Art by Dick Bobnick
I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.
A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.
Having said that, let’s get into it!
The Movie: From Russia With Love, directed by Terence Young (who also did Dr. No), adapted by Richard Maibaum, Berkley Mather, and Johanna Harwood, and with cinematography by Ted Moore (A Man For All Seasons, 1981’s Clash of the Titans, several Bond movies), the film was released in 1963. While reviews were initially mixed, retrospectives have proven this to be critically enjoyed and one of the more beloved films of the franchise.
The story centers around James Bond being sent to secure the defection of SMERSH (Bond’s fictional Soviet counterintelligence group) agent Tatiana Romanova and to secure a cryptographic device.
Romanova believes she is a double-agent for the Soviet Union, but does not realize that her handler belongs to the terrorist organization SPECTRE. Likewise, Bond does not realize that SPECTRE is seeking revenge for the death of their agent in the previous film, the titular Dr. No.
The Bond: Sean Connery revises his role as 007 and brings with his second adventure a newer sense of confidence. This film sees Bond move with surety, mingling with locals in foreign countries, engaging in spontaneous gunfights, even transitioning from his manipulations of Romanova to outright anger when he feels she’s betrayed him. This is a secret agent comfortable in his own skin and in working in enemy territory. It is also reportedly the performance that finally won Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, over on Sean Connery.
The Girls: Eunice Grayson briefly reprises her role from Dr. No as Sylvia Trench, intended to be a recurring love interest but ultimately left by the wayside. Instead, Bond spends most of the film with double-agent Tatiana Romanova, played by stunning Italian actress Daniela Bianchi. Due to her thick accent, she was dubbed over by Barbara Jefford. Tatiana, ostensibly a Russian spy, is neither particularly dangerous nor exactly a damsel in distress. Instead, she plays more a genuine love interest for the better part of the film, also assisting in the procuring of the cryptographic device. At the age of only 21, she is also the youngest “leading” Bond girl.
The Villains: This film has a few bad guys, playing up the mention of Spectre from the first film by giving us a look behind the scenes. This is the first appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played physically here by Anthony Dawson (who played the late Professor Dent in Dr. No). You don’t see Blofeld’s face here, but you see his hands, stroking his white cat, a move that would spawn imitation after imitation from Inspector Gadget’s villainous Dr. Claw to Michael Meyers’ buffoonish Dr. Evil. We also hear Blofeld’s voice (Eric Pohlmann), one that lets us know he is in command and that he does not tolerate failure.
We also see two of his commanders. There is Chief Planner Kronsteen, a master chess player portrayed by actor Vladek Sheybal. Vladek did not originally want to be in a Bond film, fearing that a spy/action film might hurt his career, but Sean Connery, a friend, convinced him to take the role. More interesting about Vladek Sheybal is that he lived through the occupation of Warsaw and actively fought in the Polish resistance, twice escaping concentration camps, and only deciding after the war to pursue a career in acting.
Lotte Lenya was a Tony-award winning (The Threepenny Opera) and Academy-Award nominated (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) actress who here plays Rosa Klebb, SMERSH commander-turned-SPECTRE operative.
And finally, the hitman Donald “Red” Grant, a highly trained spy and killer spent to tail and eventually eradicate Bond in order to retrieve the Lektor cryptographic device while also eliminating the threat from England that Bond poses. He’s played by Academy-Award nominated (A Man For All Seasons) actor Robert Shaw, who you may know better as the shark hunter Quint in Jaws.
The Locations: While there are a few scenes shot in England involving MI6’s involvement and Bond’s vacation, and a couple scenes (notably part of the boat chase scene near the end) are shot in Scotland to get the scenes they wanted, the bulk of the film takes place in Turkey and was shot on location in and around Istanbul.
While not necessarily as vibrant as the Jamaican scenery of Dr. No, Turkey is exotic in it’s own right, and we get to experience the culture through gypsy parties, markets, old and crumbling architecture, and sweeping hills and background scenery as Bond and Tatiana try to escape to Bulgaria.
By filming in Turkey and having Spectre as the guiding force behind the conflict, it was also a way to capitalize on the tensions of the Cold War without making the Russians the outright villains.
There is also a brief, beautiful moment set in Venice, Italy toward the end of the film.
The Cars: While there are several cars used in the film (you can find an entire list here), including a 1958 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, this film is notable for, to my recollection, being the only Bond film where he drives a Bentley (his preferred car in the novels; a 1935 Drophead Coupe here) instead of the Aston Martins he would become famous for. Additionally, while not a car, a massive chunk of the back end of the film is set aboard a gorgeous train.
The Gadgets: From Russia With Love still stays pretty grounded with the gadgets, although they did notably have a pager-like device to contact agents in the field before the pager was actually developed.
Bond is given an attaché case that remains one of my favorite multi-purpose tools in the 007 series. Through its many secret compartments and latches, it contains two tubes of spare ammunition, a collapsible Armalite AR-7 rifle, a hidden knife, an exploding tear gas cartridge, and 50 gold sovereigns attached to the interior straps.
Bond also uses a tape recorder disguised as a camera, and a small bug detector to find that his room has been compromised.
SPECTRE has a remarkable mask-making technology that they’ve used to create Bond-lookalike masks for the sake of Red Grant practicing the kill (this predates Mission Impossible by decades and yet they never use it again, I don’t believe). Red Grant makes his kills with his own gadget: a wristwatch with a garrote wire.
Rosa Klebb has her own gadget of sorts, a shoe with a poisoned blade hidden in the toe, an assassination weapon based in reality.
And, of course, the Lektor decoding machine is the McGuffin that the whole plot centers around, as Russia, England, and Spectre all try to gain and keep possession of it.
The Music: This is actually the first Bond film to feature a theme song beside the James Bond theme. “From Russia With Love” was composed by “Oliver!” composer Lionel Bart and sung by Matt Monro during the film and over the end credits. John Barry took the reigns for the rest of the film’s soundtrack composition with music pieces matching many of the major moments throughout the film.
The Support: Bernard Lee returns as M., Bond’s superior. He’ll be a common name in this section. Likewise Lois Maxwell as M’s secretary and Bond’s target of doomed affection, Moneypenny. Desmond Llewelyn, meanwhile, makes his first appearance as Boothroyd/Q., replacing Peter Bothroyd as Bond’s quartermaster. Llewelyn would return to the role over the course of sever Bond actor transitions.
Bond’ major ally in From Russia With Love is the Turkish-born head of MI6’s Turkish intelligence branch Kerim Bey. He is a charismatic man with 15 children and a gypsy lifestyle and is brought to life here by the late Pedro Armendáriz. In a sad twist, Armendáriz took this role while he was terminally ill with cancer so that his family would be left financially secure. When his illness grew too severe, he shot and killed himself in the hospital. He was one of the most well-known Latin American stars in the 40s and 50s and, years later, his son Pedro Jr. would star in a Bond film of his own.
Final Thoughts: While I remembered the opening murder scene, Rosa Klebb, and much of the train sequence,I found that I had forgotten much of what made this film great. Connery really feels like he fits in the Bond role here where it felt a little stuffy in Dr. No. Bianci and Armendáriz are pure charisma as Romanova and Bey respectively, and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant cuts an intimidating figure, opening with an act of shocking violence before hovering around like a looming threat of death.
The film takes its time, enjoying its setting and earning its relationships, while brief moments of frantic action punch through periodically: a gunfight here, an explosion there, a sudden murder. And while the film ends with not just one, but two exciting action sequences (a helicopter chase AND a boat chase), it’s the extended, brutal close quarters fight on the train that really sticks in your mind. This movie has some romanticism flavored of its time, and plenty of thrills. This was a pleasant surprise to come back to, and I can see why so many people place it among their favorites.
Other Bond Breakdowns: