The Bond Project: From Russia With Love
. The second entry in the venerable Bond franchise is highly unusual by today's standards, but most likely would have felt very familiar to viewers at the time who had seen Dr. No
. While many of the elements we currently associate with Bond were either absent or significantly different from what we're used to, it's clear that the production team took pains to create a feeling of familiarity, that similarity of tone and style that is necessary for any franchise to be successful. In the first several minutes alone, viewers are bombarded by references to the previous film, including both recurring characters and snippets of dialogue which acknowledge the previous adventure. For audiences at the time, this would be a kind of comfortable familiarity. For audiences today, this is extremely jarring, because Bond films, with very rare exceptions, simply do not overtly refer back to their predecessors.
The back-references are worth noting. Of course, we have the recurring characters of M, Moneypenny, and Major Boothroyd (although it's unlikely that anyone would realize he was a recurring character). Also, Sylvia Trench, a character intended to be Bond's "steady girlfriend", appearing in every film, whose romantic designs were foiled by yet another call from the "office". Sylvia makes several references to events of the first film, including mentioning Jamaica and golf. But there are also some more subtle similarities. The scene where Bond gets off the plane in Istanbul is very reminiscent of the corresponding scene set in Jamaica. Indeed, Bond has learned his lesson from Jamaica and established a spoken code to make sure the contact he is meeting is legitimate.
But this film is far more than just a cookie-cutter retread of the original. First of all, it's got double the budget, which shows (though it's still far less spectacular than what we've become accustomed too, which ends up hurting the film significantly... more on that below). Second of all, it's got a far more interesting story. As you'll recall, major story weaknesses are what held back Dr. No
, and this film compensates (or, arguably, overcompenstates) by presenting a very richly storied suspense thriller.
The story centers on SPECTRE setting up a conflict between Bond and the Russians in a devious and complicated attempt to steal a Russian Lektor, which is an advanced Soviet encryption device. Rather than the "typical" mal-formed psychotic megalomaniacal deviant, the villain is a suave, intelligent, cunning assassin named Grant, who is in many ways Bond's equal. This, combined with the fact that the franchise hadn't yet gone in for the more fantastical aspects we would soon come to expect, makes for an unusually realistic, and therefore unusually dramatic film. This is one Bond film, perhaps the only one, that functions on the level of suspense, rather than simply action.
However, in this case, it is the plot which lets the narrative down. Grant directly and intentionally provokes Russians, precipitating a major flare-up in the relations between the eastern and western intelligence forces in Istanbul. It is unclear what this is intended to accomplish, but it does force Grant to take the fascinating position of having to protect Bond's life. After all, if the Russians manage to kill Bond before he steals the Lektor, than SPECTRE will never get it themselves. This is the one part of Kronstein's otherwise devious plan which doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. Kronstein told Number One that every possible countermove had been considered, and he guaranteed SPECTRE's success, but by creating a "hot" conflict in Instanbul, SPECTRE relies inordinantly on Grant's ability to keep Bond alive. While this is not the mistake which brings about SPECTRE's defeat, it is indicative of the weakness of Kronstein's plan.
More importantly, it is at the heart of the major structural weakness of the plot itself. The audience known from the outset that SPECTRE is the true villain. From then on, it's just a matter of waiting for Bond to catch up, and we wait an awfully long time. A vast portion of the film, then, is rendered irrelevant even before it has occurred. Oddly, however, the film still seems to be setting up the Russians as the villains of the piece. The end result is that a huge proportion of the plot is spent on a red-herring that is exposed before Bond ever leaves England, which makes for rather uninteresting viewing.
The reason for this egregious error in plotting is no doubt the fact that the script underwent massive revisions at a very late stage. If SPECTRE's involvement was as much of a surprise to the audience as it was to Bond (an idea which may have been incorporated into an earlier draft), than the sequences with Kerim Bey and the Russians wouldn't have seemed so irrelevant. [On the other hand, regardless of how the film is structured, the scene with the Gypsies fighting serves no legitimate story function.] Despite this serious flaw, the film picks up enormously when Bond successfully steals the Lektor and begins to make his escape via the Orient Express. This is where the meat of the story really takes hold, and ingenuity of the set-up gets its pay-off.
Indeed, it's also more of a strength, here, that the audience is in on the big secret. Bond and Grant spend a significant amount of time on screen together before Grant's true motives are revelaed to Bond. If we, like Bond, believed Grant to be a British agent, these scenes would have been unforgiveably tedious. Because we know he is working for SPECTRE and is after the Lektor, this slow, patient sequence is imbued with a chilling level of suspense. The director does a masterful job of keeping the pace down in this segment, allowing the tension to build very gradually and very effectively. The climactic struggle in the cabin of the train is the dramatic payoff of all of this tension and suspense, and it works beautifully.
Sadly, there is still quite a lot of tedious plot to plow through, despite the fact that the story has now basically concluded. Having failed, Kronstein is executed, and SPECTRE must try to recover the Lektor by other means. [Kronstein's plan ended up relying too heavily on Grant's ability to fool Bond... I think Grant was enjoying being a secret agent a little too much, and allowed himself to squander the element of surprise.] This leads to what would be, in a future Bond with a bigger budget, a tremendous series of spectacular action set-pieces. Unfortunately, the helicopter and boat sequences are less than spectacular, and the patient yet fascinating atmosphere of suspense is replaced with hurried yet tedious action sequences. Finally, the last desperate battle between Rosa Klebb and 007 is simply not an adequate dramatic highpoint on which to end the film, and the lasting impression is one of an enjoyable yet uneven action film.
The bottom line: the second film in the series was a significant improvement on the confused muddle of the original, and it showed an ambition toward making espionage thrillers of true depth. However, its flaws are serious enough that they can't be easily dismissed. In any case, this unusually realistic, gritty, and adult portrayal of Bond would be rendered obsolete with the release of the first true
UPDATE: Ed's take on this film can be found here
. The Bond Project continues with Goldfinger