Should I Watch..? From Russia With Love
What's the big deal?
From Russia With Love is an action spy film released in 1963 and is the second film in the James Bond series, following Dr No the year before. Based on the Ian Fleming novel of the same name, the film sees Sean Connery reprise the role of Bond who is sent to help bring a Russian defector in safely while criminal organisation SPECTRE seek revenge for the death of Dr No. After the success of the first film, United Artists doubled the budget and their faith was rewarded as From Russia With Love became a critical and commercial hit. Shooting took place in Turkey, Scotland and Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire and even today, often ranks high on most people's list of favourite Bond films - Connery, Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig all rate this as their favourite Bond film of all time.
What's it about?
In London, contact is made at MI6 with Tatiana Romanova, a cipher clerk working in Russia who wishes to defect to the West. She claims to have a cryptographic device known as the Lektor which both MI6 and the CIA have been trying to acquire for some time. However, she will only defect if she meets James Bond whose photo she's seen in a KGB file. As a result, Bond is dispatched to Istanbul where he will meet with Tatiana and collect her and the Lektor.
But things are not what they seem - the whole affair has been arranged by underworld criminal organisation SPECTRE who wish to claim the Lektor for themselves at the same time as eliminating Bond for the murder of their agent Dr Julius No. To that end, SPECTRE send their number three - ex SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb who also recruits Soviet assassin Red Grant whose orders are simple - retrieve the Lektor and kill Bond and Romanova before they return to London...
Tatiana Romanova *
Richard Maibaum *
Release Date (UK)
11th October, 1963
Action, Spy, Thriller
What's to like?
Think of a typical Bond film and what springs to mind? Action, stunts, car chases, gadgets, girls... The thing I like most about this film is you can slowly see all these pieces coming together to make the formula we know and love. But first and foremost, this is actually a great spy film - possibly the last real spy film in the series - with a plot that's both smart and well written. The Cold War setting helps provide authenticity to proceedings and also keeps the film remarkably close to Fleming's original novel. It's worth noting that Fleming was not a fan of Dr No but was convinced in Connery's interpretation after watching this.
As before, Connery dominates the picture as only he can - being charmless, ruthless and shockingly violent at times. But Shaw is one of the great Bond henchman, being every bit as cold and efficient as Bond is. When the action does arrive, it's fantastic. The fight between Grant & Bond on the train is genuinely a highlight of the whole series as it's brutal but also really physical - they look like they really went for it. Between them, Bianchi provides a true beauty to contrast with the thuggish behaviour around her although she had her voice dubbed over like Ursula Andress before her.
The film might not have got the Bond formula completely right but it's interesting to see the ingredients coming together. This was the first Bond film with a pre-titles sequence, the first film to introduce SPECTRE's diabolical mastermind Blofeld, the first film to have Bond equipped with gadgets from Q Branch (though Q is introduced as Major Boothroyd), the first Bond film with a helicopter sequence (which is in every Bond film since except The Man With The Golden Gun), the first film with its own theme song with lyrics (sung by Matt Monro) and the first film to have a post-script action sequence after the film's climax. It was all starting to come together...
- The reason behind From Russia With Love being chosen as the second Bond film was due to the book being a favourite of President John F. Kennedy. This was the last film he saw at the White House, just two days before his assassination in Dallas, in 1963.
- This film marks the last appearance of Bond's semi-regular girlfriend Sylvia Trench. She was initially planned to appear in all future Bonds, continually frustrated whenever he was called into action.
- This was the first Bond film to end with the declaration "James Bond will return in...", in this case, the next film was Goldfinger. This practise would continue until 1983's Octopussy.
What's not to like?
Modern Bond fans will be bored because until Grant shows up, the film has next to no action at all. Shock horror but this is a Bond film that actually has a story to tell. Given that he's not blowing up buildings or smashing up stuff in a tank, Bond's character is given time to surface and actually, he's a pretty unlikeable bloke. The moment where he slaps Tatiana is genuinely shocking as you simply don't expect it from this man. This is a Bond firmly focused on the mission and not engaging us with various bedroom antics and cheesy one-liners.
But all things considered, this is actually one of the strongest entries in the whole series. Even if you've no knowledge of the character or the other films, it's a gripping and thoroughly enjoyable spy thriller in its own right. There are times, however, when you occasionally feel as though the filmmakers lost their way a bit. The whole sequence in the gypsy camp with the two girls fighting seemed out of place and really only slows the film down. And as harsh as it may be to criticise an actor in the last few months of their life but Pedro Armendariz's performance as Bond's Turkish contact Kerim Bey feels more like light relief than anything.
Should I watch it?
Even if Bond films aren't your thing at all, chances are that you will enjoy this Cold-War thriller which does a fine job of balancing the action, story and sheer charisma of Bond in one picture. It's not quite Goldfinger but it's a damn good movie all the same, despite the rough edges that only get more visible with time.
Great For: fans of spy films & early Bond films, Connery's career, people who prefer plot to action
Not So Great For: modern Bond fans, action junkies
What else should I watch?
It's hard to think of a Bond film that gives so much of its running time to the story without ending each scene in an action set piece. Dr No has its moments but the action is restricted due to the tight budget, something which doesn't effect From Russia With Love as much. The only other one I can think of is For Your Eyes Only which is a surprisingly good Bond film from the Roger Moore-era although it does have more action and a lot more jokes in it than this.
Modern Bond fans will wonder why the early ones were such a hit without all the glamour and explosions the more recent films have. They will prefer the likes of Skyfall and Casino Royale which are both great films in their own right but light-years away from this sort of stuff. Craig's most recent effort, Spectre, tries hard to bring the series back to the traditional themes seen here but spends too much time blowing stuff up to really convince.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox