From Russia With Love (1963)

From Russia With Love

 A review by Ross Joseph

Directed by Terence Young
Produced by Harry Saltzman & Albert R. Broccoli
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum & Johanna Harwood
Based on From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming
Starring Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya and Robert Shaw
Music by John Barry

Last month I reviewed Dr No (1962) and published the first entry in the Ultimate James Bond List. Share them around if you like by linking each to your preferred social network and don’t be afraid to drop a comment down below. The James Bond discussion will continue for the coming weeks and months, and ramp up considerably as Bond 24 approaches. So sit back and follow along.

No need for introductions to this review series as I’m sure you have read all about my love of James Bond already. If not, you will quickly find out as I cover each official James Bond film entry in the coming months. This month is the review of From Russia With Love (1963).

From Russia With Love seems to have a very complicated plot. No idea why because it could easily clip a few scenes from the film and be a very tight movie. I shouldn’t really complain though as the scenes which don’t further the plot prove quite entertaining.

Okay now stay with me here because things will get a little complicated as I explain what From Russia With Love is all about. SPECTRE plans to steal a Lektor cryptographic device from the Soviets and sell it back to them while getting revenge on James Bond for killing their agent Dr No. SPECTRE agent number 3, Rosa Klebb, is put in charge of the mission and recruits Grant, an assassin, and Tatiana Romanova, a cipher clerk in Istanbul, as a pawn. Tatiana believes that Klebb is a SMERSH agent and goes along with the plan, which means defecting with James Bond, and only Bond.

Bond is tasked with helping Tatiana defect with the Lektor, which MI6 and the CIA have been after for many years. So, being the man he is, Bond heads to Istanbul to meet up with his contact, Kerim Bey, and devise a plan to steal the Lektor. While on his mission, Bond is being stalked by Grant who also happens to be his guardian angel of sorts. Any harm that comes to Bond, Grant deals with it.

By the time Grant and Bond finally come face to face, a fairly amazing fight sequence takes place in a train, but not before master assassin Grant reveals the entire plan — which, I guess, is kind of needed considering the plot has been complicated up to this point. But don’t worry, that’s why I’m here to help you out. I’m still in two minds about it though.

I have to admit, every time I’ve watched From Russia With Love in the past, I have always found the plot overly complex. I mean why does SPECTRE bother to aid Bond in his mission to steal the Lektor if they are intending to kill him and then sell the device back to the Russians? Wouldn’t it be easier to just isolate Bond and kill him then have Grant pose as British Secret Service Agent and ‘help’ Tatiana defect? I mean Grant poses as an MI6 agent to fool Bond during the third act of the film so it wouldn’t be too far-fetched for him to do it to frame the British/MI6.

Maybe I’m just looking too much into the story. Maybe I’ve watched the film too many times and found issues with the plot or maybe I just find the Lektor to be nothing but a MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is an object or device in a film used to drive the plot forward. Examples would be the Maltese Falcon (The Maltese Falcon), the briefcase (Pulp Fiction), the Death Star plans (Star Wars: A New Hope aka Episode IV), the one ring (Lord of the Rings) and finally the Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark).

As I was saying, the Lektor really doesn’t do much in this film. It’s here to help move the plot along and that isn’t a bad thing, because for the most part From Russia With Love is one damn fine film.

From Russia With Love feels like a proper spy film. MI6 spying on the Russians while Bond and Kerim Bey are being followed by a group of Bulgarians working for the Russians. This is the Cold War at its finest (maybe not the correct choice of words), and shows just how desperate each side was in trying to win. But I think it really works best because SPECTRE is involved. Name dropped in Dr No, now we see just how much reach this shadowy organisation really has. Watching them manipulate both sides and Grant manoeuvring James Bond right where he needs him, is a really well played out plan.

Most important of all, if Grant wasn’t so greedy, he would’ve succeeded in finishing off 007. I’m glad the producers didn’t shy away from showing James Bond as slightly gullible and gave him a worthy adversary. Its always easy to make a hero flawless but here Bond isn’t.

A few things worth mentioning: From Russia With Love makes the first appearance of Q as played by Desmond Llewelyn. Although here known as Boothroyd, Q is nothing like his later portrayal: here he is to the point showing 007 the gadgets with no familiar banter between the two. Still, it’s fun to see Connery playing Bond like a young child opening a new toy. In Dr No Bond was given a Walther PPK but it’s here where the fun begins.

Although less commonly carried now, the standard issue black leather briefcase is easily one of the best gadgets Bond has ever used, housing a sniper rifle, ammunition, throwing knife, gold sovereigns and, most famous of all, the tear-gas cartridge. Truly an amazing collection of gadgets, it’s fun to watch James Bond use them throughout this mission. Over time the gadgets become more and more over the top, but From Russia With Love has it just right. A perfect blend of practical use and real world charm.

Another note to mention is that Sylvia Trench returns here as girlfriend (?) of James Bond for the second and final time. Eunice Gayson was signed for multiple films but I guess producers didn’t want 007 tied down so they released her from the contract. Still, Sylvia goes down in history as the only returning Bond girl apart from Moneypenny and, later, M.

You can tell that Sean Connery is much more confident this time around. Wait, that’s a lie. He seemed pretty confident during Dr No and actually surprises me each time. The way he plays the character on screen during his first outing you could be mistaken for thinking he’d been playing the role for years. Here, though, he’s extremely relaxed in the role and takes on all the challenges with ease. Take the large action scene at the Gypsy camp: Bond moves all around the battle taking out guys left and right while being able to handle his own when it comes to stunts, even during moments on the train during the third act opposite Grant.

I’ve never been sure if Bond is aware who Grant really is, but their scenes together are tense. You’re always waiting for the battle to begin, yet Connery plays it so smoothly. I could go on all day about Sean Connery as James Bond but there are still so many films in the coming months, so no point in wasting time now.

The new Bond girl, Tatiana Romanova, is played by Italian actress Daniela Bianchi. One of the youngest actresses to play opposite 007, Daniela was first runner-up in the 1960 Miss Universe contest. From Russia With Love was her first film role and, because of her heavy italian accent, Barbara Jefford dubbed her in the lead. While watching the film recently for this review, I was very surprised just how sexually charged Tatiana was, especially for the time of release. You have to remember, it was released in 1963 and times were VERY different. The subject is even mentioned during one scene between Tatiana and Klebb, and it was — interesting to say the least. Especially considering Klebb’s sexual preference is hinted at leaning away from the heterosexual side. I mean, how risky would that have been back then? Once again the James Bond franchise is taking risks and I like it.

In From Russia With Love, Bond heads to Istanbul he needs a local contact: Kerim Bey as played by Pedro Armendariz. An absolutely fantastic character, Kerim Bey is a man with many children, a funny running joke throughout. While a very funny part, Pedro Armendariz was sadly diagnosed with cancer during filming and refused to leave the production. So producers, not wanting to lose him in the cast, moved all his scenes to the beginning of filming so that Pedro could get through before the cancer worsened.

Although weak in-between takes, cast and crew spoke highly of him on all the material I could find, and he was sorely missed when he eventually passed away. Knowing this information going into the film, I struggled to find any point where his performance suffered from his illness.

Pedro’s chemistry with Sean obviously shines bright throughout their scenes and both seem like long friends catching up for a beer. Theirs is a wonderful pairing with a few dull moments elevated by the dialogue between the two men. Even after the early attempt on Kerim’s life, jokes are told between him and Bond. Sadly when Kerim is killed though, Bond approaches Tatiana for information, and you believe his anger at losing a close friend. A moment of silence for Kerim and Pedro.

Onto the main villain of the piece, Grant. Played here by English actor Robert Shaw, I’ve only ever seen him in one other film, that shark film, and it is quite the stark contrast between the two. Robert is at his physical best in this film, and wouldn’t look out of place playing 007 himself. He is a stone cold killer with skills that easily rival Bond himself. He casts a shadow over the entire film and the few times he is seen feel like Jaws in that shark film (a joke wrapped inside a long story). His frame is solid, his words are hardly ever spoken except for later on, and his actions swift. Some would call him a henchman, however you could go as far as to say he’s the main bad guy here.

I always laugh at villains that give Bond chances to escape or live over and over, but here Grant has a reason. It’s just a shame the reveal is very exposition heavy practically feeding the plot to the audience. Looking back on it now I don’t really enjoy that moment, but as a first time viewer I can only imagine it would’ve been helpful.

All in all, the cast this time around is so much better. Everyone plays their part well, Kerim is fun and loveable. Connery turns in another solid performance clearly enjoying the character and Grant — well, he’s awesome. Sadly I can’t say the same for Tatiana. Although very beautiful, she is annoying and needy and has a ‘bunny boiler’ feel about her. Fewer women begging for Bond and I’d be happy.

I’m glad they finally have the legendary talents of John Barry on board here to score the music. A great improvement over Dr No and one I’ve been listening to for the past few weeks. If you get a chance, check out the track ‘The Golden Horn’ because, once heard, it will stay in your head for hours. It also has the first appearance of the 007 track which appears a few times later on through Connery’s era as Bond. A great score and well worth the purchase for any die hard fan.

Overall, my thoughts on From Russia With Love are high. The music, acting and plot are much better than the first movie. Although complicated to understand, making this a spy film rather than a detective story only helps make it stand out. Even the direction is better and editing seems to have improved because of it. Dull end of scenes are gone, replaced by a faster pace. I know it sounds stupid, but it is truth. And the change of location suits this film noir feel.

An excellent continuation to the 007 franchise. Possibly even Connery’s best.

James Bond will return in Goldfinger