The second Bond movie and the second best ever made.
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Sean Connery
SETUP: A Russian SMERSH operative named Tatiana Romanova contacts MI6 with a fantastic story. She claims to have fallen in love with James Bond from a file photograph and wishes to defect to be with him. Even better, she’ll throw in a top-secret Lektor Decoder if Bond travels to Istanbul personally to pick her up. Is it a trap?
BUT IN REALITY: Obviously, yes, of course it’s a trap, but SMERSH is innocent. The villainous SPECTRE organization, led by former SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb, has cooked this whole thing up in an effort to steal the Lektor, make a tidy profit by selling it back to the Russians, and in the process avenge Dr. No’s death by killing Bond. Poor Tatiana is caught in the middle as SPECTRE plays one side against the other, and when the plan goes down, Bond has to escape across land and sea to get the Lektor, Tatiana, and himself back into friendly territory.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) has no physical deformities, save for a passing resemblance to Yoda, but there are some mean-spirited suggestions that she’s is a lesbian and that basically counted as a mental illness at the time.
THE MUSCLE: This is one of the rare Bond movies that allows the henchman to steal the show. Donald ‘Red’ Grant is an Aryan, muscular assassin trained specifically to kill Bond. He spends the first half of the film acting as Bond’s guardian angel to keep SPECTRE’s plan intact, but once Bond has the Lektor, Grant moves in for the kill. His final battle with Bond is one of the action highlights of the entire series. A true classic villain, played with perfect menace by Robert Shaw.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) fits the early Bond Girl profile perfectly. She begins as a femme fatale, playfully luring Bond to his doom. Once she’s rolled in the sheets with our hero, her heart miraculously thaws and she repents of all her wicked ways. The role is rather standard, but Bianchi brings quirk to the performance and ends up as one of the most memorable Bond Girls from the Connery era.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Not the first appearance of Major Boothroyd/Q, but the first appearance of Desmond Llewellyn in the role. He delivers Bond a stylish briefcase, which is like a one-stop shop of gadgetry. Throughout the case are a bundle of hidden objects, such as gold sovereigns, throwing knives, tear gas canisters, and even a sniper rifle. Bond gets his mileage out of the case, using it in almost every critical moment and turning it against Red Grant in their final showdown.
MOST EMBARASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Bond’s randy Turkish ally, Kerim Bay, takes him to a gypsy camp to lay low. By a stroke of luck, they arrive just as two gypsy women throw down in a catfight/deathmatch for the hand of the chief’s son. The ladies rip clothes and claw at each other while Bond gives the situation the gravity it deserves. Bond asks the chief to settle their argument, and he does so by giving both women to Bond for the night. Even better, none of this is relevant to the plot or ever mentioned again.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: After Rosa Klebb fails in her attempt to assassinate Bond with a shoe-knife: “She had her kicks.”
WORTH MENTIONING: Final appearance of Sylvia Trench, who was meant to be Bond’s frustrated regular love interest. Somewhere between this movie and Goldfinger, Bond lost her number… The novel was one of John F. Kennedy’s personal favorites, and the film is reportedly the last he saw before his death… First film appearance of the villain Blofeld, although he’s not mentioned in the credits.
OVERALL: Yeah, this was a close one.
From Russia with Love is one hell of a spy movie, a textbook Cold War potboiler improved by the presence of a superhero. And, make no mistake, that’s what James Bond is. The villains set up their scheme like a rat trap, coaxing the agent in with a prize (the code machine possibly, the woman definitely) and then quickly snapping the trap shut around him. The rest of the film is about watching the impossibly crafty Bond slip through the bars and dodge the broom without so much as mussing his hair. Maybe Bond can’t spin webs or hulk out, but his superpower is that he’s more awesome than you.
And he needed to be. As much as I admire Dr. No, it barely holds together as a movie. The tone is uneven, it’s bogged down with details, and really only succeeds in suggesting Bond as a character. From Russia with Love was the game-changer. Bond was cool. Bond was very cool. In fact, it’s this movie, not the superior sequel, that branded the attitude and slick machismo that made James Bond a megafranchise. There’s a reason that EA looked to this film when looking to sell a retro action game to the modern market.
Notice that I called From Russia with Love a spy movie and not an action movie, and that’s important. The film drags in its early scenes, there mostly to pad out a story that boils down to “go get something and then bring it back.” In fact, it’s these dead scenes – the intrigue in Turkey, mostly – that hold the movie back from an even higher rank, because once it gets moving, it flies.
I love the train scenes in this movie. I love Robert Shaw’s Red Grant, and the way he adds tension to even a casual conversation in the dinner car, or how carefully he stalks Bond throughout the course of the movie, like the slasher in some teen horror movie. I love the exploding briefcase and the late-film chase (quietly lifted from North by Northwest’s cornfield by swapping a bi-plane for a helicopter.) I love Tatiana and her conflicted loyalties, and Rosa Klebb’s shoe knife, and the opening hedge maze with its doomed Bond lookalike. Mostly, I just love this movie.
But there’s one Bond movie I love even more.
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill