That's not a criticism. It's an observation on how effectively the Eon folks adapted this movie from the Ian Fleming novel.
In the later period of Bond films, the plots would veer so wildly from what Ian Fleming wrote, the movie and book often shared only a title. But for the first few films, they stayed tremendously faithful to the books. And surprisingly, when they differed, it was usually the case that the movie makers' changes were for the better (at least for the purposes of making good films).
In the Cold War days, the producers wished to avoid making the Russians the eternal bogeyman in the Bond movies, as Fleming had done in the earlier books, fearing becoming cliched (and perhaps fearing some negative impact on the international box office). Of course, this didn't stop them from making Communist China the villain more than once...(Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice).
So they had Dr. No working for S.P.E.C.T.R.E., whereas in the novel he had been working for the Russians. It didn't make much difference. In both the book and movie, No's partners were only briefly mentioned and never appeared on-screen.
But in FRWL, it made all the difference. In the novel, the plot is pure SMERSH (The USSR's counter-espionage agency). After a string of intelligence setbacks, they wanted to strike back and humiliate a Western intelligence agency. The decided on MI-6, and chose Bond specifically as the target to avenge his victories over Russian operative in the 3 of the first 4 Fleming books. All the principal villains were there: Red Grant, Rosa Kleb, Kronsteen. But they were all working directly for SMERSH. Instead of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Island and Venice, our opening scenes are all in Moscow.
But that scenario meant that the Russians were willing to take an extremely high risk--the possibility of losing the Spektor cipher machine (for obvious reasons, they changed it to Lektor in the film version)--for what seems like relatively little gain: the death and public humiliation of a single British agent.
Ahh, but by making S.P.E.C.T.R.E. the true main culprit, the producers and screenwriter Richard Maibaum overcome that, and added a delicious level of complexity to the whole affair. Suddenly, our villains have a true prize to play for: a chance to steal the Lektor for themselves, then sell it back to the Russians. Plus they get a chance to avenge Dr. No by killing Bond.
This wrinkle pleasantly pumps up the action in Istanbul, as Red Grant works hard to keep Russian agents and British agents at each others' throats, hiding S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s involvement while clearing a path for James Bond to collect the Lektor for them. And this twist takes what was a good plot in the novel and transforms it into a GREAT plot for the movie. This one should be taught in screen writing schools as an example of how to adapt a book for film.
Otherwise, the movie is very faithful to the book. The first 1/3 of the novel is devoted to meeting the villains and seeing them set up their plot. The movie doesn't spend that long, thankfully, but it is 15 minutes before we see the real Bond. This is a real contrast with Dr. No, as I noted last week, wherein we didn't meet the main villain until an hour and a half into the movie. One bonus effect of this structure is that, unlike most Bond films where we're with him trying to figure things out as we go along, this time we already KNOW know what's going on. Instead of figuring things out, we must watch helplessly, wondering how 007 can avoid the trap that we know is waiting for him. Thus, the tension is ratcheted upwards in a most effective manner.
I should mention that, in 2008 terms, the idea that it would somehow be being amazingly damaging for a British agent to be found having sex is rather...quaint, let us say. Even by the second movie it was well-established that Bond was quite the Lothario. If all the enemy had to do to neutralize him was film him having sex and give the film to the press, well, that couldn't have been too hard to accomplish, could it? And if it happened today, one gets the feeling that Bond would laugh and say, "It's already on YouTube, dude." But England was a different place in 1957 (book) and 1963 (movie)...and while you could have a stiff upper lip, anything else stiff had better not be acknowledged in public. Spies and politicians in real life were often brought down by less. Ironically enough, Bond alludes to some sexcapade he and an embarrassed M had in Tokyo in the past. Maybe instead of Bond, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. should have set their sights higher...
In this first "real" appearance of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., their plot is refreshingly simple and down to earth. No nuclear blackmail or kidnapping spaceships, none of the cartoon schemes that Austin Powers would go on to lampoon. Just simple theft and re-sale. Don't get used to it--from here on out S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is all about global destruction.
And of course, this is the first "appearance" of Blofeld. He's credited only as "?" in the closing scroll, but his hands were played by Anthony Dawson, who played the doomed Professor Dent in Dr. No, and he was voiced by Eric Pohlmann. And even though we never actually see him, we do get out very first "Blofeld Kill"--the classic scene where the chief bad guy has two failures in front of him, makes everyone believe that he's going to kill Henchman A, and--surprise--kills Henchman B at the last second. We'll be seeing more Blofeld Kills throughout the series. (Interestingly enough, Blofeld clearly makes the wrong decision here...Kronsteen's plan would have worked had Red Grant not gotten greedy and careless...so the failure was Kleb's operations, not the planning. Maybe Blofeld just found Kronsteen as annoying as everyone else did)
- The first "proper" Bond opening credits, as we have them partially projected over a belly dancer. Movies would never be the same again.
- The first teaser sequence. Technically, it doesn't feature Bond, as the end reveals that who we think is Bond is really a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. dude in a mask (question: how, exactly, do you get picked for sacrificial lamb duty like that at S.P.E.C.T.R.E.? Draw lots? Was he being punished? Surely, the guy didn't volunteer thinking he could defeat superstar Red Grant, did he?).
- A "proper" theme song. We're not 100% there yet, as it's just an instrumental over the opening credits (not that that's a bad thing--the song is actually much better without Matt Munro's syrupy vocals and the sappy lyrics). Still, they didn't have enough confidence in the song to let it stand alone--2/3 of the way through the credits they switch to a reprise of the James Bond Theme.
- And of course, Desmond Llewellyn as Q. He wasn't given much personality here...he just gave Bond his super-briefcase. This film also introduces "Q's Law of the Conservation of Gadgets"--if Q gives you a gadget in the beginning, you will use it once--and only once--in the movie. Exception that proves the rule: Bond uses the collapsible sniper rifle twice.
Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanva is, perhaps, the most beautiful Bond Girl ever. Obviously this comes down to a matter of personal taste. But man o man, she is gorgeous. She also acquits herself quite well as an actor. Just watch the range on her face in her first scene, as she goes from fear of Kleb to anger about being asked personal questions to joyful reminiscence as she recalls her previous lovers to disgust at Kleb's touch. It becomes a difficult role to pull off--there's no clear point of delineation or indication in the script as to when she stops trying to lure Bond and where she actually falls in love with him; so it becomes difficult to assess her performance in that regard. But she works very well with Sean. Too bad her voice was dubbed, as I would have liked to have heard that, too.
And Red Grant. Upon re-viewing, it's astonishing what a presence he is in the picture. The teaser is all about him. And after Kleb fetches him, it seems as if he's in the background in nearly every scene, shadowing our principals, stirring the Istanbul pot. His menace becomes palpable, made even more tense by the fact that we know what's going on while Bond doesn't. With few words until his final scenes, Robert Shaw owns the screen. Special note: as someone who saw Jaws before I saw FRWL, this role came as quite a shock to me as a youngster...most unlike the Shaw I "knew."
Which all leads to the train compartment fight. Pound for pound, this is still one of the most vicious, compelling fights ever put to film. The emotional investment we have in these characters, the cramped quarters, the knocked out Tatiana acting as a silent witness, the lack of dialogue, the excellent direction by Terrance Young, the superb editing by Peter Hunt, the absolute conviction that this fight can only end in the death of one of these men...go ahead, pull out the DVD, watch it again. I'll wait...welcome back. See what I mean? When you watch some of the hyper-edited, CGI'd, catch-phrase-filled, obviously stunt-doubled fights of some modern movies, you just yawn and wait for the climactic punch line. But never with this fight scene. 45 years later, it's still as brilliantly effective as the day it was screened in theaters.
There are some people I know who don't like FRWL. It's "too real world," "slow," "not enough gadgets or cars." I pity these people. Spoiled by the excesses of later Bond movies (and the copycats), or maybe just too young too appreciate it, they're unable to allow themselves to be seduced by this movie's obvious virtues. You don't need an exploding nuclear facility or the world in imminent peril to have a great spy movie.
The creators took what might be Fleming's best Bond novel and turned it into an even better movie. It's a quantum leap ahead of Dr. No in almost every way. It's a half-century-old action spy movie that never loses our attention for even a second. This is top tier Bond, and any discussion of the Best Bond movie must include this film.
SNELL'S RANDOM THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS:
**One more difference between the book and movie is the completely different endings. In the novel, Kleb isn't killed, she's captured. Bond, however, does die!! Kleb nails him with the shoe knife, and he tails off into coma. Fleming intended this to be the last Bond story. Fortunately, friends and colleagues talked him out of it, so Bond "miraculously" recovered from the fugu by the opening of the Dr. No novel.
**After Bond gets shanghaid by a fake driver in Dr. No, now MI-6 has clever passwords to prevent that. Too bad S.P.E.C.T.R.E. seems to crack them in about 5 minutes...
**Most egregious misuse of the "James Bond Theme" ever: James Bond checking into his hotel room, James Bond searching for bugs. Oooh, how tense and exciting. OK, so they hadn't quite mastered everything by this movie...
**Travelogue: We're more well-traveled this time. We start out in Venice (although Bond isn't there), spend much time in a very well-used Istanbul, travel on the Orient Express (could Poirot have solved these murders?), traipse through Yugoslavia, and end up back in Venice.
**Blofeld's boat headquarters--that's not the Disco Volante, isn't it?? Are boats like that standard S.P.E.C.T.R.E. issue, or did Largo get Blofeld's hand-me-downs?
**S.P.E.C.T.R.E. loses #3 and #5 this movie, not to mention an unaccounted for number of lower numbers (Morzeny had to be high up, right?). Blofeld had better start a recruiting drive--college interns, perhaps?
**S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Island--we never heard another word about it, in any movie. Is it still out there? I amuse myself with visions of ancient S.P.E.C.T.R.E. recruits still training there, still waiting for orders like WWII Japanese soldiers on tiny Pacific Islands...
**One wonders about the Russian reaction to these events. Did they realize that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. was behind the loss of the Lektor? What was there reaction to the fact that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. had compromised so many of their assets? Would there be a massive reprisal campaign by SMERSH against S.P.E.C.T.R.E.? It would be interesting to read a novel of these events from the Russian point of view...
**I should have mentioned this above, but the helicopter chasing down Bond is also wonderfully done. This might be heresy, but I think it may be better than the crop duster scene in North By Northwest. And I'm a Hitchcock fan...
**Welcome back, Sylvia Trench. Goodbye, Sylvia Trench. Hope you enjoyed that last lunch...Fun fact: there's a local band here in west Michigan called Sylvia Trench...
**What's in that gypsy belly dancer's belly button? Nah, that couldn't be one of Scaramanga's bullets, could it?
**One of the commenters to an earlier post was asking if there had ever had been a Bond menage a trois. Well, here we go. The two gypsy women are ready to kill each other...
...then James gets to take all night to "make his decision"...
...and everybody's all smiles in the morning. Oh, James...
**Which makes this film's Bond Score 4--Sylvia Trench, the 2 gypsy girls, and Tatiana. Combined Bond Score for all the movies so far: 7.
**Check out the look on Bond's face here. Yeah, Shaw didn't really slap him, but Connery is selling the hell out of it, isn't he?
**At the beginning M says the uber-briefcase is "new" and that they're being issued to all Double-O's. But Nash had one, stolen by Grant. And Bond tells him they're "a standard kit." So, was Nash a Double-O?? He didn't seem like one...
**Grant tells Bond that "the first one (shot) won't kill you, nor the second. Not even the third..." Uh, Red, that's a pretty poor way to stage a suicide. Then again compare with Dr. Kaufman's speech in Tomorrow Never Dies.
**The S.P.E.C.T.R.E. helicopter intercepts the truck Bond is in when they should still believe that Grant is alive, and they try to get him to stop before he reaches his planned escape route via boat. Does that mean Kleb et al were planning to planning to double cross Grant, and kill him?? By the way, those helicopter goons were just waaay too fashionable:
**So, Bond defeats the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. goons, makes it successfully to Venice...and he keeps the Lektor in the hotel room with him? After every thing he's been through, shouldn't his FIRST step be to take the damned thing to the British Consulate, and send that sucker back to London in the diplomatic pouch? Sheesh, it would have served him right if Kleb had stolen it at the end...
Enough...just know that:
See you then.