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From Russia With Love [1963)

James Bond came back to the big screen in his second Eon Productions (Everything Or Nothing) appearance with twice the budget of 1962’s Dr. No.  A smash success, its $2 million budget was heartily recouped (and fast) with $78 million in box office receipts.  Dr. No itself had been a hugely profitable venture at $1.1 million budget and $59.5 million at the box office.  The extra budget was evident (and worth it) even if the profit percentage was less.  It was clear that Eon had a hit series on their hands (and rightly so).

The series starts to stretch out–venturing from author Ian Fleming’s adopted writing retreat of Jamaica to exotic Istanbul.  The gypsy camp scene is particularly memorable and full of the gratuitous sexual aspects which some critics found distasteful as early as the previous Eon Bond production.  Apparently those in charge weren’t listening to the critics, but rather to the theatregoers.

Geography buffs will be happy to have the setting shift to the Cold War locale of Zagreb.  And fans of thrillers and nearly-escaped imbroglios will find high entertainment in Bond’s fistfight with Grant (the SPECTRE agent tasked with killing our hero).  Terence Young does a masterful job of framing the scene with a tension befitting a Houdini stunt.  Just as it seems Bond has no chance for escape, he finagles an opportunity for survival.  Bond’s apparent martial arts skills somehow prevail in the ensuing hand-to-hand combat with Grant.  We find Bond to be a super-human super-spy:  brilliant and physically miraculous.

It is, indeed, in this second installment of the Bond series (the “official” Eon series) which we encounter an absolute whole-cloth lifting of ideas from Hitchcock.  There is no crop duster, but rather a bubble-windowed helicopter which buzzes Bond repeatedly in what might be described as a flattering imitation of (and reference to) North By Northwest.  But Terence Young had a talent of his own and that becomes evident in the boat chase which ends with the once-again-brilliant Bond using a flare gun to ignite the oil-barrel jetsam which had been punctured and leaking petrol before Bond cut them loose to float in the vicinity of SPECTRE’s pursuing attack fleet.

We find in this film many archetypes which would be taken up humorously in the Austin Powers series.  The homely Number 3 (played by Lotte Lenya), the presence of Number 1…always stroking his cat (the man’s face is never seen in the film), etc.  Desmond Llewelyn makes his debut as Q (or, more accurately, head of Q branch).  The innovations were made possible by the largesse of United Artists (working with Eon Productions…even giving Connery a personal bonus which was equal to roughly 200% of the salary he was to make).

It is interesting to note that J.F.K. himself was impressed enough with Fleming’s novel From Russia With Love (upon which the film, of course, was based) that he named it one of his ten favorite books in Life magazine.  The film was the last viewing Kennedy would do in the White House as he was murdered two days after seeing it.

Dr. No’s production designer Ken Adam went on to do production design for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove rather than work on From Russia With Love.  1960 Miss Universe runner-up Daniela Bianchi was cast as the “Bond Girl” Tatiana.  Though Topkapi was considered a potential location for the filming of the gypsy camp, this and most other scenes were actually executed at Pinewood Studios in Britain (mainly to qualify for U.K. government funding assistance).

The many flourishes of the film include the character Kronsteen closely replicating Boris Spassky’s chess match victory in 1960 over David Bronstein.  Indeed, Kronsteen is the mastermind whose plans go awry when they encounter the unaccounted-for intangibles of the incredible James Bond.  Another nod to director Terence Young should be made for his help in choreographing the fight scene between Bond and Grant.  Young was, himself, a boxer while at Cambridge.  That single fight in the train stateroom took three weeks to film.  It really is a memorably evocative struggle.  Young’s own mettle was tested during filming when a helicopter from which he was filming crashed in 40-50 feet of water and sank.  He resumed filming the same day.  Another calamity would befall a filming vehicle when a boat filled with cameras sank in the Bosporus during the boat chase scene.

Once again, the Bond films should not be discounted as mere fluff.  Cambridge man Young managed to have opening credits (by Robert Brownjohn) reference Moholy-Nagy.  I will leave it to the reader to decide if this is as impressive as Hitchcock’s Vertigo opening with geometric shapes attributable to Jules Antoine Lissajous (by way, naturally, of Saul Bass).

J.F.K. saw this film before U.S. audiences as it was not released in the States until 1964.  Meanwhile, critics like Richard Roud continued to level accusations of immorality at the Bond movies upon its release.  At least he acknowledged it as, “fun.”  Indeed.  Several reviewers finally realized that the Bond series in fact had tongue wedged firmly in cheek.  It is cheeky.

Young was indeed doing something similar to the French New Wave in “exploding a genre from the inside-out” to paraphrase James Monaco (the genre in question being “thriller”).  And so it is that the enthusiasm for cinema (whether high art or low brow) should and does live on.  In reevaluating Terence Young and giving such directors as Wes Anderson an invitation to immortality, film history plods onwards by way of thinking…”deeper into movies,” to quote Yo La Tengo quoting Pauline Kael.

 

-PD

 

 

 

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