*. Starting with Dr. No in 1962 the James Bond movie franchise has been one of the longest continuously-running and most successful series in history. I think only Godzilla has been around longer. And, as with Godzilla, I’ve been a fan of Bond since I was a kid.
*. As you’d expect with such a long-lived series there are endless lists and opinions given over what was the best of the Bond films, who was the best Bond, the best villain, the best Bond girl, and even items like the best Bond car. Because there have been so many Bonds it’s hard to be definitive. Daniel Craig is as appropriate and excellent a Bond for his day as Sean Connery was for his, or Roger Moore for his. It’s hard to pick a greatest-of-all-time.
*. That said, my own pick for best Bond will always be Connery, and for best Bond film I’d say either From Russia with Love or Goldfinger. Why? Here are some of the main reasons.
*. (1) Ian Fleming was not a great writer. Not even a great hack writer. But From Russia With Love was one of the better Bond novels, and the one Fleming personally thought was the best. It’s sharply focused on a single Russian (not SPECTRE) plot to kill Bond, and engages us right away with its set-up. The screenplay makes the necessary big-screen additions (more scenes in Istanbul to make use of various locations, a more thrilling heist of the coding machine, the final two action sequences involving Bond vs. the helicopter and Bond vs. the motorboats), but still has at its heart the same basic storyline, which has Bond going mano a mano against his greatest adversary.
*. (2) Robert Shaw. Enough said. I can’t think of a single movie that I haven’t loved him in. Quint, of course, in Jaws (Spielberg had cast him after seeing him in this movie). Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. The Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin and Marian (squaring off against Connery again). Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons. Aston in The Caretaker. Claudius (yes, Claudius!) in Hamlet at Elsinore. Lonnegan in The Sting. I can’t think of a more perfect complement to Connery and I can’t get enough of seeing them opposite one another. Even if Shaw had to stand on an apple crate when they were filmed together since he was four inches shorter. This is star power: when you can’t take your eyes off an actor even when they’re not saying anything. And Shaw doesn’t speak until the movie is more than half over!
*. (3) I’ll grant the theme song by Lionel “Oliver!” Bart is drippy. They had to hold the lyrics for the end credits and run an up-tempo mix to go with those jiggly opening credits. But to make up for it John Barry introduces what became known as Bond’s “secondary theme.” That’s the music that plays during the theft of the Lektor device. I can’t praise this bit of music enough. Though it’s not as well known as the main Bond theme I think it’s every bit as good (though for some reason the series seems to have dropped it after Moonraker). This is what an action score can be, and in my opinion it’s one of the top five I’ve ever heard. They don’t write them like that anymore. I don’t think anyone can.
*. (4) Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova doesn’t get a lot of love as a Bond girl, but I like her. She had to be completely dubbed, as she was Italian and her English-with-a-Russian accent wasn’t working. (As an aside, dubbing was used a lot in the movies of this period. In Goldfinger, next up, Gert Frobe would be dubbed as well.) She’s one of the more likeable Bond girls. I love her shrug when Bond tells her that “Captain Nash” will be joining them for dinner. Obviously she’s not thrilled by Shaw’s company, but whatever. Then there’s the scene where she licks her finger to hold it up against the wind when she’s on the speedboat. I wonder if that was improvised. It’s adorable.
*. (5) The rest of the supporting cast comes up aces too. Lotte Lenya is unforgettable as Rosa Klebb. Pedro Armendáriz in his last role as the genial but deadly Turkish host Kerim Bey. Walter Gotell in the first of many appearances as a SMERSH thug. Vladek Sheybal as the chess master and master plotter. And Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell back as M and Miss Moneypenny. They could have dubbed the whole lot of them, because how could you go wrong with this bunch of faces? What a line-up.
*. So it’s a great Bond movie. The first great Bond movie, and maybe the best ever. Director Terence Young on the commentary calls it “far and away” the best and apparently it was Connery’s and Maxwell’s favourite. Though there were other good ones, the series peaked early.
*. It’s also a movie of several firsts. The first pre-title teaser sequence for a Bond film. The first appearance of Q (Desmond Llewelyn), a character credited as “Boothroyd.” Q has gadgets, in the form of a briefcase full of goodies for Bond, but they don’t overload the plot yet. In other words, things were really starting to ripen without becoming overripe. “It was with this film that the Bond style and formula were perfected,” according to producer Albert Broccoli. And where do you go from that?
*. The budget was double that of Dr. No but still cheap at $2 million. They really got their money’s worth, though given how big the Bond pictures were about to get it’s amazing looking at this and seeing just how much of a shoestring production it was. The international location shots are mixed in with really crude studio sets for the hotel rooms, and the repetition of shots (of Rosa in the meeting with Blofeld, of Bond being strafed by the helicopter) are Low Budget Film School 101. Not that it doesn’t work. I didn’t even notice how, after the walk-through of the SPECTRE camp they loop back to a different shot of them entering it again. Then there is the cheesiness, like the cat fight (an almost pornographic bit in the novel) and the shots of the train superimposed over the scrolling map.
*. The helicopter chase scene was based on the crop duster sequence from North by Northwest. Less obviously, Young meant the opening scene taking place on the grounds of the big house on SPECTRE island to be an homage to Last Year at Marienbad. Hm. Well, it had just come out a couple of years previously. Still . . .
*. Would anyone be allowed to shoot inside Hagia Sophia today? And could they have thought of a more conspicuous place to make a drop?
*. No, I don’t think Terence Young was a great director. But he was very capable and knew what worked. Look at that scene where Shaw stalks Bond while walking inside the train while Bond is out on the platform. Not a shot that makes you stand up and cheer, but one that absolutely works.
*. Simon Winder: “The Cold War has, weirdly, completely vanished, leaving behind such peculiar debris as From Russia with Love, a book and a film which will appear as strange to future generations as abandoned Kazakhstan rocket silos or fallout shelters.” Well, sure, it was a film of its moment. But I think it’s held up great as entertainment.
*. The line where Grant talks about Bond having to crawl and kiss his (Grant’s) foot isn’t in the book. Was it improvised? Bond is, of course, a gentleman agent (what he’s called in the trailer) and a snobbish member of the upper class. He’s on to Grant as soon as he orders the wrong wine at dinner. In the book though Grant is a psychopathic serial killer triggered by phases of the moon, not someone with much of a class consciousness. He’s only working for the Russians because they let him kill people. Was being a lefty something that made him more villainous?
*. I was admiring how Bond kept his hat on throughout the scene where he jumps from the train, takes out the driver of the truck, and escapes from the helicopter. Then, as soon as he’s on the motorboat, he switches over to a captain’s cap. Back in the day it was important to wear the proper lid. Plus Connery was apparently wearing a hairpiece in the movie anyway.
*. The credits even end with a notice that Bond will be back in Goldfinger. As Broccoli says, from here on out the formula was set. And why? Because it was obviously working so well. Perhaps not one of the greatest movies ever made, but one of my favourites even after more viewings than I can count. And I hope I get to watch it again as many times.