Tuesday, September 6, 2011

From Russia With Love

 From Russia With Love was the second of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels adapted to film. But like Dr. No it wasn't the first of the Bond novels, ( being the 5th Fleming wrote in 1957 ), and was followed funnily enough by Dr. No!! The reasoning behind the decision to make FRWL after Dr. No was down to something as simple as President John F. Kennedy naming it one of his top 10 books of all time. Previously the novel  hadn't been particularly successful in the US, but after JFK's list sales sky rocketed. Hence Albert Broccoli decided to cash in on the novel's success and adapt it to film. ( Another side effect of the film's success saw sales of the novels between 1962-67 alone in the region of a staggering 22 million copies world wide!! ).

 The sad thing about JFK's inadvertent endorsement is that FRWL ( in a remarkable twist of fate ), was the last film he ever watched, on the 20th November 1963. After the huge success of Dr. No United Artists approved a sequel, and in the process doubled the budget to $2 million. When released FRWL out grossed Dr. No ( besides running over budget and schedule ), and was both a commercial and critical success. It is now regarded as the best film of the franchise, with no less than Sean Connery himself stating it as is his personal favorite. Fellow Bonds, Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig, also consider it their favorites, as does Barbara Broccoli. Albert Broccoli himself likes it alongside Goldfinger and The Spy Who Loved Me.

 As a Bond film it was the first that started what came to be essential elements in all future films of the franchise: a pre-title sequence, a Bond gadget, a theme song with lyrics, a postscript action scene after the main climax, a helicopter chase ( in all films bar The Man With the Golden Gun ), and the line 'James Bond will return/ be back' in the credits. Because the film is regarded as the best subsequent producers state they have all tried to make a FRWL, but always end up with a Thunderball!!

 For me though as with Dr. No the film's success comes down to the fact that the novel is one of Fleming's best. I certainly consider it so rating it the 4th best he wrote. Either way it follows that the better novels have all made for the better films. Here FRWL's  film adaptation, besides that of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, is the one that possibly follows the novel most closely. There are changes in FRWL but they are still very much in essence of the novel.

 For instance because the novel was very much a Cold War thriller the producers wanted to avoid political undertones, SMERSH was substituted for SPECTRE. In the novel SMERSH wants to create a political stir in the West by killing off James Bond. The lure of the Lektor is the same and the motivation behind it is similar, in that Spectre wants revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No. If you have read the novel the film's premise is similar but avoids the purely Russian angle of SMERSH. One thing about the SMERSH angle in the novel is that it takes up an entire 100 pages of a 300 page novel! For me the Russian part of the novel is some of the best writing Fleming ever did.

This re-writing of SMERSH into SPECTRE is really the only major change in the novel. Virtually everything else we see in the film is the same as in the novel. Minor changes though included 'Red' Grant saving Bond's life on several occasions.  Bond and Rosa Klebb's fight is changed from Paris to Vienna, where Klebb is killed before stabbing Bond as she does in the novel ( from which the novel ends with him seriously ill ). The film though adds in other elements. If the film was a pure adaptation it would be actual rather short as Fleming's novels were quite brief in nature. The producers added in the helicopter and speed boat scenes to flesh out the film length wise, as well as add a dramatic quality the novels didn't have as such.

 The only other notable change from the novel is that Fleming's views of the Turks is thankfully dropped. In the novel he calls them a race with 'cruel eyes', and expounds some other of his repugnant racist views. The best thing the producers ever did was to omit this garbage of Fleming's. Interestingly author Len Deighton was initially employed as the screen writer, but he was sacked due to a marked lack of progress, and the script was written by those who wrote Dr. No's.

 Changes aside out of political necessity, logistics, and for fleshing out/dramatic reasons, the characters are very much those of the novel. Two of them in particular rolled over into two very inspired castings. Robert Shaw as the psychopathic killer 'Red' Grant is a particularly brilliant piece of casting. Initially British stuntman Joe Robinson was considered for the role before it was given to Shaw ( Robinson appeared later though in Diamonds Are Forever at Connery's insistence ). Shaw actually lifted weights for the role and wore lifters to give himself more height.

 I think he is superb as Grant. If anything he presaged  his, The Sting performance, as the menacing Doyle Lonnegan. He played the type well throughout his career, and in FRWL he puts in a memorable, chilling performance. Shaw more than captures Fleming's image of Grant. Interestingly the fight between Grant and Bond on the train took three weeks to film. Both actors actually performed most of the scene themselves. Terence Young the director was a former boxer at Cambridge and choreographed the scene himself. It is well edited to when you compare it to the poorly edited fight scenes in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service (of which I commented on in my recent review ).

 Lotte Lenya is also an inspired piece of casting like Shaw's. As Rosa Klebb, Lenya captures her repulsive character perfectly. She is no less likable in the novel. And here again one of Ian Fleming's less savoury fantasies has been erased from the film. Remember the Bond films have always been projected as family entertainment, so much of Fleming's 'fetishes/fantasies had to be omitted to accommodate this. In FRWL Klebb tries to lure Tatiana Romanova into a lesbian tryst after her interview/mission briefing with her. Suffice to say Fleming paints a vivid picture of the repulsive Klebb in a short slip, with Tatiana  running screaming from the room once she realises what she wants!! This interview is played out in the film with only a subtle hint of lesbianism from Klebb in her comment, 'You are certainly a fine looking girl'. Readers of the novel wouldn't be able to suppress a shudder at the comment, let alone the mental image it brings to mind!!

  Pedro Armendariz is also well cast as Turk Arim Bey on the recommendation of legendary director John Ford, ( even though he was Mexican by birth! ) But there was a sad note behind the film because during filming he was diagnosed with in-operable stomach cancer. Filming was terminated in Turkey and returned to England with his scenes brought forward. Although in considerable pain he worked for as long as possible before he committed suicide. Further scenes needed a double, and even Terence Young stood in for him in at times.

 Daniela Bianchi was a 1960 Miss Universe runner up and supposedly cast as Connery's personal choice. You can't blame him can you??!! Of Italian birth she undertook English lessons for the role, but like Ursula Andress in Dr. No her voice was later dubbed over. She may be the best looking of all the Bond girls. Interestingly her bedroom scene was used as her screen test with Anthony Dawson standing in as Bond ( Dawson played Dent in Dr. No, and is the unseen Blofeld in FRWL, even though his voice is not used ). That very scene has been used since for the casting of all prospective Bonds and Bond girls. Also notice this was 1963, and yet we get a very clear, albeit brief ( bugger!! ) shot a completely nude Bianchi and her beautiful bum. Most unusual for the early 1960's, and surprising it wasn't censored out.

 Bianchi later on in her career starred in a Bond spoof called Operation kid Brother ( or OK Connery, and even Operation Double 007 ) alongside Sean Connery's brother Neil!! It was one of her last films before retiring and marrying an Italian shipping magnate. As of writing she is  69 with one son.

 A short word must also be said about the first appearance of Q. In FRWL he isn't actually called Q, instead he is Major Boothroyd from Q Branch. Major Boothroyd is a carry over of the character from Dr. No, but the actor who portrayed him in that film was unavailable. Desmond Llewellyn accepted the role due to his being a fan of the Bond comic strip in the Daily Mail. Major Boothroyd is named after a British arms expert who Fleming approached to help with weapons aspects of his novels. He wrote in the character Boothroyd as a thank you, which is a common element of Fleming's writings, as he often used real names from his private life for characters, ie Scaramanga, an old Eton friend. Of course Major Boothroyd became Q and the rest is history, as Llewellyn went on to star in all but two of the pre-Daniel Craig films.

 Sean Connery of course returned as Bond, even receiving a bonus of $100,00, on top of his $54,000 salary. It is rumored that Ian Fleming has a small cameo in the train station scene. He did arrive on set and there are stills of him at the station, but it isn't substantiated if he is in the film or not. Some of the off screen dramas are interesting too. For instance the moves in the chess match are those from an actual masters game! During the speed boat scene Terence Young's helicopter crashed into the water, but fortunately all on board received minor injuries, with filming resumed the next day. The scene was initially shot in the Bosporus, but when a boat full of cameras sank due to rough seas, it was transferred to Scotland. Even yummy Daniela Bianca didn't escape, as she was injured when her driver fell asleep whilst driving her to the set. She received facial injuries and filming was halted for three weeks for the injuries to clear up. The explosion of the boats was recorded in Pinewood studios and injured three workers!! So it is no wonder the film ran over budget and schedule!!!

 One aspect of the Bond films that is often overly looked is that Alfred Hitchcock was initially considered to direct them. I think he was dropped as it was felt he was too much his own man, and would have taken the films in a direction not in keeping with the novels, or producers wishes. It would certainly have been interesting as Hitchcock and Bond are almost tailor made for each other! In homage though it must be remembered that Hitch chased Cary Grant around with a crop duster in North By Northwest, and Bond's 'copter chase is a direct copy of that famous scene.

 Is From Russia With love then THE best Bond film of them all?? After watching Dr. No the other day I thought my mind may have changed, but somehow it is hard to disagree. Why?? Because as I stated in that review the best of Fleming's novels translated into the better films. It sounds oxymoronic but just consider that The Spy Who Loved Me has NOTHING in common with the novel and is considered one of Roger Moore, and the franchise's, very best. I think with FRWL Connery as Bond played him nearer to the novel Bond. He is darker, grittier and less lighter in nature than in Dr. No, which is in keeping with the novel.

 FRWL is also the first to introduce the famous Bond gadgets. In the novel Bond does get a briefcase issued as in the film. This is the only time in the novels thought that he is issued a gadget. It really is the films that expanded on this theme. It really came to the fore from Thunderball onwards, and whilst many deride the gadgets, I think they added an anticipated element to the films. I remember as a kid scurrying off to the latest Bond flick wondering what new gadget he would have. It was all part of the entertainment factor Bond projected. 

 So yes I think that I still consider this the best Bond film of them all. Dr. No though is a real contender! But like Dr. No it is based around a very solid novel and the lessons from it were applied to FRWL. The changes from the novel are minimal when the era of the Cold War is considered. Yet it is still recognisable, especially the change from SMERSH to SPECTRE, with their desire to eliminate Bond. Some quite inspired casting really helps as well. Robert Shaw is the perfect 'Red' Grant and Lotte Lenya beings to the screen the repulsive, reptilian like lesbian, Rosa Klebb. And Daniela Bianka is possibly the best looking of all the Bond girls. With the added additions of a helicopter and speed boat chase, From Russia With Love set a standard ALL the subsequent Bond films have tried to emulate.

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  1. Three weeks to shoot that train fighting scene? Really interesting.

  2. Yes it is quite extraordinary isn't it?? That is what I have read from several sources so I can only write up what I read. Alfred Hitchcock took a WHOLE month to film the shower scene in Psycho, so 3 weeks isn't implausible.

  3. A truly excellent review, so much background and set happenings I never heard about, I don't know about it being my favourite but it's damn close.

  4. My favorite of the classic bonds, nice little bit of trivia about JFK.

    Your love for the series really shines through in all these 007 post Brent!

  5. Thanks AL!!I think even if FRWL isn't a personal favorite of many it would still rank as one of the best in most people's opinions.

    Daniel...yes I've always loved the Bond franchise. The whole story and legacy is interesting stuff .It is incredible that it has been around for 50 years!
    I though after Dr. No I may hacechanged my mind but no I still FRWL is still tops.
    In regards to JFK I've read quite extensively on him and his whole tribe. And whilst he isn't my favorite US President he is still an interesing man to read about expecially against the backdrop of 1960's America.