After the success of Dr. No Eon Productions quickly greenlit a second outing with Sean Connery returning as James Bond, secret agent 007, but not only was this film speedily put into production but the budget was doubled which would allow for Bond to do a bit more globetrotting this time out.
As Bond film adaptations go From Russia with Love is an entry that does check off many of the plot elements of Ian Fleming’s 1956 novel of the same name, something that many of the following movies can barely claim. The book deals with SMERSH, a Soviet military counterintelligence organization and their desire to cripple the British secret service, and James Bond in particular, what with him being responsible for the defeat of SMERSH agents Le Chiffre, Mr. Big and Hugo Drax, and thus they issue a “Death Warrant” against Bond, but they also plan for his death to precipitate a major sex scandal that would leave service’s reputations in tatters.
The Russian’s plan revolves around using the false defection of an attractive young cipher clerk as well as the chance for the British to get their hands on a Russian decoding device that is much coveted by MI6. While the movie takes much of that as the basis for the plot the screenwriters tossed in an added wrinkle with it being the international criminal organization SPECTRE behind it all and that they intended to play the Russians and British intelligence agencies against each other while making off with the decoding device for themselves, which they would later sell back to the Russians for a nice profit. In the book, the primary goal of SMERSH was the death and disgrace of James Bond while in the movie getting rid of Bond, who had thwarted SPECTRE agent Dr. No in the last movie, was more of a bonus than anything else. In both the book and the movie we get James Bond (Sean Connery) seducing the beautiful Russian agent Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) but what makes her role unique is that she is tasked to seduce Bond.
In the book, Bond’s chief antagonist is a British Army deserter and resident psychopath named Donovan “Red” Grant who now works for SMERSH but in the movie Grant (Robert Shaw) is an Irish assassin working for SPECTRE under the command of Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a top SPECTRE assassin, and chess grandmaster Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) who had devised the whole plan to begin with. It should be noted that in the novel it was strongly implied that Rosa Klebb was a lesbian while the film barely hints at this aspect of her character, but the more interesting difference between the book and the movie is that in the book she was successful in stabbing Bond with a venom-laced blade hidden in her shoe and the story ended with Bond fighting for breath and falling to the floor, presumably to die. Now, that may sound strange but From Russia with Love was intended to be the last Bond book but Fleming resurrected him in Dr. No with an explanation that René Mathis had arrived in time to revive Bond.
• At the SPECTRE training camp Red Grant kills a man disguised as James Bond during an exhibition to show off his prowess camp, but this has me wondering “How do they find “volunteers” for this kind of thing.”
• Though not named we get a first partial glimpse of Blofeld and his white Persian cat.
• It’s in this film where we get the debut of Desmond Llewelyn as Q and we are also treated to the first Bond gadget scene with 007 being issued a tricked-out briefcase.
• The plot takes a break so we can witness two gypsies have a catfight over a man they both love but it is somehow resolved by Bond sleeping with both women, because why not?
• In this entry we do get a more brutal Bond who will not hesitate to slap a woman around to get information, an element that would be ditched during the Roger Moore era.
• Grant explains the plan is to make Tania’s and Bond’s deaths appear to be a murder/suicide but then Grant proceeds to tell Bond how he intends to torture him to death and shoot him in the knees. Call me crazy but that would tend to make the whole murder/suicide plot less believable if Bond’s body is found full of multiple bullet holes.
For me, this is one of the top Bond films as it really captures the crucial aspects of what makes for a great spy thriller, though I will admit I’m not one to put my nose up at a good volcano lair, and it is From Russia With Love that really set the tone for many of the Bond films to come – especially the Daniel Craig films – and though this entry can be considered a little lite on action by some viewers, with the only real set pieces being the raid on the Gypsy camp, a brief helicopter attack and the following boat chase it still manages to thrill and entertain. But then we also have that brilliant fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw aboard the Orient Express which set the standard for such encounters as its close-quarter brutality is one of the best moments in the entire franchise and the character of Red Grant is easily one of Bond’s best nemesis as he was basically a shadowy reflection of Bond himself.
The score was provided by legendary Bond composer John Barry, who as good as his music was for these films were at this point in time he hadn’t quite nailed the placing of the Bond theme as we often get those big power chords of that classic theme during such mundane moments as 007 checking into a hotel and searching listening devices, but that is a minor nitpick in what is otherwise a pretty perfect Bond film. I should also point out that even though we get the cliché of the female enemy agent falling in love with Bond, and I mean Romanova not Klebb, as it is Tatiana who saves Bond from Klebb’s poisoned knife shoe by shooting her former handler. Overall, From Russia with Love is one of the best examples of the Bond formula and with its collection of great villains, beautiful women and wonderful locals it’s hard not to put this one near the top of the list.
From Russia with Love (1963)
Movie Rank - 8.5/10
If not a perfect adaptation of the source material From Russia with Love still wonderfully captured the novel’s spy thriller aspect and with Robert Shaw as the main adversary, well, you don’t get much better than that.