FRWL’s 60th: The dancer in the main titles

Autographed photo of Julie Mendez (Provided by Steve Oxenrider)

Steve Oxenrider, a long-time James Bond fan, originally prepared this story more than a decade ago. He talked to Julie Mendez, who was the dancer in the main titles of From Russia With Love. She passed away in 2013.

By Steve Oxenrider, Guest Writer

A belly dancer’s best friend is her snake.  If Julie Mendez had had her way, the undulating, gyrating movements of the main title dancer in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE might have featured a boa constrictor. 

Julie is the dance artist who performed as the credits were projected onto her shimmering body for the introduction to the second James Bond thriller. When I spoke to her at her Brighton home summer 2009, Julie had just returned from holidays in Málaga, Spain. 

She was tanned, exuberant and excited to talk about her contribution to what many fans and critics consider the best  Bond film.  She is also extremely modest.  “All my work, no matter how popular, I just regarded it as going from one job to another.  It never went to my head…even FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.”

“My background was as a specialty dancer.  I started training at age 4.”  Julie continued training and practice and her love of dance developed into other talents.

“I left home when I was 15 and was chaperoned around England by an American family of performers.  I learned how to ride a unicycle, jump trampoline, even shooting.”  Somewhere around the age of 18 or 19, Julie added a new dimension to her cabaret act by working with large, live snakes.

“I learned everything I could about them.  I had no fear at all.  Each snake has its individual characteristics.  I would do housework, vacuuming, washing dishes with the snake wrapped around me and that way the snake would get used to me.” 

But accidents do happen. “Before I went on one evening, I was bitten by one of the snakes after it had been fed two large rats.  I went to the hospital and got a tetanus shot and went right back on stage.  But I had a noticeable bite mark inside my arm.  So I applied glue and glitter and it looked just like a decorative bracelet, part of my costume.”

Julie says she prefers boas to pythons.  “Boas cling to you but pythons are more interested in trying to escape.”

 One of Julie’s earliest screen appearances was in the 1959 Brian Rix comedy THE NIGHT WE DROPPED A CLANGER in which she appeared as a tassel dancer.  She had a brief role as an alluring snake dancer in THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960), as an exotic cabaret dancer in THE VALIANT (1962) and as a cabaret snake dancer in THE INSPECTOR (1962) starring Stephen Boyd. 

 “In Tel Aviv, THE INSPECTOR was advertised by posters with me holding the snake!  I always took an interest in all the places I traveled to.  Before I went to Israel I learned all about the desert.  It’s much more interesting to talk to people about their countries than about my snake!  I read up on copper mining before I went to Zambia and so on.”

There is a lot of debate over how the innovative title design of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE evolved.  In a 1964 interview for SHOWTIME magazine American graphic designer and creative advertising specialist Robert Brownjohn recalled how a student, late to his typography class, accidentally walked in front of his slide-projector presentation at school.  “He walked in front of the projector’s beam.  Immediately the type in the slide shot on to his shirt.  Of course, the shirt wasn’t flat like a screen, so the type changed sizes.  It looked great!” 

In her lavishly produced book ROBERT BROWNJOHN: SEX AND TYPOGRAPHY (2005, Princeton Architectural Press, New York) author Emily King stated that in animator Trevor Bond’s initial meeting with Robert Brownjohn the FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE main title design was to be an animated chessboard, with bullet holes.

But when Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli met with Brownjohn and mentioned there was a belly dancer in the film, the slide projector idea immediately came back to Brownjohn.  The designer demonstrated the notion by borrowing a projector, darkening the room, removing his jacket and dancing in front of a beam of projected images.  “It’ll be just like this,” he told the producers and executives, “except we’ll use a pretty girl.”

In fact, three different women would be used for the title design.  Harry Saltzman introduced Brownjohn to Trevor Bond, who had animated the Maurice Binder titles for DR. NO.  After Brownjohn explained the belly dancer theme, Trevor Bond accompanied him to audition girls at Omar Khayyam,  a famed Oriental cabaret of Middle Eastern belly dancers in London in the 1960s.  They brought one of the dervish dancers to the studio to do tests, but when they asked her to lift her skirt in order to project on her legs, the frightened girl fled in disgust.  A brief filmed sequence of this first girl appears during the smaller credits. Then a friend mentioned Julie Mendez to Trevor Bond.

“I approached Robert Brownjohn directly, not through an agent.  I didn’t have to audition as I just showed him stills of myself from another film, THE INSPECTOR, with Stephen Boyd and Dolores Hart.  The costume I did the FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE titles in was used in several other films, including THE INSPECTOR.  We had a chat and that was it.  His choice was made.  I did not meet the director, Terence Young.”

“Robert Brownjohn was a large man, very charming and extremely professional.”  Julie was very candid in describing her working relationship with Brownjohn.  “I just remember him sitting behind a desk.  He had very little to do with me, whereas Trevor Bond was young, hip and attractive.  Secretly… he took a fancy to my hairdresser!”

“Trevor directed me to move my body, but not to music, and he focused the letters to my body as I moved.  He’d direct me to step back a little…move to the left…which way to step.”

“I remember that at one stage during filming, the titles were focused on my right thigh.  So when I moved, it tended to disappear…up my backside!!  We all laughed about this, as it was highly amusing.  In the end, I had to change position so this didn’t happen.”

“I had to concentrate my movements on the titles…I had to focus on accuracy.  I had good balance and could do it quickly.  Time is money.  The whole lot was filmed over several days in a private studio on Baker Street in London.”

A third girl, a Persian model, was later brought in for the face and breast shots, with ‘007’ projected onto them.  Years later, Julie says she wasn’t really aware of any other face in the titles and speculates “it might have been Robert Brownjohn’s wife as I had seen her around a lot in the office.”  FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE premiered at the Odeon Leicester Square, London, on October 10, 1963.  Julie was invited along with the rest of the cast and crew but had a previous engagement and was unable to attend.  “I saw it for the first time at a West End cinema.”

When asked if she is ever confused with Lisa ‘Leila’ Guiraut, the sensual belly dancer who charms Bond at the gypsy camp, Julie replies, “Whenever anyone has asked, I have always said I was the belly dancer behind the credits and that’s all.  As far as being recognized, if people don’t know, I don’t say anything.  I’m four feet eleven inches.  Leila was much taller.”

“Leila and I did cabaret together at Omar Khayyam.  She was booked long before the main titles were done.  I actually invited her to my house for tea.  She was lovely, very charming and an excellent belly dancer.”

 The rest of the 1960s was an especially prolific period for Julie, with a steady stream of film and television offers (SHE, THEATRE OF DEATH, DUFFY, “Hugh and I Spy”, “Virgin of the Secret Service”), choreographer on several CARRY ON films (“In FOLLOW THAT CAMEL I taught Anita Harris how to belly dance”), worldwide theatre and cabaret, even a safety film for the National Coal Board!

 Readers can enjoy seeing Julie in two of her most celebrated on-screen appearances.  In a 1970 episode of the British TV. comedy On the Buses titled, appropriately enough, “The Snake”, Stan and Jack go to an Indian evening at the depot. Both have their eye on an attractive Indian cook, Fatima, played by Mendez.  As the evening progresses, Fatima, much to their surprise, does an exotic dance with a large snake and ends by putting the snake’s head in her mouth!

Interestingly, the character Ahmed is played by Ishaq Bux, who 20 years later would appear as the fakir disturbed from his restful bed of nails in the OCTOPUSSY market scene.  And in perhaps the funniest scene of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)  Dr. Longstreet (Terry-Thomas) tries desperately to get his inquisitive maid out the door so he can enjoy a ‘stag’ film of a scantily-clad snake dancer (Mendez) on an old-fashioned home projector, shortly before he becomes victim to one of Phibes’ ingeniously gruesome murders.

“I entertained U.S. forces in Germany, France and England.  Other belly dancers or artists would come on stage and the GIs would be yelling out ‘Take it off!’  But when I appeared, with a large snake wrapped around me, there was surprise, then a long silence, then applause.  The snake controlled the audience.”

  Note from Steve Oxenrider: A special thank you to Vicky Yare for arranging this interview

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