The Dangers of Populism in All The King’s Men

“Mason city. To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new” (opening lines)

In an age where populist demagoguery has once again captured the hearts of the American voter, it has been illuminating for me to sit down and read the classic novel All The King’s Men, which is loosely based on the career of Huey Long, the notorious governor of Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, the story of Huey Long bears striking resemblance to our own political epoch.

About Huey Long
Huey “Kingfish” Long came from Northern Louisiana, a rural section of the state where populist resentments were strong against the more prosperous southern cities of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette. Long was a former traveling salesman, a failed businessman, and a higher education drop-out. He attended a few different colleges before being admitted to the state bar in Louisiana. As a lawyer he began litigating a series of lawsuits against big monied interests and even won a notorious Supreme Court case against the Standard Oil Company which spurred him into politics. He won a landslide victory as Governor of Louisiana in 1928 under the slogan “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown” -a phrase he borrowed from an earlier 19th century American populist, William Jennings Bryan. Long took his “kingfish” moniker from the Amos & Andy radio program.

At the time Louisiana’s infrastructure, education, literacy, poverty, and healthcare were all atrocious. Yet it was also the height of the economic expansion before the bubble was set to burst in 1929. Few people in Louisiana had felt the effects of the financial growth. At the time Louisiana was dominated by the Democratic “Old Regulars” who largely held sham elections. They echoed the familiar old “Lost Cause” narrative of the Confederacy and mainly pursued policies that favored the planter class. When Huey Long entered the scene he was a different kind of Democrat. He modeled himself on being a righteous ‘defender of the common man.’ Politically, he promoted an ambitious progressive redistribution agenda (he criticized FDR’s New Deal because it did not do enough to support the common man) and yet he also autocratically threatened assassinations and in some cases physically or verbally assaulted his political opponents. Nothing was too low brow for Huey Long. He held raucous rallies throughout the state and dealt with hecklers violently. He wore white linen suits and often relied on insult-lobbing in order to bulldoze the opposition. The mud-slinging was ceaseless. He lambasted the media which rightly criticized him for staging mass firings and promoting blatant nepotism. In response, Long created his own newspaper which was more favorable to his public image. He took a publicly neutral stance on the Ku Klux Klan, which had risen to prominence in Louisiana at the time, yet he also avoided the standard race-baiting tactics of other Southern politicians. His focus was squarely on economic concerns for the downtrodden people of Louisiana.

In his best moments, Long is fondly remembered for his massive public works projects such as the construction of Louisiana’s first highway system and the provision of free textbooks for students. In truth, his policies did a lot of good things for Louisiana’s poor and dispossessed. However, at his worst Long was a political boss whose tactics were outrageous and Machiavellian. He was impeached in the Louisiana state house for disregard of decorum and perceived dictatorial ambitions. Predictably, he decried the impeachment effort as a hoax sponsored by elites and corporations. Politically, he supported a wealth tax, a “Share Our Wealth” initiative, and he was an advocate of massive federal spending and stimulus. He issued mass firings, often erratically threatening people who disagreed with him, and he publicly argued with his own state Attorney General. He hired state convicts to raze the governor’s mansion and build a new one fashioned in the image of the White House (he hoped it would prepare him for his own future presidential ambitions). As with most populists, Huey Long was first and foremost concerned with his own pride. His impeachment, which was in part connected to his efforts to raise taxes on Standard Oil, led to a massive unruly brawl in the state house. He privately admitted fear of being convicted in the state senate but was saved thanks to a group of political allies who publicly pledged to vote “not guilty” regardless of evidence against him. Following the impeachment trial, Long aggressively campaigned against his enemies, and he continued his public rallies where he prided himself almost exclusively on the applause of the mob. His term as Governor ended when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, however he still refused to relinquish his gubernatorial powers to the Lieutenant Governor. It caused a very public stand-off and, amazingly Huey Long’s tenure ended with a minor insurrection. Does any of this sound familiar? Long’s legacy remains controversial to this day. Opinions on Huey Long vary, some ranking him among either the best or the worst governors in American history.

At the end of his term as governor Huey Long was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, he continued his highly controversial tactics, and his firebrand style of populism was even perceived as a threat to FDR. Huey Long’s career ended when he was assassinated in 1935 at the Louisiana state capital where he was attempting to gerrymander a district against a political opponent. The son-in-law of his opponent approached Huey Long and shot him point-blank in the torso. The blast killed him.

All The King’s Men
In All The King’s Men, Willie Stark is the embodiment of Huey Long. He is a bombastic reformer whose values are challenged when he begins employing morally ambiguous tactics in order to enact long-promised reforms. The fascinating contradiction is that Willie must use illicit means to gain power in the hopes of securing beneficence. Does he ultimately achieve a greater good? The novel remains somewhat elusive and it mainly examines Willie Stark’s career through a glass darkly. Lord Acton’s famous maxim comes to mind in this novel, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Throughout the novel, Willie and his minions are ruled by their own ambitions, while clinging to power in a godless world where justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.

Robert Penn Warren was always troubled by the comparisons between Huey Long and Willie Stark, but the comparison is nevertheless fitting despite there being a few minor differences. Whereas Huey Long’s political career was launched by a devastating flood, Willie Stark (a.k.a. “the boss”) is vaulted into a politics by an accident at a children’s school. Both men share a spectacular start to their respective political careers, only to find an equally devastating downfall.

The novel is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former political reporter who becomes Willie Stark’s morally conflicted right-hand man. As a good newspaperman, Jack reflects on his time with Willie Stark and he wonders –was there some underlying principle that made it all happen? Near the outset of the novel, Jack recalls Willie’s ability to speak to a crowd: “You saw the eyes bulge suddenly, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought, it’s coming.” In the early parts of the novel we find “the boss” stumping through a small town, connecting with ordinary people, posing for carefully constructed photo ops. We also see him berate people, harass the news media, and threaten a judge (Judge Irwin). But this is not just any judge. This particular judge supports an impeachment effort against Willie and the situation puts Jack in a compromising position –mainly because Judge Irwin is one of Jack’s childhood family friends.

Jack hails from an upper class bubble known as Burden’s Landing, a place that seems to be immune from the problems facing the state. Throughout the novel Jack offers lengthy reflections on life and family, as well as his failed attempt at a doctorate and marriage, both of which he suddenly abandons. He works for “the boss” neither for love nor money, so why does he remain? In a way, Willie Stark gives meaning to Jack’s lawless, licentious, and amoral life. When the boss asks him to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack begins describing himself as a ‘historical researcher’ who hunts down anything on the good judge because “there is always something…” After considerable sleuthing, Jack discovers that early in Judge Irwin’s career, he bribed his way into a job at the electric company that pushed out an older man out who then killed himself in order to offer an insurance windfall to his sister. Jack traces this information to a letter kept by the deceased man’s sister.

Sometimes stories are started and then continued later in the novel. Examples include Jack’s childhood memories, attending graduate school (only to drop-out), his romance with a girl named Anne Stanton (which falls apart), his friendship with Anne’s brother Adam Stanton, and their father the former Governor (predecessor to Willie Stark), Jack’s attendance at law school, and his ‘perfectly adjusted’ marriage to Lois which Jack also abandons –“Good-bye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.” The background of Jack Burden unfolds in a non-linear, dream-like fashion. One of the best reflections in the novel is when Jack offers details of his ancestors’s and their role in 19th century American slavery as well as the Confederacy during the Civil War. This chapter is mostly focused on Jack’s great-uncle, Cass Mastern. In many ways, Jack Burden is still living in the great waning shadow of his ancestor, Cass Mastern.

In the end, Jack returns to the home of Judge Irwin to reveal the dirt he has discovered, but even the noble judge had forgotten his own mistakes -at least at first. Both Jack and the Judge share certain things in common. They have both lived according to their own set of morals in order to secure promising lives for themselves, however there is a certain quality of virtue in Judge Irwin that we see lacking in Jack. After Jack leaves Judge Irwin’s house, the judge shoots himself through the heart. He prefers an honorable death to the life of shame and disgrace. Shortly thereafter, Jack discovers from his mother that Judge Irwin was, in fact, his true father. Thus in an indirect way, Jack has killed his own father.

Not long after the judge’s suicide, Willie Stark is also assassinated at the State Capitol rotunda by none other than Jack’s childhood friend, Adam Stanton, who has discovered an affair between Willie Stark and his sister, Anne Stanton. All The King’s Men becomes an exploration into the nature of evil and corruption in politics –when all are guilty, none are above reproach. Thus there are remarkable dangers inherent in populist leaders. And behind every noble king is a knave (or a “hatchet man”) like Jack Burden.

Interestingly enough, I enjoyed the 1949 film version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel more than the book itself (click here to read my review of the 1949 film). The story of the downfall of Willie Stark is dark and compelling –impressive in scope– but stylistically the novel descends from a particular Faulknerian modernist strain that can be a challenge to track for the less sophisticated reader (like myself). It contains long wandering diatribes that have a tendency to burden the reader with too much abstraction. I wanted to enjoy reading All The King’s Men far more than I actually did while reading it.


Here are some memorable quotations from the novel that should hopefully offer a glimpse of Robert Penn Warren’s verbose style:

“It [the boss’s house] looked like those farmhouses you ride by in the country in the middle of the afternoon, with the chickens under the trees and the dog asleep, and you know the only person in the house is the woman who has finished washing up the dishes and has swept the kitchen and has gone upstairs to lie down for half an hour and has pulled off her dress and kicked off her shoes and is lying there on her back on the bed in the shadowy room with her eyes closed and a strand of her hair still matted down on her forehead with the perspiration. She listens to the flies cruising around the room, then she listens to your motor getting big out on the road, then it shrinks off into the distance and she listens to the flies. That was the kind of house it was” (33).

“…maybe you cannot ever really walk away from the things you want most to walk away from” (66).

“…it is possible that fellows like Willie Stark are born outside of luck, good or bad, and luck, which is what about makes you and me what we are, doesn’t have anything to do with them, for they are what they are from the time they first kick in the womb until the end. And if that is the case, then their life history is a process of discovering what they really are, and not, as for you and me, sons of luck, a process of becoming what luck makes us” (94).

“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying” Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go when you grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. It was just where I went” (405-406).

“…there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all” (468).

“So by the summer of this year, 1939, we shall have left Burden’s Landing.
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time”
(661 -closing lines).


The novel’s title is taken from “Humpty-Dumpty,” an old English nursery rhyme that can be traced to the reign of Richard III or Cardinal Wolsey in 16th century England. At any rate, the title is linked to the theme of political rise and subsequent corruption followed by a spectacular fall from grace.

The novel originated in 1936 as a play by Robert Penn Warren called Proud Flesh. In the play, the character of Willie Stark is replaced by Willie Talos (whose name is based on the brutal character of Talus in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 play, The Faerie Queene). Penn Warren called his Talos character “the pitiless servant of the knight of justice” and “the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself.” Ten years after the 1936 play was published, Penn Warren published All The President’s Men, his signature novel. Nearly a half century later, Noel Polk, a Southern academic, took it upon himself to create a “restored” edition of the novel in which Willie Stark is replaced with Willie Talos. The new edition caused quite a stir among literary critics. Apparently it contained significant departures in style from the original. Writing in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates offered the following critique of the revised version:

“…the 1946 text, for all its flaws, is superior to the ‘restored’ text, which primarily restores distracting stylistic tics and the self-consciously mythic name Willie Talos, which Warren had dropped in favour of the more plausible Willie Stark.

That Robert Penn Warren, novelist, poet, essayist, and shrewd literary critic, not only approved the original 1946 edition of his most famous novel but oversaw numerous reprintings through the decades, including a special 1963 edition published by Time Inc with a preface by the author, and did not ‘restore’ any of the original manuscript, and did not resuscitate ‘Willie Talos,’ is the irrefutable argument that the 1946 edition is the one Warren would wish us to read.

That Noel Polk should make a project of ‘restoring’ a text in this way, and that this text should be published to compete with the author-approved text, is unconscionable, unethical, and indefensible.”


The 1947 Pulitzer Prize
1947 was the last year the Pulitzer Prize category was awarded for the best “Novel.” From 1948 onward the title was changed from “Novel” to “Fiction.”

The 1947 Novel Jury was composed of three returning jurists from the previous year. The Jurists were: John Chamberlain, a memorable book reviewer who worked for a variety of publications throughout his career including The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Life, Fortune, Scribner’s, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, and others. He taught Journalism at Columbia University. The other two Novel Jurists were: Maxwell S. Geismar, a Columbia alumnus and teacher at Harvard who became a famous literary critic for a variety of publications including The New York Times Book Review, The New York Herald Tribune, The Nation, The American Scholar, The Saturday Review of Books, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Encyclopedia Britannica and Compton’s Encyclopedia (he also penned a notoriously belligerent critique of Henry James). The third member of the 1947 Novel Jury was Orville Prescott, an esteemed book reviewer for The New York Times for 24 years whose tastes generally leaned toward more conservative novels (i.e. against the grain of Valdimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar). He was a highly regarded book reviewer who became a historian of the Italian Renaissance in his later life.


About Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren (1904-1989) was a fascinating Southern man of letters. He is the only writer to win a Pulitzer in the categories of both Fiction and Poetry (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice). He also won a variety of honors in his lifetime including the Bollingen Prize (a biannual poetry award issued by the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University), the Robert Frost Medal (a poetry award issued by the Poetry Society of America), Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now known as the Poet Laureate), the National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a MacArthur Fellow, the National Medal of Arts, the three aforementioned Pulitzer Prizes, and he delivered the distinguished Jefferson Lecture in 1974 at the invitation of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Robert Penn Warren was born along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. He attended Vanderbilt University and UC Berkeley. He also studied at Yale where he became a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford and receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship. In his early writing career, Penn Warren was associated with the “Southern Agrarians,” a group of writers who extolled the virtues of the agrarian south but he later distanced himself from any defense of racial segregation. He openly defended the Civil Rights Movement. Penn Warren is also often associated with the “New Criticism” movement, a philosophy that encouraged careful close readings of classic texts (the movement was sadly cast into the ash heap with the advent of modern critical theory).

He taught for years at Vanderbilt University and Louisiana State University. Today his home has been converted into a museum known as the Robert Penn Warren House in Prairieville, Louisiana. He was married twice and had two children. In his later years he fled the South and lived in Vermont and Connecticut. He died of prostate cancer in 1989.


Penn Warren, Robert. All The President’s Men. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, New York, 1946 (reprinted in 1974).

Information on Huey Long was provided by several sources, including Ken Burns’s 1986 documentary entitled “Huey Long,” narrated by David McCullough and featuring interviews with a variety of people including Robert Penn Warren.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

A View To A Kill

A View To A Kill (1985) Director: John Glen

★☆☆☆☆

The title for A View To A Kill comes from the Ian Fleming short story called “From A View To A Kill” in an anthology although the film shares almost nothing in common with the story. Throughout A View To A Kill we become painfully aware that Roger Moore is far too old to continue playing the role of James Bond. His face looks stretched and gaunt like a skeleton, and in fact he apparently had quite a bit of cosmetic work done prior to shooting the film, though he always denied it. In fact, many of the women he encounters in the film are old enough to be his grandchildren –this is not exactly the dashing hero of years past. A View To A Kill was the last Bond film to feature Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, and thankfully it was the last to feature Roger Moore as James Bond.

The best part of the film is the opening scene in which we find Bond in Siberia grabbing a microchip from the frozen body of 003. He is then caught in a dramatic ski-chase scene, but it quickly devolves into a silly moment with Bond skiing to the tune of “California Girls” by the Beach Boys for some reason. He escapes to his hidden submarine and so on. When we finally get to the main plot, it revolves around dated ’80s technology – microchips are being produced by the Russians, likely the KGB, through a shell company called Zorin. MI6 shadows the CEO of Zorin at a horserace, the man is named Max Zorin (played by Christopher Walken). This eventually leads Bond to pose as a millionaire and he attends a horse auction in France to further investigate Zorin, but he is then caught up in a high-speed chase through Paris, which leads up the Eiffel Tower, and across the city in pursuit of Zorin’s guard, an androgynous woman named May Day who Bond eventually sleeps with in one of the most uncomfortable Bond Girl moments (May Day is played by Jamaican pop icon Grace Jones).

However this is all merely a cover. The true plot becomes evident as the film progresses. Zorin (who is apparently the victim of Nazi experiments) goes rogue from the KGB and he unveils a secret plan to destroy Silicon Valley by detonating bombs along the Hayward and San Andreas fault-lines causing massive earthquakes and flooding. Bond prevents the explosions and he trails Zorin to his blimp-like plane over the Golden Gate Bridge where they dramatically battle until Zorin falls to his death in the San Francisco Bay -perhaps the best scene in the film. Interestingly enough, the Soviets wind up praising James Bond in the end for killing this rogue criminal -a remarkable sign of the easing Cold War tensions in the late ’80s.

Among the long list of terrible James Bond films, A View To A Kill should be relegated somewhere near the bottom of the pile. It is a miracle that James Bond survived the 1980s at all!

To top it off, A View To A Kill features one of the worst Bond theme songs performed by Duran Duran (though it was a cheesy ’80s hit tune). Two other Bond girls make appearances in the film alongside the aging hero: actresses Fiona Fullerton and Tanya Roberts -both about thirty years younger than Roger Moore.

Casino Royale (2006) Review

Casino Royale (2006) Director: Martin Campbell

“I’m sorry. That last hand… nearly killed me.”

Casino_Royale_2_-_UK_cinema_poster

★★★★☆

The story of Casino Royale making it back onto the big screen is fascinating, filled with many twists and turns. After Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953, the television rights were purchased by CBS for $1,000 the following year. The very first portrayal of 007 was on a television variety show entitled “Climax!” It was a single hour live program that starred the great Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre, and Barry Nelson as the Americanized James “Jimmy” Bond. A year later, Ian Fleming sold the film rights to Russian actor/director George Ratoff for $6,000, but production never took off and he died in 1960. His wife then sold the rights for Casino Royale to Charles Feldman, a Hollywood attorney and producer of A Streetcar Named Desire. Around the same time, President John F. Kennedy listed From Russia With Love as among his favorite novels, sending the Bond franchise into the stratosphere. Canadian Producer Harry Saltzman quickly purchased the rights to all current and future Bond stories. He joined together with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli to form the Eon (“everything or nothing”) production company.

Charles Feldman pushed forward with attempts to make a Casino Royale into a movie directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant. However, after Eon’s Dr. No was quickly released on the cheap to a surprising amount of popular fanfare, Feldman’s Casino Royale project was nixed. Still, he persisted in other avenues –he refused to cooperate with Eon by demanding an exorbitant fee in exchange for the rights, and he continued to cycle through scripts, including one by Billy Wilder. Feldman eventually settled on an absurdist comedy where MI6 was faced with numerous different agents all calling themselves 007 –and Feldman hired no less than four separate directors for the project, including the legendary John Huston. Unsurprisingly it was a mess of a film although it featured stars like David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Ursula Andress, and others (feel free to click here and read my review of 1967’s Casino Royale). It was a ridiculous cacophony of a film, but a year later Charles Feldman died and the rights to Casino Royale went to Columbia Pictures.

In the ensuing decades, the world changed and so had James Bond. After the campy ’70s of Roger Moore as 007, James Bond was played by Timothy Dalton and then Pierce Brosnan, but by now 007 had become something of a caricature, or a relic of a bygone era. The Cold War was over, Cubby Broccoli had passed away, and quirky comedy films like Mike Myers’s Austin Powers series made more money satirizing the many repetitive cliches of the James Bond formula. Amidst a string of legal issues concerning the rights to Thunderball, MGM sued Sony, won the lawsuit, and then paid for the rights to Casino Royale. At last, the film rights to the original Bond story were finally in Eon’s hands. At this point, Quentin Tarantino rather loudly requested to make the film with Pierce Brosnan in the lead, but this time as a period piece, a historically accurate vintage black and white Cold War James Bond movie. However, Eon went in a different direction, toward a new reboot of the franchise.

What followed was a brilliant re-introduction of James Bond in the 21st Century. Despite being met with controversy for not matching Ian Fleming’s description of a ‘tall, dark, and suave’ secret agent, Daniel Craig conveys a grittier, more violent, yet vulnerable, less silly, more honest and human version of the character. His character flaws of violence and misogyny are more tragic than comedic. Casino Royale represents a departure from the hokey, silly tropes of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan eras, as Daniel Craig (a.k.a. “James Blonde”) was remarkably able to transform the role into something new –a revitalizing of the Bond saga.

It might be said that Casino Royale is an early “prequel” to the James Bond series. We encounter a young James Bond earning his ‘License to Kill’ in a delightful series of black and white Noir-esque scenes. He gains his 00 status by assassinating a traitorous gangster in a bathroom. Meanwhile, an international businessman named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), the treasurer of a French Union and member of the Russian secret service, makes a deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and he subsequently bets against an aerospace manufacturer, with insider knowledge of a terrorist attack. On a separate mission, Bond saves the manufacturer, causing Le Chiffre to lose all his money. Bond makes contact with Felix Leiter of the CIA (Jeffrey Wright), and Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) of the French Secret Service. Meanwhile, Le Chiffre organizes a high stakes poker tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro with the hope of winning back his losses. Bond is paired with a woman named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). The poker game fluctuates between Bond and Le Chiffre, and when Bond starts to gain the upper hand, Le Chiffre has Bond’s drink poisoned so Bond, in a haze, flees to his car to use his defibrillator. Vesper follows him and brings Bond back to the poker table, where Bond wins with a straight flush. Subsequently, Le Chiffre kidnaps Vesper Lynd leaving Bond to trail them but he crashes his car in order to avoid harming Vesper in a near crash as she is tied up in the middle of the road. Bond is then captured and tortured by Le Chiffre, who is hoping to discover the bank account and login information for the poker money. At the last moment, Bond is rescued by his contact, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). Bond awakens in an MI6 hospital, and he and Vesper Lynd run away to Venice together in love. Suddenly, M reveals to Bond that the poker money was never deposited. Bond realizes he was betrayed by Vesper but she is taken away by gunmen, so Bond destroys the building which then collapses into the Grand Canal. The gunmen are killed but, sadly, so is Vesper who drowns. Meanwhile, Mr. White escapes with the money. M reveals to Bond that Vesper likely made a deal for Bond’s life – she saved him by giving away the money. Still, Bond renounces her and he hunts down Mr. White at a massive estate on Lake Como. He shoots Mr. White in the leg and introduces himself: “Bond, James Bond” just as the film ends.

Casino Royale is a brilliant rebirth of the 21st Century James Bond. There are no ridiculous gadgets, or overt sexuality (instead Bond uncharacteristically falls in love with Vesper Lynd). In fact, the entirety of the plot rests on Bond’s ability to win at the poker table (in the book, it was a game of Baccarat). One of the many wonderful additions to the new Bond saga is a noticeable lack of CGI -the movie returns Bond to the “old fashioned way” without flashy gadgets or effects. Plus it also features an inspiring and explosive theme song performed by Chris Cornell, a significant improvement from Madonna’s techno song in Die Another Day. Casino Royale is easily one of the best James Bond movies of all time.

Click here to read my review of Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale.

From Russia With Love (1963) Review

From Russia With Love (1963) Director: Terence Young

The upper centre of the poster reads "Meet James Bond, secret agent 007. His new incredible women ... His new incredible enemies ... His new incredible adventures ..." To the right is Bond holding a gun, to the left a montage of women, fights, and an explosion. On the bottom of the poster are the credits.

★★★★☆

The second James Bond film was again directed by Terence Young (he was the director of several early Bond films). After the tremendous success of 1962’s Dr. No, United Artists quickly pushed for a sequel to be released by Eon, and the film was rushed to completion by October 1963. Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name was his fifth Bond novel, actually preceding the novel for Dr. No (and fleming thought it might be his last at the time). He wrote it at his “Goldeneye” estate in Jamaica. His typical writing pattern was to write for three hours in the morning, and then again for an hour in the evening. He never looked back at what he wrote or did much editing prior to finishing the book, and that way he could write about 2,000 words per day. It was only after the book was complete that he went back and edited the text. The novel was published in 1957. President John F. Kennedy once named From Russia With Love in his top ten of all time (as published in Life magazine) which was a top inspiration for creating the film. It was also the last film President Kennedy saw at the White House before he left for Dallas and was then tragically assassinated.

Image result for from russia with love blofeld
Image result for from russia with love blofeld

The story for From Russia With Love is a Cold War classic. The film opens at a vast estate – Bond is on the run through a hedge maze until he is attacked and caught by “Red Grant” (played by Robert Shaw, famous for his portrayal of Henry VIII in A Man For All Seasons and Quint, the old shark-hunter in Jaws). “Red Grant” is a ruthless assassin employed by the criminal organization known as SPECTRE (called “SMERSH” in the novels). The training grounds for SPECTRE in the film were inspired by the set of Spartacus. The lights come up and we learn this is merely a drill, with a man in a mask pretending to be Bond in a training exercise. A global chess master and top leader at SPECTRE (named Kronsteen but called “Number 5”) has devised a plan to steal a Lektor (the machine was ironically called “spekter” in the novel), a cryptographic machine, from the Soviets and sell it back to them while luring Bond and taking revenge on him and MI6 for killing their agent from the previous film, Dr. No. The Chief Executive of SPECTRE (“Number 1” who we later learn is the infamous Ernst Blofeld) devises an espionage plot to be carried out by the sadistic “Number 3” or Rosa Klebb, a former Soviet military leader. Klebb then hires the assassin “Red Grant” (from the outset) to tail Bond and then kill him after retrieving the Lektor device, and she also hires a Soviet clerk from Istanbul named Tatiana Romanava, played by Italian actress, Daniela Bianchi, most famous for this role and whose accent was so thick it required over-dubbing throughout the entire film. Back in London, M informs Bond that Romanava has defected to Great Britain but will only defect directly to Bond. He senses a trap, but he travels to Istanbul anyway. A wild attack scene ensues with the Bulgarians (Bond is saved by a secret sniper shot from Grant) and then Bond and Romanava begin an affair (in which she rapidly falls for him). Bond tails Romanava to the Hagia Sophia and (thanks to Grant killing the Bulgarian operative so that Bond would receive secret plans) Bond takes the secretive consulate plans. In a great train scene, Bond and Romanava escape aboard the Orient Express with the Lektor they have stolen. In a surprise to Bond, the assassin Grant (now undercover on the train) drugs Romanava at dinner and then overpowers Bond in a great hand-to-hand combat scene. Grant explains that the whole plot was not a Soviet plot, but rather the plan of SPECTRE. In a somewhat silly and unbelievable move, Bond tricks Grant to open his suitcase which he has booby-trapped. Bond stabs and strangles Grant, and then escapes with a barely-conscious Romanava into the getaway car that was supposed to be for Grant.

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Back at SPECTRE, “Number 1” (or Blofield) confronts Klebb and Kronsteen for their terrible failure. Kronsteen is surprisingly executed on the spot with a poison-tipped switchblade hidden in a shoe. Klebb is offered one last chance to redeem herself and recapture the Lektor. Meanwhile, Bond and Romanava are escaping via Grant’s planned escape route. They destroy a helicopter and commandeer a boat off the coast of Croatia and destroy several SPECTRE boats in a dramatic boat chase scene. Bond and Romanava reach a hotel room in Venice, but Klebb suddenly appears disguised as a hotel maid. She tries to steal the Lektor but, still believing Romanava is working with her and the Soviets, Romanava betrays Klebb by shooting her. Bond and Romanava float away on a romantic gondola, as Bond tosses the intended blackmail film from Grant into the canal.

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The film is notably the first to officially feature Desmond Llewelyn as Q, a role he would reprise for 30+ years in every future Bond film (save for two) until his death at the time of The World Is Not Enough in 1999. From Russia With Love was the second of seven Bond films to star Sean Connery, the greatest of all the James Bond actors. The same actor who played the mischievous R.J. Dent from Dr. No also plays the infamous “Number 1” in From Russia With Love. Rumors abound regarding a secret cameo of Ian Fleming in the film appearing outside the train in a grey sweater, as he once visited the set and saw the Orient Express. The theory has never been confirmed nor denied. Apparently, Alfred Hitchcock was originally considered to direct the film, but after Vertigo tanked at the box office, they looked elsewhere for director -imagine that! There is an amusing underground fan theory that Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond is actually “Red Grant” reborn (based on their similar appearances).

The plot is difficult to track at times with the various competing narratives of MI6, the Soviets, and all the double-crossing between them and the secret organization known as SPECTRE. However, From Russia With Love is just a splendid Bond film, one of the best of all time. In the film, we only see the back-side of “Number 1” or Blofield as we learn in later films, the infamous, cat-petting Bond villain and executive of SPECTRE who is satirized as Dr. Evil in Mike Myers’s Austin Powers series. Critically, From Russia With Love is often considered the best, or at least one of the best Bond films of all time, along with Goldfinger and Dr. No. It is rumored to be Sean Connery’s favorite Bond film, and it was the last Bond film released while Ian Fleming was still alive.