FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE: Spies Spy on Spies

The first sequences (pre-credits and post-credits) in Terence Young’s FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE epitomize much of the film’s plot, in a little more unconventional manner than future entries. There’s no big action scene for an introduction, or flashy images to make a poster of. The first sequence is an obscure, dark place in which a lost James Bond (Sean Connery) is apparently being chased in a maze – the chaser is Red Grant (Robert Shaw) – and essentially portrays the lost course that Bond is about to engage in, as Grant becomes Bond’s shadow in the plot; always watching, waiting for the perfect time, for the perfect move, as the craft of the film itself.

Indeed, the plot in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is very much like the chess game that is played later after the opening credits, or the fishes that fight one another in the tank of SPECTRE’s boss, Number 1. There’s a constant tension to figure a certain situation that might be risky or suspicious, but as the Cold War itself, the characters in the story maintain a guarded eye on each other, waiting to see who is going to make the mistake to bite first.

Equally, the story and narrative of the film maintain just as much of an eye for perfect timing as the characters themselves in the story. Whereas most Bond films centralize around action sequences, exotic locations, high-tech gadgets and traditional villains – the formula elements that would drown the franchise later – FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE plays with the temptations to do them but never fully submits. It certainly carry its weight of explosives, to be fair, but is more driven by the beauty and benevolence of simple elements than action showmanship, like Daniel Craig’s CASINO ROYALE did decades later. It playfully handles the interaction between Bond and Tatyana (Daniela Bianchi/voiced by Barbara Jefford) with just one scene in which the characters kiss each other, as the rest just is basic flirty interaction in small scenes that are fun and, thanks to Bianchi, sexy. It withholds the usual spy thriller characteristics of deception and mysteries, yet remains focused on those mysteries and the tension without feeling the need to make the common mistake to break them for an adrenaline sequence. It stays attentive to the characters and the performances that drive them with just one action-set for more than half a film. It carries what is perhaps the most simplistic plot of the franchise, but nevertheless penetrates deeper than most, if not all of them.

If the film feels as a spy thriller should, its because spying and its subject is the central focus from beginning to end. As the mentioned opening scene above and how it epitomized the plot, throughout the course of the film the characters start to enter in a persistent state of paranoia that there’s someone following. There’s an intrusion to each of the characters’ world, and what turns into a mutual, understandable fact that all of them are being spied upon (“They follow us, we follow them. It’s an understanding we have”), then turns into a restless, concerned fear among all of them. Always looking around, hearing the other’s meeting or actually entering the other’s territory.

It is an endless cycle of continuous intrusions and chess-game moves by the characters, as spies spy on spies, while in the middle of them is the main one of them all, who just goes unnoticed: Red Grant, from SPECTRE. He’s the spy that’s never spied upon, because his presence is almost non-existent. There’s nothing particularly incredible from Shaw’s performance through most of the film, since his appearances are quiet and minimal, yet he still retains an intriguing mysteriousness to him perhaps due to that minimalist role, which when revealed delivers some of the best scenes in, not just the franchise, but the spy genre in general.

Bond’s paranoia at long last finalizes when he is attacked by Grant and is held at gunpoint, finally figuring the real depressive truth, as Connery’s Bond is as vulnerable as he has ever been seen. And this is perhaps the most memorable scene of the film. It is a showdown on claustrophobic setting, as if the maze that Bond has run through the journey has come to a dead-end. There’s almost a certain sense of an intimidate encounter as well, where even a homosexual undertone has been argued on how Grant orders Bond get on his knees. But whether one might read that subtext between them or not, however, their brutal fight and the basic composition of it nevertheless epitomize the film in a perfect manner: the simple approach of it, with no exotic, epic location nor classic fireworks, but rather the honest, straight moments that still become as memorable as any other.

Even if the last 20 minutes permit all the action time and pander that was compromised in the earlier half hour of spying and working, FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE still preserves its image as a strong piece that, unlike its successors, exemplifies how the most simple of stories can be transformed into a classic.FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE features a somewhat grounded story about spying, paranoia and deception, all of it executed almost to perfection, and balances it with the fun and glamour of author Ian Fleming, giving the character his writer’s original vision and world and made him unique – one which now is the blueprint for the present Bond team, as they try to escape the clichés of the past filmmakers and travel back into the features of Connery’s second. This is my second favorite Bond film, after CASINO ROYALE learned and improved upon this foundation.

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