Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 16: From Russia with Love (1963)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where From Russia with Love (1963) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 111 of the first edition hardback, Roger recounts watching the film at a theater in Cape Town, South Africa while studying abroad as a college student. At the box office he was informed that it was “not a theater for whites,” but he was permitted to enter anyway because he was American and “didn’t know any better.” His mistake was announced to the rest of the amused/bemused theater in Afrikaans & after the screening he was escorted back to his dormitory by local police.

What Ebert had to say in his review: Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he did write a piece titled “‘From Russia with Love’ and Its Place in the Bond Canon”. It begins, “‘From Russia with Love’ (1963) is one of the best James Bond movies and one of the first sequels to surpass the success of an original entry (‘Dr. No’). Its existence represents a crucial reason for the series having lasted until today. The picture is not be quite as good as ‘Goldfinger,’ but it provided a better influence on the following films of the series, with an ambience of suspense and danger that couldn’t be fully replicated until the recent arrival of the Daniel Craig Bonds.”

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As much as I love the stray dumb action movie or hard-edged cop drama, there are a few hyper-masculine film genres that I just fail miserably to connect with as an audience: Westerns, war movies, submarine-bound thrillers, etc. Voluntarily enrolling myself in the Roger Ebert Film School was bound to push me outside of my comfort zone at some point, though, so I’ve signed up to watch the occasional macho macho movie or two dozen as they pop up on the list of films Ebert happened to mention in his autobiography. Cool Hand Luke was a nice surprise in that way, proving to be much easier to connect with than I expected, given its external bravado was a front for something much more vulnerable & existential. I wasn’t quite so lucky with this go-round, though, as I encountered yet another man’s-man film genre I tend to ignore/avoid as much as possible: the James Bond picture. I could probably count on one hand the number of Bond movies I’ve seen in my life and there’s exactly one title from the never-ending series I can claim to have legitimately enjoyed: the delightfully campy Moonraker. From Russia with Love erased some of that lunar-bound goodwill & did little to turn me around on the idea of giving all two dozen Bond films a closer look, a task that seems more daunting & pointless as each year passes and yet another entry in the franchise gets queued up. If anything, the film solidified my prejudice & confirmed that the series would likely be of use to me only if I’m ever chronically having trouble falling asleep.

The second film in the ongoing James Bond series, From Russia with Love is a linear sequel to Dr. No, a film I never plan to see unless coerced. Secret agent James Bond goes on an undercover mission in Turkey where he is unknowingly being hunted by the Russian terrorist syndicate H.Y.D.R.A., I mean S.P.E.C.T.R.E. The evil S.P.E.C.T.R.E. plans to kill Bond in order to avenge the death of Dr. No or some such. Bond plans to use cool gadgets & seduce beautiful women. I’ll let you guess on your own which side of that coin prevails. I found it incredibly difficult to focus on this film, which played in my mind as the blandest of background noise movies with only the rarest glimpse of eye-catching camp to help keep me conscious. According to Ebert, From Russia with Love was an improvement upon the series’s debut, Dr. No, and the box office numbers agreed with that sentiment, racking up $79 million internationally off a $2 million budget. All I see here is another indistinct entry in an endless franchise, made memorable only by some Cold War jingoism & vaguely imperialistic tourist-gawking at Turkish customs, most notably belly dancing eroticism. Even after I watched the film in its entirety I felt like I hadn’t seen a single frame, as if my brain had filtered it for interesting content and held onto nothing. 1963 audiences & Bond enthusiasts alike have an entirely different experience with From Russia with Love that I’ll likely never understand. It’s a dog whistle situation in its purest form & I’m deaf to most of its charms.

I don’t mean to make From Russia with Love sound like an aggressively terrible film without a single redeeming quality. I found it to be bland, but competent. In order to play fair I guess I should point to a few campy touches I found amusing: an overwrought Cold War chess metaphor, a Dr. Claw prototype stroking his requisite white cat, an absurd Russian training facility not too dissimilar from the X-Men war room, a gratuitous cat fight, a shamelessly tawdry opening credits sequence projected onto naked flesh & bejeweled tits, an egregious example of Ebert’s Fallacy of the Talking Killer trope. I also never noticed before how surf rocky the Bond theme is and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Sean Connery so young & so dashing, even if his only decent line was [watching a man climb out of a billboard advertisement’s mouth] “She should have kept her mouth shut,” a quip that’s more than a little gross if you think about it for too long. I’m also glad to now fully understand the porno-within-the-show title From Russia with the Love Bone from Trailer Park Boys, though I’m not sure the two of hours of boredom required to get there was worth it. The simple truth is that I’m not equipped to enjoy this kind of thing & From Russia with Love wasn’t especially interested in grabbing attention outside its inherent Bond-genre reach. The film made no effort to meet me halfway. Any day of the week I’d rather watch films like this spoofed in works like Spy, Top Secret!, or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. than watch the real deal. I realize there’s a large audience for these kinds of films out there, given their incredible longevity, but I can’t yet count myself among them, nor am I sure that I ever will. Oh well. At least I’ll always have Moonraker.

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Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (2.5/5, 50%)

twohalfstar

Next Lesson: Lady Jane (1986)

-Brandon Ledet

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One thought on “Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 16: From Russia with Love (1963)

  1. Pingback: Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 20: Help! (1965) | Swampflix

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