Thursday, January 26, 2017


Ian Fleming

"The Americans are unpredictable people. They are hysterical."

James Bond's been knocking off SMERSH's best men recently, and frankly, the Reds are a little aggrieved. What else to do but issue a death warrant.

Master planner/chess enthusiast Colonel Kronsteen and Head of Operations/torture enthusiast Colonel Klebb recruit pretty, young cipher clerk Corporal Tatiana Romanova to approach MI6 as a spectacular defector--not only does she come bearing the coveted decoding machine known as a "Spektor," she's besotted with one of their most outstanding agents.

Bond. James Bond.

She's just the honeypot, though. The coup de grace that will re-establish the Soviets as an unmatched power in the espionage universe is to be delivered by Chief Executioner Donovan "Red" Grant, an Irish-German defector who lives to bring death.

SMERSH could not have selected a more opportune time to make an attempt on Bond's life. The old boy's been bogged down in "the soft life" since Tiffany Case packed up. No thrills, no chills, no fills.

Both he and M should have known better. Each man has their doubts, sure, but the lure of the Spektor, the prospect of crippling the Russians, overrides all suspicions.

Tatiana contacted the British SS's "Station T" in Istanbul, promising to hand over the device if Bond would meet her there, and accompany her on a train ride to England. Bond touches base with Kerim Bey, head of "Station T," and the agent with whom Tatiana spoke. He's also one of the most intriguing characters in any Bond book, an exuberant son of a gigolo with whom 007 feels an instant connection. "I'd follow you to Hell and back" is a hoary promise, but Bond actually gets to make good when he follows Bey through a rat 'n' bat-infested tunnel just to spy on the Soviet consulate and then, into a Gypsy catfight that ends in gunfire.

As a reward (of sorts), 007 returns to his hotel to find a near-nude Tatiana in his bed. Sexy results! Then it's time to hop aboard the Orient Express for the lengthy return trip to the home of the world's most underwhelming bacon. How long? Enough days for wrenches to screw the works, in the forms of three M.G.B. agents along for the ride. Using bribery and trickery, Kerim Bey manages to have two of them removed.

Bond is off with Tatiana, meanwhile, undergoing a gradual "re-softening" that makes inevitable the terrible.

The loss of Bey is one thing--a horribly unfair thing at that--but the arrival of MI6's own Captain Nash is a whole other. He doesn't respond to Bond's attempts to, um, bond, and he's rather fond of ending every third sentence with the words "old man."  Still, James is merely irritated. Nash might be flavorless soup, but the main course is closer than ever. No way that Nash is actually Red Grant, and whatever his plans are, they certainly do not include dropping roofies in the bowl and shooting up the plates.

Luckily for Bond, Grant fits the stereotype of the shithouse with one brick missing. He not only details SMERSH's master plan (sex scandal! Murder-suicide! Splodey things!) he informs 007 exactly how he will die--a bullet to the heart as the train speeds through a tunnel.

Re-enter hard man James Bond!

Grant also let slip that he would be disembarking in Paris after the conclusion of his mission to meet up with the adorable Colonel Klebb. Eager to find the mistress of pain before she finds him, 007 deposits Tatiana and the Spektor with the proper authorities, then grabs a room at the Ritz. The well-hardened agent is scarcely fooled by fake French accents, and he susses out Klebb just before the bullets from her telephone (yes, the bullets from her telephone) can penetrate flesh and bone. Poison-tipped knitting needles don't hit their target either, and Klebb is subdued seconds before the arrival of Rene Mathis from the Deuxiéme Bureau.

Contented that the vanquished hag will soon be sallied forth to the waiting armpit of justice, Bond goes soft yet again. Face like a fish, heart like a lion, that's Rosa Klebb, and the bitch is packing a poison-tip spike in her shoe that none of the four men in the room see in time to prevent it from striking 007 in the leg.

From Russia With Love tends towards classic-ness more often than not, and I'll call it the best thing Ian Fleming ever wrote. It's certainly the most uniquely-structured Bond novel--the first several chapters concentrate solely on the bright red baddies, and the man himself doesn't even warrant a direct mention until the conclusion of chapter five. Will you care? Dunno 'bout that, but I didn't. Reading more about the ins and outs of the Soviet's revenge plot (to say nothing of the who's and what's) not only staves off any encroaching staleness, it gives the reader a unique advantage over James Bond himself, as we are aware of the danger well before he is.

And once all bodies are on board the Orient Express, the Super Bowl of spy games begins. No, the NFC Championship of spy games. (The New England Patriots can never be involved in that one.)

The "than not" concerns the first chapter. Aside from a typically brilliant opening sentence, the text was scratched out with a rusty spoon. "Unable to be fathomed" is the cocktail of curdling solids and spoiling liquids that popped and fizzed Ian Fleming's circuit board, rendering it incapable of discerning good prose from prose that would send a debut author's manuscript directly to a publishing house's restroom.

Director-Terence Young
Writers-Richard Maibaum & Johanna Harwood

Within the pages of Life magazine, 3/17/61 edition, President John F. Kennedy provided a list of his ten favorite books. Only one work of fiction made the cut: From Russia With Love. The monumental endorsement sent the damn thing fairly flying from bookstores nationwide, and made it easy on Eon Productions when time came to select the de facto sequel to Dr. No.

From jump it's obvious that the second Bond film is a considerable step up from the first. We have the first-ever John Barry score and the introduction of Maurice Binder's credits full of women--on the heels of a great fake-out, at that.

SPECTRE's "Number One" summons a couple other high numbers to his dreadfully dangerous office. We will come to know them as Colonel's Tov Kronsteen and Rosa Klebb (although we do not come to much about "Number One," other than his fondness for white pussy). The topic--the elimination of James Bond as payback for his elimination of their own Julius No. A hot piece of espionage equipment (here, called "The Lektor") and a hotter piece of blonde Russian tail should do the trick!

Unlike the first film, Major Boothroyd read the script well in advance, and is on hand in M's office to present James with the first official gadget in the series: a briefcase kitted out with a knife, fifty gold sovereigns, ammo, an AR7 sniper rifle and a tear gas canister that explodes if and when the case is opened incorrectly.

Bond flies to Istanbul to meet Kerim Bey, a true "one of one." Shit gets James, Sylvester James in short order. They spy on the Soviets, watch Gypsy bitches throw hands, and eliminate loose cannons shooting out the mouths of babes. Then Bond finds Tatiana in bed and nasty things happen because they simply must, that is why she's there.

Aboard the Orient Express there is romance and tragedy. Our hero persists, and his girl persists, and furthermore England persists, in the stoic face of Captain Nash from MI6, who hops aboard to accompany Bond and Tatiana on the last legs of the journey. The two men don't establish an easy rapport, and Nash's lack of refinement at the dinner table does him in--he is, in fact, notorious defector-turned-SPECTRE killing machine Donald "Red" Grant.

What he lacks in wine etiquette, Grant possesses in hubris. After he delivers the "Here's how SPECTRE's gonna ruin the reputation of you and those fuckboys you work for," Bond fools him into eating tear gas, and then the passenger car brawl to end 'em all is well and truly on, ladies and gents.

James and Tatiana disembark in Venice, grabbing a hotel room due to be cleaned by an especially ugly maid. Klebb attempts first to shoot, then spike Bond, only to be felled when Tatiana (eventually, perhaps miraculously) shoots her.

This is how you adapt a great book. Magnificent trimming of the edges, deft re-imagining of the action, and vigorous performances. The added twist of Grant blowing his own cover had to drive Fleming nuts on some level, just for being so sly and clever.

I forgive the movie any and everything, including the wipe editing.

Sure, JFK put the novel in his top 10…but the film is in the top 5's of three men who played James Bond.*

Both are tightly-plotted thrillers, but I have to edge it to the film. Fleming weaves an enticing li'l plot, but he could not force the actors out of my head as I read. Further, he did not lavish the love upon Turkey that he did for Jamaica (for obvious reasons) and thus it's up to the film to show us the markets and the mosques, the ornate architecture…as well as the rats. (No bats, though.)

About those actors.

Sean Connery is at his best in From Russia With Love. Here, as well as in Goldfinger, he seems to be most vested in the role and truly relishing every second. He's a bad-ass in toto--suave, bemused, brutal, whatever the situation calls for.

Tatiana Romanova is portrayed by 1960 Miss Universe runner-up Daniela Binachi, in body only. She's okay, if you like blond(e)s, which I kinda don't really. She's got thick black hair in the book, really the only thing to recommend her since Fleming credits her with "faultless" arms and breasts. I want, nay, demand, distinguishing marks and loose skin. Tatiana also boasts "jut-butt" (my term), which the author dismisses as undesirably masculine. Oh that Ian!

Trying to see Rosa Klebb's "toad-like" face as any other than that of Austrian singer/actress Lotte Lenya--I'll sooner see a fifty-pound starfish, okay? She's basically Dolores Umbridge with the stones to do her own dirty work.

Whether "Donovan" or "Donald," it doesn't matter. Red Grant is forever that big blond box of meat Robert Shaw and if he fights Bond ten times, he wins nine.

Whenever a party was about, Kerim Bey could be trusted to arrive with a big bag of black bread and a bigger bottle of a spirit slightly lighter in shade. Bond is clearly affected by the death of his salt-breathed friend, and honestly, I was as well. Film Bey (Pedro Armendariz) is infinitely more tolerable than his sleazoid progenitor, and while he may have some old-fashioned ideas about men and women, apart and together, nothing he says or does sends me into an involuntary Icky Shuffle.
(The scene between Bond and Bey's son just after Kerim's murder is more affecting on the page, for additional length and touching detail.)

The decision to leave Bond near-death allowed Ian Fleming to end the series if he so chose. The filmmakers, bedeviled by no such ambivalence, were thus free to make a much more pleasant ending. I admire the hell out of Fleming's chutzpah though; no Bond film would dare dangle so precariously.

The producers also added helicopter and boat action to ratchet up the tension. The explosion in Bey's office? Had already happened in the book by the time he and Bond met.

The Ritz hotel room in the novel suggests "the days of wines and roses." The hotel room in the movie suggests a week or so of lost nights.

If you find that scene between Klebb and Tatiana uncomfortable, try this on for size: Rosa Klebb in a nightie.

More semi-genius--Kronsteen's death scene. It introduces us to the spiked shoe and demonstrates the extent of its threat. Klebb's desperate kicks at Bond in the hotel could have been silly rather than suspenseful--had we not already seen the weapon in action.

"M waved his pipe sideways to indicate the ignorance of those grisly female habits. 'The Lord knows I don't know much about those things….'" I said it was Fleming's best, I didn't say it was Tender Is the Night.

Book Kerim Bey is an okay guy to visit, but I doubt you'd want to live with him. His opinions on the Turkish people are certainly opinions! Here he is on the fairer sex: "All women want to be swept off their feet. In their dreams, they long to be slung over a man's shoulders and taken to a cave and raped."

Sexual Consent 101: it is not possible to want to be forced into sexual activity.

Bey's assertion on the innermost desires of the human female is only the second-most offensive thing in the novel From Russia With Love. I will refrain from discussing the first-most since A) I don't want to spoil it and B) it pisses me off so intensely I get a gnarly pimento cheese taste in my mouth.

Reading about chess sucks more than watching chess sucks more than actually playing chess.


*Connery, Dalton, Craig.

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