Two films into the official James Bond series and I’ve already hit my favorite and what I consider to be the best film in the franchise, From Russia with Love. Does that mean it’s all downhill from here? No way…although an argument can be made if one were to bring up Moonraker…
From Russia with Love (1963)
Following his mission in Jamaica to take down the titular Dr. No (a rare instance where a Bond film mentions the events of the previous entry), From Russia with Love has James Bond (Sean Connery) after a Russian decoder which is being parlayed by the enticing Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a Soviet clerk under orders to seduce and entrap him. Unbeknownst to the Russians and the British, they are both being played against each other by the evil organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E. under direction of mastermind chess player Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal).
Partnering with the compelling Kerim Bay (Pedro Armendáriz), Station Head of Istanbul, Bond finds himself in a complex nest of Cold War intrigue as he battles a Russian sanctioned gypsy camp raid, grapples perilously with S.P.E.C.T.R.E. assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw) on the Orient Express, narrowly escapes a deadly helicopter attack, survives a fiery boat chase to Venice, and gets his kicks with former Russian agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and her deadly, poison-laced dagger shoes!
What is most distinctive about From Russia with Love from Dr. No is that it is foremost a low-key spy thriller. There are no hints of world domination or global devastation to be found here. In fact, more so than any other 007 film (with very few exceptions), it is the most arguably down-to-earth (sorry Moonraker) James Bond adventure with much of the fantasy downplayed in favor of more gritty, thriller elements. Perhaps due in part to this anomaly, it is widely considered one of the best films in the franchise with many, including Bond stars Connery, Timothy Dalton, and Daniel Craig, regarding it as the crown jewel of the franchise.
Crafted like the chess game which opens the picture, From Russia (directed by Dr. No‘s Terence Young) is dripping with atmosphere and spy-vs.-spy machinations, from underground surveillance operations, to government tails, to sex tapes recorded as a motive for a staged murder/suicide, to classic double-crosses, secret aliases, and call signs. This is the film that solidifies James Bond as cinema’s greatest spy rather than the invulnerable superhero that will dominate the films later on.
Brimming with confidence, the film holds off for almost twenty minutes before even showing Bond – more specifically, the real Bond and not the ill-fated impostor from the pre-credits S.P.E.C.T.R.E. training sequence used to introduce the deadly menace of Red Grant and his garroting watch. An effective sequence (and the first pre-credits scene in the series), it marks Grant’s eventual showdown with 007 with greater suspense as we have already “seen” him kill Bond before. Rather, the first twenty minutes are spent introducing the film’s wide array of colorful characters, notably the devilishly despicable Klebb, played to perfection by Lotte Lenya, a cold-hearted Russian defector with subtle homoerotic undertones (edgy for 1963), and the first “appearance” of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the shadowy and unseen head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E.
Unusual for a Bond film, From Russia with Love doesn’t have a distinct “big bad” – the picture belongs to its henchmen. If there is one, it would most likely be Kronsteen (as it is his plan after all) which would make this the only 007 feature where Bond never meets (or is even aware of) the ultimate villain! What the film does have, however, is one of the most beautiful Bond girls in the series, Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova, even if she does think that her mouth is too big…
As delightful as she is beautiful, Bianchi is one of the most underrated Bond girls. Her chemistry with Connery is palpable and their initial bedroom meeting is as sensual as it is memorable. It is no surprise that the scene is often used as an audition for future Bond actors. Her interplay with Connery is sweet (a perfect example being a scene when he gifts her with a new dress as she laughs with joy) to the point where it feels venomous when he violently turns on her after suspecting subterfuge.
Connery himself delivers his best and most electrifying performance as the character (rivaled only by his turn in Goldfinger), easily shaking off any awkward moments that were seen in Dr. No. With that said, the biggest joy of the film is Pedro Armendáriz’s Kerim Bay. The single best Bond ally (sorry Felix Leiter), Armendáriz lights up every scene he is in with superb wit and delivery. Many times copied, never equaled, he is one of the key points that marks this Bond film as the best. When he meets an untimely demise in the second act, it is genuinely tragic especially considering that Armendáriz would commit suicide from advanced cancer shortly after production.
Although From Russia with Love has some incredible action set-pieces such as the North by Northwest-inspired helicopter chase, it is the brutal fist fight between Robert Shaw and Connery on the Orient Express that stands as the highlight of the picture. The editing, fight choreography, and even the score-less sound design combine to create one of the single great battles in cinema history. Even when compared to today’s standards, it remains a breathlessly intense extravaganza.
Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love
Ranked by President John F. Kennedy as one of his top ten favorite books, it wasn’t a surprise that the Bond producers jumped on such a fortuitous piece of free marketing and fast-tracked From Russia with Love (minus the comma, because who needs commas?) as the second film adaptation. Ironically, it was also to be the final film he saw prior to his assassination.
The fifth novel in Ian Fleming’s series (and the immediate predecessor to Dr. No), the general plot has many commonalities with the finished film, minus the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. angle. In the novel, its strictly Bond versus the Russians as they seek retribution for their embarrassing failures dealing with the British spy in Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Moonraker. Aiming to humiliate and discredit the British, the evil Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH plans to lure Bond into a trap with Tatiana Romanova and a Russian decoder as bait, much like the film only with greater emphasis on the scandalous sex tape/murder/suicide angle. Red Grant, just as deadly as his film compatriot, has the added bonus of becoming more homicidal during full moons.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that James Bond dies at the end of the novel, in the arms of Casino Royale‘s Mathis of all people!
You heard that right! Bond collapses after getting kicked by Klebb’s poisonous shoe and the novel seemingly ends with his death. Fleming, having tired of the character, decided to kill him off a la Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knocking off Sherlock Holmes (as in literally knocking him off a waterfall). Like Doyle, public demand following the success of their character’s ill-fated denouements caused Fleming to reconsider his literary execution and bring him back to life in the following novel.
The First Tease
From Russia with Love brought many first to the series including the first pre-credits teaser and the first credits sequence to exclusively feature scantly-clad dancing girls, or, in this case, a singular belly dancing girl doing what she does best as the credits are projected on and around her body.
A fairly simple but highly effective idea that perfectly sets the Eastern European tone of the picture which is doubled by an energetic instrumental of the film’s theme song (a theme that is first played, oddly, over a radio during Connery’s introduction and at the end of the film) before seguing into the James Bond theme.
The pre-credits scene, as we saw before, provides a great piece of foreshadowing for the Grant vs. Bond fight and his deadly watch. Not nearly as explosive or exploitative as many of the future teasers, this one is practically quaint by contrast yet much more serviceable to the story.
Since many of these teasers end up being self-contained stories in and of themselves, we here at Hilarity by Default have decided to celebrate these little mini-Bond adventures by granting them their own Fleming-ish title.
The bottom line is that From Russia with Love isn’t just a great Bond film – it’s a great film. Not many entries in the series have been able to transcend beyond the franchise name. Heck, Bond films are practically a genre on to themselves. The beauty of Russia is that it doesn’t rely solely on spectacle and action scenes but rather commits itself to great storytelling with a slew of memorable characters, suspense, and intrigue (not to mention a superb score by John Barry).
Moreover, with the Bond “formula” still in flux, it is edgier than many of the films to follow allowing for a more vulnerable Bond who isn’t constantly winking at the camera. In many ways, it set the soul of the series, a benchmark that the films attempt to return to whenever they cross into the absurd extravaganzas of hollowed out volcano spaceports (You Only Live Twice, followed by the grittier On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), invisible cars in ice palaces (Die Another Day, followed by the level-headed Casino Royale), or the aforementioned space marine laser battles (Moonraker, followed by the underrated For Your Eyes Only). From Russia with Love is the gold standard of the franchise and although overshadowed by the similarly-colored Goldfinger, Russia, more so than Dr. No, is the film that set in motion the success and integrity of the series for more than 50 years.
Despite being remembered as one of the least fantastical Bond adventures, From Russia with Love is distinctive in suggesting the only 007 threesome in the series!
When Bond and Tatiana are on the Orient Express, Bond steps out from their cabin for a moment and tells her to lock behind him. The secret code to let him back in? “I’ll knock three times,” he tells her. Really? Knocking three times? That’s about as distinct as him telling her, “Only answer the phone if it rings.”
Funny enough, despite the title, James Bond never actually sets foot in Russia during the film. False advertising?
From Russia with Love set many firsts in the series including the first of many appearances of Desmond Llewelyn as Q (replacing Peter Burton from Dr. No), the first use of gadgets in the series (the sweet but lethal attache case), and the debut of the “007 Theme.” Wait a second, you may be thinking. The “007 Theme?” Wasn’t that in the first movie? Not to be confused with the infamous “James Bond Theme,” the “007 Theme” is an alternate composition used in a handful of films in the series until the late 70’s. Here, it can be heard prominently during the raid to capture the Russia decoder.
This was the second and final appearance of Bond’s on-and-off again girlfriend, Sylvia Trench (the recipient of Bond’s original introduction in Dr. No). Originally envisioned as a returning character in the like of M and Moneypenny, the idea was quickly dropped which is probably for the better. Imagine if every 007 film was basically set-up as a secret adventure with Bond endlessly cheating on his girlfriend back home? If there were people upset at his constant dalliances before, imagine the outrage of 50 years of infidelities!
Although Felix Leiter doesn’t appear in the film, his over-sized, cat eye sunglasses (or at least a pair quite similar) make an unwelcome cameo. Now I know that they were the style of the time but I can’t help getting over how conspicuous they look, particularly on two such master spies.
From Russia with Love features something quite rare for a Bond film, especially in the 1960’s – a nude scene (outside of the main titles, that is)! Funny to think that a PG-rated film from the 60’s is more daring in this arena than most PG-13 films of today’s era!
One of the mankind’s greatest philosophical losses (and one that has bugged me since I first saw the film when I was young) is Bond’s interrupted session with Moneypenny as he was about to, as he put it, reveal the “secret of the world.” What was it?!
James Bond will Return
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