By all accounts, she was sweet and helpful on set, a true professional who shocked her fellow performers by acting the part of the movie’s villain with such genuine conviction. How such a sweet, unassuming woman was able to command the character’s ferocity and fright is a testament to the kind of performer and presence she was. In a fun side story to finish my analysis, it seems that Colonel Klebb followed Lotte for the rest of her life. Following the release of From Russia with Love and the gigantic fame that the Bond franchise would only continue to carry, she admitted that whenever people came up to meet her they would first look toward her shoes, wary of the poisoned blade that could be encased inside. That is movie magic at its finest, and proof that the Bond legend had long crept its way into the imaginations of the populace.
If there’s ever been a perfect adversary in every way to James Bond in this franchise, it’s in the form of the Aryan wet dream known as Donald Grant. This most recent viewing of From Russia with Love only confirmed how much I love this character even more. He’s a predator like Bond, a complete animal with equal skills in resourcefulness, cunning, brutality and ability. The thing that sinks him, however, is his confidence as he gets too complacent with his plan coming to fruition and slips up just enough for Bond to level the field and kill him.
It’s amazing just how much this film does to build up Grant as Bond’s true doppelgänger throughout, reinforcing the idea that these two are perfect matches for each other, leading up to that great face-off between them on the Orient Express. In many scenes, Grant’s suits seem ripped from Bond’s closet, as he rotates through the same repeating wardrobe of gray suits with white or blue shirts and black or blue ties. His style seems heavily picked from Bond’s own, like he’s studied 007 so intensely in order to know how to kill him that he’s unintentionally absorbed some of the spy's style along with his voracious examinations. We know that Grant killed at least one man to get information on Bond before the SPECTRE mission, so it’s not difficult to imagine that he knows the agent so well he’s unconsciously copied his wardrobe in the way I've suggested.
In addition, Grant knew he’d have to pose as a British agent at one point in the mission, so he may have adopted Bond’s British dress sense to fall into that role with greater, more convincing ease. There is evidence of this throughout the film, like when he kills one of the Russian’s spies and leaves the body in the car. After exiting the car Grant walks away in a suit that was designed to give him a British sense style while in Turkey, and he makes sure the people at the consulate see him leave the corpse as he goes. By doing so, he makes the Russians think that MI6 has sent one of their spies to cause trouble, allowing SPECTRE to plant unrest in both nations and set up their Lektor plot. I love the idea of Grant actively aping Bond in this way, like an animal studying its prey so that it can effectively fit into its ecosystem to strike at it when the opportunity is prime. These details are one of the many reasons why this film feels predatory in nature, as it’s packed to the brim with scheming, double-scheming, assassination attempts, mating rituals and more beastly acts than can be readily counted.
As a symbol, Grant carries a feeling of intense danger in From Russia with Love, acting like walking pestilence. Everywhere he goes he casts an ominous shadow, and he rarely leaves anyone who crosses him alive. It’s fitting that Grant is SPECTRE’s blunt instrument, as he haunts Bond’s path throughout like a specter, always in the shadows but acting to make Blofeld’s plan go through. Sometimes he’s Bond’s guardian angel, as at the gypsy camp, and at other moments he’s the ultimate reckoning for the 00. He’s written to be everywhere at once like the ultimate omnipresence, and the cinematography backs up this core idea of the script as we watch Grant slip from shadow to shadow behind Bond to ensure that he stays alive long enough to retrieve the Lektor. How Grant is shot in this film, often depicted lurking unseen behind a Bond who is at the foreground of the frame, makes him feel like the antagonist of a vintage monster movie. From Russia with Love’s cinematography builds the myth of him as a foe just as John Carpenter would go on to do with Michael Myers in Halloween, with shots that never pause on him long enough for us to know him as the aftermath of his violent acts are given the most examination. We see him enter the frame of action, sense that he has acted, and before we know it, he’s gone, leaving nothing but silent bloodshed behind. Throughout all this, a little tick or character trait is added to Grant, as he puts on black gloves before each and every kill he makes. It’s a great visual element that foreshadows to audiences that something vile is about to go down every time he pulls out the gloves and slips them on. This detail of the character’s modus operandi is darkly amusing when you consider the old adage about clean hands. Grant gets his hands dirty without actually getting his hands dirty.
The greatest section of From Russia with Love-and possibly the entire series-arrives when Grant and Bond finally meet under assumed names, and the real chess game between them carries out as both are in the position to checkmate. With Nash dead and the secret MI6 code words known to him, Grant tries to perform as a British man to fool Bond into trusting him. His attempts can at times feel dire as he shows peeks of his hand, and the tension builds as he says one “old man” too many in the train car, his excitable energy coming out. Bond becomes increasingly aware of something “off” about him, best eclipsed by the little moment where he spots Grant slipping something into Tatiana’s drink as the trio share a dinner. In this scene, in particular, Grant’s attempts at seeming British by being overtly British is almost painful to watch. If he’d kept his cool and calmed down a bit in his performance, Bond would’ve played effortlessly into his hand, but his overconfidence makes him slip up underneath the mask he’s trying to wear, which the 00 sniffs out with ease. I like this detail about his character because in real life someone pretending to be a certain kind of person convincingly will act with a greater, more exaggerated degree of personality in order to sell it, often showing their hand. How Grant acts here and the tactic he uses to appear British offers us a great window into his psychology.
When Grant finally makes his move and has Bond on his knees, it’s clear that he really has it in for 007, like it’s personal. He was a great pick by SPECTRE for the Lektor mission, as he has studied Bond well and gets a kick out of stringing him along, making him wait for death and condescending him by referring to him as, “the great James Bond.” An amalgam of envy and disgust coats his words. Grant sets himself apart as a Connery Bond villain in this scene because he refuses to treat Bond as an equal, showing him no respect or courtesy beyond allowing him one last cigarette, which he still demands payment for. This man wouldn’t serve Bond a five-star meal at his private lair or treat him to a game of golf, oh no. Grant is razor focused on his mission and the hell he wants to unleash on Bond for meddling with SPECTRE, ending 007’s suffering only when the spy crawls over to kiss his foot. All this tension builds perfectly to their fight, which remains an all-time high for the franchise. Bond and Grant finally get to face-off after all the teasing and the payment in thrills is high as the entire film has been steadily building to it from the very beginning.
Overall, Grant gets a seriously high mark as a villain because he’s one of the only people who has come so very close to actually killing Bond. 007’s fear while in Grant’s crosshairs is palpable, and the man worked with surgical precision to get Bond and the other “pawns” in the film to play into his hand like a true chess master in the league of Kronsteen. He’s a disconcerting and spine-tingling presence, so effective and seemingly unstoppable in his ability to wreck all the best-laid plans of Bond and his allies. With nothing but a gun, garrote wire and light footsteps, Grant is able to put the wrench in Bond’s escape, murder his ally, secure the Lektor and bring him closer to death than he’s seldom ever been before. It’s hard not to respect his efficiency, despite the fact that he’s the king of sadists and crown prince of twisted hedonists.
In his performance as Grant, Robert Shaw is a magic mix of strength, danger, brutality, coldness and cunning. It’s funny that he would go on to star in Jaws as the hunter of the undersea beast, because From Russia with Love casts him as a predatory shark preying on Bond at every turn, often to the tune of tense music not unlike John Williams’ iconic theme for the film in question. No surprise, Shaw is the ultimate and perfect foil to Connery’s Bond, expertly playing to the same strengths as his acting partner. To watch the pair subtly pit their presences against one another while riding on the Orient Express is a renewed thrill no matter how much I watch this film - which is a lot - and that’s all down to the acidic chemistry they shared. There’s such a raw and sick energy to Shaw’s performance throughout, and I can feel my spine chill to an icicle as Grant picks up the sex tape he’d filmed of Bond and gives that devilish smile of his that tells us all he needs to know about the pleasure he takes in his job. Acting opposite him, all of Sean’s retorts are explosive as he perfectly transmits Bond’s overt disgust in the face of Grant’s inhumane scheme. It’s hard to tell at which point his spiteful hatred and subtle envy for the man meet. The chemistry that links both actors and the genuine interactions they are able to fake is the ultimate payoff of the film and the greatest source of its rewatchability. For From Russia with Love to be half as classic as it is, Connery and Shaw needed to feel like true and unrivaled alpha males competing for top prize, and never do either falter.
Despite the film not adapting Ian Fleming’s original backstory of Donald Grant and his werewolf-like tendencies to slip into mad violence during moonlight nights-likely at the orders of censors who found the content from the novel too strong for audiences-Shaw is able to subtly bring out all this man is full-stop. We can sense the man from the novel in every quiet look Shaw gives, from Grant’s near inhumanness, his high thrill for killing, and his temper quick to burn hot as he is unsettled by a man better than him. Shaw’s performance expertly creates the picture of the man Fleming created, so much so that reading the book before seeing the movie can inform so much of what you see on screen, the match is made so perfect between the cinematic and literary interpretation. You’d believe that Shaw’s Grant would need to hide himself away in the woods with a bottle of whiskey in hand to stave off his bloodlust, and in his disgust around James Bond, a man he holds in contempt, we can sense his hatred of the British that drove his defection to Russia in the first place.
Seeing Shaw’s pitch-perfect performance and how so much of what he does on the screen feels informed by the original text and the motivations of Grant that we never properly learn about, it makes me wonder if he read the novel to prepare for the part. The movie keeps Grant a mysterious force beyond featuring a blurb from his confidential file, and I think that was done to build up his strange, almost otherworldly danger. He comes off as a man without emotion like he isn’t of our species, and because we don’t know his origin he quite easily feels of the “other.” This all being said, it’s a treat to compare the text of Fleming’s novel to the performance, to see all the notes of characterization that Shaw was either consciously or unconsciously able to bring off.
For a series that has pit James Bond against his cat-stroking Moriarty bent on world domination and has brought him on a collision course with a metal-mouthed giant, a space-roamer hungry for genocide and billionaires willing to use dirty bombs to boost their coffers, one of the agent’s greatest threats came from a simple hitman with an even simpler plan. For this very reason, Robert Shaw will never be forgotten for his work here as the ultimate and archetypal Bond henchman in the form of Donald Grant, with many imitators but no worthy successors.
After getting a tease of the SPECTRE conspiracy in Dr. No, in From Russia with Love we see the face-er, I mean the hands, of the terrifying organization the late doctor threw his lot in with. Anthony Dawson in body and Eric Pohlmann in tone usher Ernst into cinematic history in the character’s debut here, with the former stroking a cat with the delicate touch of a master tactician and the robotic, ominous tone of the latter sending shivers up the spine. As Blofeld explains his plan to snatch the Lektor, using swimming fish as models for his pawns, we get a clear idea of just what kind of man we’re dealing with here. There’s a silent menace he carries, and an even more silent fear he maintains in his every scene.
Blofeld feels similar to Grant in that they both hang from the shadows and wait to properly shift pawns in directions that will best serve their ends. Blofeld’s voice makes you uneasy, and I like the contrasting image of him delicately petting his cat while he discusses vile schemes to come, a great instance of visual dichotomy. He’s every bit as cunning and stealthy as his pet, that much is certain.
Part three will cover 007's friends and allies in '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.