From Russia with Love (1963)

When it’s on: Saturday, 19 May (3.40 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Beset with production difficulties throughout its shoot, From Russia with Love did all it could to undermine Broccoli and Saltzman’s wishes for annual Bond films. Just about everything that could go wrong did exactly that, topped off with the suicide of supporting actor Pedro Armendariz, who took his own life rather than fall to the ravages of the advanced cancer he discovered he had whilst on set. And yet From Russia with Love turned out to be amongst the best of the Bonds. Distinctly low key, and relying on the strength of its cast over the spectacular thrills and gadgetry that would come to define the series, it’s a great couple of hours’ cinema that may delight viewers who come to it expecting the same old nonsense from 007.

The story begins with a nice thread of continuity from Dr No. SPECTRE is riled by Bond’s quashing of Julius No’s machinations and resolves to rid itself of the spy. To this end, a plot is hatched that takes advantage of East-West relations. Bond (Sean Connery) is despatched to Istanbul, where he’s to bring home both Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a beautiful Russian secretary working on the Cold War front line, and the Lektor decoding machine she promises to bring along. The hook for Bond is that Tatiana is reported to have fallen in love with him. But the mission is an elaborate trap. Bond is rushing into the path of SPECTRE assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw), a man so tough he can take a knuckleduster to the abdomen without flinching. Believing his trip to be a success, Bond travels west on the Orient Express with Tatiana and the machine, oblivious to the fact his every move is being tracked…

There’s much enjoyment to be had from 007 going about his business, whilst in the shadows Grant watches. This is shown to best effect as Bond waits for his contact at a station, stood outside the train. Whilst he paces nervously (and ‘nervous’ is the operative word; the film suggests that Bond has an idea something’s afoot but only has the hairs on the back of his neck to go off), Grant can be observed through the window, keeping perfect pace with his prey. Later, the pair meet over dinner, the assassin posing as a Secret Service contact – after killing the real one – and attempting to lull our hero into a false sense of security, whilst Tatiana gets the spiked drink. His cover’s blown when he famously orders red wine with a fish course; a true British agent would never make such a working class error and Bond’s instantly onto him. The fight sequence that follows takes place in, of all places, a cramped train compartment, neither participant at their best in such close quarters, which leads to some fine, brutal action. Ultimately, Grant’s origins as a petty thief are his undoing. He has the better of his opponent and it’s only when Bond offers him money that he pauses.

Stunts and thrills are kept to a minimum, indeed it seems as though the film’s budget is blown on its last twenty minutes as Bond and Tatiana race to Vienna, pursued by SPECTRE helicopters and gun-toting speedboats. Otherwise, the most exciting sequence is the attack on a gypsy camp led by a Soviet agent, which Grant observes from a distance and chillingly offs anyone who stands in Bond’s way. In place of explosions and bullet dodging, the film offers suspense and a fine, slow burning pace, directed by Terence Young with an eye on the climactic fight between the spy and his would-be assassin. Also delightful is Lotte Lenya’s SPECTRE stooge, the lesbian Rosa Klebb, who gets her own opportunity to take Bond out after he’s dealt with everything else in his way.

Connery puts in some of his best 007 work, his vulnerabilities exposed more than once in From Russia with Love (we wouldn’t again see Bond show any such emotion until On her Majesty’s Secret Service, by which stage Connery was off-duty), whilst Bianchi comes across as adorable because the script gives her character time to grow on our affections. It’s impossible to round this piece off without a mention for John Barry, who enjoyed his first gig as the primary composer on a Bond film. His 007 arrangement makes an appearance here, most notably in the gypsy camp sequence, and it elicits all the adventure and fun these films tried to offer.

From Russia with Love: *****

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11 Replies to “From Russia with Love (1963)”

  1. Great post Mike. This is certainly a quantum leap over DR.NO, from it’s brillaint rogue’s gallery of cchracter actors (and the first appearance of series mainstay Walter Gotell), a for once pretty decent love story too. Compared with the novel it smarlty adds the SPECTRE subplot so that the Brits incorrectly blame the Sovs, a plotline that has been copies many, many times over the decade in the series. The fight in the train is amazingly brutal and wonderfully edited by Peter Hunt – this is the Bond movie that sees it at its best in terms of introgue and story while GOLDFINGER remains the one that truly would define the series in the style in which it would mean to go on. It is extraordinary to think that like DR WHO this is a series about to celebrate its 50th anniversary – ytuly remarkable that after all this time it seems more bankable than ever (don’t know about you but i cheered at the end of the new CASINO ROYALE, a film that seemed to get everything right and hit everythging it was aiming for)

    1. Thanks Sergio. From what I understand (and I haven’t read the book, which is something I intend to change), the producers wanted to shift the emphasis away from the USSR as the villains because there was a less confrontational attitude generally in the west following the Cuban missile crisis, hence a shadowy, cross-nationality terrorist organisation like SPECTRE becomes the baddie and the Russians are represented by a beautiful woman.

      I really like this film. Having bought the Special Edition set a number of years ago and watching the lot over 20-odd nights, it seems clear that Goldfinger set the trend for the majority of the films that followed and indeed much of the series essentially copies it. Again and again, with varying levels of success. That’s the bit that strikes me as extraordinary, the way they somehow managed to churn out release after release in which more or less the same thing happens every time (with cosmetic changes in location, Bond girl, identity of the villain, etc) and the public just kept on coming back for more. Hey, if it ain’t broke, etc, but it makes the films that tried something different a bit special.

      And you’re dead right – we loved Casino Royale

  2. [“His cover’s blown when he famously orders red wine with a fish course; a true British agent would never make such a working class error and Bond’s instantly onto him. “]

    All members of Britain’s MI-6 were from the middle or upper classes?

    “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” is my favorite Bond movie to feature Sean Connery. It’s not perfect – especially the last 40 minutes or so – but I do love it.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for reading – I just like the assertion that Grant gets found out because he doesn’t know about table etiquette. As for the class origins of MI6, it’s probably the sort of thing they could tell me but then they’d have to kill me.

      I think you’re right about the last part of From Russia with Love. It’s a complete change of pace, as though the producers lost their nerve, thought the public would hate a slower paced Bond flick and threw in some chase scenes to keep the masses happy. Sadly, it seems to have set the tone for everything that followed.

  3. Great review of a great James Bond movie. It is definately one of my favourites of the series, I agree that the film does have some very well done suspenceful sequences.

    1. Cheers Vinnie – there are some that just stand out from the crowd for me. This is one of them. On her Majesty’s Secret Service is another. There does come a point after FRWL, though, when it just settles into a rut, largely according to audience demand as the crowd demanded more of the same.

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