History, Legacy & Showmanship

(Attempted) Murder on the Orient Express: Remembering “From Russia with Love” on its 55th Anniversary

January 8, 2019 - 9:35 am   |   by
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From Russia with Love is, quite simply, one of the greatest spy films ever made. It is relentlessly entertaining, sexy, sophisticated, elegant yet raw, beautifully shot, brilliantly edited, wonderfully cast, with a score that puts 99.999% of all other modern films to shame.” — John Cork, author of James Bond Encyclopedia

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 55th anniversary of the release of From Russia with Love, the second cinematic James Bond adventure.

Our previous celebratory 007 articles include Never Say Never Again, Live and Let Die, Octopussy, Casino Royale (1967), Tomorrow Never Dies, Die Another Day, Dr. No, The Living Daylights, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Casino Royale, For Your Eyes Only, Thunderball, GoldenEye, A View to a Kill, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Goldfinger, and 007… Fifty Years Strong.

The Bits continues the series with this retrospective featuring a Q&A with an esteemed group of film historians and James Bond authorities who discuss the virtues, influence and legacy of 1963’s From Russia with Love. [Read on here...]

The participants for this segment are (in alphabetical order)….

James Chapman is the author of Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films (Tauris, 2007). Chapman is a Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester, and his other books include Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who—A Cultural History (Tauris, 2006), Saints and Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s (Tauris, 2002), and (with Nicholas J. Cull) Projecting Empire: Imperialism and Popular Cinema (Tauris, 2009). He is a Council member of the International Association for Media and History and is Editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

James Chapman

John Cork produced the special features for the home entertainment release of From Russia with Love. He is the author (with Collin Stutz) of James Bond Encyclopedia (DK, 2007) and (with Bruce Scivally) James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002) and (with Maryam d’Abo) Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond (Abrams, 2003). He is the president of Cloverland, a multi-media production company. Cork also wrote the screenplay to The Long Walk Home (1990), starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek. He wrote and directed the feature documentary You Belong to Me: Sex, Race and Murder on the Suwannee River for producers Jude Hagin and Hillary Saltzman (daughter of original Bond producer, Harry Saltzman). He contributed new introductions for the original Bond novels Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Goldfinger for new editions published in the U.K. by Vintage Classics in 2017.

John Cork

Bruce Scivally is the author (with John Cork) of James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002). His other books include Superman on Film, Television, Radio & Broadway (McFarland, 2006), Billion Dollar Batman: A History of the Caped Crusader on Film, Radio and Television from 10¢ Comic Book to Global Icon (Henry Gray, 2011), Booze, Bullets & Broads: The Story of Matt Helm, Superspy of the Mad Men Era (Henry Gray, 2013) and Dracula FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Count from Transylvania (Backbeat, 2015). As well, he has written and produced numerous documentaries and featurettes that have appeared as supplemental material on LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray Disc, including several of the Charlie Chan, James Bond, and Pink Panther releases. He is Vice President of New Dimension Media in Chicago, Illinois.

Bruce Scivally

The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.

And now that the participants have been introduced, might I suggest preparing a martini (shaken, not stirred, of course) and cueing up the soundtrack album to From Russia with Love, and then enjoy the conversation with group of James Bond authorities.

From Russia with Love

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is From Russia with Love worthy of celebration on its 55th anniversary?

James Chapman: From a cinematic point of view, I’d say that From Russia with Love is the best-made film in the James Bond series, and the one that most stands up as a thriller outside the conventions of the series. In many respects it’s reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock. Obviously the helicopter chasing Bond bears a close resemblance to the crop-duster set piece in North by Northwest (except that Young cuts to the pilots, which Hitchcock didn’t). But beyond that, the locations are used in a very atmospheric way, especially the sequence at the San Sofia Mosque. The train sequence is also very Hitchcockian. There’s real suspense in the Bond/Grant confrontation: how can Bond get Grant to open the attache case? I think Young handles this scene very well.

John Cork: From Russia with Love is, quite simply, one of the greatest spy films ever made. It is relentlessly entertaining, sexy, sophisticated, elegant yet raw, beautifully shot, brilliantly edited, wonderfully cast, with a score that puts 99.999% of all other modern films to shame.

All of this is in spite of the chaos that surrounded the production. The title was selected to capitalize on John F. Kennedy’s embrace of the novel as one of his favorite novels, and production began even before Dr. No had been released in the United States. Like Dr. No, the film set out to capture the structure and feel of the novel, but to remain less jingoistic than Fleming’s portrayal of the Soviets. Thus, SPECTRE replaced SMERSH as the villains. This was to appeal to viewers in international markets where the Cold War rivalries were viewed with more skepticism than in the US and the UK. Yet, the script remained problematic. Largely written while Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were distracted with their only non-Bond venture, Call Me Bwana, the script went through numerous rewrites. The entire cat-and-mouse game involved the British, the Soviets, the Bulgarians, the Turks, SPECTRE, and agents of SPECTRE that Soviets and British thought were still part of SMERSH. There are a lot of moving parts, and they didn’t all mesh in the shooting draft. This film came close to becoming a somewhat incomprehensible mess.

Further problems developed when locations in Turkey proved impossible to practically use. Then Pedro Armendariz, who had been hired by Terence Young at the recommendation of John Ford, began showing difficultly with the daily shooting while on location. When Young expressed concern, he discovered the true reason Ford had implored him to hire Armendariz: the actor was dying of cancer and wanted one last paycheck to leave his family. After scrapping the attempt to shoot the boat chase sequence in Turkey, the filmmakers returned to the UK where schedules shifted to allow Armendariz to complete his work early. Nine days after leaving the production, Armendariz committed suicide in the UCLA Medical Center. Back on location in Scotland, Terrence Young and art director Michael White nearly died in a helicopter crash in Scotland, and Daniela Bianchi got her face badly bruised when her driver fell asleep at the wheel driving her to the set.

Yet, out of all this, Terence Young, working with editor Peter Hunt, delivered a tight thriller that balances spectacle and spycraft, convention and innovation, and drama and humor. From Russia with Love may not be a great example of how to make a film, but it is one of the best examples of what a film should deliver to audiences.

Bruce Scivally: From Russia with Love was a transitional 007 film. The first Bond film, Dr. No, had been essentially a low-budget crime thriller that stylistically seemed to owe more to the 1950s than the 1960s. The third film, Goldfinger, was a lavish, thrilling action adventure with comedic undertones that set the formula for the Bond films to follow, and was very much of its time — the swinging 60s. In-between was From Russia with Love, a nearly gadget-free 007 adventure that hewed closely to its source material and remains one of the best spy thrillers of the 1960s.

From Russia with Love advertisement

Coate: What do you remember about the first time you saw From Russia with Love?

Chapman: I would have seen it on television (ITV) in the late 1970s. My memory of seeing it for the first time is a bit hazy, but the atmosphere sticks in my mind more than the plot. It’s grown in my estimation whenever I’ve seen it since.

Cork: The first film I recall seeing in a movie theater ever is From Russia with Love at the Capri Theater in Montgomery, Alabama, when I was three years old. My mother informs me that this was a double-bill release with Dr. No. My only recollection of watching those movies is seeing the water catch on fire. I knew that water didn’t burn, so I remember asking my mother about it, which I’m sure I did — like all three-year-olds in movie theaters — at a volume that was quite loud enough for everyone there to hear. This trivia would have been incidental to me if I hadn’t become a Bond fan some eight years later. While I saw it on ABC in the 70s and uncut on HBO in 1980, the next time I saw the film on the big screen was in September 1980 at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles. That was when it became clear to me that the film stood out on so many levels.

Scivally: The first time I saw the film was on its initial TV run, and it left me underwhelmed because the numerous commercial interruptions destroyed its narrative flow. Later, after I moved to Los Angeles, I saw it on a double bill at a “revival house” (a theater that showed older films), and seeing it for the first time on the big screen was a revelation. It has, since that viewing, been my favorite Bond film, though the 2006 Casino Royale gives it a good run for its money. From Russia with Love has a strong cast, a suspenseful storyline, and a Bond who relies on his wits more than on gadgets — not to mention one of the best train fight scenes ever filmed.

Coate: In what way was Robert Shaw’s Donald Grant (or Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb) a memorable villain?

Chapman: Robert Shaw’s Grant remains, for me, the best henchman-villain of the series. He’s sinister, menacing and represents a real physical threat to Bond — and he doesn’t need props like a steel-rimmed bowler hat, a metal hook or steel teeth. And he remains silent for much of the film — a deadly presence lurking in the background. The scene where he has Bond on his knees in the train compartment is very well done: you get a sense that Bond really is in trouble, how’s he going to get out of this?

As for Lotte Lenya, she’s the perfect visual representation of Fleming’s character. In the film, of course, Klebb has defected to SPECTRE, but that’s a fairly cosmetic change.

In fact I’d say that From Russia with Love has probably the best cast of any of the Bond pictures. Pedro Armendariz, Vladek Sheybal — even down to small parts such a George Pastel as the train conductor.

Cork: The casting in Dr. No had been almost haphazard. Significant parts were cast with local Jamaican actors who were dubbed back at Pinewood. United Artists wanted a stronger cast for From Russia with Love. Harry Saltzman wanted Robert Shaw, whom he knew through John Osborn, Saltzman’s former partner at Woodfall Productions. Shaw had been having an affair with Osborn’s wife, the actress Mary Ure, resulting in some chaos in all their lives during the production of From Russia with Love. But Saltzman also became interested in Shaw as a writer, since Shaw was getting some critical acclaim from two novels he had recently written, particularly The Sun Doctor, which in 1962 won an important literary prize. Saltzman, in the wake of the success of Dr. No had individually optioned Len Deighton’s hit spy novel, The Ipcress File, and had even hired Deighton to do an initial draft of From Russia with Love (the radio telephone in Bond’s Bentley is the only known remnant from Deighton’s draft). Soon, Saltzman had Shaw writing an adaptation of The Ipcress File, which, by accounts, was discarded. Along with Shaw’s prodigious drinking habits, one can see how he burned the candle at both ends and died so young. Yet, despite his grueling work ethic, Shaw turned in a one of the greatest performances in any spy film. While Donald Grant doesn’t have the scale or ambition of Goldfinger or Blofeld, he is every bit a killing machine on the same level as the shark Shaw faces off against in Jaws. Despite being four inches shorter than Connery, Shaw, as Grant, looms over every scene like the grim reaper.

Lotte Lenya almost steals the show from Shaw. It is impossible, I think, for Bond fans to understand how important a figure Lotte Lenya was, having been a huge star in Europe in the late-1920s and early-30s, or how she thrilled audiences with her stage work in the 1950s. She got the role as Rosa Klebb after her haunting Oscar-nominated performance in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone where she is a pimp of sorts for Warren Beatty’s character. Rosa Klebb, pimping Tatiania to the British for SPECTRE, bears some similarities. Both performances are brilliant.

Scivally: Donald Grant is a purely physical presence for the first half of From Russia with Love, a cool assassin whom we never hear speaking until he’s on the train with Bond. And Robert Shaw is perfect in the role; few actors can seem so deadly just standing still. And because the pre-credits sequence (an innovation of this second Bond film) shows Grant killing “Bond,” we genuinely feel that he might get the best of 007 in the train fight. Where Grant is the brawn, Rosa Klebb is the brains, a toad of a woman tasked with executing Kronsteen’s plan to manipulate Tatiana and Bond into Grant’s clutches. Lotte Lenya embraces the role with relish, with her severe hairstyle and milk-bottle glasses, and a hint of lesbianism in her interrogation of Tatiana that is portrayed as a threat. As Tatiana says of her in the end, she is a “horrible woman.”

From Russia with Love

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