“From Russia with love, I fly to you…”
From Russia with Love is one of the Bond movies I hadn’t seen since my childhood. There really weren’t that many opportunities to seek the Bond movies out, beyond whatever titles I ran across on sale. Like Dr. No, I vaguely remembered it was entertaining, but not as impressive as later movies because it just didn’t have all those clever gadgets. Then I watched it at last, and was again impressed.
From Russia with Love (1963)
If Dr. No suggested there was potential life in a Bond franchise, the second movie proved it. From Russia with Love had double the budget of the first film—a whopping $2 million, or about $17 million in today’s money—and they used it to provide a thrilling international espionage story that took Bond from Istanbul to Venice, featuring Russian spies, gypsies, and intrigue aboard the famed Orient Express.
As with Dr. No, From Russia with Love has been painstakingly digitally restored, and is presented in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio of its original European exhibition. The picture quality is incredible, and the sound is about as good as you can expect from a mono movie remixed to 5.1.
In From Russia with Love, the mysterious head of the shadowy organization SPECTRE puts a plan into action to steal the “Lektor” decoder from the Russian embassy in Istanbul and kill British agent James Bond. They plan to lure him with an attractive Russian translator who thinks her superior in Russian Intelligence is ordering her to give the enemy false intelligence. Needless to say, the plan lures Bond to Istanbul, where he meets the translator and steals the decoder…but their troubles are just beginning. A SPECTRE assassin dogs their heels as they try to make their way back to Venice and a fateful confrontation.
From Russia with Love is widely considered one of the best movies in the James Bond canon, and it’s easy to see why. Connery is more confident in the role, and the production staff—largely the same crew from the first film—has a better grasp on what they’re doing and more money to do it with. They’re also working from one of Fleming’s best novels, which required relatively few changes to work on the screen.
This movie further develops the James Bond formula by adding gadgets, though here the gadgets are considerably more subdued than they will be in most movies from Goldfinger forward: a trick briefcase with a knife and tear gas canister, and a real sniper rifle. It is also the only Bond movie without any direct confrontation with an archvillain figure, and one of very few in which Bond does any actual espionage. This adds up to a strong, suspenseful movie in which the gadgets do not overshadow the actions of Bond himself. It introduces the idea of the pre-titles teaser, the opening titles involving scantily-clad women (even if it’s the one sequence titles-designer Maurice Binder didn’t work on until the Brosnan movies), and the individual movie theme song. For the first time, nearly all the recognizable elements of a James Bond film are present, but the action is not yet overshadowed by the gadgets.
There is an excellent supporting cast. Italian beauty queen Daniela Bianchi turns in a compelling performance as Tatiana Romanova, the Russian girl ordered to help Bond steal the decoder. It’s worth noting that, as Bond girls go, Tatiana has considerably more agency than one might expect from an early ‘60s spy movie. She seduces Bond, rather than the other way around; and she, not Bond, kills the evil Rosa Klebb at the end. Klebb is one of the Bond rogues’ gallery’s most unforgettable members, played to vile perfection by Lotte Lenya. Robert Shaw is appropriately chilling as the SPECTRE assassin Grant. And Walter Gotell deserves special mention, appearing briefly as a SPECTRE thug named Morzeny. Later in the series, he will have a recurring role as General Gogol, a high-ranking officer in Russian Intelligence (and one of my favorite Bond supporting characters).
But perhaps the greatest, and most tragic, performance is Mexican character actor Pedro Armendariz’s turn as British diplomat and operative Kerim Bey. Bey’s dry wit and zest for life brought some much-needed comic relief to the scenes in which he appeared. Sadly, this was to be Armendariz’s final role, as he learned he was dying of inoperable cancer while shooting the movie. Director Terence Young rearranged the shooting schedule to film all Armendariz’s scenes first, while he was still able to work. Armendariz would later commit suicide in his hospital room a few weeks after shooting ended.
From Russia With Love is also the first Bond movie to feature a full film score by John Barry. The distinctive, bold and brassy music adds a lot to the movie, especially the “007” theme—a recurring leitmotif, not to be confused with the gun-barrel opening theme—which would feature in several more Bond movies through Moonraker.
There are some fairly obvious rear-projection and miniature special effects, but those are the sort of thing you have to accept from movies of that era. One facet of the digital restoration is that it actually allowed them to improve some special effects shots, erasing obvious cables and such, so in some ways the movie looks even better now than it did originally. Although there are no Ken Adam villain lair sets (Adam was working on Dr. Strangelove at the time), nonetheless the spectacular scenery and well-constructed sets are like another star of the movie. They must have been gorgeous on the big screen. All in all, all the elements are there to make a great movie.
And my reaction to seeing it again after all these years? Once more, I was impressed. As Bond films go it’s still a bit early and rough, but it tells a remarkably suspenseful story that doesn’t let up on the twists and turns until the very end. It introduces one of the more iconic villains of the setting, but doesn’t overuse him. As with Dr. No, the lack of gadgets focuses the story on Bond himself. He has to rely on his own cleverness to get out of sticky situations. He also doesn’t yet have the weight of so many earlier movies forcing him into a cookie-cutter mold the way some of the later films in the series do.
As with Dr. No, the From Russia with Love Blu-ray has a lot of great extras. There are several period interviews with Ian Fleming, including one where Fleming and author Raymond Chandler interview each other. There is also a featurette about the making of the movie, and one profiling Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman. There is an audio commentary track, which (as with Dr. No) is somewhat less interesting than the one from the recalled Criterion laserdisc release.
All these features are fascinating, and a real education for Bond enthusiasts. I feel like going through these movies and their features one at a time amounts to a great education in the popular culture of the era, and the history of the franchise. I think back to one of my favorite professors from college, Dr. David Daly, who taught an intersession course on the James Bond franchise. I wish I could discuss these works with him now, but alas he passed away in 2003.
Next, I will look at the movie that changed the entire course of the Bond movie franchise: Goldfinger.