Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" (1963) Review

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"FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" (1963) Review

Have you ever heard the song, "What a Difference a Day Makes"? Well, the song's title kept going through my head, while viewing 1963’s "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE", which was based upon Ian Flemnig's 1957 novel. It seemed such a difference from the very inferior "DR. NO" (and would prove to be quite a difference in my eyes to 1964’s "GOLDFINGER").

Not only do I consider "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" to be one of the finest Bond films in the franchise, I also view it as Connery’s best. In fact, as with 1965’s "THUNDERBALL", his acting was superb in this film. James Bond not only seemed mature, but . . . [gasp] human. All one has to do is examine his interactions with leading lady Daniela Bianchi to notice this. Connery has never been so human as he was in this movie. And sadly, he was never this human again.

Connery was supported by a first-class supporting cast. Italian-born actress Daniela Bianchi portrayed the Soviet cipher clerk assigned to seduce him, Tatiana Romanova. What started as an assignment for Tania, ended up as full-blown love affair. Although, Bianchi had her dialogue dubbed by Zena Marshall (from "DR. NO"), she did an excellent job in projecting Tania’s wide range of emotions – including her disgust at ex-Soviet turned SPECTRE agent, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya).

Speaking of Lenya . . . my goodness, I am speechless! What can I say? The woman was superb! I found her creepy in her scenes with Bianchi and Walter Gotell, yet fearful in the scenes featuring SPECTRE’s leader, Ernst Stavos Blofeld. In fact, she gave one of the best performances by any actor or actress portraying a Bond villain/villainess. And I must say the same for the highly revered Robert Shaw. Not only did his Donovan Grant turned out to be the template for many Bond henchmen to come (with only Andreas Wisniewski from "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS" coming close), Shaw and Connery provided one of the best dramatic moments and fight sequences in the entire franchise.

Hollywood character actor, Pedro Armendariz, portrayed Bond’s Turkish contact, Kerim Bey. Sadly, the role of Bey would prove to be Armendariz’s last one. After finishing his scenes, he committed suicide, rather than suffer any longer from cancer. But fortunately for many Bond fans, Kerim Bey would prove to be his greatest role. Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell were competent as usual. And the movie would serve as the debut of Desmond Llewellyn as MI-6’s Quartermaster.

The plot for "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" centered around SPECTRE’s scheme to lure James Bond into stealing a valuable Soviet decoding machine, and unknowingly deliver it into their hands. In the process, Agent 007 is to suffer a disgraceful death, in revenge for the death of Dr. No. The movie not only had the good luck to be based upon one of Ian Fleming’s few well-written novels, the screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood, did an excellent job of translating it to the screen. Rich with atmosphere and mystery, "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" almost seemed like the perfect spy thriller – a far cry from the schizophrenic and inferior "DR. NO". A few changes had been made, but overall they seemed to serve the story very well.

Did I find "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" perfect? No. I have a few complaints. One of my complaints happened to be the Bond-Grant confrontation aboard the westbound Orient Express. From a dramatic viewpoint, it gave Connery and Shaw to exercise their acting chops. From a storytelling viewpoint, it made no sense. It just did not make any sense to me that Grant would take his time preparing to kill Bond, once he got the drop on the British agent. While Grant was busy searching through the unconscious Bond’s jacket and putting on his gloves, I found myself screaming at my TV screen – "What in the hell are you waiting for? Kill him!" I also found the two action sequences that preceded Bond and Tania’s arrival in Venice a bit too much. I had the feeling that the writers added an extra action sequence in order to fill in the movie’s running time. I could have done with either the helicopter sequence or the Adriatic Sea boat chase.

But you know what? Not even these flaws could deter my love for "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE". It is one of the few James Bond films that do not adhere to the franchise's rather silly formula. The movie also possessed a first-rate espionage thriller seeped in Cold War politics. And it featured excellent direction from Terence Young, memorable performances from a talented supporting cast and Sean Connery's best performance as James Bond.

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