Wednesday, August 22, 2012

From Russia with Love (1963)

Following the success of Dr. No the creators behind the James Bond series knew that they had franchise in the making.  They picked one of Flemming’s better books, gathered a good supporting cast, and secured a larger budget.  Terrance Young was brought back to direct, and Sean Connery was back as Bond.  All the ingredients were in place to create a movie that would be bigger and better than the previous.  Does From Russia With Love fit the bill or does it suffer a sophomore slump?

Head of the British Secret Service, M (Bernard Lee) discovers a lovely Russian cipher clerk wants to defect and take a top secret coding device with her.  Her only stipulation is that secret agent; James Bond (Sean Connery) is the one that helps her.  M and Bond suspect a trap, but they go along with the plan.  Bond is sent to Istanbul where he meets the head of British spy operation named Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz).  Bey promises to help Bond and lovely Tatiana Romanov (Daniela Bianchi) escape via the Orient Express.  The trap is sprung when Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw), set out to ensure that Bond and Romanov die in shame the decoding device falls to SPECTRE.

Good Points:
  • Connery’s chemistry with Bianchi and Armendariz makes this movie work.
  • Location work in Istanbul and Venice is beautiful.
  • The movie has a gritty tense feel to it. 
Bad Points:
  • The movie moves at a slower pace until the chase kicks in. 
  • There is a bit of padding in the beginning of the film. 
  • The James Bond theme is overused for just about everything.
With this Bond film we get a great mix of espionage and fantasy. The stakes are high, the tension builds up well and everything feels bigger than the previous film. It ends up being one of the best Bond films of the 60’s and secured the fate of the franchise.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 5
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5

In Depth Review
I know that many people consider this to be the best James Bond movie. I can see why they think that. From Russia With Love marks the last time Sean Connery got to play James Bond as a normal man.  From Goldfinger on he became more over the top and archetypal.

In terms of visuals, this movie improves with excellent location shooting in Istanbul, Venice and Scotland.  Istanbul provides the bulk of the films most exotic scenes.  The city’s mystery is captured with scenes of the Bosporus, the bazaars and the interior of the Hagia Sophia mosque. Venice is featured for the first time in a James Bond film (it pops up again in Moonraker and Casino Royale).  While most of the filming was done for rear projection work, there are some establishing shots in the famous city. Scotland does some doubling as Italy and the Yugoslavia.  This film started the globe hopping tradition of James Bond.  By the time the Moore films rolled around, James Bond was traveling to three continents in one adventure.

For the most part, the sets go for a more realistic look. The best examples are used for the cars on the Orient Express.  These create a cozy and yet claustrophobic setting for some of the key moments in the film.  They are recreated with such skill, that most viewers believe the scenes were filmed aboard the train.  Bloefeld’s yacht interiors are stylish yet believable.  On the flip side, Kerim Bey’s office and the chess tournament have a bit of the Ken Adam feel to them.  The chess tournament especially uses open space and a chess motif that makes it one of the more memorable sets in the film. The only place where the visuals fail a bit is in the rear projection.

Sound work is also impressive for its time.  Per the norm, gunshots and explosions get the best treatment.  The real highlight is the battle between Grant and Bond.  The crunching, smashing and shattering adds to the violence of the scene.

For the first time John Barry offers his score to a James Bond film.  It seems to be a perfect match.  Barry uses a brassy, jazzy score that incorporates three separate themes.  The first is the popular James Bond theme, first utilized in Dr. No. Barry uses what sounds like the same version of the theme from the previous film as well as working it into his unique pieces.  The theme song From Russia With Love sung by Matt Monroe is used for the end credits, but a sassy instrumental version is used for the opening titles.  The piece also acts as the romantic music used for Tatiana and Bond.  The final piece is one that is a personal favorite of mine, the 007 theme.  It shares many similarities with the James Bond theme but its more action oriented. I particularly love the steady driving rhythm of the piece.  It is utilized several times, and would pop up again in Thunderball and Moonraker. The only downside to the music is that the James Bond theme is used for everything.  Bond opens a door, cue the theme.  Bond wanders down a street, cue the theme.  Bond sits down, cue the theme.  It’s very heavy-handed.  Barry tones this down in his later movies, but in a way it reminded me of David Arnolds work on Tomorrow Never Dies.

In From Russia With Love, Connery is still very strong, but not quite as relaxed with the character as he would be in Goldfinger.  It’s a difference in tone that not only affects Connery’s performance but the whole movie as well.  This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just different from the James Bond that evolved later.  Here Connery plays the part more naturally.  James Bond is well aware of this being a trap, and does his best to enjoy the adventure, while keeping his eyes peeled.  His confrontation with Grant (before the fight erupts) is cautious, measured, and a bit frightened.  Bond knows he’s caught, and he’s hoping he can make it out of this alive.  I’m convinced this performance has much to do with director Terrance Young, who seemed to understand James Bond’s character very well.

Daniela Bianchi provides Tatiana Romanova with a perfect mixture of alluring beauty and naiveté that not only entrances Bond, but the audience as well.  Her voice was dubbed over for most of the film, but her expressive eyes and body language work wonders.  Her part is key to the story, but it’s also a bit underwritten (especially compared to the depth given to her character in the novel).  However her performance works for the film.

Pedro Armendariz as Kerim Bey gives us a warm and likable performance.  He comes across as very capable in his skills as a British contact in Turkey, but more than that, he creates a real friendship with Bond.  It’s an extremely effective performance, especially in the first portion of the film.  Here we are given plenty of character moments but at the cost of padding out the film.  Pedro’s performance helps us forgive the padding and enjoy his repartee with Bond.  To find out that the actor was deathly ill and died during the production of the film was amazing.  His performance doesn’t seem hampered by illness in the least.

A trio of villains faces off against our heroes.  The most physical threat to Bond comes in the form of Donovan “Red” Grant played by Robert Shaw.  I was familiar with Shaw’s work in Jaws.  So it was amusing for me to see him as the cold and dangerous assassin.  Shaw plays the part very calm, focused and cunning.  He uses opportunities to his advantage and when he makes contact with Bond on the Orient Express, he keeps the British Agent fooled.  In a way he’s probably one of the most dangerous opponents Bond faced in his 60’s film.  We wouldn’t see his like till Necros took on Bond in The Living Daylights.

Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb is one of the most memorable characters in the film.  Not only does her no-nonsense attitude combined with her short stature work, but her choice of poisoned shoe is an interesting weapon.  As Bond continues to foil her plot, she reminded me of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.  There is an air of desperation to her performance, knowing that if she fails Bloefeld in capturing the Lector, she’ll be dead.  Her meeting with Tatiana is also very well done, and sets her up for the end sequence with Bond.

Also of note is Vladek Sheybal as the chessmaster Kronsteen.  He plays the part slimy and confident, a good mix.  We also get Walter Gotell as Morzeny.  I mention him because the actor returned as General Gogall in TheSpy Who Loved Me and every Bond film up to The Living Daylights.  Here his character is more of a thug.  I also have to mention that this film introduces Bloefeld as the mastermind (and the first villain with an evil cat).

Back in London we have the usual suspects.  Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell continue the classic performances that they originated in the previous film.  The main difference is that Desmond Llewelyn appears as Major Boothroyd of Q branch for the first time in the series.  He delivers the part as a straightforward employee merely showing James Bond the new piece of equipment that he will using.  We won’t get to see the classic performance of Q until Goldfinger.  Still it’s good to see all the familiar parts filled out.

Just watching From Russia with Love and not really knowing much behind the troubled production, it comes across as a well-made film, one that sticks fairly close to the novel, but is just different enough to keep thing interesting.  The script was altered mostly in the case of the villains.  In the novel, the Russians were the masterminds behind the plot.  SPECTRE didn’t have anything to do with it.  The addition of SPECTRE ties back to Dr. No and at the same doesn’t make this film too topical (especially with the cold war in full swing at the time of its release).

For the most part of the script works well enough, but there is a bit of a problem (one that’s actually based of the book).  By introducing the villains of the film in the beginning and setting up the plan intended to entrap Bond, it diffuses some of the mystery.  The story might have worked better if we hadn’t really known what was going on with Tatiana or Grant.  This would have worked as a surprise (for some) when things fell into place at the end.  After all Bond knows he’s walking into a trap.  He’s just not sure what pieces are arrayed against him.

However in defense of the script is the fact that we are introduced to Grant in the beginning and when he shows up throughout the movie he acts like “Hitchcock’s Bomb”.  We see him, we know he’s going to go off, but tension and suspense is created by not knowing when it will occur.  The only thing I don’t like about this strategy is that it ends up front loading the movie with too much exposition.  Some directors might be able to make this work to their advantage.  Others, like Terance Young have a slower style to begin with.  With an exposition heavy first third this can slow the movie down too much.

Another interesting element I noticed in this viewing was how much the film deals directly with sex. That’s not to say that Dr. No avoided the subject, but here it really seems to be saturating the film. Sex is used as a tool, by Bond to get what he wants out of Tatiana, and by Tatiana to ensnare Bond. It is used as a weapon by SPECTRE when they record Bond and Tatiana’s lovemaking and plan to use it to destroy Bond’s legacy after they kill him. Bey has a bunch of sons at his disposal and plenty of women hanging around. Even the visit to the gypsy camp is based around two women fighting for the “love” of a single man. More then any of the following Bond films, sex is a key component of the plot and the texture to the film. Sure there were plenty of bad sexual puns and liaisons with women in the upcoming films, but sex was just an added spice. Here it is a key ingredient.

Even with the plot heavy first half, Young is able to keep From Russia with Love moving at a steady pace. He is helped by good performances from Connery, Armendariz, Bianchi, Lenya and Shaw.  But once the theft of the Lector device occurs he creates a masterpiece of tension that rarely slows down.  There’s plenty of action in the second half and most of it propels Bond and audience along. The first half has some good action scenes as well, the fight in the gypsy camp is a highlight for certain. But the true action climax is the battle between Bond and Grant – one that is often considered one of the best hand-to-hand battles in movie history.

As far as entertaining goes, this film meets all the expectations.  It’s a bigger adventure for Bond than Dr. No and yet it keeps itself grounded in glossy and fun reality, but avoiding the cartoony nature of the later Bonds.  If you watch From Russia with Love expecting the pace to be a bit slower in the first half, you’ll have a good time with the movie.  But if you go in expecting wall-to-wall action, or the over the top nature of You Only Live Twice, you could be disappointed. 


  1. It’s an interesting point you bring up about the role of sex in this film, and I think that this has something to do with the peculiar cultural psychology of the early 1960s. The old rules were breaking down, thereby provoking a reactionary response. Many of the films (much of the other pop culture, too) of the era are fiercely traditionalist (by today’s standards, often offensively so) in a way that would have made audiences 20 years earlier laugh: films of the 30s and 40s often have very edgy themes and presuppositions, even if the movie code limited how graphic they could be. The two opposing early 60s trends were blended in those strange Doris Day/Rock Hudson “sex comedies” in which there is no sex. Because of this tension, the pop culture of the day, whether traditionalist or anti-traditionalist, took sex more seriously than later in the 60s when things became looser and more lighthearted. You can see this in From Russia with Love and in very different (but still anti-traditionalist) flicks such as Walk on the Wild Side.

  2. That does make sense. And "Goldfinger" certainly tried to increase the sexiness with the golden girl and Pussy Galore. But I don't remember seeing sex work so tightly into the actual plot of a Bond film after this.