AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 118 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Seeking to exact revenge on James Bond for killing Dr. No, SPECTRE’s expert planner Kronsteen enlists Rosa Klebb to mastermind a plan to manipulate 007 into stealing a Lektor cryptographic device from the Soviets before killing him and bringing the device back to SPECTRE so they can sell it back. Klebb recruits Tatiana Romanova, a cipher clerk at the Soviet consulate in Istanbul, whom she fools into thinking that she is still working for the Russian secret service group SMERSH. In London, M informs Bond that Tatiana has contacted him, offering to defect with a Lektor, which both MI6 and the CIA have been after for years. However, Tatiana will only defect if brought back by Bond, whose photo she had supposedly found in a Soviet intelligence file….
Ignoring for now the somewhat unfathomable adoration that greeted Skyfall, it still seems to be Goldfinger that is usually regarded as the best Bond film, with From Russia With Love a close second. In fact [take a deep breath], Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, Daniel Craig, Lois Maxwell [Miss Moneypenny], director Terence Young, and the current series producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson have all gone on record as saying From Russia With Love is their favourite. It took me a while to really appreciate it myself; in fact in my early years of Bond fandom, I think I preferred Dr. No, perhaps because that film was very much more of a template for many of the subsequent films in the series than From Russia With Love, which almost sits outside the series, being for a start perhaps the only 007 flick that can properly be called an espionage movie. It’s probably even sparser on the action [though what there is is far more memorable] than Dr. No, something which wouldn’t have pleased my younger self much. On about my fourth viewing though I suddenly realised what an advance it really was on its predecessor, and I now actually consider it a slightly better film than Goldfinger. Supremely slick and entertaining, yet staying within the reams of plausibility and still content and brave enough to be low-key in places, this well plotted [it’s really one of the best stories of the series], colourful spy adventure, rich in atmosphere and colourfully populated, just gets better every time.
From Russia With Love, its budget more than double than that of Dr. No, was chosen as the second 007 film largely because President Kennedy said it was one of his favourite books, though its ending of Bond being killed [Ian Fleming had tired of him] had to go. Len Deighton was hired to write the script, but kept stalling so Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood were brought back. The novel was followed quite closely, though they changed the villainous organisation from the Russian SMERSH to SPECTRE, thereby avoiding politics, and added two action scenes towards the end. Shot at Pinewood Studios, Turkey, and Scotland for most of the climactic scenes, the film ran over budget and schedule, partly due to director Terence Young often changing the script during shooting, and a series of hiccups including Daniela Bianchi’s driver falling asleep at the wheel and crashing, bruising her face, the boat explosion seriously injuring three stuntmen and burning Walter Gotell’s eyelids, and Pedro Armenderiz dying of cancer but completing most of his scenes before killing himself. This time the BBFC had some trouble with the film, and insisted on the removal of some sexual lines, notably two usages of “what a performance” which cause an awkward edit in the final scene, plus the cutting of the two main fight scenes, Bond and Tatiana being filmed in bed, and some other minor bits and pieces. Then, just one week before release, Young’s 12-year old son, during a private screening, spotted that the unnamed Bulgarian killer murdered by Red Grant appeared in a later scene, requiring further cutting. From Russia With Love was an even bigger smash than Dr. No.
We get our first pre-title sequence [which originally took place later], though in comparison with subsequent efforts is just a simple scene of suspense as Bond is stalked and killed by the villainous Red Grant in a garden at night….only it’s not 007 but a guy in a Bond mask and the whole thing’s a SPECTRE training exercise. We also get our first theme song over Robert Brownjohn’s titles, a pleasant though not very memorable number sung by Matt Monro, though the vocal version is only heard in full at the end, the main titles giving us an instrumental version which segues into the James Bond theme brilliantly. Now one thing that is odd about this one is that Bond doesn’t even appear for some time, the film devoting 20 or so minutes to the setting up of the villain’s plot, though there’s still much that is memorable, from a walk through a SPECTRE training ground which pre-empts later ‘Q’ branch scenes, to the truly creepy way the loathsome Rosa Klebb circles and touches Tatiana Romanova [PC types would probably be up in arms against such an unsympathetic lesbian character if the film came out today]. And we get ‘Q’ for the first time, giving Bond a suitcase full of useful devices; cool and amusing yet believable. Of course having Bond go off on his mission fairly late means that you really have to wait a while for some action scenes, while a detour into a gypsy training camp is a bit pointless plot wise but does give us a ferocious girl fight. Then again, this film is much closer to the more conventional spy dramas than other Bonds, it therefore taking time to relish action of a more minimalist kind like a stalking in a mosque, or the shooting of a man escaping from the mouth of Anita Ekberg on a film poster. For better or worse, in some ways Russia With Love is the last Bond film where the filmmakers were just trying to make a good, entertaining film, rather than a Bond film.
What with all the British and Soviet secret service agencies, plus SPECTRE, all trying to manipulate each other, parts of the plot aren’t always that clear the first time you watch the film unless you’re really paying close attention, but it’s all very well constructed and in some ways hinges less on Bond than Tatiana, the heart of the story being whether the latter will decide which is more important – love or duty. Despite the two opting to have sex within seconds of meeting each other, in what is a surprisingly erotic scene for a ‘PG’ rated film [but then the film has quite strong levels of sex and violence throughout], we end up caring about Bond and Tatiana’s relationship and want them to work things out. Meanwhile Young’s handling of the lengthy train sequence that takes up the third quarter of the film is superb in the way that it makes a potentially dull section maintain pace, and eventually we get to what still may be the best fight of the whole series. It may only last around a minute and a half, but Bond and Grant really do bash the living daylights [sorry] out of each other in a brutally realistic encounter, aided immensely by Peter Hunt’s editing which is just fast enough to increase the excitement without making things incoherent in the manner of many similar scenes today. Just as memorable is Bond’s very North By Northwest-like [well, the whole film has a distinct Alfred Hitchcock flavour] run-in with a helicopter, partly because you can actually tell that the helicopter missed Connery [yes, Connery, not a stuntperson] by a few feet!
I always think that From Russia With Love goes downhill a little towards the end- a boat chase isn’t as exciting as it should be considering it’s the last big scene [though those boats blow up most spectacularly] and Klebb dies far too quickly [though I don’t know how convincing it would have been to make a lengthy showdown between the two], while the last scene suffers from very poor back projection – but it’s not enough to substantially weaken the film, which really holds up so well in many ways and doesn’t even seem very dated, what with its tough, gritty approach and moral ambiguity. The level of humour is just right, providing some chuckles at just the right moments to remind us that we shouldn’t be taking all this too seriously, but stopping short of having the film laugh at itself. My favourite bit is when Bond is trying to get Tatiana to tell HQ about the details of the Lektor, Tatania would rather say adoring things about Bond which Miss Moneypenny can hear, then Bond, in response to a question about ‘Western’ girls, begins to tell a story of when he and ‘M’ were in Tokyo….before being cut off. I love the idea of 007 and crusty old ‘M’ being involved in some kind of mission which possibly involves bedding nubile beauties. Another great thing about this movie is the diverse array of supporting characters, even the ones in small parts, perhaps the best ever seen in a Bond film. Klebb is genuinely repulsive while Grant may be a psychopathic killer but can also be smooth and cunning and is almost like an anti-Bond. Kerim Bey remains the best of all of Bond’s allies: amusing, charismatic and smart. When he sits down to tell a captive his life story, you genuinely wish to hear it. And you wouldn’t know that the actor playing him was dying onscreen.
Connery settles into his role of Bond, being considerably more relaxed but still with some of that earlier rough edge. It’s my second favourite of his portrayals of the character. Daniela Bianchi has been somewhat underrated as a Bond girl in my view – she manages to project her character’s torn loyalties very well despite being dubbed. Robert Shaw is supremely menacing as Grant while paradoxically providing some of the film’s best laughs as he slightly overdoes the ‘Englishness’ when pretending to be a British agent. Barry’s score, which introduces the terrific 007 theme that would reappear in some later films, was written for a relatively small orchestra, and therefore doesn’t quite have that full Bond/Barry sound, while he had to use Lionel Bart’s theme song as his main theme and the melding of catchy themes, moody suspense, pounding action and subtle ethnic influences hasn’t been quite fine tuned, but it still knocks Monty Norman’s work in Dr. No into a cocked hat, totally nailing the tone and spirit of the thing. I still wouldn’t quite rank From Russia With Love as the very best Bond film, but I do now believe that it belongs very high on the list, though partly of course because it works extremely well as a film outside of just being a Bond movie. The series may have evolved quite differently if it had used From Russia With Love more of a template rather than Dr. No and Goldfinger, which were both rehashed over and over again. Which is both good and bad, I suppose. In the mean time, I can’t help now but relish From Russia With Love, which is really a unique film in the series.