007 One by One – From Russia with Love

We continue our look at the film adventures of the world’s most beloved killer spy with the James Bond flick many critics and fans consider the best movie in the series, based on probably the most well regarded of Ian Fleming’s spy novels.

“From Russia with Love” (1963)

The Plot

After the death of their operative, Dr. No, SPECTRE is one rather peeved diabolical organization bent on world domination. Also, they could use some cash. The villains’ collective therefore devises a plan to steal a hugely prized Lektor decoding device from the Soviets by using the superspy responsible for No’s demise as a pawn. Endgame: Sell the device for a huge sum and kill James Bond. The bait will be the defection, with the Lektor, of a beautiful and unknowing Soviet operative working out of the Russian embassy in Turkey. She is another pawn, a loyal low-level agent who is tricked into cooperating and told to develop a romantic fixation on Bond. The proposal is such an obvious trap, and the Lektor such a desirable prize, that there’s no way the British secret service can possibly resist going to Istanbul for a look. It all wraps up in a sexy and violent trip on the legendary Orient Express and an exciting and dangerous (for stunt men) boat chase.

The Backstory

Following up on the success of “Dr. No,” the EON production team of Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman elected to follow the lead of the series’ most famous fan. President John F. Kennedy had singled out Ian Fleming’s novel, From Russia with Love, as one of his ten favorite books in an issue of Time Magazine. Despite nearly 100 opening pages in which Bond does not appear, the story was more or less tailor made for a movie, and the rest was a matter of bringing back “Dr. No” writers Richard Maibum and Johanna Harwood to make the story more Hollywood friendly.

First of all, the relatively simple Stalin-era plot of the original novel was updated and complicated to avoid controversy. In light of the more morally complex Khrushchev era and the recent Cuban missile crisis, many viewers were likely to disagree with Ian Fleming’s extremely hawkish, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, take on the Cold War. And, so a story about ultra-evil Russians trying to take out the West’s most effective counterspy with maximum collateral PR damage, became a tale involving SPECTRE’s desire to grow its cash and power reserves while manipulating MI6 and the KGB into a costly and unnecessary battle. Seeing as the production code was growing weaker even as the Bond budget was growing larger, the sex and violent action quotients was also bumped up considerably from the novel.

Along with newborn superstar leading man Sean Connery, dashing director Terrence Young returned for his second Bond outing after the success of “Dr. No.” Aside from allowing the talented Young to firmly set the tone for the series, bringing him back proved to be a wise choice. Often described him as something of a real-life James Bond, Young was the kind of steady hand the difficult shoot would require.

The challenges Young would face included several changes in locations, numerous reshoots, plus lots of difficult and dangerous stunt work. A scene involving hundreds of rats proved especially tricky because English law permitted only the use of white rats. When the animal wranglers placed cocoa powder on the rats to give them a less hygienic look, the rats were distracted, licking the tasty cocoa powder off themselves and each other. The scene wound-up being shot in Spain.

Murphy’s law was certainly in force on the second Bond film, but director Young took events in stride. He was reportedly back at work within hours after being involved in an apparently minor helicopter crash, though we’re not sure how a helicopter crash can be anything less than a big deal. More tragically, Young also had to deal with the news that key actor Pedro Armendáriz was terminally ill. (More about that below.)

The Bond Girls (Rule of 3 or, in this case, 4)

Yes, an apparent threesome boosts Mr. Bond usual number of consummated movie affairs. The “From Russia with Love” Bond girls are…

Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) — Bond’s Chemin de Fer opponent from “Dr. No” returns. Trench was supposed to be an ongoing liaison in each of the films, but her lakeside tryst with Bond was to be her final appearance. We’re guessing that even a hint of sexual repetition was seen as too much of a hindrance to 007′s womanizing ways. Ironically, Gayson had originally tried out for the longer-lasting but more chaste role of Moneypenny.

Vida and Zora (Aliza Gur and Martine Beswick) — Bond watches with interest, and some concern, as a pair of extremely jealous Gypsy girls stage a to-the-death fight over a man,  but are interrupted by a sudden violent intrusion by a group of Russian-paid Bulgars. After Bond helps save the day for the Romany, it is strongly hinted that the hot blooded trio spend the rest of the evening making love, not war. (In the novel, Bond is more of a passive observer of some kinky bloodshed.)

As for the talented and lovely ladies who played Vida and Zora, Aliza Gur was a former Miss Israel and Miss Universe semi-finalist. She would later appear in such spy-themed TV shows as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Get Smart.” The Anglo-Jamaican Martine Beswick, who may or may not have been one of the dancing silhouettes from the “Dr. No” credits, would return to Bondage as Paula Caplan in “Thunderball” and enjoy a lengthy career as a busy working actress. A supporting role in 1966′s “One Million B.C.” would be followed by such low-budget productions as 1967′s “Prehistoric Women,” 1971′s “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde,” and 1980′s “The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood.” More upscale roles from the eighties and nineties included “Melvin and Howard,” “Miami Blues,” and the 1993 version of “Wide Sargasso Sea.”

Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) — An idealistic operative who thinks she’s working for the Soviets in an operation designed to pass false information to MI6, Tatiana finds it easy to play the role of a love struck defector when she meets the dashing James Bond. Though her loyalties may be divided, her attraction to Bond is undeniable.

Since her character was described as resembling 1930s film star Greta Garbo in the novel, it was a sure bet that former Miss Rome and Miss Universe semi-finalist Bianchi would be lovely and charismatic, if not quite up to the acting standards of the great Garbo. Ms. Bianchi does, however, deliver a credible and very sexy performance, though her Italian accent was removed with a total voice assist from veteran English actress Barbara Jefford. Unfortunately, her best remembered non-”From Russia with Love” outing remains the notorious Eurospy spoof, “Operation Kid Brother,” which starred real-life Sean Connery kid brother, Neil. (Check out this slideshow for more pics of Daniela Bianchi)

Friends and Colleagues

M (Bernard Lee) and Moneypenny (Louise Maxwell) are both back for more banter. By this point, the pattern is being set for the character’s inevitably fun but equally exposition-heavy scenes throughout the series: It’s Moneypenny’s job to provide some flirtatious silliness and M’s job to make sure the frivolity doesn’t eat up too much screen time. The business with Bond throwing his seemingly unworn bowler hat on the hat stand makes a return as well. However, “From Russia with Love” gives us two additions to Bond’s onscreen colleagues, each in their own way legendary.

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A Chat with John Landis (“¡Three Amigos!”)

There’s no point in writing an intro for our conversation with John Landis when we’ve already given a perfectly serviceable synopsis of the man’s life and times on his page within Bullz-Eye’s Directors Hall of Fame – which you can find right here – but we will say that we’ve been looking forward to chatting with Landis for quite some time. Although his publicist regretfully informed us that he didn’t have time to talk when we were pulling together the Hall of Fame, we’d kept our fingers crossed that we’d get an opportunity to talk to him one of these days, and at last that time has come, courtesy of the Blu-ray release of “¡Three Amigos!,” which hits shelves on Nov. 22nd.

Bullz-Eye: First of all, in case you haven’t heard, I should let you know that we put you into our Director’s Hall of Fame last year.

John Landis: Oh, thank you very much!

BE: Our pleasure. After all, we’re a guy-centric site, and it would be fair to say that you’ve made a few movies that have been appreciated by many a man over the years…including, of course, “¡Three Amigos!”

JL: [Laughs.] So did you get a chance to watch the Blu-ray, then?

BE: I did. It looks fantastic.

JL: Yeah, I was able to restore it to the way it’s supposed to be seen. I’m very pleased with the way it looks.

BE: I was actually going to ask you about that process. I presume there’s at least a little bit of difference when it comes to restoring a comedy for Blu-ray versus, say, a full-on special effects extravaganza.

JL: Actually, no. [Laughs.] That would be an untrue presumption. I mean, every picture’s individual, and it depends on the look you were going for with that particular movie. When they made the Blu-ray for “Animal House,” I was upset. I thought they made it much too bright and clean. “Animal House” is supposed to look dirty and funky. [Laughs.] I remember the technician, when I had to check it, he kept writing on his chart, “Image degraded per director.” But every movie you make, you try – or at least I do, anyway – for a different kind of look. On “¡Three Amigos!” I was really trying to go for those beautiful westerns that Hollywood used to make in the ‘50s. The Technicolor pictures. We wanted the colors to be incredibly vibrant. You know, the old DVD wasn’t even the correct aspect ratio. So I’m happy that I got the chance to restore it.

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