Sean Connery's 1963 outing to Istanbul may look grainy now, but his exchanges with Robert Shaw have lost none of their edge
Posted by Peter BradshawThe Guardian, Monday 24 September 2012
From Russia With Love is my favourite James Bond movie, simply because it is the first Bond I ever saw at the cinema. This was at the old Classic in Hendon Central in London, some time in the early 1970s, in an era before Bond films were shown on television, and going to see them at the cinema was a special school-holiday treat. Quite long-in-the-tooth Bond films would be revived on the big screen like this: this was a double bill of From Russia With Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965).
From Russia With Love
Production year: 1963
Cert (UK): PG
Runtime: 118 mins
Directors: Terence Young
Cast: Bernard Lee, Daniela Bianchi, Lois Maxwell, Lotte Lenya, Pedro Armendariz, Robert Shaw, Sean Connery
What a thrill to hear that incredible theme tune played live (as it were) for the first time, echoing around the cavernous old cinema and seeing those opening titles: the mysterious circle shunting across the dark screen, Bond walking in profile, turning dramatically face on and firing, the descending curtain of blood. It was like a bad dream or expressionist ballet. Perhaps nothing in any 007 film can ever match the heart-racing thrill of Monty Norman's inspired Bond theme. That was the 007 brand, right there. Then it was time for the title-sequence itself, a fantastically silly image of a belly-dancer on whom the titles were ripplingly projected. To my saucer-eyed 12-year-old self, this was the grownup world as it was meant to be: erotic, exotic, mysterious and dangerous. Actually, it is a Raymond Revuebar vision of adult sophistication.
The movie itself is oddly austere, even downbeat: less extravagant, less gadgety, less action-based than the films which followed – and actually less than its predecessor, the first Bond film, Dr No. It is not actually based in Russia, there is an opening and closing sequence in Venice (the interiors were shot in Pinewood, with stock footage of St Mark's Square), and a Balkan train journey culminates in a truck-versus-helicopter shootout filmed in Scotland. The main location is Istanbul, which is weirdly gloomy and cloudy.
Where Fleming's novel straightforwardly presented a Soviet plot to lure Bond with a honeytrap, the movie was not so anti-Russian. Here the villains are not the Soviet group Smersh but the separate terrorist organisation Spectre, to whom key Russian agents have secretly transferred their allegiances, most importantly the comedy hatchet-faced lesbian Col Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). With much repressed shoulder-stroking and knee-patting, she recruits the beautiful Russian patriot Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi), working for the Soviet embassy in Istanbul. Tatiana still thinks Klebb is working for Mother Russia. The idea is that she will contact British intelligence, claiming to have fallen in love with James Bond from his file photo, and offer them a key decoding device, a "Lektor". Spectre's plan is to use Bond's conspicuous presence in Turkey to inflame Anglo-Russian tension – key murders will be blamed on the British – and also to wipe out the hated enemy Bond himself, and then to smear his reputation with secretly shot footage of his bedroom action with Tatiana.
Sean Connery and Daniela Bianchi in From Russia With Love. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext
It's a very bizarre premise, though perhaps no more bizarre than that of any other Bond film. There is something a bit unsexy about Istanbul, but when 007 checks into his hotel room, director Terence Young uses the Bond theme almost deafeningly as Bond checks the place for bugs. For audiences of that generation, it was probably the very fact of going to a hotel which was so exciting. This was the hotel room in which 007 is going to walk around in a state of undress, his gun-holster on display, as superbly casual as an untied bow-tie. Young was rumoured to have tutored Connery in how to walk and talk with style.
Then there is a fantastically strange interlude in which Bond is taken by his Turkish liaison Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendáriz) to a Gypsy camp for an evening's racy entertainment, including a full-on girl-on-girl scalp-clawing catfight. Ooo-er. Two women fighting was very saucy in 70s cinema: I seem to remember it happening in Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers, with leering males instantly taking bets.
The helicopter shootout scene was filmed in Scotland … From Russia With Love
Anyway, pro-Soviet Bulgarians attack the compound – huh? – triggering a shootout like something from a Western, with gypsy caravans going up in flames like chuck-wagons. The next day, Bond appears to have amused himself sexually with both women – his reward, it seems, for helping defend the camp. They are as compliant and blank as Tatiana. It is wildly absurd, and the macho attitudes are complacent, to say the least. I wonder how Emir Kusturica would have directed this scene.
Watched again, From Russia With Love is paced very slowly, even dourly, compared to what is expected of the franchise now. It almost seems like something by Le Carré. Matt Monro's beautifully clear, bell-like voice singing the theme song also gives it a certain melancholy.
Connery's face is still compelling, though: most handsome when set in a rictus of disapproval. When Tatiana appears to have betrayed him – and Rosa Klebb is about to kick him with her dagger-boot – Connery's face is almost luminous with anger. Again, his strangely low-tech "lion-tamer" fight with Klebb, fending her off with a chair, is one of the most memorable things about the film.
Sean Connery and Pedro Armendáriz
Robert Shaw almost steals the picture, as Grant, the blond Spectre killer sent to destroy Bond. Klebb tests his fitness by smashing him in the stomach with some knuckledusters. He hardly flinches! Grant is utterly silent until his final scenes on the train with Bond, passing himself off as a British agent – suddenly, he becomes a terribly British fellow called "Nash". He appears quite the good chap, though with a hint of menace and something not quite right. These edgy dialogue scenes with Bond – who coldly acknowledges that he looks "fit" – are the best thing in the film. They aren't homoerotic as such, but they have that masculine competitiveness, a testing of prestige and male display. When "Nash" orders red wine with his fish at dinner, 007 realises that this ought to have tipped him off.
In the final analysis, Connery's 007 is not very obviously in love with Tatiana (he doesn't even seem to fancy her that much) but Bond's glorious and radiant self-love more than makes up for it, and their marital status on the train in those later sequences gives this film a distinctive sort of maturity. It may seem grainy and fusty compared to the all-action tongue-in-cheek spectaculars that came later, but it's the Bond closest to my heart.
Favourite line: [after killing dagger-booted Rosa Klebb]: "She had her kicks!"
Favourite gadget: Throwing knife (that never leaves his case)