Although initially written by Ian Fleming as an intended ‘final’ novel killing off James Bond, “From Russia With Love” was chosen to be the second Bond movie after United Artists, pleased with the performance of “Dr. No” greenlit a sequel with double the budget. Their confidence was well placed. “From Russia With Love” not only cemented Sean Connery as a major movie star but succeeded in outperforming its predecessor in every aspect. After having been less than enamoured with Connery’s Bond and “Dr. No”, this was the film which won Fleming over. It was also the last Bond film he saw before his death but at least he went out happier that his creation was in safe hands.
The film opens with the now iconic gun barrel introduction (still featuring stuntman Bob Simmons as Bond) accompanied by Monty Norman’s Bond theme before going straight into a cold open. For audiences in 1963, the twist of seeing Bond apparently killed within the first few minutes of the movie by the sinister and imposing Donald Grant (Robert Shaw in his second best ever performance) only to be revealed as a luckless henchman must have been a mind-blowing twist. It’s a particularly nice touch that Connery’s screen make up for these scenes looks a little too shiny and plastic, hinting at the truth. It’s a brave thing for a franchise to do on only its second outing: completely undermine your indomitable hero’s sense of invulnerability and it works perfectly in setting the tense and uneasy tone that runs through the rest of the picture as you remain on the edge of your seat trying to figure out if Bond is a player or a puppet in the cold war master plan being played out in Istanbul.
This rug-pulling reveal is followed by the opening titles which, much more than “Dr. No”, set us on the path to the Unmistakeable style of Bond credits we would come to know. As Maurice Binder did not return to design the titles, the silhouettes are gone replaced by an altogether racier and more daring approach (especially for the time) of projecting the titles onto the scantily clad and undulating form of Julie Mendez as she belly dances in the dark. We still haven’t yet reached the point where the theme song defines the opening credits but at least we get an instrumental version of Matt Munro’s heartfelt ballad before the Bond theme kicks in again. The song is heard early on in the background but we’d have to wait until the end credits for a full rendition of the first true Bond theme.
When MI6 learn of an opportunity to help low-ranking Russian cypher clerk Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) defect and get their hands on a prized Lektor cryptograph they immediately recognise the too-good-to-be-true opportunity as a trap. However, confident they can outwit the trap and possibly snag themselves one of the Russian decoding machines, they send James Bond to Turkey to meet up with their station chief there, Ali Kerim Bey, to try to outwit the Russians at their own game. However, what MI6 are unaware of is that this operation is not being run by the KGB but is instead a plan masterminded by SPECTRE number two Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) to avenge Bond’s defeat of Dr. No and humiliate the British Secret Service.
Beyond the production and presentation trappings, “From Russia With Love” introduces several other elements which would become essential ingredients in the Bond formula. Desmond Llewellyn makes his debut as armourer Major Boothroyd/ “Q” and we have the first hints of him stepping away from simply handing out firearms as he provides 007 with a gadget-filled briefcase that, despite the advances in movie special effects and real life technology, still feels edgy, modern and clever. SPECTRE is also fleshed out much more here, with a multi-layered villain approach: the chess grandmaster intellect of Kronsteen, the ruthless low cunning of Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and the brute strength and remorselessness of Donald Grant all create archetypal Bond villains which would resonate for decades through the series. We are also introduced to the mysterious head of SPECTRE, the mysterious Number 1 (who we would come to know as Ernst Stavro Blofeld) played here by Anthony Dawson and voiced by Eric Pohlmann in such a perfect way that it defined the way criminal masterminds were portrayed throughout popular fiction ever since.
While the building blocks were put in place for the Bond films going forward, some less successful elements made their final appearance here. Sylvia Trench becomes the rarest of things: a Bond girl who lasts more than one picture (and isn’t called Moneypenny) but the idea of Bond having a regular lady friend would be quietly dropped with this film and never revisited again.
Wisely, the film stays faithful to the novel, which is one of Fleming’s best stories. Grounded in the realpolitik of Cold War Turkey, we spend more time with Bond and his charmingly laid back contact Ali Kerim Bey than we do facing off with villains or romancing Ms Romanova and the film is all the richer for it. Famously, Pedro Armendáriz was terminally ill during production and gives, in what would be his final role, the performance of a lifetime. He is the heart and soul of the movie, bringing the intrigue and diplomacy of the dance of tradecraft vividly to life. Still free from the indulgences and excesses of future Bond movies, this retains some of the lean, no nonsense attitude of “Dr. No” but provides a much meatier and more satisfying story. Bond isn’t yet the larger-than-life character he would become (indeed he only makes his first appearance about 17 minutes into the movie) and as such the rich collection of supporting characters and events carry more of the film which benefits it enormously.
The characters might have achieved legendary status, but only because of the actors portraying them. Robert Shaw is superb in a silently menacing role (his first line of dialogue happens after about 80 minutes); it’s one of the few times you get the sense that Bond is really up against a true equal and, just maybe, someone superior. Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Kleb is an absolute joy to watch: a poisonous cocktail of twisted ideological fervour and venomous sadism compressed and barely contained in a pint-sized package of stony faced malevolence. Connery’s Bond has also improved markedly from his slightly stiff portrayal in “Dr. No”. He’s much more relaxed in the role, and his easy going charm and confidence come to the fore without edging into the arrogance that Bond would eventually project. With this wealth of performance on display, it’s of little surprise that Daniela Bianchi (dubbed by Barbara Jefford) doesn’t make much of an impression. The script and the film treat her as pretty to look at but unforgettable and once she has played her part in the theft of the Lektor she’s reduced to pretty much just tagging along after Bond for the rest of the movie.
Although the Jamaican setting of “Dr No” is more conventionally exotic, “From Russia With Love” feels more international and glamourous thanks to a heady mix of Turkish and Romany culture and an elegant flight to freedom aboard The Orient Express, while the Turkish/ Bulgarian turf war brings a welcome dose of grit and danger to the overarching political chess game. Returning director Terence Young and his team upped their game here, applying the lessons of “Dr No” and producing a far more cinematic experience on their second outing, although the finished produced owes a great deal of thanks to the skill and innovation of editor Peter Hunt.
What’s really interesting is that it’s here you start to see the Bond films chaffing against the limitations of the spy film genre and making tentative steps towards redefining action movies. Grant and Bond’s fight in the train compartment is surprisingly brutal and violent, and would provide the template for Daniel Craig’s pre-credits bathroom scuffle in “Casino Royale” some forty-three years later but it’s in the big action set pieces that “From Russia With Love” starts to stretch outside the movie making comfort zone, with mixed results. The gypsy encampment shoot out is well staged: exciting, innovative and balances action with the occasional joke and is a resounding success (even though not one single person has to stop and reload their guns despite bullets flying around with gay abandon) but the motorboat chase at the film’s climax is an ambitious misfire, with the constant haranguing by megaphone of the henchman by chief henchman Morenzy (Walter Gotell, making his first of several Bond movie appearances) sounding like it was lifted directly from a screwball comedy, thus robbing the sequence of anything approaching tension.
Overall, though, this is the first high-water point for Bond. A taut and tense Cold War thriller, exotic without being fantastical, populated by a cast of memorable characters and driven by one of the best plots of all the Bond films. The creation of a bone fide worldwide phenomenon was almost complete, but it wouldn’t be until the next film that Bondmania would really take hold.