The 2nd film in the Bond film series, From Russia With Love is considered by many to be one of the best entries in the franchise. I happen to agree with them. There’s a lot of talk right now that Skyfall could be the first James Bond film to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture. Personally, I think From Russia With Love (and not Tom Jones) should have been named the best picture of 1963, (Seriously, has anyone actually tried to watch Tom Jones recently?)
From Russia With Love opens with a tuxedo-clad James Bond sneaking around outside the type of opulent estate that every Bond villain seems to own. Suddenly, Bond is attacked by a hulking assassin named Red Grant (played by a pre-Jaws Robert Shaw) and, as the audience watches shocked, Bond is apparently killed. It’s only after Bond’s dead and on the ground that we learn the truth. The man in the tuxedo wasn’t James Bond at all — instead, he was just some random henchman in a James Bond mask! It turns out that Grant works for the villainous organization SPECTRE and this is all part of his training routine. Now, you would be justified in wondering why SPECTRE would go through the trouble to make a next-to-perfect James Bond mask for a simple training routine but. ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It’s a great sequence, that manages to be both fun and suspenseful at the same time. It’s also a great set-up for the rest of the film.
SPECTRE and its mysterious leader (and this is the first time in which we get to see that iconic image of a hand stroking a white cat while a disembodied voice says evil things) want Bond dead. The job of arranging Bond’s assassination is given to Kronsteen (played by Vladek Sheybal, who has a truly fascinating skeletal face). When he’s not off being evil, Kronsteen is a chess grandmaster and, not surprisingly, he views his assignment as if it’s just one big chess game. In order to kill Bond, he knows that he’s going to need a pawn.
That’s where Tatiana Romanova (played by Daniela Bianchi) comes in. Tatiana is a cipher clerk at the Russian Embassy in Istanbul. She is approached and given an assignment by Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a Russian intelligence agent who, unknown to Tatiana, is also working for SPECTRE. Tatiana contacts MI6 and tells them that she’s willing to defect but only to James Bond. Tatiana explains that she came across Bond’s picture in a Soviet Intelligence file and the insinuation is that she fell in love (or, at the very least, lust) with that picture.
(Interestingly enough, this parallels the fact that audiences had previously seen Sean Connery in Dr. No and, like Tatiana, spent the year between the two films fantasizing about James Bond themselves. In that way, Tatiana is the perfect audience surrogate.)
James Bond is sent to Istanbul by M (Bernard Lee) but before he goes, he meets with the head of Q branch. Desmond Llewelyn makes his first appearance in the Bond franchise here. In a historic moment of film history, he gives Bond his first booby-trapped briefcase.
When Bond arrives in Istanbul, he meets with station head Kerim Bey (played by Pedro Armanderiz, who tragically committed suicide before From Russia With Love was released). With the help of Kerim Bey and Tatiana (who Bond first meets with she turns up, naked, in his bed), Bond steals the Lektor decoder device from the Russian consulate. Though Bond doesn’t realize this, he’s aided in this task by none other than Red Grant. Grant has been following Bond and perversely, he’s been protecting Bond from KGB assassins so that he might have the chance to kill Bond himself.
Bringing the Lektor device with them, Bond, Tatiana, and Kerim Bey board the Orient Express. It’s on the train that they meet Nash, a British agent who says that he’s been sent by MI6 to help make sure that Bond and Tatiana safely make it back to England. Of course, what the audience knows, is that the somewhat smug Nash is none other then … Red Grant!
I love From Russia With Love. Everything that makes the James Bond series so special — romance, memorable villains, spectacular locations, exciting action, and a rather sardonic sense of humor — is present in From Russia With Love. Playing Bond for the second time, Connery is more confident with the role here than he was in Dr. No and, as opposed to some of his later appearances in the series, Connery appears to be enjoying bringing this iconic character to life. There’s none of the boredom that marred some of Connery’s later performances. Instead, Connery is exciting to watch and it helps that he and Bianchi have a very real chemistry in this film. As opposed to some Bond girls, Tatiana is a believable, multi-layered character and you actually care what happens to her. The relationship between Tatiana and Bond feels real and, therefore, the film has a surprising emotional resonance to it.
As opposed to Dr. No, with its somewhat bland title character, the villains in From Russia With Love are a fascinating quartet of rogues. Lotte Lenya brings an unexpected amount of depth to the role of Rosa and her final battle with Bond is one of the best in the history of the franchise. Even more exciting than Bond’s fight with Rosa is his final fight with Red Grant. As played by Robert Shaw, Grant comes across as if he’s the literal personification of Bond’s dark side. Both men are killers and both are rather smug about it but the difference is that Bond is capable of caring about Tatiana whereas Grant has surrendered whatever emotions he may have once had. Shaw’s performance so dominates the film that, when I rewatched the film, I was surprised to discover that Grant is only in a handful of scenes.
If Dr. No was an enjoyable B-movie, then From Russia With Love was a cinematic masterpiece that transcended the limitations of genre. If Dr. No established the basic conventions of James Bond, From Russia With Love showed that those conventions could be used to make a great film.
Tomorrow, we’ll be taking a look at the third film in the Bond franchise, Goldfinger.