Welcome to my review of From Russia With Love, the second part of my challenge to review all of the James Bond films. Over the course of the next couple of months, I’ll be watching each film in turn and trying to figure out which one is my favourite. For more information, see my introduction here. You can read my review of Dr No here. Spoilers follow.
From Russia With Love
(dir. Terence Young, 1963)
I was convinced that I had seen From Russia With Love before, but when I came to re-watch it I had no memory of the plot at all. My brain only sparked with recognition when James Bond (Sean Connery’s second stab at the character) and the villain Red Grant (Robert Shaw) had their fight in a cramped passenger car on a train—I have seen this film, but somehow I managed to forget nearly everything about it.
Which is weird because From Russia With Love is an excellent Bond film. After the somewhat tentative footsteps taken by Dr No into the franchise, From Russia With Love clearly shows off an increased budget and greater confidence in the source material from both the actors and the studio.
The plot centres around an encryption decoding device called the LEKTOR (based on the real-life Enigma decoding device), which SPECTRE, the criminal organisation for whom Dr No worked in the first film, wants to steal. The device is being held in the Russian embassy in Turkey, and—even though they could just get one of their Russian agents to walk in and take it—SPECTRE employs a chess Grandmaster to concoct an unusually complicated plan. Why? Because Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of SPECTRE, wants to kill James Bond after the events of Dr No (Continuity! In a Bond film! 45 years before Quantum of Solace!). The plan involves forcing a sexy Russian agent—Tatiana ‘Tanya’ Romanova (Daniela Bianchi)—to pretend to defect, knowing that Bond will be unable to resist escorting her back to Britain even at the risk of setting off the world’s most obvious trap.
Surprisingly given that plot summary, the film holds together pretty well. Bianchi is a much better Bond girl than Ursula Andress in Dr No; her character is more engaged, both in terms of better dialogue with Bond and more relevance to the story. Indeed, all of the supporting characters are stronger this time around, especially the bad guys: Blofeld, whose face is never seen, feels like a very feel threat to Bond, while Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) is perfect as Blofeld’s intimidating right-hand woman (even when she’s trying to kick Bond to death).
The action scenes in From Russia With Love reflect the film’s augmented budget, with Bond being chased by helicopters and boats and being happy to blow up anything that moves. Even so, the best clash in the whole film is the aforementioned bout between Bond and Grant on the train; the restricted space makes this a tense, scrappy fight.
We get a few more Bond staples in this film. There’s a pre-title sequence showing Red Grant in action, although the titles themselves still don’t have the official song over them (it is played later in the film instead), and Desmond Llewellyn appears for the first time as Q to hand over the first official Bond gadget: a briefcase with hidden ammunition and gold sovereigns and a nasty tear gas grenade disguised as talcum powder.
I was very much looking forward to Goldfinger because I remembered it as the best Bond film of the Connery era. However, now that I’ve re-watched From Russia With Love I’m a little less enthusiastic about the next film. From Russia With Love was everything a sequel should be: bigger, better and bolder.
Greatest moment: Spoiled for choice here, but the winner has to be Tanya Romanova introducing herself to Bond… by breaking into his hotel room and getting into bed wearing nothing more than a black ribbon round her neck and a pair of black stockings. Apparently, this scene has since been used as an audition for Bond and Bond girl actors.
Worst moment: The spurious catfight between two gypsy women halfway through the film, on account of it being irrelevant to the plot and blatantly engineered as cheap, unnecessary titillation for the male audience—because if there’s one thing a Bond film needs, it’s more titillation. Bond, of course, makes the most of his situation and sleeps with both of them.
Best gadget: The briefcase is certainly cool, but the best gadget here has to be the real-life Armalite AR-7 survival rifle, used as a fold-up sniper rifle in this film. Bond uses it in several scenes throughout the film, making it one of the few Bond gadgets in existence that doesn’t feel like it was written in as a cheap Deus Ex Machina to a problem the writers didn’t know how to fix.
Kerim Bey: I had visitors. Limpet mine on the wall outside, timed to catch me at my desk. But by good fortune, I was relaxing on the settee for a few moments. The girl left in hysterics.
James Bond: Found your technique too violent?
Most obvious product placement: Slightly weird one; Bond and Kerim Bey snipe a Russian agent who is escaping from Anita Ekberg’s mouth on a large billboard poster for another film produced by Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli, called Call Me Bwana. I had to look the film up to make sure this was actually product placement, but turns out Call Me Bwana is a completely real film; the only non-Bond film ever produced by Eon Productions!
Verdict: Easy one this time; as much as I liked Dr No, From Russia With Love is by far the better film. My league table, therefore, looks like this:
- From Russia With Love (dir. Terence Young, 1963)
- Dr No (dir. Terence Young, 1962)
Stay tuned for my review of Goldfinger in a few days’ time!