Monday, January 12, 2009

Poised on the Edge - From Russia with Love (Film)

Most fans of the James Bond films have thier favorite actor, favorite film and usually one or a couple they tend to really dispise. Most causal James Bond fans enjoy most of the movies, even if they get a bit dumb. What's interesting is that the film series has lasted nearly 50 years and shows no signs of stopping. With "Quantum of Solace" hitting theaters, we got our newest James Bond, Daniel Craig, saving the world, getting the girl and fighting ruthless villains again. I haven’t seen it yet, but if the sequel keeps the same tone as "Casino Royale" (the 2006 version, not the overly psychedelic 1967 version), then I'm going to enjoy it.

I decided to pop in the second James Bond film adventure, just to see where the series was going back in 1963. Here's a quick synopsis. James Bond (Sean Connery) finds himself on a mission to pick up a Russian cipher clerk, Tatiana (Bianci) and her top secret cipher machine. All he has to do is bring the machine, with or without the girl, from Istanbul to London. M and Bond are pretty sure it's a trap, but getting their hands on a Russian cipher machine is too good a prize to pass up (and the girl's a looker too). Bond arrives in Turkey and quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a feud between Russian and the British agents. After a series of narrow escapes he makes it onto the Orient Express with Tatiana and the cipher machine - unaware that they are being shadowed by a sinister agent from SPECTRE.

In the grand scheme of things "Goldfinger" is usually remembered as the first true Bond film. It had girls, the gadgets, the villains, the over the top adventure, and the sassy brassy style that seemed to encapsulate the 60's and the spy craze. In a way it's true, "Goldfinger" was the first really big Bond film. But "From Russia With Love" was the first complete Bond film. It has all the elements that "Goldfinger" had, but is missing one thing - the fantasy that took over the Bond series. "From Russia With Love" is the last gritty Bond film to reach theaters until 1969 with "On Her Majesty's Secret Service".

This edginess makes "From Russia With Love" feel more like spy thriller than a fun comic book ride. James Bond is actually in danger in this movie and the script carefully sets things up from the beginning making the audience feel that James Bond may actually get killed. The pre-credit sequence sets things up very nicely (the first time a pre-credit sequence is used in a Bond film). In it we watch as James Bond is pursued in a garden surrounding a large estate. The killer moves with deft skill behind Bond and succeeds in strangling him with a wire that slides out of his watch. It is revealed that "Bond" is actually a fake, but the killer is very real.

Eventually the killer is revealed to be Grant, an assassin for SPECTRE. He follows Bond all around Istanbul, watching, and waiting. During the course of the film, Bond finds himself in peril (as happens in these films) and even over matched. Grant will appear and save Bond's hide without revealing himself. The audience is even more intrigued. Why do this if he has been trained to kill?

When Grant finally confronts Bond in the Orient Express, the audience feels the tension. We've seen Grant kill Bond once (even if he was fake) and we've seen the control that Grant has had over each situation. Now he has Bond where he wants him and Bond is outmatched. This is the type of scene that is missing from "Goldfinger" and "You Only Live Twice", two of the more popular James Bond films featuring Connery. The danger is very real here, and then things explode with a visceral violence when Grant and Bond finally engage in hand to hand combat. This is still considered one of the greatest fights in the James Bond series. Of course Bond has to survive to appear in "Goldfinger" so we know how it will turn out, but this climactic battle works because of the careful build up of Grant and the way the story plays out.

Director Terrance Young helmed "Dr. No", "From Russia with Love" and "Thunderball" and each of these films are actually more like spy thrillers than the over the top adventures that people usually associate with James Bond. These are my favorite type of James Bond films, where the edge is real and the danger is high. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "For Your Eyes Only", "The Living Daylights", "License to Kill", parts of "Goldeneye" are the other films from the first 20 Bond movies that have this feel. Of course the 2006 "Casino Royale" had this edge in spades, keeping Bond off guard for most of the movie. It's nice to have the thrilling back into the James Bond series, but it's always been there even as far back as 1963.

Do you prefer you Bond movies more thrilling or more fantasy? What do you think of "From Russia with Love"? What is the best example of building tension that you can come up with (books or films)?

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