Sort of Like an Englishman Abroad
With the cinemas out of action I suppose this leaves us free to consider the legacy of some of the great stars who have left us in the course of this very strange year. The news was full of the passing of a very famous figure in British culture a few weeks ago, and it occurred to me that a review of his most famous film would be entirely appropriate. However, whatever your opinion of Bobby Ball, whether as an individual or as the smaller half of Cannon and Ball, their movie outing The Boys in Blue is just a bit too gruelling an experience to contemplate at present (though there's probably a piece to be written on how the career of its director, Val Guest, really depicts the decline and fall of the British film industry in miniature).
So I suppose we shall have to make do by contemplating the career of Sean Connery, that most alpha of alpha-males. There would be something drearily predictable about just doing a review of Dr No, the film that made his name, launched the Bond franchise, and indeed inspired Ian Fleming to amend Bond's back-story (making him part-Scottish in Connery's honour), so let's not do that. Let's do the next Bond film instead (not least because it's one of my favourites).
From Russia, With Love is, of course, the James Bond story which concludes with the death of Agent 007, undone by his own hubris, not to mention a spiked toecap covered in nerve poison. Bond crashes to the floor, struggling for breath, and everything fades to black, thus allowing his creator to get rid of a character he'd grown rather bored by.
I refer, of course, to From Russia, With Love the novel, not From Russia With Love the movie, at the conclusion of which James Bond is as unstoppably lively and priapic as ever. (As it turned out, Ian Fleming's intention to kill Bond off was not followed through in the books, either, and the character went on to feature in several more novels, courtesy of prompt first aid from the French secret service.) There was surely never any intention to retain the ambiguous ending of the book for Terence Young's 1963 movie version, mainly because one gets a strong sense of the producers realising just how good a thing they might be onto here – there's an almost cautious quality about Dr No, the film-makers' message being 'This is a bit different, we think it's quite good', but by the following year they seem much more self-assured: this time round the subtext is 'This is great, you're going to love it.'
One thing which I think is too-little commented upon is the way that several of the early Bond movies arguably improve on the plots of the novels on which they are based. I'm not talking about those instances of the two shooting off in wildly different directions – the novel of You Only Live Twice, after a travelogue start, settles down to being a dark, introspective tale of the death of the self, while the film concerns Blofeld's spaceship-gobbling volcano – but those where the movie script adds just another level of complexity and adventure to the story.
I'm thinking of the nuclear bomb angle in Goldfinger (absent from the novel), and the main thrust of the plot in From Russia With Love. Bond himself (Connery, obvs) is absent for nearly the first twenty minutes of the film (well, a lookalike in a Connery mask gets killed right at the start), which concerns the nefarious machinations of SPECTRE, back when the organisation wasn't run by Bond's long-lost estranged secret adoptive brother (because the series is so much more gritty and realistic these days). SPECTRE are planning on stealing a top-secret Russian cipher machine and then selling it back to the Kremlin, employing an engagingly labyrinthine scheme dreamt up by a Czech chess grandmaster (Vladek Sheybal). The plan involves traitorous former Russian officer Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a paranoid homicidal maniac (Robert Shaw), a home-made blue movie, a winsome Russian file clerk (Daniela Bianchi), and – of course – British Intelligence's most libidinous operative.
The late Kevin McClory's claim to part-ownership of the entire Bond movie franchise, not just Thunderball, was based on the fact that he co-created SPECTRE, which was inserted into movies based on books in which the organisation did not feature. McClory argued that it is the fantasy of SPECTRE which turns the Bond stories from being slightly dour thrillers into something more accessible and fun. SPECTRE doesn't feature in the novel, which revolves around an attempt by the Russian secret service to take their British opposite numbers down a few pegs, but Blofeld and his team are inserted into the script with great deftness, arguably improving the story a lot. Bond and M assume that this is a Russian plan from the start, while the Russians themselves have no idea what's going on either. It's unusual for the audience to be quite so many steps ahead of Bond as they are for much of this movie, and it works rather well in establishing tension, as well as making Bond less of an annoyingly smug superhero.
We're still not quite in the realm of Bond movies as the theatre of the absurd, either – From Russia With Love is a little bit out there with its depictions of Blofeld and 'SPECTRE Island' (just down the coast from Anglesey, no doubt), but most of it is no more ridiculous than the average Jason Bourne movie. The movie is trying to be credible, not incredible, which is why chief heavy Grant (Shaw) isn't a cartoon character like the movie versions of Oddjob or Tee Hee, and more interesting and plausible as a threat.
That said, you can see the elements of the Bond formula coming into focus with this movie, many of which weren't there in Dr No: the pre-title sequence, the catchy theme song, the scene in which Bond is kitted out with handy gadgets by Q (not named as such on this debut appearance, and not showing much personality, either), and so on. The rest of it is the usual mixture of glamorous exotic locations, masculine power fantasy, and action set pieces – though it's telling that the last few action beats of the film are distinctly low-key to the modern eye: a few motorboats catch fire and Bond has a fight with a middle-aged woman. The film certainly feels like it climaxes with the (really well-staged) fight to the death between Bond and Grant.
Connery swaggers through it all with his customary insouciance – in the past I have occasionally observed that I don't think he was an actor with a particularly impressive range, but always very good at projecting this particular type of character. The rest of the support is pretty good as well. Notable Bond girl trivia includes the fact that Eunice Gayson reappears as Bond's girl-at-home (I met her once, 40 years after this film was made, and, do you know – she looked completely different), and Martine Beswick racks up (if that's the right term) another Bond appearance as one of the fighting gypsy girls (she is credited as 'Martin Beswick' in the titles, which gives a wholly misleading impression).
Now, of course, From Russia With Love is closer in time to the end of the First World War than it is to the present day. The Bond films that are made nowadays are different beasts in terms of size, scale, expectations, and tone, but they still owe a huge debt to this film and a few other early 60s Bonds. The film is so much a product of its time that this in itself is a surprise; the fact that it still stands up as one of the very best films in the series is another. But there you go. The Bond series has long since become a legend, and every great legend hides a few mysteries.