Welcome to James Bond Revisited, a weekly series in which I rewatch and review every James Bond film leading up to the 25th film in the franchise No Time To Die, set to release this April.
The first entry in the Bond franchise, Dr. No premiered in 1962 and quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. Decently reviewed by critics but adored by general audiences, Dr. No was a massive success. From a budget of just $1.1 million dollars (roughly $8.4 million today), the film grossed a whopping $59.5 million and catapulted Sean Connery into superstardom overnight.
Demand for a sequel was high and producers Harry Saltzman and Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli were quick to capitalize on the world’s thirst for more spy adventures.
But which book to adapt?
While Dr. No was the first Bond film, it was far from the first Bond novel. In fact, Dr. No was actually the sixth in the series. Why not go back to the beginning? Well, because the rights for the first book, Casino Royale, were tied up with other studios. But when President John F. Kennedy listed From Russia With Love as one of his ten favorite novels of all time, the producers decided that was the best course of action.
Only a year later, From Russia With Love blasted onto the silver screen, with many of the cast and crew returning, a much more ambitious plot, and twice the budget. But is bigger always better?
James Bond Revisited: From Russia With Love.
The film opens with James Bond sneaking around in an undisclosed location, pursued by a blonde, square-jawed assassin named Red Grant. Grant throttles Bond and kills him before revealing that this was only a Bond impersonator and that this whole opening was merely an exercise for training assassins. Why to go through all the effort of making a mask is beyond me, and already From Russia With Love establishes a more tongue-in-cheek tone than its predecessor.
From there, we move on to a chess tournament where a genius chess master named Kronsteen is told to meet with the head of the terrorist organization, SPECTRE, after receiving a note at the bottom of a glass of water. The note is imprinted with a stamp of an octopus, the SPECTRE logo. It might seem silly that a covert terrorist organization would stamp their logo on a secret message, but this a pre-Dark Knight world and a bit of camp was expected.
Kronsteen meets with the head of SPECTRE, a sinister, faceless man named Number 1 stroking a white cat, and SPECTRE’s Number 3 agent, a Soviet Counter-Intelligence mole named Rosa Klebb. While never fully revealed, Number 1 inspires terror even from his closest advisors. Kronsteen lays out his sinister plot, to pit British and Russian intelligence against one another and in so doing, procure a Lektor cryptographic device, selling it back to the Soviets and, in doing so, embarrassing MI-6. The plan would involve Klebb returning to the Russian consulate and ordering a cipher clerk named Tatiana Romanova to pretend to defect, fall in love with James Bond, and once he gets his hands on the Lektor, to kill him, to and in doing so, get revenge for the death of Dr. No from the previous film. Klebb goes to SPECTRE’s training facility, a summer camp for would-be assassins where she inlists Red Grant to keep Bond alive until he can attain the Lektor.
Meanwhile, Bond is informed of Tatiana’s desire to defect and smells a trap. He and M agree that this is all a ploy by SPECTRE but if Bond can get the Lektor and escape, all the better for England.
Bond heads to Istambul to meet Tatiana but first meets with the station head Ali Kerim Bey, who tells him that Istambul is swarming with Russian spies, one of whom tries to assassinate Kerim Bey. Bond and Bey hideout in a gypsy camp and are almost killed by another Russian assassination attempt before they are saved by Red Grant acting as Bond’s unseen guardian angel.
Bond meets with Tatiana, who lures him into bed, pretending to be in love with him. Unbeknownst to both, Klebb is in the next room filming the tryst.
The next day, Tatiana brings secret floor plans to the Hagia Sophia and Bond uses them to steal the Lektor. Lektor in hand and Tatiana still pretending (?) to want to defect, Bond, Tatiana, and Kerim board the Orient Express. Bond and Kerim catch a Soviet spy aboard the train and Bond leaves Kerim to keep an eye on him. However, Kerim is murdered and Bond smells another trap.
Red Grant boards the train pretending to be a British agent, but Bond susses him out when Grant orders red wine with fish. Grant reveals himself to be an assassin and plans to kill Bond in a private train car. After a particularly tense scene, Bond asks for one final cigarette from his briefcase, but Grant demands to open it himself. The booby-trapped briefcase erupts with tear gas and Bond and Grant duke it out before Bond kills Grant with his own garrotte watch.
Back at SPECTRE, Number 1 has Kronsteen killed for his failure. Rosa Klebb is ordered to finish the job and tries to assassinate Bond in his hotel suite with a poison-dipped shoe blade. However, Tatiana shoots Klebb, revealing herself to be a good guy all along, and she and Bond take a gondola ride, where he disposes of the sex tape and the two share a loving embrace.
Seems Overly Convoluted?
That’s because it is. Truth be told, even though there is a scene where Kronsteen explains his entire plan, I still needed to go to Wikipedia to wrap my head around it. I appreciate that the plot revolves around embarrassing Bond and the British government instead of stealing nuclear warheads or some such world-ending nonsense but it still feels inconsequential. If the villain’s plan succeeds, the Russians will… keep the Lektor? Oh no!
One of the problems with the plot is that we are aware of both Bond’s perspective and Spectre’s. As a result, the movie loses all mystery. We already know who Red Grant is and exactly what he is up to. We already know all the players and all their motivations. While this can work (Die Hard, for instance), it leaves very little room for discovery. We are already ahead of Bond, so there is nothing for him to detect that is of interest to the audience.
On the other hand, Bond welcoming Red Grant onto the train fills us with dread precisely because we know what Bond doesn’t. In this case, putting the plan upfront works in the movie’s favor but those examples are few and far between.
It is true that post-production on From Russia With Love was a convoluted and messy process. In fact: the movie only opens with the gun barrel and pre-credits action sequence because the editing process was so choppy and thus, a film tradition that would span the rest of the franchise was born. The question seemed to be ‘what does the audience need to know and when do they need to know it’ and the answer, according to director Terence Young and editor Peter Hunt seems to be ‘everything and all at once.’
The Bond Song/Title Sequence
In many ways, From Russia With Love is a film of firsts. It is the first to begin with the gun barrel and theme blaring. It is the first Q scene with Desmond Llewelyn (more on that in a bit). And it is the first with a traditional Bond title sequence.
‘From Russia With Love,’ written by Lionel Bart, is a wonderful song with a classically romantic tune. Just listening to the melody transports one to the gondolas of Venice on a warm, spring afternoon. While the song with lyrics is sung by Matt Monro, the song played over the opening credits is entirely instrumental, the last time this would occur in the entire series.
In another first for the series, the Lionel Bart tune acts as a leitmotif for the individual film with Monty Norman’s ‘James Bond Theme’ acting as a series-long motif.
This title sequence was designed by Robert Brownjohn. Here we see the titles and credits projected over the scantily clad bodies of belly dancers, foreshadowing the gypsy fight later in the film. It is simple, elegant, and effective.
Even casual James Bond fans will tell you that a Bond film simply must include gadgets. In that regard, Dr. No must come as a bit of a disappointment. Instead of a laser watch or invisible car, Bond is gifted with… a Walther PPK. Fun fact: Flemming originally gave Bond a Baretta but changed it after a reader wrote him saying a Baretta was a “woman’s gun” with a tendency to jam.
Well, fear not, dear reader, while only the second film in the series, From Russia With Love is the first film to give us a proper Q scene. So long, Peter Burton, welcome newcomer and British legend, Desmond Llewelyn. Bond is gifted with a sturdy briefcase which conceals twenty rounds of ammunition, a spring-loaded throwing knife, sniper rifle, gold sovereigns, and an exploding can of tear gas.
This marks the first in a long and glorious Bond tradition that excites fans, both young and old. As a child watching these movies, I remember being particularly enraptured by the secret gadgets of spy fiction. It is easy to pretend that your wristwatch is actually connected to a satellite and that your sunglasses can see through walls. The James Bond franchise was among the first to tap into the idea that your ordinary world only seems ordinary and that spies and gadgets exist around every corner. Press the right series of numbers on a payphone and a secret door will open up. Say the right phrase on a bench, and you could be gifted a top-secret mission. This is a bit of fantasy that John Wick, Mission: Impossible, and even Harry Potter would employ to great success, and it all starts here.
I should say almost proper. Desmond Llewelyn is credited as ‘Boothroyd,’ a carryover from the previous film. However, henceforth he would be credited solely as ‘Q’ and the rest, as they say, is history.
While the Bond series is known for its gadgets, baddies, and beauties, one aspect of the Bond oeuvre that is criminally underlooked is Bond’s allies. Just about every film in the franchise gives Bond a friend to collaborate with. Most of the time, they’re fellow agents, sometimes they’re old compatriots, and more recently, they’re the Bond Girls themselves.
Dr. No introduced us to Quarrel, a tough-as-nails boat captain who is burnt to a crisp on Crab Key, and Felix Leiter, a CIA operative. In From Russia With Love, we meet Ali Kerim Bey, the Istanbul station head who is so suspicious of the nest of spies around him that he only employs his sons (of which there are many). Kerim (Pedro Armendáriz in his final film performance) is a warm actor with a good sense of humor. A portly government official with a charming mustache, he brings a lightness to the proceedings, dusting off assassination attempts and insisting that he be the one to assassinate his potential killer are both wonderful, but the highlight of his performance for me is when he sits down with a bound and gagged enemy agent, lights a cigar and says, “I’ve had a particularly fascinating life. Would you like to hear about it?” It’s hard not to have a smile on your face when he is around.
The Bond Girl
It is a shame that we have no control over iconography. Honey Ryder does nothing for the plot of Dr. No. She’s not an important character. She doesn’t do anything interesting. She’s not dramatically compelling. But you come out of the ocean singing a pleasant tune, wearing a skimpy bikini in the first Bond film and Bob’s your uncle.
Here, we have Tatiana Romanova, played by former Ms. Universe contestant Daniela Bianchi. Tatiana is something of a mixed bag for me as a character. She’s an instantly more compelling and sympathetic character, forced to seduce an enemy agent by Rosa Klebb. She’s an innocent woman used as a pawn in a game of espionage.
Daniela Bianchi has a silky presence and the camera loves her. Put her next to Connery and it’s dynamite. However, the character is underserved by the screenplay. While her character starts off as a gentle soul uncomfortably objectified, her obedience to her country is never fully dramatized. Here’s a woman who is a cipher clerk ordered to seduce a stranger for the Soviet Union and while she goes along with it out of fear of death, her politics never enter into the drama. Like Honey Ryder before her, she quickly becomes arm candy.
Bianchi plays almost every scene as though she’s 100% committed to Bond which you could argue is what her character should be doing, but there is a difference between 100% committed and acting as though you are 100% committed. Her nation is at war with Britain, albeit a cold one, and not once does she disagree with James or challenge his beliefs with her own (stay tuned for Goldeneye).
There is one wonderful scene where she’s trying to seduce Bond and he’s trying to get her to reveal government secrets, but that’s just one scene. Once she boards the Orient Express, Bond pampers her and from that moment on, she might as well be a true defector, persuaded by beautiful clothes. You never once get the feeling that she is luring Bond into a trap. To make matters worse, she’s drugged on the train by the villain and slapped around by the hero. And when she shoots Klebb in the end, it doesn’t feel like the end of a journey for the character so much as the next thing she decided to do.
From Russia With Love boats one of the greatest ensemble of Baddies in the Bond lexicon. At the start of the film, we have Kronsteen played by Vladek Sheybal, who is less of a human being and more of a newt with sinister intentions. The villain is given a wonderful introduction during a chess competition, toying with his food.
Then there is Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a harsh woman with a face like brass knuckles. In the novel, it is heavily implied that she is a lesbian, and that carries over into the film, establishing her as a character that Bond will be unable to “persuade.”
The yet-unnamed Number 1 is iconic, as is his white cat. It’s nice that the series isn’t going to take itself too seriously, and his opening monologue about the qualities he enjoys most in his Japanese fighting fish is hammy in the best way.
But the real star of this group is Robert Shaw as Red Grant. Twelve years later, he’d solidify his place in film history as Quint in Jaws but he was always a wonderful actor (see also, The Sting), and he’s wonderful here. Blonde, steely and humongous, Red has a striking look that says he’s impervious to pain, and that’s before Rosa Klebb punches him in the kidneys. We often see villains cast as the “dark side of Bond” but this is one time when it is entirely successful. He’s every bit as deadly as Bond, but without the suave sophistication. Red wine with fish? A dead giveaway.
If this crew sounds familiar to you, it is because it is the primary inspiration for Doctor Evil’s henchmen in the Austin Powers series. While that series has taken the piss out of this conniving crew, time has been kind to From Russia With Love. In an age of gritty realism, I enjoy seeing chess grandmasters and Japanese fighting fish. There’s good flavor in it.
For years, From Russia With Love never sat well with me. I respected the film more than I enjoyed it, and I think that’s because I was introduced to James Bond as an action series. This was not the case for early Bond adventures and it certainly isn’t the case for From Russia With Love.
The gypsy fight is completely superfluous and overlong and the invasion that follows even more so. While there are explosions and sniper scenes, they are meant to work as surprises or suspense respectively. This film is not meant to function as a showcase for action setpieces.
However, there is a legitimately impressive action scene aboard the Orient Express, where Bond is held at gunpoint by Grant and must use his wits to survive. The fight scene in their private car is appropriately bombastic and tense.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t end there and instead, we are subjected to a motorboat chase and a helicopter fight that are both so unnecessary that I didn’t feel the need to include them in the plot. It is impossible to deny that the film could wrap up entirely aboard the Orient Express. In fact, neither setpiece is in the novel and both were added to the screenplay out of concerns that there wasn’t enough action to satisfy the audience. The former ends with Bond setting Spectre agents on fire, which is disturbing, and the latter is a North by Northwest ripoff.
The World of Bond
If From Russia With Love has a convoluted plot, a milk toast heroine, and overlong action setpieces then why am I recommending it?
For the world.
The Connery era of Bond films aren’t going to blow you away with high-speed chases or edge-of-your-seat stunts. Instead, it intends to seduce you with its glamorous and sexy world. And on that level, the film is a monumental success.
From Russia With Love feels like sinking into a warm bath. The cinematography by Ted Moore invites you into the shadows of these European locales and the costume design by Jocelyn Rickards clothes you in perfectly tailored suits and form-fitted dresses, while John Barry’s soundtrack sways with the breeze before punctuating each punch. This movie looks, sounds, and feels the way an elegant spy movie ought to feel.
While the characters are serious when the film calls for it, the film itself is never self-serious. As I mentioned before, the faceless Number 1 is introduced stroking a cat and talking about Japanese fighting fish. Chess Grandmasters receive notes from terrorist organizations with cartoon logos. It is a world in which there are spies, and spies who spy on spies.
As Karem says, “They follow us, we follow them. It’s a sort of understanding we have.”
Bond replies, “That’s very friendly.”
Yes, where From Russia With Love truly excels is in its worldbuilding. While the plot can be an impenetrable thicket, the tone it strikes is absolutely note-perfect.
The Last Word on From Russia With Love
From Russia With Love is one of the most well-regarded films in the James Bond filmography and with good reason. It is a fun, playful romp with a keen sense of what audiences wanted to see from the character.
While I do have gripes, they are minuscule. I think Tatiana Romanova leaves a lot to be desired and the action at the end leaves me cold. The ‘James Bond Theme’ is overused. At one point, he gets the theme for tipping a bellhop and the theme plays in its entirety. Seriously?
Still, there’s no denying that this movie has a firm grip on its tone. It is no surprise to me that the film was a gargantuan success. Sean Connery himself has said that this was his favorite of the entire series.
This is the first time I really got it.