Brace yourselves, it’s going to get all sequel-flavoured up in this bitch.
From Russia with Love (1963)
I think From Russia with Love is my favourite Connery Bond. In terms of the public consciousness, it tends to get lost in the shuffle between the more iconic early Bonds like Dr.No and Goldfinger. I feel that the Bond films are in a slightly different league than most films when it comes to reviewing them. What I may think is a good Bond flick may not be your idea of one. However, being as objective as I can, From Russia with Love is probably the best straight-up spy thriller of the 22. Some people have argued that it’s the best of the series and while I can definitely see where they’re coming from, I can’t agree. It’s damn good, but lacking a few key elements for me to be the ultimate Bond.
After Dr.No’s climactic boiling in the previous film, global terrorist organisation SPECTRE step up their game with a plan to end 007 (Sean Connery). SPECTRE head, the mysterious cat-stroking Blofeld (?*) orders Number Three, Colonel Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) to trap Bond using the two things he’s susceptible to, a much sought-after decoding machine called the Lektor and a beautiful Russian named Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi). All the while, Bond is being stalked by SPECTRE assassin Red Grant (Robert “Quint off Jaws” Shaw). The film is pretty solid, giving more of what we were given before but bigger. Connery has settled into the role by this point and gives us a more assured, less self-satisfied 007. Daniela Bianchi is good but pretty forgettable as Romanova and as such isn’t the first name that comes to mind when discussing 007’s women. It’s a damn shame too as I think Bianchi in this film may be one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Bond gets a loyal ally in the form of Kerim Bay (Pedro Armendariz), the head of the Turkish station. Armendariz is instantly likeable as Kerim Bay and it’s both a shame and a blessing this was his last role.
I think the film belongs to the villains though, with Lotte Lenya’s stern and psychotic Rosa Klebb and Shaw’s equally psychotic but more debonair Red Grant. In fact, Klebb gets my favourite little bit in the whole film where she’s barking orders and threats at Romanov and she pauses to put on the thickest fucking comedy glasses. Grant is an interesting one as he’s kind of a dark reflection of Bond. Often Grant will be seen mirroring Bond’s moves or stalking him like a shadow. After the great fake-out intro in which “Bond” gets garroted by Grant, it’s really cool to see their storylines slowly move towards crossing paths for realsies. The culmination of this is the oft-lauded train fight where Bond and Grant duke it out in the claustrophobic confines of a train carriage. The whole sequence from Grant’s deception to him being hoisted by his own petard (or more accurately: “garroted by his own watch”) is a joy and right up there when I list my greatest Bond moments.
From Russia with Love also adds a few more elements to the ever-growing list of Bond hallmarks. This film introduces fan-favourite gadgetmaster Q (Desmond Llewelyn) in an understated way, having him show off a standard-issue briefcase with all sorts of fancy tricks. This is the series’ first Bond gadget too, so hey, that’s something. Blofeld has his first appearance too, although we don’t see his face for a few more films yet. From Russia with Love also ushered in the famous Bond title track, sung by Matt Munro, although it scores the end credits, not the opening ones. Speaking of the titles, the film really kicks off a formula with the cast’s names being projected onto the various jiggling parts of some bellydancers. Again, the use of the Bond theme still seems a little off, now playing when 007 is being driven around. That’s not to discredit John Barry, who takes up the musical mantle for the first time with this film, lending a charm and dynamic that many other Bond films after this one would also benefit from.
A lot of the action is quite dated (with the possible exception of the Grant/Bond scrap) but there’s still some fun to be had. There’s a big sequence where a gypsy camp is torched and attacked that’s still a fairly decent bit. It’s hard to imagine how the tame gypsy catfight that precedes the raid was considered shocking. There’s also a very well done helicopter sequence, which was no doubt heavily influenced by North By Northwest. If I had to criticise it (and I do), I’d say the pacing’s slightly off, with a lot of scenes taking a lot longer than they need to and killing the pace dead. It’s a minor quibble though. This is Bond before the silliness started to creep in and it works very well. It’s easily one of the best Bond films, despite it not being my personal favourite.