From Russia With Love (1963)

Director: Terence Young
Starring: Sean Connery, Robert Shaw, Daniella Bianchi, Lotte Lenya, Vladek Sheybal, Pedro Amendariz, Walter Gottell
Music: John Barry
End title song performed by Matt Monroe
Based on the novel by Ian Fleming

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted reviews for some of my favourite James Bond films. This is not because I don’t want to do them, but I want to do them justice. I want every word to be perfect (but as you know, this will be the usual scattershot scribble – but give me points for trying!) In conversation I could talk about From Russia With Love for half a day and still not be out of breath – admittedly, all I’d be saying is ‘Daniella Bianchi is gorgeous’ over and over. When it comes to the written word I could write ‘Daniella Bianchi is gorgeous’ over and over, and in my mind, that would still make it a good review – although slightly repetitive. But I want to give you more, especially as this is one of the best spy films of all time. It is a tight cold war thriller which has a good plot, some great fight scenes, particularly in a gypsy camp and on board the Orient Express, and intriguing characters. The story concerns Bonds attempt to retrieve a Russian decoding machine from Istanbul. But along the way Bond encounters Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya, who are a pair of particularly nasty villains working for S.P.E.C.T.R.E. – Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.

The previous Bond film, Dr. No did not have a pre-title sequence. The series’ first pre-title sequence happens in From Russia With Love, and it is now an integral part of the Bond formula. But the legacy starts here, and this film has a magnificent cow-catcher. The film opens in a hedge maze at night, on S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Island. In the maze are James Bond (Sean Connery) and Red grant (Robert Shaw). It slowly becomes apparent that a cat and mouse game is going on between the two men. It seems that they want to kill each other. As the ‘game’ continues, Grant gets the drop on Bond. As Bond moves from his cover, Grant grabs him from behind and then produces a garrotte wire from his wristwatch. He then proceeds to choke Bond to death. Bond dies and collapses dead on the grass. Suddenly giant flood lights flick to life. The whole exercise was a training exercise for psychotic S.P.E.C.T.R.E. killer, Grant.

What about Bond though? Grant’s trainer, Morenzy (Walter Gotell) walks over to Bond’s corpse and reaches down. He removes a mask revealing the face of an unfortunate S.P.E.C.T.R.E. thug. The real Bond is still alive. This man was just a training tool.

Next comes the title sequence. Most Bond fans are aware that Maurice Binder was responsible for the famous gunsight logo at the beginning of each Bond film. They are equally aware he provided many of the title sequences throughout the series. However he did not do the titles for From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. These were created by sixties Graphic Design guru Robert Brownjohn. From the book ‘Robert Browjohn: Sex And Typography’ by Emily King…

“Brownjohn often told the tale of how he sold the idea for From Russia with Love: gathering producers and executives into a darkened room, he turned on a slide projector, lifted his shirt and danced in front of the beam of light, allowing projected images to glance off his already alcohol extended belly.”

After the titles, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. introduces it’s fantastic scheme which is the product of an evil mastermind named Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal). We meet Kronsteen at the Venice International Grandmasters Championship, which is a chess tournament. It is the match final, and he is facing off against the Canadian champion McAdams. Against the wall is positioned a giant chess board so a gallery of spectators can follow the game as it progresses.

As the game is played out, a glass of water is brought out to Kronsteen. He raises the glass and napkin to his lips only to see a secret message visible at the bottom of the glass – written on the napkin. It says: ‘You are required at once’, and underneath is the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. logo – which appears (in this instance) to be a four legged octopus. Kronsteen is forced to finish the game quickly, which he does – showcasing his superior intellect.

Next we join Kronsteen on a boat where he outlines his scheme to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and Rosa Klebb. His scheme is quite complicated. At the heart of it all is a Lektor decoding machine, which the Russians use to send and decode secret messages. Practically every intelligence agency in the world wants to get their hands on one. The Americans want one – so do the British. And S.P.E.C.T.R.E. want one to sell to the highest bidder. But S.P.E.C.T.R.E. don’t want to do their own dirty work. Kronsteen’s plan involves the theft of the Lektor by M.I.6. To achieve this end, Rosa Klebb, who was a high level Russian Security official, but now works for S.P.E.C.T.R.E., orders a young girl, Tatiana Romanova (Daniella Bianchi), who works at the Russian Embassy in Istanbul to seduce British agent, James Bond. Romanova still believes that Klebb works for Russian Intelligence and agrees to the mission (she has little choice).

A photo of Romanova is sent to M.I.6 headquarters, along with a letter saying that she wishes to defect to the West. It also indicates she has access to a Lektor and is willing to bring one across with her. M.I.6 jump at the chance to obtain a Lektor. But the defection has one condition – the agent sent to bring her in must be James Bond. She has seen a file photo of him and has fallen in love. ‘M’, the head of M.I.6 doesn’t buy into the lovey-dovey stuff for a second and realises it is a trap – but he decides to send 007 to Turkey anyway. S.P.E.C.T.R.E., of course expect Bond to acquire the Lektor, and then they step in, kill Bond, and take the decoder.

On paper, and scrawled in longhand, the plot for From Russia With Love seems terribly contrived and complicated, but as the movie unfolds the story plays out beautifully. Every piece of the puzzle fits expertly into it’s slot.

Another plot point worth mentioning is that the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. don’t just want to steal a Lektor. They also want revenge for the death of their operative Dr. No. That is to say, they want to kill James Bond – you may have gathered that from the pre-title sequence. The S.P.E.C.T.R.E. operative chosen to eliminate Bond is Red Grant, who, once again was featured in the pre-title sequence. Grant is a nutter who enjoys killing. His confrontation with Bond on board the Orient Express is one of the best fight scenes in the series.

From Russia With Love being an earlier Bond film, isn’t as gadget reliant as some of the other films in the series. But none-the-less it still features one or two little devices. I don’t know if you’d call a briefcase a gadget, but the case presented to 007 by ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewellyn) has quite a few handy features including a flat throwing knife, a gas canister that explodes when the case is opened, and a supply of gold sovereigns with which an agent could buy his way out of trouble.

It seems strange to say this, after all it is a Bond film, which these days is synonymous with big action scenes and adventure, but From Russia With Love is almost a character piece. The film has a varied and interesting ensemble of characters. Lotte Lenya, who plays Rosa Klebb, the ex-SMERSH director of operations, who now works for S.P.E.C.T.R.E, is a hard piece of work. It’s even intimated that she may be a lesbian. There’s definitely some ‘man-hating’ tendencies in her character. She bullies and abuses her henchman, Morenzy (Walter Gotell), and introduces herself to Red Grant by hitting him in the stomach with a set of brass knuckles.

Another interesting character is Kerim Bey, played by Pedro Amendariz. Amendariz was riddled with cancer when the film was being made, and committed suicide after the filming of his scenes was complete. The character though, is warm and cultured, the complete antithesis of Rosa Klebb.

The music for the previous Bond film, Dr. No had been composed by Monty Norman, and it has been acknowledged that he wrote The James Bond Theme. But John Barry is credited with arranging and performing The James Bond Theme. It was his work on that track that landed him the gig as composer on From Russia With Love. Although it would be the next film down the track, Goldfinger, which locked in the Bond sound, the score for this film is of a very high standard. The musical interludes in Turkey are particularly good. The soundtrack also introduces the ‘007 Theme’ which would reappear in later films in the series. Although there are no lyrics to the title track, Matt Monro croons the end title song, which is pretty smooth.

From Russia With Love is universally acknowledged as one of the best Bond films, but I would take that further – From Russia With Love is one of the greatest films of all time, regardless of genre. It has a great story with intriguing characters – each of them portrayed by the perfect actor for the role. The film is a timeless classic and superior cinema.

..and, of course, ‘Daniella Bianchi is gorgeous’!

From Russia With Love (1963)

Scorpio (1972)

Director: Michael Winner
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Paul Scofield, John Colicos, Gayle Hunnicut, Vladek Sheybal, Joanne Linville
Music: Jerry Fielding

Scorpio, while being far from brilliant is an interesting examination of a spy who has outlived his usefulness. Burt Lancaster is Cross, a C.I.A. operative who used to be their number one assassin. But now he is old and ‘thinks’ too much. More so, a life time’s accumulation of knowledge means he knows too much! And as we all know, dear reader, there is no retirement plan for secret agents.

The film opens in Paris where a Middle Eastern colonel (from the fictional country of Ritria), Selon Zim, disembarks from a plane amidst tight security. This is to no avail, because as soon as he hits the tarmac he is killed by Jean Laurier, AKA: ‘Scorpio’ (Alain Delon). Lurking in the shadows is Cross, who is Scorpio’s mentor. Cross has trained him in the art of espionage and, most importantly, killing!

In some confusing political mumbo jumbo Zim was pro-American, but killed because his allies would blame his enemies and become more powerful and useful to the United States. All this introduction does is show us that spying is a very dirty business and the men who operate within it’s realm are just pawns in the game. Good and bad do not exist.

Both Cross and Scorpio head back to Washington. Cross’ wife, Sarah (Joanne Linville) lives in Washington, so it’s a happy homecoming for him. Scorpio chooses to take an extravagant suite at a hotel. The room he chooses already houses a cat which Scorpio takes a shine to. Before Scorpio has had a chance to unpack, C.I.A. Controller, McLeod (John Colicos) contacts Scorpio. At this point it is revealed that in Paris, once the mission was complete, Scorpio was meant to kill Cross. Why? Because Cross wants to retire. He wants out of the game. Being an assassin is a game for young men and Cross realises his time is running out. Scorpio doesn’t want to kill Cross. He wants to be left alone and refuses to go into headquarters.

Meanwhile Cross realises something unusual is going on. He notices his home is being watched. The next day he drives to headquarters but is being tailed as he does so. He disables his pursuers, by leading them into an alley and then deliberately crashes his car into theirs. Then Cross allows one of the men to follow him on foot to the bus station. Hiding in the men’s room, Cross gets the jump on his pursuer after he blindly follows Cross into the gents. Cross then asks some hard questions, but doesn’t like the answers he gets. Apparently the agency wants him dead.

Cross goes on the run. He buys multiple plane tickets to blur his trail, and then takes multiple planes and trains passing through Pittsburgh, Toronto and finally landing in Vienna. In Vienna, Cross seeks out another old-timer, Serge Zharkov (Paul Scofield). Zharkov is a Russian agent, who tries to convince Cross to defect. But Cross simply tells him, ‘I want out, not to change sides!’

Back in the states a drug raid on Scorpio’s hotel room lands him in hot water. Naturally enough, Scorpio had nothing to do with the drugs being there, but that doesn’t matter to McLeod, who promptly blackmails Scorpio into performing the sanction on Cross. And now the cat and mouse game begins.

Scorpio was directed by Michael Winner, who at this time was at the peak of his powers (and not the hack B-grade director that he would later become). He had just come off the success of his incredibly dated but subversive thriller Death Wish, with Charles Bronson, and needed another thriller to cement his reputation. So it had to be violent and provocative, and for the time, Scorpio was. But today’s audiences may find it hard to stifle a yawn.

What may come as somewhat of a surprise is the lack of empathy created by either Burt Lancaster who appears to be sleepwalking, and Alain Delon who plays an icy character in a cold aloof manner. Then again, maybe that is the point. These are not nice men. Both men are professional assassins, and I’d guess it takes a certain amount of emotional detachment to be a contract killer.

Look, it isn’t a bad film but time has overtaken it and the themes it encompasses. I must sound like a parrot, comparing old films to the Matt Damon version of The Bourne Identity. But clearly shows what happens when an agent is no longer wanted, and in a far more impressive and entertaining style than The Bourne IdentityScorpio. This may sound like I am saying, ‘ignore the old’ and only concentrate ‘on the new!’ Far from it. Many of the old films still have a powerful story to tell. But Scorpio is more of a seventies time capsule, and while it’s story of an aging secret agent, is played out quite truthfully, more so than Innocent Bystanders (1973) or even Never Say Never Again (1984), it never fully connects with the audience.

If you are a spy completist who loves to look at the evolution of the spy film over the decades, Scorpio is a must have addition to your collection. But if you are a viewer who likes to watch spy films for pure escapism, I’d suggest this film isn’t for you.

Scorpio (1972)

The Jigsaw Man (1983)

Director: Terence Young
Starring: Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Susan George, Robert Powell, Charles Gray, Vladek Sheybal, Anthony Dawson, Peter Burton
Music: John Cameron
Song: ‘Only You And I’ performed by Dionne Warwick
Based on the novel by Dorothea Bennett

The Jigsaw Man opens with a rather paunchy, grey old Englishman living in Russia receiving a visit from a Boris Medvachian (Morteza Kazerouni), a KGB agent. Medvachian tells the elderly gent that he is dead. Literally, as he shows him a newspaper with his obituary dated six months in advance. The elderly man is outraged. He insists he is an important person and cannot be treated this way. His name is Philip Kimberley (obviously a play on Kim Philby – played by Richard Aylen), and he used to be the Director General of the British Secret Service before he defected to Russia. And although Kimberley is quite old, every time he speaks, the voice of Michael Caine escapes from his lips. Is this a clever makeup job? No, it is a poor piece of dubbing. It seems that Kimberley has become a drunken embarrassment and the Russian powers-that-be want him out of the way. Kimberley is drugged and bundled into an ambulance which takes him to a private hospital. At the hospital Kimberley undergoes plastic surgery, and when he awakes, not only does he sound like Michael Caine, but now he looks like him, but with dark hair and a porn star moustache. Next we launch into a low-rent training montage which has delusions of being in the Rocky vein, but without the sweat and sculptured physical specimens. Kimberley is being turned into a killing machine.

After six months, Kimberley’s training is complete and the scars from the surgery have healed. To complement his new face, he is given a new name, Sergei Kozminsky. And he is given a mission. He is to go back to England. It is believed, that when he defected, he stole a payroll list of all the convert Russian agents working in Britain. He is to retrieve this list.
At this time it is also announced to the world the Philip Kimberley has died and a Russian State funeral is held in his honour.

Kozminsky/Kimberley (for the purposes of this review and to avoid confusion, I’ll refer to him only as Kimberley from now on) arrives at Heathrow. As he passes through customs, an official finds a note planted in his passport which says that he is a KGB agent and wants to defect. Within seconds, he is surrounded by security officers and spirited away to The Home Office. Medvachian and the KGB are not happy.

Meanwhile another flight lands at Heathrow. This one is carrying Jamie Fraser (Robert Powell), a top flight secret agent who poses as a United Nations diplomat. Upon arrival in London, the first thing he does is report to headquarters and his controller, Admiral Gerald Scaith (Laurence Olivier). During a heated debriefing it appears that Fraser has lost a fellow operative on his last assignment. The agent concerned was a homosexual who hanged himself in disgrace. It also appears that Scaith is not happy about Kimberley’s death and it is revealed that Fraser is now bedding Kimberley’s daughter, Penny (Susan George). It’s all rather tangled and contrived. Sorry, dear reader, it gets worse, but more on that later…..

Afterwards, Fraser heads to Penny’s apartment. She is being hounded by the press for a story about her late father. Fraser helps her through the wall of reporters and takes her to her country cottage. Meanwhile back at the Home Office, after his defection, Kimberley has escaped from custody. Scaith isn’t happy about this either, as Sir James Chorley (Charles Gray) mocks him for losing his prize. Scaith orders the room fingerprinted, but doesn’t expect much.

Scaith is portrayed and a bitter and twisted old man. Why is he bitter? When Kimberley defected, Scaith moved in on Kimberley’s abandoned wife. But rather than marry Scaith, she chose suicide. We see this via flashback as Scaith wanders the streets at night, heading home. On route, as he pauses to light a cigarette, who should pop up? Kimberley. But Scaith doesn’t recognise him as Kimberley. He thinks it is genuinely a defector call Kozminsky. Adopting a cringe inducing Russian accent, Kimberley as Kozminsky tells Scaith that back in Russia, he was close friends with the deceased Kimberley. Er, does that make sense? Kimberley also says he has access to the stolen Russian payroll documents and will sell them for one million dollars. As the two gentlemen stroll, they get closer to Scaith’s house. As a high ranking official, he always has a policeman patrolling his home. When they are within range, Scaith blows a whistle and the police officer comes running. Kimberley is forced to flee. More police flood into the area, and Kimberley has to disable two officers to make his escape. When it appears that Kimberley is in the clear, a green van pulls along side, and unknown assailant shoots Kimberley in the side. The van then drives off. When I say ‘unknown assailant’, it is pretty obvious who it is. After all, the British want their defector alive. There is only one other side – the Russians. But how they found him is a mystery. Oh well, just another poorly plotted red herring, in a piss-poor script.

Onwards. The following morning, in a sequence that seems like bureaucracy at it’s worst (or more poor plotting), Scaith asks Sir James Chorley to get his Special Branch men involved in the search for the defector. But Chorley says his Branch is stretched tight and asks to borrow some men for the task. First, he asks for Fraser’s partner – the homosexual who killed himself. Chorley is told of his recent demise. Then Chorley asks for Fraser. Scaith agrees. (Surely Scaith, as Fraser’s controller could have simply set him loose on Kimberley without bringing Chorley into it?) But after all that bullshit, Fraser is now working for Chorley to track down a defector called Kozminsky, who has access to the Russian payroll list.

Penny, now residing at her country cottage arrives home to find the tap dripping. She turn the faucet only to find it is covered in blood. Before she can react, Kimberley grabs her from behind, and confesses to be her father, despite his appearance. It doesn’t take long for him to convince her, as he reveals some intimate details from her past that only her father would know. She patches up his bullet wound the best she can, and puts him up in a hotel run by some of her friends.

Back at Scaith’s office, a Scotland Yard fingerprint expert explains that the fingerprints found at the Home Office, when the defector escaped, belong to Philip Kimberley. Scaith can’t believe it, but somehow is pleased that he will have a chance to go up against his old adversary once more. He also decides to keep this bit of information to himself. So Chorley and Fraser still believe they are after Kozminsky.

Kimberley decides it is time for one further change of appearance. He shaves off the moustache and dies his hair light brown. The transformation is complete – we now have pure Michael Caine. Next Kimberley ducks into a local church and retrieves a micro film he had secreted there many years ago. hidden in a statue, naturally. Kimberley then mails a small portion to Scaith as evidence that he still has the documents, and that he still wants his million dollars.

Back in London, Penny loans her apartment to a girlfriend named Susan (Maureen Bennett). Not a great idea, because the Russians are watching the flat and mistake Susan for Penny. Susan is kidnapped and whisked away to Russia.

Now this is where the story gets weird. Fraser and Chorley are still trying to track down Kozminsky and are staying at the same Hotel. After taking a shower, Fraser walks into his bedroom to find Chorley in the room wearing only a dressing gown. Chorley is a homosexual and because Fraser’s ex-partner was also gay, Chorley assumes that Fraser is. Fraser sets Chorley straight. It’s not an easy scene to watch. Not because of the homosexual theme – but because Charles Gray is lumbered with a poorly applied skull cap. It appears his character is bald and he wears a selection of different length wigs each day to intimate that his hair is growing. But the makeup in this scene is so badly applied, that rather than being a defining moment for these two characters, it simply becomes creepy!

Back to Penny. She makes a trip to her apartment to check on Susan who is not answering the phone. He finds the apartment has been trashed and Susan missing. In hysterics she calls Kimberley, but the phone is tapped. Scaith turns up and takes Penny into custody. Kimberley flees from the hotel he is staying at and calls Scaith. He still wants to make the exchange and organises a swap, cash for the payroll, at the church where the microfilm is hidden. Scaith agrees and sets Penny up as the delivery girl. She has to take the money to her father.

Naturally enough it is a trap, and all agents converge on the church, including Chorley and Fraser. As the exchange is taking place, Kimberley grabs Penny and puts a gun to her head. It’s a ruse, because he won’t kill his own daughter but Chorley and Fraser don’t realise that Kozminsky is Kimberley. Scaith realises its a ploy, but doesn’t let on. It does, however allow Kimberley to escape and he steals a car. Fraser ‘borrows’ a police motorbike and follows. For some reason, the chase and following shootout take place in a lion park. It just happened to be there, I guess (Why did the chicken cross the road?)

As I mentioned in the paragraph above, once the cars and bike have come to a halt, there is a shootout. Poor old Chorley buys it, but it appears he was working for the Russians anyway. That about wraps it up – there is a bit more but not worth discussing. In the context of the story and the past history these characters have, it doesn’t make sense. But, oh well, that sums up the movie really!

One of the most annoying things about this movie is the constant references to the Cambridge Spies, Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt. Barely a set piece goes by without mention or allusion to these four men. I presume this is because of the publication of Climate Of Treason by Andrew Boyle, the book that outed Anthony Blunt as the fourth man, a few years earlier. As I mentioned at the start, Caine’s character is Philip Kimberley obviously a play on Kim Philby, and the comparison’s in life story are similar (Head of British Intelligence defects to Russian etc..). Maybe that is clever, simplistic, but a fare enough foundation to hang a film on. But the film makers aren’t happy with this. they have to go further. They imply that Philby exists also, which implies that two Heads of British Intelligence have defected. It is just clumsy, and reeks of name dropping for the sake of credibility.

Another clumsy aspect of the film is the way homosexuals are represented. In the film homosexuality seems to imply that one is a Communist. A dated view of the world, which would be sure to raise the ire of certain groups in the community. Fraser’s partner kills him self in shame, and at one point, Scaith says that if homosexuality had been legal in Britain at the time, Burgess and Maclean wouldn’t have defected. And as it turns out Sir James Chorley is a Communist spy, and he too is homosexual.

This has to be one of the most disappointing films in the genre. Why? Although it is not the worst film to be found on these pages (but it’s close), the talent associated with this project should have ensured a top-flight production. Let’s start with the team behind the camera. Firstly, director Terence Young has a proven track record with spy films, having directed Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Thunderball and Triple Cross. The second unit director is Peter Hunt. He worked with Young on the early Bond films and directed one of the best, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Then we move onto the people in front of the camera. Michael Caine, yep Harry Palmer himself, a doyen of the spy film, gives possibly the worst performance of his career. His attempt at a Russian accent is painful. Next we have Olivier. Well, it’s no secret that he made a lot of crap in the autumn of his years, but for an actor who is undoubtedly one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century to stoop to this level is quite sad. Then we have Robert Powell. He escapes my scathing tongue, by virtue that he is underused. The film features some fantastic character actors, who have been, or were the mainstays of the spy genre, like Vladek Sheybal (From Russia With Love, Billion Dollar Brain, Puppet On A Chain, Scorpio) and Anthony Dawson (Dr. No, Operation Kid Brother, and Blofeld’s voice in Thunderball). So despite all these seasoned campaigners behind and in front of the camera, they cannot lift this turkey up above the bottom rung. That’s why it is such a disappointment.

Maybe this review, with all the name dropping in the previous paragraph has peaked your interest. Please, don’t be fooled. This movie is only for spy or Michael Caine completists.

The Jigsaw Man (1983)