From Russia with Love
There was a period, probably around the time I was in fifth grade, when I went though a period of being fairly seriously into James Bond movies. Of course, this being rural Montana circa 1990, I was pretty much limited in my options to the Bond movies that they had available at the local video store. It was a pretty extensive selection, but one movie that I missed out on was the second Bond film, From Russia with Love. I’ve finally remedied that omission, and honestly, I’m glad I waited. Don’t get me wrong, this is really a great movie, but I’m not sure that the eleven year-old version of me would have liked it that much.
Released in 1963 the film was produced as a sequel to Doctor No, as with sequels to unexpectedly successful films, this film had a bigger budget and more explosions. Still, it was made before a “Bond Movie” was really a thing. As a result, in From Russia with Love most of the clichés of the later Bond films either hadn’t been introduced yet, or were in their nacient form. The filmmakers clearly had the benefit of just setting out to make a good cold-war spy movie rather than checking off all the boxes for a “Bond Movie.” I’m pretty sure that this results in the film being better than many of its successors.
To be sure many of the Bond hallmarks are there; the cold open, the title theme song, the magnificent Monty Norman score, Desmond Llewelyn with the gadgets from Q Branch, and more. However, it also has a really clever and comparatively realistic plot. The film moves at a relatively slow pace, but it doesn’t seem to drag. Rather it takes the time to fill out the edges of Bond’s world between action set-pieces.
In the film, the international criminal organization, SPECTER, hatches a plan to steal a top-secret Lektor cryptographic device from the Soviet consulate in Istanbul, with the intent to place the blame on the British, and stirring up hostility between East and West along the way. SPECTER’s secondary goal is to eliminate James Bond as revenge for his interference with their agent Doctor No in the prior film. It seems that SPECTER has successfully recruited high-ranking Soviet official, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), but the Soviets wary of embarrassment have kept her defection a secret. Klebb uses her authority to recruit the beautiful young Russian consulate official, Tatiana “Tanya” Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to serve as bait,
by contacting British intelligence claiming to have seen Bond’s dossier, and promising to defect and bring the Lektor machine, provided that Bond arrives so that she can “surrender herself” to him personally. SPECTER then dispatch one of their best assassins, Red Grant (Robert Shaw), to follow Bond, and when the time is right, to kill both Bond and Romanova and steal the Lektor for SPECTER. Of course, MI6 recognizes the obvious trap, (they presume the Russians are the ones setting the trap,) but of course that’s not enough to deter James Bond, who’s more than willing to risk death, to capture a critical piece of intelligence, even if it means having to nail a Russian hottie along the way.
Sean Connery is, of course, fantastic as 007. Here Bond is a fully realized and, at times, emotional human being, as well as a spy. While he does deliver a couple clever one-liners, he’s a long way from the quip-spewing near caricature that the character would eventually become. He’s a man of action and intelligence, A clever spy, equally capable with his wits as his fists, (even if he does throw some hokey karate-chops, and hold his gun like a girl.) Unlike so many “Bond Girls” that would follow her, Tanya is also a fully-formed character, and the centerpiece to the plot, rather than incidental to it, in a lot of ways she’s got the biggest dilemma in the film, because while she starts out as a patriotic agent with a mission, she soon begins to fall for the debonair Bond. Unfortunately, this development is probably more than a little bit neglected. In fact, based on what we see, apparently one night with 007 is all that it takes for her to fall completely in love. Of course, the fact that I’m just realizing this now, probably says at least something for the quality of Bianchi’s performance.
Another thing that definitely earned this film some points in my book is some absolutely fantastic location shooting in Istanbul. The city resounds with history, lending real authenticity to many shots. The film also makes extensive use of the massive and beautiful Basilica Cistern, and even has a sequence set inside the iconic Hagia Sophia. (Although I am deducting half a point because it repeatedly and erroneously refers to as the Santa Sophia mosque.) Nevertheless, just like I gave The Games extra credit for its location footage in Rome, I’ve got to give From Russia with Love extra credit for this fantastic footage in the New Rome. The real question is will this be enough to get it to “must see” status. Honestly, I’m still on the fence. Hopefully I’ll figure it out by the time I finish this review.
I’ve spent a lot of time on this review praising the good things about this movie, (and that’s with barely a mention of the first-rate villainy by Grant, or the famous train fight.) However, this definitely is a movie with plenty of flaws. There is quite a bit of really sloppy ADR, where the dialogue we hear doesn’t even come close to matching what the character’s mouths are doing on screen. Also, while I thought the pacing was pretty good, the film does get pretty slow, and I could see how some might accuse it of bogging down in the middle.
This film occupies a fairly important place in cinema history. As the second Bond film, and, (according to some), still the best film in the series, this is the movie that proved that James Bond could be a reliable box-office franchise. I really enjoyed this movie. But it didn’t move me. At the end of the day its a popcorn spy movie, and one that’s a little bit dated at that. I kind of think that this should be a “must see” but it just didn’t move me, so whatever my head says, my heart says that this isn’t “must see,” it’s close, but it isn’t. It is, of course, well worth seeing.