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: *****