From Russia with Love

5 of 5 stars

from_russia_with_love_xlgFrom Russia with Love is the second film in Eon’s Bond series, following Dr. No from the previous year. Released in 1963, From Russia with Love is set during the height of the Cold War. The story is remarkably simple for a series that would eventually send its hero to outer space.

The movie establishes from the get-go the stakes are life and death in the first pre-title sequence in the series. An assassin stalks and kills a man wearing a Bond mask so realistic you would swear it was Sean Connery himself.

We learn the bad guys’ plans before we even see the real Bond on screen. The terrorist organization SPECTRE summons the genius chess master Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal, a real-life friend of Connery) to formulate a plan to steal a Russian decoder, pit the U.K. against Russia and kill Bond in the process (revenge for the death of Dr. No). To accomplish this, they need the help of an unsuspecting beauty working at the Russian embassy in Turkey who will pretend to defect to Britain, bringing the decoder with her, but only if Bond personally handles her defection. M, Bond’s boss, knows this is a trap, but Bond takes the bait anyway as they can’t pass up a chance to obtain the decoder.

Bond suspects the Russian assassination arm, SMERSH, is behind the scheme. The audience knows SPECTRE’s real design from the outset, and this provides irony throughout the film as we see Bond follow the wrong line on reasoning throughout. We know SPECTRE can kill him at any moment, which adds tension to the somewhat slow pace of the action.

This movie has components that would be used ad nauseam in later Bond films, but feel fresh here, seen for the first time, and are the best examples of these elements.

  • The blond henchman. Grant, played by the gifted character actor Robert Shaw (Jaws), is a psychotic killer. We learn he is a psychopath without the filmmakers ever telling us. Bond simply says, ‘Tell me, which lunatic asylum did they get you out of?’ and Grant flips out, Bond having clearly hit a nerve. There is great chemistry between Connery and Shaw, which explains why they were paired against each other again in Robin and Marian.
  • The talking villain. This is an essential element the late-great Roger Ebert first pointed out. At a certain point in every Bond film, the bad guy has 007 in his clutches and instead of killing Bond outright, the villain explains his evil scheme. Here, the audience basically knows the whole story (a couple more details become clear in Grant’s talk), but it doesn’t feel like a plot device in this film. Grant is holding Bond at gunpoint and gloating over his victory. The scene is tense, and leads up to the best fist fight in the series.
  • Curtain scene. Most of the Bond films end with our hero making out with the “Bond girl” in the finale. Five out of seven of Connery’s films had this take place on water (a row boat in Dr. No, a gondola in From Russia with Love, a life raft in both Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, a cruise ship in Diamonds Are Forever). This film has by far the most satisfying curtain scene. Instead of a cringe-worthy double entendre, every element of this curtain scene calls back to something earlier in the film. It’s a perfect and amusing ending to a tense film.
  • Gadgets. This time Bond is given only a brief case with some hidden goodies, presented by Desmond Llewelyn for the first time as Q (the character was played by Peter Burton in Dr. No). It is shown in the first act, forgotten in the second, then brought back at the perfect moment in the third. This is perhaps the best use of a plant and payoff in the series. Lesser films would show the gadget in the second act and use it immediately after exactly as explained, leaving little room for tension.

The second of the official series, this movie doesn’t yet have the feel of a Bond film—the elements aren’t all quite in place yet. Tonally, it is also more serious. While the previous film, Dr. No, had an over-the-top villain and silly action sequences, From Russia with Love is more in line with other Cold War spy thrillers. Bond acts more like a spy than a super hero, and practices realistic spy craft. When he realizes he’s being followed, he makes no attempt to lose the tail, only noting the fact and carrying on with life. The agents use a code phrase involving matches and a lighter to identify one another. Bond checks a drawing of the Russian embassy his defector has provided him against official blueprints to test her reliability. None of this is explained, the filmmakers trust the audience’s intelligence to understand the actions.

The movie also features one of the most gorgeous Bond girls in the series: Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana, the Russian embassy worker ordered to defect to Britain.

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Then there is Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb, former head of SMERSH who has defected to SPECTRE and using her former position to control Tatiana. Klebb has never been topped as a female villain.

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All this isn’t to say the movie doesn’t have some of the goofy elements we’ve come to expect from a Bond film. There is the campy gypsy camp sequence and a white cat-stroking super villain. Otherwise, this is a serious, straight-forward spy flick.

Fans who don’t care for this film usually cite the seemingly slow pace for their lack of interest. All those fans can go suck on Transformers if they think this movie is the most boringest. Bond is in peril every moment of this film, and the slow pace only adds to the tension. From Russia with Love is a great spy thriller, the best Bond film, and one of the best movies to come out of the Cold War.

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