Wednesday, 14 November 2018

From Russia with Love

 

I wrote this piece for the retro chronicles of Galactic Journey. It didn't get used, but rather than letting it go to waste I present it now.

The sequel to Dr. No has arrived with much fanfare. Highly anticipated by the general public and James Bond fans alike. Aficionados of the books will not be disappointed by the film, which raises the bar for the film franchise.

The opening sequence that follows the United Artists logo is the same as Dr. No. A series of white circles resolves into a scene of James Bond walking along, as seen through the barrel of a gun. The tempo of the music rises with the twang of the guitar acting as a counterpoint to the main rhythm. The audience is captivated, and a hush descends over the auditorium as we cut to a night scene.

Here we're shown Sean Connery stalking through the grounds of a mansion, while in turn being shadowed by a tall blond thug who gets the drop on our hero, killing him with a garrotte: a wicked-looking wire that the villain draws from his wristwatch. And for a moment the film teases us with Bond's death.

However, all is not what it seems.

Lights from the mansion reveal this to be a SPECTRE training ground, and the dead Sean Connery, a man wearing a convincing rubber mask. The music by Barry Norman then plays the theme tune as the opening credits are presented, the words moving over scantily clad women dancing to the theme tune.

It is mesmerizing. Everybody in the auditorium is silent with anticipation of what comes next. The sheer audacity and inventiveness of the opening having overridden the usual rustling and coughs that accompany most films. I've never experienced anything like it before.

With this film, James Bond has become a phenomenon that transcends the limitations of its genre, turning into a spectacle that sweeps the viewer into the exotic world of espionage.

Then the audience is introduced to the plot via the introduction of the villains discussing their plans.
We meet three of SPECTRE's leaders: Number One, the chief executive who remains unnamed during the film; Number Three, Rosa Klebb a former Russian SMERSH agent who has defected to SPECTRE; and Number Five, Kronsteen who is SPECTRE's chief planner.

During this exposition we only see Klebb and Kronsteen, with the camera cutting between their faces and the hands of their leader who strokes a white cat as he listens to the details of the complex plot of From Russia with Love.

Kronsteen has devised a scheme that involves luring the British with the opportunity to get their hands on a Russian cryptographic machine, called a Lektor, which is used to decode orders sent by Moscow. The operation will take place in Turkey, which lies between Russia and the West. The plan involves playing the British intelligence station against the Russian consulate, and in the confusion steal the Lektor from the British, who will get the blame for stealing it from the Russians.

Klebb's assesses Donald "Red" Grant, the male agent who we saw in the opening sequence garrotting Sean Connery, who is tasked with killing Bond for real this time. But ordered to wait until after 007 retrieves the Lektor. Klebb then dupes a beautiful woman from the Russian consulate into believing she's working for Russian intelligence, to lure Bond to retrieve the Lektor.

Interestingly, there is a sexual frisson in both these scenes, revealing Klebb as a sexual predator, when she displays undue interest in both the male and female agents she recruits.

From here the film switches to London where M informs James Bond that the cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova has fallen in love with him, and wants to defect to the West, bringing with her the top secret Lektor device. Both Bond and M understand this is a "Honey Trap," but the chance to get hold of the Lektor is too good to turn down.

The audience knows SPECTREs plans, and the sudden excitement this produces when watching the film is physical. One really fears for what will happen next.

Before setting off to Istanbul, Bond is supplied with a special attaché case with a tear gas booby trap containing a folding AR-7 Armalite sniper rifle. The case also comes equipped with a throwing knife. All will be used during the film.

Bond travels to Istanbul and meets up with Kerim Bey, the British intelligence station chief, who will help 007 retrieve the Lektor. Bey describes to Bond the situation in Turkey where the British and Russians have a truce of sorts. Both sides routinely spy on each other, but use proxies for plausible deniability when taking action against each other. The British have in their employ gypsies and the Russians use their Bulgarians allies.

Then the SPECTRE plans kicks into action as Red Grant kills a Bulgarian secret agent tailing Bond and Bey to provoke the Russians into attacking the British. Their response is to bomb the British intelligence station.

This forces Bond to leave Istanbul until things cool down. Bey takes him to a gypsy camp, but soon after they arrive the Bulgarians attack, and everyone is as each other's throats. The action comes thick and fast demonstrating how effective Red Grant is in shadowing Bond.

The plot twists and turns, luring us deeper into the world, until Bond meets Romanova who is waiting for him in his bed. Unknown to them both, SPECTRE has set up a camera to film their love making, which they plan to use this to discredit Bond and British intelligence.

The plot then focuses on Bond and Bey's plan on how to steal the Lektor. Afterwards Bond escapes with the Romanova, and Bey aboard the Orient Express. However, they are being tailed by a Russian security officer who has to be dealt with.

This results in the death of Kerim Bey, Bond's ally at the hands of Red Grant, who has proved himself to be a formidable adversary. Unlike Bond, the audience is aware that Red Grant has been shadowing the hero throughout the film. So the viewer is left wondering when the villain will strike next.

When Red Grant appears, pretending to be an agent sent by M to help Bond, it raises the tension further. When the confrontation kicks off, the fight between them is fast, furious, and brutal in its intensity. Arguably, one of the most realistic fight scenes ever choreographed on film. The booby trapped attaché case and hidden knife helps Bond secure his triumph over his adversary.

In any other film this would probably mark the end of the story, but here it serves as the starting point for a series of three encounters, the plans for which are introduced through a scene where we return to SPECTRE HQ.

In a tense scene, Klebb and Kronsteen are brought to account over the failure of the plan with Red Grant's death. Number One has his henchman stab Kronsteen with a poisoned dagger concealed within the soul of a boot. Then Klebb is ordered to retrieve the Lektor, and as can be imagined, she's highly motivated to want to succeed in this task.

The first attempt to intercept Bond sees him being chased by SPECTRE henchmen in a helicopter. Bond defeats them using the sniper rifle. We then move to the final chase in a boat where he and Romanova are being pursued. To escape Bond releases the boat's fuel canisters, which he detonates with a flare gun. The scene is frighteningly realistic in its portrayal of the fear and confusion as the crews of the boats are engulfed in flames.

Bond and Romanova reach Venice, and the safety of being back in the West. But, Klebb appears in their hotel room disguised as a maid when she tries to kill Bond with a dagger hidden in her shoe. But the audience knows it's poisoned. This ups the tension to what, after Red Grant, would be a scene otherwise lacking in threat. Before he can be stabbed, Bond's life is saved by Romanova who shoots Klebb.

It may not sound it, but the relief was palpable. Bond is triumphant and gets the girl. It may be hackneyed, but the film never lets off the pressure, and the denouement is satisfying. The end credits reveal that Bond will be back in Goldfinger, and that's all we need to know.

Mark my words, James Bond 007 will be at the forefront of popular culture for years to come.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Reading

 

Being a bit under the weather I've taken to reading to cheer me up, a mixture of old and new. The re-reads are read with half-my-mind on how the author is doing what they do. The new stories are just read for enjoyment, and with half-an-eye on whether they are worth going back to re-read.

First up was a re-read. Ian Douglas aka William J. Keith's Heritage Trilogy. It's unashamedly a favourite of mine. I first came across Bill's work via FASA's Traveller RPG supplements and then the BattleTech novels, starting with Decision at Thunder Rift. Bill has an impressive bibliography, and you can find out more here.

What's even better is that I wrote him a fan letter, and he replied.

What I like about the Heritage trilogy, and the two sequels the Legacy and Inheritance trilogies, is the way he weaves a story across multiple generations of people and their descendants. Semper Mars starts with a mission to Mars to support a xenoarchaeology expedition that becomes a desperate journey across Mars.

Luna Marine and Europa Strike take the story out to the edge of the solar system. It was while re-reading these that I realised how much Bill influenced my own work. Well recommended.

 

I recently watched Ready Player One, which is a great movie, and I should probably buy the novel. However, looking around I found Nick Cole's Soda Pop Soldier, and bought it instead, because I was intrigued by his YouTube channel. I think there's a lesson to be learnt about discoverability from that chain of events.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by the direction the story went in. A different take on conflict that made me think about how one tells stories.  Definitely on my pile to be re-read. Lots I can learn from him.

 

I then re-read another old favourite John Ringo's Aldenata Legacy series. The first book is A Hymn Before Battle, which kicks off the series with a bang, followed by Gust Front. The series was meant to be a trilogy, but it grew into a tetralogy when the third book, When the Devil Dances, had to be split into two books, the second part being called Hell's Faire.

Again, this was a re-read to study how he did... what he did. I noticed some interesting techniques that I hope to be able to use myself for my next The World of Drei novelette.

I also read another of the Harry Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, Proven Guilty. While this is not a re-read for me, I was acutely aware of my writer brain taking note of how Jim tells a story. It left me much to think on.

 

Finally, I'm about to start A Fistful of Elven Gold by my friend Alex Stewart. Delayed because my beloved grabbed it first. All I can say is that Susan enjoyed the story. I will comment more when I've finished reading it.

That's it for now, catch you all on the bounce.