So, here we are. The penultimate installment, and my final posting, in our ongoing Bond series. I’ll give you a bit of background info. When Kelly and I first began planning this, he was coming more from the novice side, whereas I had grown up with James Bond, particularly Sean Connery’s iconic take. As we were assigning films, he asked me if there were any I really wanted. I had a few I wanted to cover, but 1963’s From Russia with Love was pretty near the top of my list. It’s a Bond film I’ve come back to countless times, and it’s far and away my favorite Connery installment.
Goldfinger would follow this, and it’s grandiose, glorious, bombastic feel would set the template for nearly every Bond film that followed it. As such, From Russia with Love feels more grounded, a bit grittier, with a plotline that actually feels like it belongs in a spy film. There’s more intrigue and less gimmickry. Daniel Craig’s Bond gets a lot of credit for its darker, more visceral take on Bond, but the seeds of that approach are here. They were just waylaid by Goldfinger’s success.
The film’s troubled production means its success feels even more impressive. According to the behind the scenes documentary that accompanies the Blu-ray release, a list John F. Kennedy had compiled of his all-time favorite books included Fleming’s From Russia with Love. You can’t ask for better publicity than that, so the novel was chosen as the sequel to Dr. No. While the novel presented Russian counter-intelligence agency SMERSH as the primary antagonist, the film presents SPECTRE as an independent agency, playing Russian intelligence and British intelligence against one another. Early drafts of the screenplay struggled to capture Fleming’s inherent intrigue, requiring several rewrites that occasionally complicated filming.
As if those issues weren’t enough, actor Pedro Armendáriz, who plays Kerim Bey, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Filming in Istanbul was halted and refocused to Britain, with his scenes brought forward so he could complete as many of his scenes as possible, although there is still the occasional double present. Once he was no longer able to work, he took his own life. The production and filming were chaotic, and had the makings of a disaster, so it’s amazing that the film works at all, much less as well as it does.
The film begins with an impressively tense cold open, featuring Red Grant (a surprisingly svelte Robert Shaw) seemingly murder James Bond (Connery) with a garrote concealed in his wrist watch, eventually revealed to be a Bond proxy.
In fact, it will be nearly twenty minutes before we see actual James Bond enter the film. We’re then introduced to the film’s gloriously straight-forward narrative. SPECTRE agent, chess master Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) presents a two-fold plan: play British intelligence and Russian intelligence against one another over the procurement of a Soviet Lektor cryptography device while also luring Bond, who SPECTRE wants dead over his killing of Dr. No in the previous film, to his own assassination.
To carry out the plan, SPECTRE puts former-SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) in charge of the mission. She puts Grant, a paranoid, murderous agent, in charge of protecting Bond’s life until he acquires the device, at which point he will assassinate him.
She also enlists Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a Soviet cipher clerk in Istanbul, to offer the Lektor as a bargaining chip in exchange for her defection and request Bond handle her defection personally.
Bond is sent to Istanbul, after M (Desmond Llewelyn in his first appearance) arms with a particularly lethal briefcase, where he meets Ali Kerim Bey (Armendáriz), the MI6 head stationed in Istanbul, begins a liaison with Romanova, and becomes an unwitting pawn in SPECTRE’s chess master’s scheme, as Grant escalates tensions between MI6 and Russian intelligence by strategically dispatching agents. Everything culminates with a brutal fight on the Orient Express, an explosive water chase, and a final encounter with Klebb and a poisoned blade embedded in her shoe.
The plot is harder to write out than it is to follow. Once the action is set in motion, the film moves at a breakneck pace piling intrigue on top of intrigue, including a surprisingly risqué plotline featuring sex tape blackmail.
From Russia with Love feels shockingly lurid, reveling in its violence and sex in a way that’s both sleazy and slightly tongue-in-cheek. The film hangs together remarkably well.
Granted, not everything works. The girl fight scene in a Romani camp feels extraneous, and the sleazy notion that Bond is presented with both girls as a kind of prize is troubling.
Kebb’s lesbian overtones feel pretty mean spirited and have also aged poorly for a modern audience. But this film’s narrative is pretty lean, a relatively straightforward espionage storyline that never loses its tension. The film has ornate flourishes, such as the presence of Siamese fighting fish and the image of agents scaling a building by crawling out of an ad’s feminine mouth, but lacks the garishness that sometimes mars the franchise’s later installments.
Performances are strong all-around. Armendáriz brings an affable charm to Karim Bey, and it’s easy to see why the production would alter its schedule to ensure he was available to play the role. It serves as a lovely swansong for him. Connery brings his usual masculine charm, and his flair for Bond’s quips is already well-intact. He oozes charisma and sexuality and is already in possession of the allure that made him such a compelling leading man.
It’s only his second time as 007, but he’s remarkably comfortable and self-assured in the role. It’s slightly surreal to see Robert Shaw, best known for the intimidating but slightly gone to seed role in Jaws or The Sting’s ruthless rube, as an impressively imposing henchman, but he makes a memorable impression as an imposing and unrelenting force. The fight aboard the Orient Express between Grant and Bond was shockingly violent for the time and has lost little of its visceral impact.
Romanova feels slightly too regressive to be a top-tier Bond girl, but Bianchi brings a kind of icy, blonde energy that Hitchcock utilized so often in his filmography.
It also looks beautiful, with its shots of Istanbul exuding warmth and loveliness. The action scenes, including the climactic water chase remain exciting, with editor Peter Hunt utilizing kinetic shots and rapid cutting that feel ahead of their time. Really, though, it’s the film’s Cold War elements and series of ever-escalating conspiracies that keeps the film zipping along.
There are plenty of strong entries in the James Bond cannon, but this film has only improved with time, aging quite well, despite a few glaring issues. The one-two punch of From Russia with Love and Goldfinger represent both the series’s pinnacle and the ensuing tug-of-war between serious spy films and bombastic excess that would define the franchise. These two films, paired back-to-back, give perhaps the best examples of both of those impulses, but I prefer the sense of playful intrigue and cloak-and-dagger espionage that defines From Russia with Love. Most Bond films are a push-pull of elements that work and those that detract, but it’s thrilling here to see all the pieces work together to create a truly remarkable entry in the franchise. Craig’s tenure has managed to resurrect the Bond’s darker, more visceral origins, but it’s a shame this film didn’t establish the James Bond cinematic universe in the way Goldfinger managed to do.