Skip to main content

Russian clocks are always correct.


From Russia with Love
(1963)

The second Bond film cements the success of the first, and with Terence Young returning as director, Peter Hunt as editor and Richard Maibaum as writer, you’d have thought it might have been plain sailing. There were production and script problems from the off, however, and Hunt’s freehand in the editing suite did much to hide the joins. Indeed, there’s little evidence of the concerns on screen; the finished film standards head and shoulders above Dr. No in terms of quality and, outside of its status within the Bond canon, as a high quality spy thriller in its own right.


The reason I emphasise the latter aspect is that FRWL is atypically small scale in terms of action, villainy and set pieces. It works as a Cold War romance/thriller without needing to attach global domination to the list of narrative requirements. Notably, SPECTRE was not part of the original story and finessing their scheming into the proceedings caused a fair bit of pain. The MacGuffin isn’t very grand either; the procurement of a Russian cypher machine (the Lektor).


The SPECTRE plan is terribly convoluted. A SPECTRE double agent (Rosa Klebb, played by Lotte Lenya) requests a SMERSH operative (Tatiana Romanova, Daniela Blanchi) to trap Bond, enticing him to steal the Lektor at which point,

Red Grant: We were keeping you alive until you could give us the Lektor.

And the plan is to then sell the Lektor back to SHMERSH. Presumably the overriding aim is, as Grant suggests, to escalate tensions between the British and Soviets but it seems riddled with holes (even if the plan was a success, wouldn’t the Russkies be suspicious of how SHMERSH just happened to gain possession of the Lektor?)

Nevertheless, one of the pleasures of FRWL is that Bond is one step behind SPECTRE most of the time. Yes, he smells a rat. But he’s being shadowed by Red Grant throughout; someone else is calling the shots. Robert Shaw’s casting as Red Grant is a touch of genius. Although smaller and stockier than Connery, he has the physical presence and the charisma to make him every bit Bond’s equal. Their eventual meeting aboard the Orient Express sizzles because we have anticipated it for the first half of the film. Grant has already killed a Bond-a-like in the pre-credits sequence (itself a remarkably early recognition of the iconographic status of the series and star) and it’s a nice touch that he saves him when Bond is hanging out with gypsies.


Perhaps the greatest strength of this film is the casting. If Shaw is unstoppable (until he isn’t), just think how it might not have been so (Sean Bean’s lacklustre showing as a similarly matched opponent in Goldeneye). Lenya is likewise perfect, because her screen presence is so extraordinary. Diminutive and in no way a striking beauty, she uses her averageness to her advantage; playing up Klebb’s severity and suggesting a sense of inferiority too, when the occasion demands it. Oh, and lesbian tendencies. Also making a strong impression is Pedro Armendariz as Kerim Bey, who buddies up with Bond for a surprisingly long stretch of the film (Armendariz sadly found that he had terminal cancer during the making of the film, struggling valiantly to finish his work on it before he died). As for the Bond series’ reliance on former beauty queens, Daniela Bianchi brings a reserved elegance to Tatiana (her gauzy bare bottom is that of a body double), ironically since he character is instructed to prostitute herself for mother Russia.


Elsewhere, the film establishes its status as part of a series very firmly. Dr. No is referenced at the outset, Bond’s still canoodling with Sylvia Trench, M and Moneypenney are back (one of the most amusing scenes has them listening to Bond’s taped discussion with Tatiana  concerning the Lektor ), Bond again throws his hat onto the hat stand with precison and Q Branch is introduced.


Something that would never happen now; the story is given time to breathe. It’s 45 minutes before Bond has a fight. The showstopper, the brutal, face-crunching duel with Shaw is well-past halftime. Peter Hunt’s editing of this sequence is outstanding, and it remains supremely gripping today. The actors' chemistry is so strong  (“Red wine with fish”) prior to the dust-up that you hardly notice that Grant is blithely telling Bond every single thing he needs to know (in classic Bond villain fashion).


Unfortunately, this sequence is so effective that when it comes to the big spends, a helicopter chase (filmed in Scotland) followed by a boat chase, it’s somewhat anti-climactic. Which isn’t to say these sequences aren't well-directed and edited, but we’ve been spoiled by the action relating to the characters rather than faceless foes shooting at out hero. It’s appropriate, therefore, that the epilogue has Rosa Klebb attempting to take Bond out personally.

Bond: She’s had her kicks.

FRWL gets almost everything right that was still nascent in Dr. No. The balance between character, plot and action would rarely be so perfect again. Certainly, following the next outing, Connery’s Bond would stray into the trap of throwing money at the screen in the hope it would solve all other problems.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…