Friday, 18 February 2011

BlogalongaBond / From Russia With Love: The Fight That LITERALLY CHANGED THE WORLD

With Dr. No out of the way and James Bond firmly installed in the cinemagoing public's hearts, From Russia With Love wastes no time plunging us into a labyrinthine Cold War spy thriller. We haven't quite got Bond right yet - playing the crashingly loud theme over a scene of 007 bimbling about in his hotel room is a rare misstep - but this is still both a glorious snapshot of 1960s cinema and a film years ahead of its time.

Before Goldfinger's needle found the series' groove there was still time for subtlety in Bond, and From Russia With Love contains some of the most understated moments in the franchise. Rosa Klebb's terrifying seduction / recruitment of Tatiana Romanova, Red Grant's silent guardianship over 007 for most of the film, Bond's tender squeeze of Kerim Bey's arm when he finds his dead body - all these and more point to writing and direction that rarely felt so confident again until Timothy Dalton took over 24 years later.

Triumphantly, all the sneaking about in the shadows and mumbling secret codes that could have made From Russia With Love a catatonic yawnfest are not just beautifully shot, edited and scored, but are contrasted perfectly with the action scenes - the revolutionary nature of which often goes overlooked. Take the brutal, bone-crunching fight on the Orient Express between Bond and Grant, who, incidentally, is so hard that when he whacks Bond in the chops he momentarily becomes Kenneth Williams.
The fight begins when Bond's standard issue "ordinary black leather case" explodes in Grant's face and ends exactly two bruising, breathless minutes later with 007 calmly straightening his grenadine silk tie and buttoning his Anthony Sinclair suit jacket. Between these two now-iconic elements of Bond lore, several people go to work on one of the greatest fight scenes in Bond - and cinema - history.
As soon as the fight begins, director Terence Young makes three genius decisions. First, he refuses to have music over the fight. He wants us to hear every punch, kick and grunt. Second, he has Grant inadvertently shoot out the light in the carriage, bathing everything in a disorientating, nightmarish moonlight blue. And third, Grant's flailing arm smashes the window, allowing the roar of the train wheels to flood in and heighten the mood even further.

Almost every sound you hear in those two minutes was created by dubbing editor Norman Wanstall and his team of noise wizards. Many of the crashes, bashes and smashes are exaggerated to the point where it sounds like someone shoving a drum kit down a stairwell, yet it never sounds unrealistic. Just very, very painful.
Young rehearsed for two days with Connery, Shaw and stuntmen Jackie Cooper and Peter Perkins to choreograph the scene to within an inch of its life. By the time it came to cut it together, Connery and Shaw had the ballet down so well that only one shot of the stunt doubles was required, and it's almost impossible to tell which shot this is.

Which brings us to editor Peter Hunt. With footage from three cameras at his disposal, Hunt cut the fight like nobody had ever cut a fight scene before. Many of his edits make no sense in isolation or are deliberate jump cuts - watch when Bond shields his face with his arms - but in context they transform the fight from a bog-standard punch-up to a gladiatorial rumble. There are quick cuts to heighten the tension, but Hunt isn't afraid to linger on the odd shot to show how titanic this struggle is. And, most importantly, it's completely possible for the audience to keep up with who's kicking whose ass during the bout - something crucially forgotten during the editing of Quantum Of Solace's fights.
It's no exaggeration to suggest that between them Terence Young and Peter Hunt changed the action genre forever with From Russia With Love. Every on-screen scrap since owes something to those amazing 120 seconds in a tiny set at Pinewood Studios.

It's a proper spy thriller
Made during a particularly chilly part of the Cold War, From Russia With Love is shot through with paranoia, double-crosses and shadow-cloaked deaths at every turn. Everyone's being followed by everyone else, people use ridiculously convoluted recognition codes, and there are hidden cameras and microphones everywhere. It's arguably the only Bond film that could be labelled a "spy thriller" before the series became a genre in itself, making it not just a great Bond film, but a great film full stop.

John Barry's score
"Tania Meets Klebb"

If you've ever skulked about in a Turkish mosque, watched two improbably beautiful gypsy women scratch each other to shreds or stolen a Macguffin from the Russian consulate in Istanbul, this is the music you would have been humming to yourself along the way. Perfect in almost every way.

Red Grant
Where the book's Grant becomes a raving psychopath with every full moon, Shaw sensibly goes for the cool, calculating, brick shithouse approach, setting the template for Bond henchpersons for the next five decades. The way he puts his gloves on before he kills anyone makes me do a little poo.

And finally: All hail the first barely-disguised reference to Little James:

You're one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen.

Thank you, but... I think my mouth is too big.

No, it's the right size... for me, that is.
BlogalongaBond will return with Goldfinger

What the hell is BlogalongaBond? I'll tell you.
Further BlogalongaBondareading here


  1. Amazing work.

    Something I've just thought of - throughout the film, Red Grant is responsible for half of the kills that you'd usually expect Bond to deliver.

    So when these two go mano-a-mano it's properly personal. Bond has to prove himself against the guy who has usurped his reputation. The subtext is positively Neanderthal, which is why the brutality doesn't feel gratuitous. The fight *has* to be dirty.

  2. Incredible work, The Incredible Suit.
    Some more FRWL factoids to guild your incredible lily...

    1 The pre-title sequence of the cat-and-mouse chase in a moonlit garden (Pinewood actually) is a take off from Alan Resnais' L'Année Dernière à Marienbad - the much maligned winner of the Golden Lion at the 1963 Venice Film Festival.

    2 Bulgarian subvillain Krilencu escapes from a hatch set in a giant film poster billboard. In the novel, the film is Niagara starring Marilyn Monroe. In the film, the star is Anita Ekberg (the then wife of 3rd Felix Leiter, Thunderball's Rik Van Nutter) and the film poster is the Bob Hope classic, Call Me Bwana produced by none other than Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman (and Eon's only non-Bond film). You can clearly see their credits on the poster.

    3 John Barry arranged Monty Norman's James Bond Theme for Dr. No. Now ensconsed as the Bond composer, Barry composed the "007" theme in an attempt to create his own royalty stream. From Russia With Love itself was written by Lionel Bart, a fact missed when most people played the tune in tribute to the late and very great John Barry.

    4 The titles for this and the next film, Goldfinger, were created by famed advertising director, Robert Brownjohn (and not usual Bond designer, Maurice Binder). The projections on a belly dancer's body (Nadja Regin) were groundbreaking at the time. Brownjohn, a cinematographer by trade, has a fun in-joke by projecting the credit of the Director of Photography, Ted Moore (who won a BAFTA for the film), on the girl's behind. Title theme artist Matt Monro (managed at the time by future Bond lyricist, Don Black) was dismayed at the premiere (London Pavilion, 10th October 1963) to find the song was not played over the main titles.

    5 The film is significantly different from the book. In the famous train showdown, the removal of Bond's cigarette case put fans of the novel on edge as it plays a key role in Bond's survival. The film introduces Blofeld and SPECTRE but in the novel it was a straight MI6 vs SMERSH fight off.

    6 The boat chase was problematic to film and was eventually captured off the coast of Scotland. The sequence of the rats in the Turkish sewers was problematic as the production procured white rats who were then dusted in cocoa to appear wild and brown. Problem was, the rats kept licking off the cocoa. The sequence was eventually filmed in a garage in Spain.

    7 Mexican actor, Pedro Armendáriz who plays Kerim Bey was dying of cancer so all his scenes were filmed early. Soon after filming ended, he shot himself in hospital. His son, Pedro Armendáriz Jnr, played President Hector Lopez in Timothy Dalton's 1989 Bond, Licence To Kill.

    8 Rosa Klebb was portrayed by Lotte Lenya, the wife of Kurt Weill, composer of Mack The Knife. In the novel, her stiletto-capped shoes are tainted with poison and the novel ends with Bond being stabbed and falling to the floor seemingly fatally wounded. This ending was filmed for Quantum Of Solace where Mr White betters Bond but was omitted from the final cut.

    9 Ian Fleming visited the set a number of times and is rumoured to be in the film (a white jacketed fellow by the line where the Orient Express stops for the rendez-vous). He isn't.

    10 Italian Miss Universe runner-up, Daniela Bianchi, played Tatiana Romanova but her voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford. She subsequently starred with Sean's brother Neil in the best Bond spoof ever, 1967's "Operation Kid Brother" This audacious spoof also starred Eon alma mater Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Adolfo Celi and Anthony Dawson and features a brilliant theme song, "OK Connery" by Ennio Morricone

  3. From The Incredible Suit Written with Love. Brilliant Blog.

    Robert Shaw was good. I loved the notion that only an English gentleman could choose a good wine, forgetting that the continentals were experts while the early Brits were still quaffing ale and meade.

    What I like in all the films is that the enemy agents sent to eliminate Bond each have a superior skill which he overcomes through guile. My favourites are Bambi and Thumper in Diamonds are Forever.

  4. Thanks all. How about we do it all again next month?

  5. The photo of Connery looking through a submarine periscope to see inside a room reminds me of a special visit to the bowels of the Palace of Westminster in pre-televised debate days. No cameras were permitted in the House of Commons Chamber, but the heating engineer needed to know how many were in at any time because more people = more hot air = less power to boiler. Barr & Stroud (now Thales)installed a periscope with an amazing 17 mirrors in the optical path that enabled someone in the boiler room to look down into the chamber from above and pan and tilt. The viewer was like that in a submarine. The mind boggles to think what places were under surveillance by the likes of 007 in pre-cctv days.

  6. Typo - should be 7 mirrors in above anecdote - sorry!

  7. great review. cheers!

  8. You could do an entire blog post just about what happens in trains in Bond movies.

  9. Anonymous, could you divulge your source for this Quantum of Solace ending:
    "8 Rosa Klebb was portrayed by Lotte Lenya, the wife of Kurt Weill, composer of Mack The Knife. In the novel, her stiletto-capped shoes are tainted with poison and the novel ends with Bond being stabbed and falling to the floor seemingly fatally wounded. This ending was filmed for Quantum Of Solace where Mr White betters Bond but was omitted from the final cut."