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From Russia With Love's Visual Style

On the 50th anniversary of "From Russia With Love"'s US release our friend and James Bond expert Deborah Lipp (she even wrote a book about him!) is here to talk 007...

Sean Connery in "From Russia With Love" released 50 years ago today in the States

After 23 official films and 2 unofficial ones, From Russia With Love, the second James Bond adventure, remains the greatest of them all. Considered an iconic film in many ways, it may surprise the casual Bond viewer to note that certain "iconic" aspects of the Bond franchise were missing from or created in this film.

Let's focus on From Russia With Love's extraordinary visual signature on this anniversary

The first James Bond film, Dr. No, featured the production design of Ken Adam. Adam is justifiably famous. In Dr. No, he designed such sets as the nuclear launch room, and, needing one last set when the budget ran out, came up with an exquisitely simple interrogation room, as perfect as any of his more elaborate work. Adam worked on a total of seven Bond films, creating such sets as Goldfinger's Fort Knox and the hollowed-out volcano lair in You Only Live Twice. He is considered synonymous with the look of James Bond movies, but he didn't do From Russia With Love. He was busy working on Dr. Strangelove—go ahead and revisit the war room scene in Kubrick's film and ask yourself if it doesn't look an awful lot like a James Bond movie.

No, art direction for From Russia with Love was done by Syd Cain. Cain is kind of impressive. Like Ken Adam, he did multiple Bond films and worked with Stanley Kubrick (in Cain's case, on Lolita). 

The eye-popping chess tournament scene in From Russia with Love, in which the chess game takes place on a raised dais above a checkerboard floor mimicking the chessboard itself, is Cain's work. The movie also featured Blofeld's yacht-based lair, extensive scenes on the Orient Express, and location footage in Istanbul augmented by opulent set design. In fact, opulence is a good word to hang on Cain's work, and FRWL is an opulent movie.

Another iconic visual element in Bond films is the title sequence. Title design by Maurice Binder is considered part of the Bond signature, and Binder was there from the beginning. Dancing girls, silhouettes, sinuous animated movement, and the famed gunbarrel sequence were all Binder's designs. He did the title sequences for every Bond film from the first one in 1962 through License to Kill in 1989. Except two: From Russia with Love and Goldfinger. Robert Brownjohn did those. 

FRWL's title sequence features the credits projected on the mostly-nude body of a bellydancer. It's beautiful and so very Bond, so typical of Binder's signature work that you may wonder if Brownjohn wasn't influenced by the first Bond title sequence. He wasn't: Dr. No's titles are a psychedelic explosion of colored dots. Male and female dancing silhouettes come in around the 1.40 mark, and by 2.15 we're into the "Three Blind Mice" sequence—three blind beggars who turn out, as the movie begins, to be assassins. Nope, the sensual body of a woman in Bond titles wasn't made iconic by the iconic Bond title designer. 

From Russia With Love is great for many reasons: Plot, dialog, cast, and locations all play important roles. But the visual style is a key component. How interesting, then, that it stands separate from what we think of as "the" Bond style.


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Reader Comments (8)

How interesting then that you conclude with the thesis that From Russia With Love stands separate from what we think of as "the" Bond style after you've devoted your entire post to explaining why it fits in so seamlessly with what we think of as "the" Bond style.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Interesting points, but I think Goldfinger, Casino Royale (2006) and Skyfall all have legitimate claims to the argument of which one is the best of the series. I'd lean on Casino Royale 2006 right now, but I'm open to other viewpoints.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Willy, maybe saying "it stands separate" is an error; I mean its creators stand separate from those we think of as the creators of the Bond style.

Volvagia, everyone has a different "best" Bond film, and that argument will never be settled.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

FWIW, I don't see a contradiction in Deb's piece.

FRWL introduced the pre-title teaser, the stylized "girl" title sequence (as Deb points out), a title theme song named for film, "Q" and the Chekov's Gun gadget briefing (Bond's lethal attache case), and a final battle scene between Bond and the evil organization's goon (Grant). So, yes, on the surface FRWL is indeed very Bondian and fits quite comfortably in the 007 canon.

However, Syd Cain's look IS different than Ken Adams'. AND the plot of FRWL is very personal and grounded. A total departure from the "Bond saves the world from global chaos" storylines that would dominate later outings until For Your Eyes Only (arguably a FRWL rip-off).

As best, one could argue that FRWL honors the Bond template (a template IT helped to create) in the breech.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Maul

UGH...that last sentence was horribly sloppy (indulge me):

AT best, one could argue that FRWL honors the Bond template (a template IT helped to create) in the BREACH. ;)

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Maul

Matt, not only your last sentence was sloppy. There were lots of dancing girls in the opening credits of Dr. No already (in silhouette, as Binder liked them), Q is still Boothroyd in From Russia With Love (in more than one respect) and your description of the so-called final battle scene makes me wonder if you've actually made it to the end of the movie. Also "very personal and grounded and total departure"... Personal it isn't and grounded, well, maybe for a Bond film which (un)fortunately isn't saying that much. I also wonder how it can be a "total departure" from things that weren't even established yet. The most inappropriate of your dubious claims though is that Syd Cain's look IS different than Ken Adams'. If you'd have said that From Russia With Love is a bit more small-scale and claustrophobic than your usual Ken Adam Bond, then we could have found some common ground. But implying that it would stand in sharp contrast to the stylized and artificial glamour of other Bond films strikes me as nothing short of an insult.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

"FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" ranks fifth on my list of favorite Bond films. I certainly consider it superior to both "DR. NO" and "GOLDFINGER". It featured my favorite performance by Sean Connery as James Bond. It's an elegant, yet suspenseful spy film that reeked from the atmosphere of the Cold War. And it featured a journey above the Orient Express.

Yes, I have a few quibbles about the film. I found that last conversation between Bond and Red Grant before their fight somewhat unrealistic. I found it hard to believe that a first-rate assassin like Grant would waste his time revealing SPECTRE's plans before making any attempt to kill Bond. I was annoyed by the constant quips from Bond. And his journey aboard the Orient Express from Istanbul to the Yugoslavian-Italian border took a very short time.

Aside from these flaws, "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" is a favorite of mine.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLiz Moore

Liz: "I found that last conversation between Bond and Red Grant before their fight somewhat unrealistic. I found it hard to believe that a first-rate assassin like Grant would waste his time revealing SPECTRE's plans before making any attempt to kill Bond."

In the novel, Grant is depicted as having psychological issues. At one point, Bond, still tricked into thinking that Grant was a field agent, makes a mental note to report him as unstable upon returning to England. I've assumed the cinematic Grant had those same tendencies along with an extra helping of sadism thrown in.

There's also more than a hint of class envy on Grant's part ("You know the right wine to order, but you're the one on your knees") that informs his desire to get his money's worth out of Bond's death.

Given that, Grant's monologuing didn't bother me too much. Of course, the device of telling Bond all your organization's secrets before killing him does get old as the series progresses.

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Maul

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