Friday, January 30, 2015

From Russia With Love (1963) | Music

In talking about the title sequence of Dr. No, I mistakenly said that Dr. No's title designer, Maurice Binder, also designed the titles in From Russia With Love. That was actually Robert Brownjohn though. Binder did most of the Bond films up to License to Kill, but he skipped two: From Russia With Love and Goldfinger.

In a 1983 interview with Starlog, Binder said that he didn't come back for Russia because he was "having a bit of a... ruckus at the time with the producers." But his assistant Trevor Bond came back and worked with Brownjohn, so there was some continuity. And Binder also said in the interview that he actually printed the titles, so he was involved, but the designs are all Brownjohn's.

According to Steven Jay Rubin's The James Bond Films, the inspiration for the title sequence came when Brownjohn's wife walked in front of a slideshow he was projecting. He decided to shoot the Russia titles on the body of a belly dancer and created film history. The rest of the Bond credits sequences, even the ones by Binder when he came back, owe everything to From Russia With Love. (Incidentally, Brownjohn and Trevor Bond were also both cinematographers and couldn't resist a jab at the guy who got that job for Russia. They project Ted Moore's credit directly onto the dancer's shimmying butt.)

As part of the movie, the Russia titles nicely support the setting of the film. Most of the story takes place in Turkey, so the belly dancer teases that, and the music works well too. I'm not greatly familiar with Turkish music and certainly don't have the vocabulary to talk about it, but the instrumental version of the theme song that plays over the opening credits has a flowing, string-led sound that feels vaguely Eastern.

Monty Norman was the composer for Dr. No, but Saltzman and Broccoli weren't thrilled with his work there and brought in John Barry to punch up the main theme on that movie. In Russia, Barry is back and in control of most of the score. The main theme though was written by Lionel Bart who was super popular at the time thanks to his hit musical Oliver!, which gave us perennial songs like "Food, Glorious Food" and "Consider Yourself." Barry punches this song way up too for the opening credits, leading into it with an exciting musical stinger, laying down some Alan Haven jazz organ over the theme itself, and finally segueing into his own "James Bond Theme" from Dr. No.

Bart's version of the song, sung by Matt Monro (who would go on to record another classic movie theme in 1966 for Born Free), plays over the end credits and on the radio when James Bond and Sylvia Trench are making out. I like it more than most Bond fans seem to, but it is very subdued and loungey. It's easy to see why Barry and the producers wanted a more thrilling version to start the film. And there's also the fact that Bart's lyrics had nothing to do with the movie, but were a standard love song that simply incorporated the film's title. It's probably telling that Goldfinger, where Barry had complete creative control of the soundtrack, features a song that's about the movie and also (I don't think coincidentally) gets sung over the opening credits.

The James Bond Theme itself is still used pretty liberally in From Russia With Love like it was in Dr. No. It plays at all sorts of mundane times: when Bond enters or leaves buildings, for instance. It's function isn't to spice up action scenes, it's to build excitement. It reminds viewers that the guy checking into the hotel isn't just some guy, but a thrilling, romantic figure. That'll change over the course of the series and the Bond Theme will be used more sparingly and mostly over action sequences, but in From Russia With Love Barry created a different piece of music for that.

The Russia soundtrack album calls it "007 Theme" and it was apparently inspired by Elmer Bernstein's theme to The Magnificent Seven. In Russia, it's introduced during the battle at the Romani camp and it gets used in most of the Connery movies whenever there are big, actiony set pieces. The James Bond Theme was for cool, smaller moments. The 007 Theme was for the big stuff.

And when it came time to score the mushy stuff, Barry was able to adapt Lionel Bart's romantic tune into a soft arrangement with strings. We'll see more of that kind of thing as we go through the series, too. I always enjoy hearing how the film composers use the theme songs in their scores.

In ranking the theme songs, I'm giving a slight edge to From Russia With Love over Dr. No. Nothing beats the prominence of the James Bond Theme in the Dr. No theme, but it's diluted and confused by weird transitions into two other tunes (the third of which even has a clunky, false start when it tries to come in too early and then cuts out for a few more seconds before trying again). From Russia With Love, especially Barry's instrumental version, is not only a whole piece of music, but also works in the Bond Theme smoothly and naturally. If we're also ranking the Matt Monro version (and why not?) I'll put it just slightly beneath Dr. No because while I do love to sing along to it, it really doesn't have anything to do with the movie and Dr. No's theme does.

Top Ten Theme Songs

1. From Russia With Love (John Barry instrumental version)
2. Dr No
3. From Russia With Love (Matt Monro vocal version)
4. TBD
5. TBD
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

For the title sequences, I'm letting Dr. No keep the top spot. From Russia With Love's titles may be trend-setting for the series, but they're also uneven in how well they integrate the dancer with the words. Sometimes the words are cleverly projected onto parts of her body, but other times she's just waving her hands over them. Plus, I just love the flashing dots and dancing silhouettes in Dr. No.

Top Ten Title Sequences

1. Dr No
2. From Russia With Love
3. TBD
4. TBD
5. TBD
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD


Kelly Sedinger said...

I like the Matt Munro song just fine, actually! It's clear that they still haven't quite settled into the aesthetic that the series is going to take, though, so the song doesn't quite fit the rest of the movie.

Barry's 007 Theme is kind of an odd thing -- he uses it very inconsistently throughout the series. It's not heard in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE or in OHMSS, then it pops up (if memory serves) in DIAMONDS...and then, oddly, it disappears again until MOONRAKER. It's a decent theme, but I suspect that Barry eventually concluded that having TWO recurring themes throughout the series would only get confusing, especially since the one is so iconic. Musically, though, the films are slowly finding their groove.

FRWL is one of my very favorites, and it's by far my favorite Connery film, because it's SO good as a pure espionage thriller. And you just can't beat intrigue on a train.

I'm not sure where you are on the James Bonding podcasts, but I'm caught up as far as their LIVING DAYLIGHTS installment, and it feels like they're starting to phone 'em in a bit. They're a lot more lackadaisical with plot details in that one and the general level of enthusiasm seems WAY down over earlier installments. I wonder if it picks up after that, but they ARE nearing the end. As of right now they only have three of the "official" movies left, plus NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN and the 1967 CASINO ROYALE, if they do those.

And I'm anticipating your posts on GOLDFINGER, a movie I like less every time I watch it!

Michael May said...

I really do like the Matt Monro version too. I probably didn't make that clear enough because I only just REALLY listened closely to Barry's version in preparation for this post and was struck with how good it is. But yeah, the vocal version is totally good and probably won't be that easy to knock out of my Top 10.

FRWL is easily my favorite Connery movie too. It just occurred to me that I need to keep a running ranking of the movies as a whole pieces and not just rank parts of them. I'll figure out where to put that by next month when I do Goldfinger.

Which, by the way, we see eye to eye on. I understand why a lot of people like it, but those folks are looking for something totally different in a Bond film than I am.

I'm caught up on James Bonding and I totally agree with you about the recent, extremely sporadic episodes. They're pretty much just commenting on the movies as they watch their favorite parts now. The Matts are still very funny guys (especially when Ian Fleming shows up!) and I'll continue to listen, but it's frustrating to listen to long bits of nothing but audio from the movie.


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