Friday, August 30, 2013
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
I said in my review of DOCTOR NO that the source novel, the only Fleming Bond book with marvelous content, anticipated the greater proliferation of that phenomenality in the movie adaptations. The 1957 novel FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, which preceded Fleming's DOCTOR NO, proved even more prescient, for compared to the other books it makes ample use of gadgets, all of which place both novel and film firmly within the "uncanny" phenomenality.
Most of the time, Eon's adaptations gave the hero far more specialized gadgets than the relatively down-to-earth Bond would normally carry. But for some reason, five years before a movie was under way, Fleming gives Bond a suitcase containing a collapsible gun, a tear gas cannister, and a concealed knife. To be sure, the movie ups this ante, so that Bond's gun is powerful enough to take out a helicopter, and his adversary Red Grant gets his own special gadget: a wristwatch with a wire-garrotte inside. And though the movie keeps the poisoned knife in Rosa Klebb's shoe, it forbore, for whatever reasons, to include two over-the-top weapons from the novel-- a gun concealed in a telephone and poisoned knitting-needles. These particular gadgets might fit the world of Maxwell Smart better than that of James Bond. But then, Fleming's novels are not about a realistic depiction of spycraft: verisimilitude always serves the ends of fantasy in Fleming.
I also mentioned that though the cinematic DOCTOR NO sticks to the general schema of the source novel, the film isn't as strong as the novel because the cinema versions of Bond's main ally and antagonist are much flatter characters. Strangely, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is a stronger film, even though it departs from the source novel's plot far more than the DOCTOR NO film did. Perhaps it worked to the film's advantage that the primary characters of RUSSIA are less thoroughly developed than those of DOCTOR NO. Fleming provides assorted details on the backstories of femme fatale Tatiana, master schemer Rosa Klebb, executioner Red Grant, and Bond's rough father-figure Kerim Bey. But on balance their characters remain stereotypical functions of the story. Tatiana is nowhere near as vividly drawn as Honeychile Ryder, and Red Grant's mysterious, lunar-influenced murder-impulses cannot compare with Doctor No's father-hatred and barely concealed sadism.
It must be said that the filmmakers, who desired to avoid the Red-baiting of the early Fleming novels and substitute SPECTRE as the villain of choice, could never have adapted the plot of Fleming's RUSSIA. The novel was Bond's first-- and last-- opportunity to grapple with the Soviet Union, who had functioned as paymasters to such earlier villains as Le Chiffre, Mister Big, and Hugo Drax. Rosa Klebb, described as a "toad of a woman," is the head of Bond's sometime enemy SMERSH, and her plan to both kill Bond and ruin his reputation is derived from the real-world embarassment the Soviets endured from the well-publicized Khokhlov affair, mentioned several times in the book. Klebb, whose plan is formulated by passionless chessmaster Kronsteen, arranges for Tatiana Romanova, a minor Soviet functionary, to defect to the West, luring James Bond to her with the promise of "the Spektor," a Russian decoding device. Tatiana is told only to seduce Bond, but not that both she and Bond are to be killed by Red Grant, a psychotic Irishman working for SMERSH.
In order to banish the Red-baiting but keep the ties to Russia, the filmic RUSSIA begins by establishing that this Klebb was formerly of SMERSH but deserted her country to serve SPECTRE. Kronsteen and Grant are both agents of SPECTRE as well, and all three report to a man whose face is not seen-- patently Blofeld of the 1961 novel THUNDERBALL-- but who carries his signature icon: a fluffly white cat. Tatiana is still a Soviet employee, but Klebb, who knows that her defection has not been made public, arranges to hoax Tatiana into serving the interests of SPECTRE. But since SPECTRE, a crime-organization, could not be as concerned with damaging the reputation of an English spy as SMERSH had been, Klebb's main goal is to get Bond and Tatiana to steal the Russian decoding device for SPECTRE. (Understandably, the name of the device is changed to "Lektor.") The desire to kill and humiliate Bond for his interference with SPECTRE-agent Doctor No is secondary, though only toward the end of the film do viewers learn the specifics of the "humiliation" angle.
Though this Klebb is no longer a Russian agent, Lotte Lenya gives viewers an admirable film-translation of the novel's nasty piece of work. Tatiana, who is largely a simple stereotype in the novel, is about the same as rendered by Daniela Bianchi, though I appreciate the scriptwriter keeping true to her tendency to use the Russian word "kulturny." This Red Grant is simply an effective killing machine, played with deliberate lack of passion by Robert Shaw; there's nearly no trace of his identity as an Irishman or a psychopath-- which, according to critic Jacqueline Friedman, were one and the same thing in Ian Fleming's mind. Only once does Shaw disclose a dislike for Bond based in the long quarrels of the English and the Irish. Kerim Bey remains the closest to his prose-source. Both novel and film spend a great deal of time parked in Istanbul, the result of a subordinate plot that has little to do with Bond and Tatiana. But the Istanbal idyll serves, in both works, to communicate a ritual of masculine bonding between between Bond and Kerim Bey, arguably the father that Bond wishes his commander M could be. In contradistinction with the Bond novels, where M remains formal and unreachable to Bond, the RUSSIA film, for the sake of a quick joke, cites an incident where Bond and M once went out drinking and catting around together-- an event impossible in the novels. Kerim's death in both media makes the menace of Grant more palpable.
There are some minor changes to the train-sequence that follows the Istanbul section, but the emotinal essence of the sequence is preserved: the shakiness of the romantic relationship between the professional spy and the amateur seductress, imperilled by the remorseless Grant. The film very greatly improves on the final combat between Bond and Grant, which is suspenseful but not well choreographed in the book. Following Grant's defeat, the film further ups the action-ante by having Bond and Tatiana pursued by assorted SPECTRE agents, including those in the aforementioned helicopter.
I quite prefer the film's ending to that of the book. In the book, Bond takes from Grant's body a note that leads him to Grant's intended next destination: a hotel room in Paris, where he was to meet Rosa Klebb. It makes no real sense to imagine the head of SMERSH making a rendezvous with anyone in Paris, even her top assassin, except to give James Bond the chance to capture her. In the novel Bond finds Klebb in her room, using a false identity, which is natural enough for a spy. What seems less comprehensible is that Klebb's room includes a telephone with a gun in it, while she herself is armed with poisoned knitting-needles. Was she planning to use one of these to execute Grant? Fleming gives the reader no clue.
In contrast, the film is more sensible: Klebb, informed of Bond's triumph, is instructed to pursue Bond and Tatiana to Venice in order to kill the agent and take the decoder. Naturally, she can't be allowed to wound Bond with her poisoned shoe-knife as she does in the novel, so the filmmakers' solution-- to have Klebb shot by Tatiana-- not only provides a deserved death for a vile villain but gives Tatiana a chance to choose love over politics. Of course by the time Bond and Tatiana reach Venice, Bond should have informed his lover that she was almost killed by Klebb's plan, and that Klebb isn't even serving the Soviet side any more. But the act of choosing still makes good cinema.