Al does From Russia With Love

“I think it’s a very lovely mouth. It’s just the right size. For me, anyway.”

The Scoop: 1963 PG, directed by Terence Young and starring Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, and Robert Shaw

Tagline: Meet James Bond, secret agent 007. His new incredible women… His new incredible enemies… His new incredible adventures…

Summary Capsule: Bond deals with planes, trains, and automobiles as he smuggles a love-struck defector into Western Europe. But everything may not be as it seems…

Al’s Rating: So, wait a minute… when do they go to Russia?

Al’s Review: Whenever a ‘Best of Bond’ discussion comes up, I always find it interesting that so many people divide immediately into the “From Russia With Love” camp and the “Goldfinger” camp. These aren’t undeserving choices, but the belief that, after 23 installments, the James Bond movies never got any better than #2 and #3 feels odd to me. I mean, doesn’t the sentence, “Yes, we made TWENTY feature-length films after this but never got it right again,” just sound unlikely? Of course, it’s also almost impossible to watch From Russia With Love and walk away feeling like you’ve seen anything other than a great, great movie.

The film sends James Bond to Istanbul, where he is meeting with Tatiana Romanova, a Soviet cipher clerk who claims to have fallen in love with Bond based on his file photo. Romanova says she now wishes to defect and can bring with her a highly classified Russian decoding device called a Lektor, as long as Bond agrees to bring her in personally. It’s a little ludicrous and almost certainly a trap, but it’s also too good of an opportunity to pass up, so 007 takes the bait and flies to Turkey. Together with the local intelligence agency, he must navigate the strange culture of a strange country and attempt to figure out how to safely deliver Romanova and the Lektor to the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Now, the great part about From Russia With Love can’t be found in a plot summary. Its excellence is in its execution. The film denies us our hero for nearly the first twenty minutes, and uses that time instead to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and deception that hangs over everything and never quite goes away. We see Bond briefly as the movie opens—tuxedoed, with his brow furrowed, stalking carefully through a maze of hedges—until he is jumped from behind and garroted by an assassin. It’s not really 007, obviously, but it’s the only glimpse of him we get for a while and it isn’t comforting.

After seeing Bond strangled to death, we get a credits-projected-onto-a-naked-girl title sequence (the first of many), then are whisked away to a chess match in Venice. Even if you were to miss the sign that says “Grandmasters Championship”, the  importance of the event is evident from the massive ballroom, the large-scale chessboard, and the audience sitting in rapt attention. The two men at the game table—one in Black, one in Grey—move their pieces with thought and deliberation, until the man in Black receives a covert message. He is needed. His turn comes up and he makes his move quickly, almost without thought. The man in Grey looks to him with shock. We assume the man in Black has just intentionally lost until Grey tips over his own king. It turns out the man in Black has not only won, but he won with a single move. He has clearly been toying with Grey the whole time.

After the match, we follow the man in Black—Kronsteen—into his meeting and learn that he is the Number Five man in the terrorist group SPECTRE and the organization’s chief strategist.  In the meeting, he lays out his plan (with some helpfully symbolic fighting fish) to use James Bond and Tatiana Romanova to manipulate and weaken both the British and Russian governments.

Soon afterwards, we meet poor, naïve Tatiana and she acts exactly as Kronsteen predicted. We feel bad for her. Only now are we finally introduced to James Bond—the real James Bond—except, to our horror, he is doing and saying exactly what Kronsteen predicted, too! It’s all going horribly, horribly wrong for our hero and the movie has barely begun.

I apologize for going on so long about this, but these opening scenes create such a fascinating haze of mistrust and tension that it gets me every time I watch this film. I love stewing over the question of who knows how much, listening to the constant lies mixed with truths, and watching the silent menace of the assassin, Red Grant, who hovers at the edges of every scene.

The film features a host of great performances. On the British side, Sean Connery is still pitch-perfect as 007 and even feels like an actual spy who does actual spy stuff. Bond’s sidekick, Kerim Bey, is a huge step up from Quarrel in the last film. Pedro Armendariz plays Kerim as both intelligent and capable, and he manages to inject the movie with a sense of humor that is otherwise lacking.

Our Soviets and assorted bad guys are pretty excellent, as well. Daniela Bianchi is probably the weak link as Tatiana Romanova, but, in her defense, she doesn’t get a whole lot to do other than stand around looking pretty and imperiled. Kronsteen, the evil chess player, has a great Peter Lorre thing going on, and Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb has a part that isn’t a whole lot larger than Kronsteen’s, but her performance is iconic within the genre, even if most people today probably only know her counterpart from Austin Powers. Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t again point out Robert Shaw as Red Grant, who feels imposing and deadly, even though he says almost nothing and only actually meets our heroes once.

The Bond franchise started to blow up with the next film, Goldfinger, so I kind of appreciate that this movie is more down-to-earth then most of the ones that followed. The plot and the action are fairly realistic, and the Lektor is a believable MacGuffin. Grant is a dangerous, memorable villain, but it’s by virtue of Robert Shaw’s awesome performance instead of a wacky deformity or grandiose plans of world domination. Even Bond’s perfectly timed one-liners (which were already present in Dr. No) are scaled back to almost nonexistence here. The whole thing feels like a plausible Cold War story, and maybe that’s why From Russia With Love stands out in so many people’s minds.

It’s not a perfect film, by any means—the first half goes on for too long (especially the bits at the gypsy camp), and the big explosioney finale has some weird pacing issues that always irked me—but this movie has an uncommon intelligence and sobriety that elevates it over most of its sequels.  If you are jonesing for Bond the Clown or Bond the Action Figure, then I’d suggest you look elsewhere. But if you want a shrewd spy story that’s swimming in Cold War intrigue, then From Russia With Love ought to be right at the top of your list.

“So, you have a little BANG flag in there, right? Right?”

Intermission!

  • The Name is Bond, James Bond: Two new reoccurring characters show up for the first time in From Russia With Love.
    • Desmond Llewellyn as Q (though he is not named) & the first mention of Q Branch. NOTE: In Dr. No, Peter Burton plays “Major Boothroyd”, the armourer who equips Bondwith his Walther PPK. There is some dispute in the fandom over whether or not this is the same character played by Desmond Llewellyn.
    • Anthony Dawson as the unseen and unnamed “Number 1″. Audiences would come to know this character better, starting in the fourth Bond film, Thunderball.
  • License to Boink: While the number of scantily-clad women has gone way up from Dr. No, there are only two there are only two you can really call Bond girls.
    • Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). Trench was originally intended to appear in every Bond film as the girl James is continually trying to romance but keeps getting called away on missions. However, Guy Hamilton (director of Goldfinger) disliked this idea, so From Russia With Love became Trench’s last appearance in the franchise. To date, she is the only Bond girl to appear in more than one movie.
    • Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi)
  • License to Orchestrate: This film has our first real Bond theme, “From Russia With Love” by Matt Monro. It’s a slow crooner that I’ve heard favorably referred to as “a smoking jacket”, which feels coolly appropriate. The Maurice Binder title sequence is closer to what you’d expect from Bond: title cards are projected onto several wiggly gypsy girls, over an instrumental version of the “From Russia With Love”.  Interestingly (sort of), the only time you can hear the version with lyrics is on a radio, mid-movie, during the picnic scene between Bond and Sylvia Trench.
  • …And It Makes French Fries in Three Different Ways: Although Bond is given a Walther PPK in Dr. No, the series’ first real Q gadget appears here.
    • Bond receives a briefcase with a tear-gas booby trap, fifty gold sovereigns of hidden emergency money, and a concealed, spring-loaded throwing knife. Inside the case is a collapsible AR-7 Sniper Rifle with an infrared telescopic sight. Two twenty-round of deposits of ammunition are stitched into the case’s outer lining.
    • This doesn’t belong to Bond, but Red Grant’s watch-with-piano-wire is the first of many “gadget watches” in the franchise.
  • Groovy, Baby: Many elements in these early Bond films became so identifiable that parody was pretty much a given, and From Russia With Love was no exception.
    • The unseen mastermind of SPECTRE, Number One, is an obvious point of reference for tons of shadowy villains, from Dr. Evil in Austin Powers to Dr. Claw in Inspector Gadget.
    • This movie also gives birth to the cliche of the villain stroking a white cat as he schemes. This has also been aped countless times, most notably with Dr. Evil and his pet cat, Mr. Bigglesworth.
    • Rosa Klebb is a clear inspiration for the Austin Powers‘ character, Frau Farbissanau
    • Red Grant’s wristwatch is equipped with a line of piano wire, similar to Paddy O’Brien in the first Austin Powers film.
    • The shooting/rappelling/flame-throwering army sequence on SPECTRE Island is a likely candidate for origin of the gag in Wayne’s World, where Wayne opens a random door in the local diner to reveal a military training facility
  • Nobody Does It Better (Except the Book): From Russia With Love was the fifth novel by Ian Fleming. It is considered by many (including myself) to be the best novel in the series. John F Kennedy cited it as a favorite novel in 1961, which made it an instant bestseller and a shoe-in for the sequel to Dr. No.
    • The story is divided into three sections: the first told entirely from Tatiana Romanova’s POV, the middle from Bond’s POV, and the final section from an omniscient narrator as the two go on the run.
    • As with many early Bond novels, the villains belong to the real-life Soviet organization, SMERSH. The films change this to the fictional terrorist group, SPECTRE, which plots against both governments.
    • The Lektor device is called the Spektor device in the novel. As the film changed the villains to SPECTRE agents, the decoding device also needed to be renamed to avoid confusion.
    • Rosa Klebb is strongly implied to be a lesbian and her dealings with Tatiana Romanova contain a more sexual component.
    • Bond is shot by Red Grant on the train, but is saved by the metal lighter in his jacket pocket. In the film, a point is made of removing Bond’s lighter so audiences who had already read the book would not know what to expect (this idea of changing events in the novel would grow to ludicrous proportions in the movies that followed).
    • The novel ends in a cliffhanger, where Rosa Klebb stabs Bond with her shoe-knife and he collapses, presumably moments away from death. Fleming considered ending the series here, but, instead, uses it to set up the events of the next novel, Dr. No, where Bond is sent on a “soft” assignment to Jamaica.
  • Part of the opening scene, where “Bond” is stalked and killed by Red Grant, had to be re-shot. The original actor under the mask looked too much like Sean Connery, so an actor with a moustache was brought in to replace him.
  • Early in the film, Sylvia Trench notes a knife wound on Bond’s side. A possible parting gift from Honey Ryder?
  • The scene in the hotel where Bond and Tatiana meet for the first time has become a common audition scene for potential Bonds and Bond Girls.
  • Speaking of Bond Girls, what is up with the fight in the gypsy camp? I get what they were going for, but this gave me flashes of Manos: The Hands of Fate.
  • Pedro Armendariz was fighting terminal cancer during filming and committed suicide shortly after production wrapped. His illness likely came from scenes he filmed for The Conqueror that were shot near nuclear testing sites in the Utah desert.
  • Sean Connery and director Terence Young were both nearly killed in separate helicopter accidents while filming.
  • Who puts a knife in a shoe? Honestly?
  • This is the first James Bond film to end with the declaration “James Bond will return in…”
  • Alfred Hitchcock was once courted to be the director of a version of this film starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
  • Sean Connery and Lois Maxwell both consider this to be the best of the Bond films.
  • The literal translations of some of this film’s foreign language titles include Love and Kisses From Russia (Belgium); Moscow Versus 007 (Portugal); The Return Of Agent 007 (Latin America); Love Greetings From Moscow (Germany); 007 In Istanbul (Finland); Hearty Kisses From Russia (France); Agent 007 Sees Red (Sweden) ; 007: From Russia With Love (Spain); Moscow Against 007 (Brazil); 007 Averted The Spy Plot (China); To 007, From Russia With Love (Italy); Agent 007 Is Hunted (Denmark) and From Moscow With Love (Poland)

Groovy Quotes:

James Bond: Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something.
Donald “Red” Grant: You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees. How does it feel old man?

James Bond: Pardon me, do you have a match?
Chauffeur: I use a lighter.
James Bond: Better still.
Chauffeur: Until they go wrong.
James Bond: Exactly.

[pointing a gun at Bond]
Donald “Red” Grant: The first one won’t kill you; not the second, not even the third… not till you crawl over here and you KISS MY FOOT!

[after shooting down a SPECTRE helicopter]
James Bond: I’d say one of their aircraft is missing.

James Bond: Your clock, is it correct?
Russian Clerk: Always.
James Bond: But of course.
[he walks away, checks his watch, then comes back]
James Bond: Excuse me, you did say your clock was correct?
Russian Clerk: Russian clocks are always…
[explosion]

Ernst Blofeld: Siamese fighting fish, fascinating creatures. Brave but of the whole stupid. Yes they’re stupid. Except for the occasional one such as we have here who lets the other two fight. While he waits. Waits until the survivor is so exhausted that he cannot defend himself, and then like SPECTRE… he strikes!

Tatiana: I think my mouth is too big.
James Bond: I think it’s a very lovely mouth. It’s just the right size. For me, anyway.

Kronsteen: Who is Bond compared with Kronsteen?

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • For Your Eyes Only
  • North By Northwest
  • The Third Man
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5 Comments

  1. The Hitchcock film might actually have worked out pretty well. It wouldn’t have exactly been Bond as we think of him, of course, but hey, Hitchcock was Hitchcock, and Cary Grant could be one smooth dude when he wanted to be – I can see him pulling off the role.

  2. Spot on! As for the knife in the shoe – isn’t that delightfully evil? It may be uncomfortable to walk on, but it’s practical. A knife is difficult to defend against and a leg has longer reach than an arm. Also, the motion to activate it mirrors a Prussian heel-click.

  3. Pingback: Al does Dr. No « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

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