Twelve seconds. One day we must invent a faster-working venom.
The earliest film of the venerable action series included in MGM's final wave of Bond releases, From Russia With Love has the expected level of extra material but is somewhat letdown by a lackluster picture and a soundtrack that shows its age and its limited range.
Still this is one of the very best of all the Bond films and is a disc well worth spending time with.
Facts of the Case
For the second adventure of James Bond, Agent 007, Producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman brought back almost the entire production staff of the previous year's hit, Dr. No.
Once more Screenwriter Richard Maibaum kept things true to the source material, Ian Fleming's novel, " From Russia With Love." Sticking closely to the text, with the main change being the addition of the terrorist organization SPECTRE to the mix, the film is about the manipulation of both the Soviet and the British governments by SPECTRE. At the center of it all is the Lektor decoding device, a machine that both MI 6 and SPECTRE wish to get their hands on.
Using a beautiful Russian clerk named Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) as bait to lure Bond (Sean Connery) into the fray, SPECTRE sends its best killer, "Red" Grant (Robert Shaw) into the field to put things into motion, to act as Bond's guardian angel when needed and finally to remove 007 from the world sending a message to MI 6 and getting revenge for Bond's elimination of SPECTRE's operative Dr. No the year before.
Pulling the strings, SPECTRE allows 007 to do all of its work for them, waiting until the last minute to sweep in and claim their prize. It goes without saying that it is wise to never underestimate the agent with a license to kill and with the help of his contact Karim Bay (Pedro Armendariz), not to mention the first in a long line of Q branches helpful gadgets, Bond proves that he is much more than just a man with a number.
From Russia With Love sits in an interesting place in the Bond franchise. Immediately following the first film which established a great deal of what the movies would become and arriving directly before Goldfinger, the installment which would take that groundwork of the previous two episodes and turn it into a much copied formula.
In many ways I find From Russia With Love to be the best of all Connery Bond films and easily on the strongest in the entire cycle of movies. The film has even more style than Dr. No, with Connery much more in command of the suave aspects of the character, yet it possesses a much grittier and harder edge than does Goldfinger.
If the third movie in the series gave audiences the slickness that is still found today, From Russia With Love was the last time a Bond adventure had this much tension and as much a feeling of everything happening for the first time. Before Bond became Superman or before Roger Moore made him a karate-chopping jokester, there was a feeling of genuine danger present in the movies.
There is no way scenes like the classic fight onboard the Orient Express between Connery's Bond and Shaw's Grant would carry as much weight or in-your-face excitement today. It is a forgone conclusion that Bond will emerge virtually unscathed, with a witty aside as the villain du jour is dispatched. This is, of course, no ones fault. The producers know a successful formula when they have one and the public, of which I am one, seem willing, if not eager to accept the limitations inherent in a long running series of movies, willing to wait in line to see basically the same thing over and over again every few years.
It is for those reasons I suppose I so enjoyed Timothy Dalton's two Bond entries. They were the same in the right ways while bringing something different, something much closer to the spirit of the original novels that had not been seen in such a very long time to the table. A certain street level hardness, a certain edge that had not been seen since the original films and more specifically since From Russia With Love. I have stated for years that Connery may have established the character and made it his own but the way Dalton played Bond was the way Fleming wrote Agent 007
In many aspects Young was the basis for which Connery used to create Bond. He was urbane, witty, had impeccable taste and was by all accounts a great fan of the ladies. Going as far as taking Connery to his own tailor so the clothes would look right, Young stands right behind Ian Fleming himself as giving the world the definitive vision of what Bond could and should be.
As a director Young had a great eye for the dramatic, staging all his set pieces with supreme aplomb, yet never forgetting to detail the actions of the characters, making the performances human, thus increasing the overall tension.
It was with the great assistance of Peter Hunt (The Impress File), that Young's vision was achieved. Hunt's sharp, jarring cuts gave the movies an internal rhythm that was for the period, groundbreaking. There is an immediacy do his work that is able to draw the viewer in and still casts a powerful spell today. Once more all anyone has to do is look at the train sequence to see what a master of the craft Hunt is. Every blow given and received is translated to the viewer with total and instant impact. It is top notch work and with every frame it is easy to see why Hunt got his own shot at the director's chair with On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
For many people Sean Connery was, is and shall always be Bond. It is without question the role which made his career and in many ways it was a role that defined manhood for a generation. Calm, confident, sexual, with a dark sense of humor and with a hint of cruelty, Connery totally inhabits the character. It is a testament to just how good he was in the part that everything about it works to this day, seeming both fresh and exciting.
If the movie had a real challenge in living up to its predecessor, it was equaling the splash made by its female lead. Of course Dr. No had the advantage of showcasing the stunning Ursula Andress as Honey Rider, the object of Bond's affections. The image of her coming out of the water, wet and glistening was somewhat of a cultural touchstone and a hard thing to follow up. If Bond represented what men worldwide wanted to be, Andress represented the ultimate in female sexuality and the supreme male wet dream.
From Russia With Love offers up the beautiful, if somewhat bland former Miss Italy, Daniela Bianchi. While she does not have the raw sexual nature that Andress did, Bianchi does have her own charms. There is a certain innocence, a child like quality that makes her time onscreen very pleasing. The movie also has fun with reversing her role and playing with the conventions of the spy thriller. The seducer, Romanova becomes the seduced. It is also great hearing from Miss Bianchi in the disc's "Inside From Russia With Love" feature. She proves to be quite engaging and still very lovely.
In the role of Bond's helper, who will eventually meet an untimely end is the great Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz. As Kerim Bay Armendariz gives a remarkable performance filled with humor and a great feeling of steely resolve. That performance is made all the more amazing when it is discovered that Armendariz was diagnosed with terminal cancer during the films production. The man could barely walk by the time his final scenes were to be shot but he managed to stay alive to complete his work on the film. If there is anything to the thought of going out on a high note, Mr. Armendariz certainly exited in style.
Discussion of From Russia With Love would not be complete if I did not mention the movies two main villains.
As former KGB official and current number 3 in SPECTRE, Lotte Lenya (Semi-Tough, Threepenny Opera), shines as Rosa Klebb. Young gave Lenya quite a lot of freedom in creating the image of older female evil. She is cold and calculating yet also angry, border lining on insane. It is a tribute to the way the movie builds her up doing the course of From Russia With Love that her battle with 007 carries as much weight as it does. A tip of the hat goes to Mr. Young and Ms. Lenya for also exploring the character's lesbian nature. The scene where she gets Bianchi's character to believe she is working for the state is filled with about as much longing and lust as we are likely to see, even in today's almost-anything-goes Hollywood mentality. This is of course not to say that all lesbians are evil, or any lesbians for that matter. It is simply another layer of the character, and certainly one that fit into the author Fleming's world view.
As Bond's dark guardian angel and stalker Robert Shaw (A Man For All Seasons, The Sting) offers up great work and stands in the pantheon of Bond villains as one of the very best. Everything about Shaw's work is chilling and dangerous. His character has a great deal in common with Christopher Lee's in The Man With The Golden Gun, in that he can be viewed as the flip side to Bond. Efficient, smart and certainly possessing his own degree of sexuality, Shaw presents the case of what Bond could be like if he gave into evil's temptations and left the side of the angels.
True to form, Bernard Lee is back as M, and Lois Maxwell returns as the ever-longing Miss Moneypenny. From Russia With Love also marks the first appearances of two longtime Bond supporting actors.
Walter Gotell would make the first of seven Bond films with FRWL, this time as Morzeny, a SPECTRE henchman and later he would be seen as KGB chief General Gogol. He is a distinctive performer and always a welcome presence.
But the really important thing is that this is the first time Desmond Llewelyn would walk Bond through the movie's various gadgets as Q or as all true fans know, Major Boothroyd. It is a minor appearance in From Russia With Love but one that would, of course, grow with each action opus.
This being part of MGM's crown jewels, it goes without saying that the red carpet is rolled out for the supplemental material.
The disc starts out with those great looking Bond navigation menus that have become a trademark for the DVD releases. Here it is no different, they look fabulous and are easy to use.
As has become MGM's custom, there are two documentaries. One focusing on the movie at hand and the other on a person of some degree of importance to the Bond film franchise.
"Inside From Russia With Love" is once more narrated by John Steed himself, Patrick Macnee and as always is as fact filled as it is fun to watch. A great many of the series' principals are heard from, with a highlight being Producer Michael Wilson actually wearing a different suit from all the other interview sections. Seriously though, the feature goes into great detail about the movie's production and the difficulties it faced. As such, it is well worth the 30+ minutes.
The second documentary is called "Harry Saltzman: Showman" and features the film franchise's CO-producer. The man described comes off sounding like a modern day P. T. Barnum, not saying that it is a bad thing. I for one had no idea he was involved with the classic film Look Back In Anger. It is a pretty effective piece of fluff biography and stands as one of the better of the series.
The disc also features a group commentary track that is moderated by Bond historian, David Naylor. The track is informative, entertaining and easy to listen to. While quite a few people are heard from, it is Naylor, Director Young and Editor Hunt who get the most air time. One of the better commentaries from the Bond movies, it is an excellent mix of just about everything, anyone needs to know about From Russia With Love.
Also included is an animated storyboard sequence that is kind of cool, some period theatrical trailers, original promotional trailers, radio spots (which while corny, I always find myself enjoying) and let's not forget the famous, er, infamous MGM collectible "making-of" booklet.
As a side note to MGM on the booklet. When you give the public as a feature laden DVD as you do with the Bond movies, your booklet serves as the cherry on top of the cake, thus being a good thing.
When, however, you give us your usual bare bones discs that cherry becomes the entire meal and I for one am always left hungry. That is a bad thing. Read into that what you will MGM.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Now the bad part. As with the Dr. No DVD MGM has cropped the film's original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 down 3% to 1.78:1. While not a massive deal to me, especially considering it is better than the 1.85:1 that the movie has probably been shown with in the past and when I finally get my 16x9 television I'm sure I will be thrilled to have no black bars. Still it is something worth noting.
My main problem with the disc is with the condition of the print used. If you look at the movie's opening sequence, a tribute to the feverish imagination of Harry Saltzman BTW, you will notice just how dirty the print is. Pops, white dots and scratches abound. Granted it gets somewhat better as the film moves on but still, as one of the crown jewels of MGM's most important film property, should not the time have been taken to restore the elements, making it the best presentation of From Russia With Love possible?
Otherwise the image is acceptable. There is certainly an overall softness but that may be somewhat indicative of the period. Colors are generally pleasing, appearing both life like and natural. Blacks and shadow detail have great clarity and depth with there being little shimmer or breakup visible.
It is not a bad job, certainly better than most of what a company like Image or WinStar throw into the marketplace but I was hoping for much more.
Second disappointment is the movie's Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono soundtrack. Once more, its not bad, it is just not that good. Dialogue, music (one of John Barry's earliest scores) and sound effects are all well mixed but sound thin and lacking warmth. Background distortion has been cleaned up fairly well, although the track does show off some of its age in that area as well.
As a movie, well From Russia With Love is one of my favorite Bond action/adventures, so I don't have any complaints there. If I were a radical feminist, it might be a different story.
One of the very best of the Bond movies is a great place to start for any 007 novices out there. The gadgets and witty wordplay are held to a minimum with the movie instead relying on a plot that is tight as a snare drum, great performances across the board and some truly beautiful Bond women.
If you are already a Bond fan you hardly need my recommendation and probably have the entire box set on pre-order.
Be aware though, this is one of MGM's lesser efforts on the audio/video end of things. It is hardly unwatchable, it just could have been so much more.
From Russia With Love is acquitted of all charges. MGM executives are sentenced to 60 days of street cleaning for not spending more time taking the garbage out of the source material.
That is all I have. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Terence Young and Members of the Cast and Crew
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