The opening of From Russia with Love grabs your attention, from the gun barrel sequence, to the superb James Bond theme that heralds the return of 007 after the success of Dr. No. Not only that, but suddenly we have a new approach to the titles: the pre-credits sequence.
It is night-time, and Bond is being pursued on foot in the grounds of some big house, elegant gardens and statues looking spooky. A blond man follows him, and for once Bond seems rattled. The pursuer pulls out a metal cord from his watch, a neat gadget surely designed for garroting. We are just waiting to see how Bond gets out of this one, but he doesn’t, the pursuer pounces, and Bond is killed! Floodlights spark to life and we realise this is a training exercise, and a shadowy official removes the Sean Connery mask from the victim. Where Dr. No established Bond as a brutal force, this pre-credit sequence neatly introduces Robert Shaw’s Grant as his Blond/Bond Nemesis.
A terrific John Barry instrumental version of the title song “From Russia with Love” blasts out, as the opening titles being projected onto the body of a female belly-dancer (not sure why there’s a belly-dancer there). Of course, the semi-clad dancing female would become another signature feature of the films.
Tatiana Romanova, a Russian cryptography clerk in Istanbul wants to defect to the West, and Bond is sent to deal with her. She has access to a Lektor decoder, which the British are keen to get their hands on. The twist is that while she thinks she is doing this as an agent for Mother Russia, she is instead being operated by the terrorist organisation SPECTRE, and that organisation wants the Lektor for themselves – with the bonus of being able to kill Bond as revenge for his interference with Dr. No’s plans. Bond travels to Istanbul and with the assistance of local agent Kerim Bey, collects Tatiana. Straightforward story, yet the way the plot unfolds is fantastic, full of suspicion, espionage and threat and the knowledge that this all a set up for Bond’s assassination.
When we first see Bond, he is smooching on a boat by the river in the sunshine. Connery is already topless, and his companion is none other than Sylvia Trench, the woman he first met playing baccarat at the start of Dr. No. Shortly afterwards, Bond gets an alert from a pager then makes a phone call from his car (both devices still cutting edge at the time) and tells Moneypenny he was “reviewing an old case”. Trench is fuming, and we get a nice laugh. Remember these subtler jokes, for it won’t be long until Bond goes full double-entendre in the late 1960s, before graduating to single-entendres in the 70s and beyond. Another fun scene is when M, Moneypenny and some generals are listening to a tape of Bond’s interview with Romanova, which includes a laugh out loud moment hinting that M and Bond once had adventures in Tokyo! (Now there’s a prequel idea).
Why does this film contain some of the best of Bond?
Istanbul is a great location with stunning architecture and a wonderful atmosphere. The city where Europe ends and Asia begins is an apt choice for the Russian defection story, as there is something “different” about it – the influence of both East and West creating a familiar and yet somehow unfamiliar setting. The extensive location shooting is excellent, and Istanbul looks glorious. It’s disappointing when the film then switches to studio interiors or back projection.
Kerim Bey, the Head of the British Section T is a wonderful character, a genial host who surrounds himself with his sons to ensure loyalty. He effortlessly plays the espionage game and is perhaps one of the coolest partners Bond has had – and he’s in the film a lot. Reliable, utterly efficient, and an invaluable asset, he provides important information, allows access to the Russian Consulate conversations, and facilitates Bond’s escape – and it is a genuine shame that the character meets an untimely end at Grant’s hand. One of the saddest facts in Bond history is that of the actor who played Bey, the Latin American superstar Pedro Armendariz. The actor had cancer and was in extreme pain but forced himself through filming to ensure financial security for his family, before committing suicide in hospital. The actor’s son would later star in Licence to Kill.
Former head of operations for SMERSH (real-life post-war Russian counterintelligence), now number 3 in SPECTRE. An efficient, clinical, unemotional woman who entraps Romanova into the evil plan, manipulating those around her: punches Grant whilst wearing a knuckle duster, intimidates Romanov with a riding crop. Played by Tony Award winning and Academy Award nominated theatre star Lotte Lenya, best known perhaps for The Threepenny Opera.
Daniela Bianchi is introduced as Romanova from her early scenes she appears as a confident and loyal officer who is nervous but doesn’t back down to Klebb’s aggression. It’s fun to watch Romanov play the “spy” when she appears in Bond’s bed. (There’s a joke about the size of her mouth that I’m not even going to mention because I can’t figure out if it is a rude joke or just my dirty mind). Of course, there’s a twist, as the camera moves up to reveal that their encounter is being secretly filmed by the Russians. Are they going to kill Bond or humiliate him – or both? Romanova, unlike Honey Ryder in the previous film, is essential to the story and her innocence to experience arc, and her shifting allegiance makes her an interesting watch. Indeed, it’s Romanova who saves Bond at the end. It’s a mark of the brutality of the Bond character that despite his affection for Romanova, he still slaps her across the face during a brief interrogation on the train – that obviously doesn’t make it an easy watch and it casts a shadow over the enjoyment of the film.
After the pre-credits, the second time we see Grant is when he is lying sunbathing at the big house, a SPECTRE training camp, being given a massage by a nearly topless woman. Grant is a murderer who escaped from an English jail, recruited and trained by the organisation. This guy is the anti-Bond! We only get glimpses of him throughout the film, an ever-present threat, but we don’t see him in real action again until he appears on the train, pretending to be an English agent. And for me that’s what’s great about his character – he isn’t just a silent and seemingly invincible villain (Bond has its fair share of them, from Odd-Job in Goldfinger all the way to Spectre’s Hinx). Instead he is a credible agent with brains and muscle. Pity he made that red wine with fish mistake though, eh? Robert Shaw is excellent in the role, and it’s a shame we don’t see more of him, but that’s what makes it great. If the film was made today, they’d find a nonsensical reason to bring him back.
Desmond Llewelyn appears as the “equipment officer” from Q branch, bringing in an “ordinary” black leather case with a rifle, ammunition, a knife, gold sovereigns, and a tin of tear gas disguised as talcum powder. Random, but remember, those will be crucial in spy time on the train.
The Gypsy Fight.
Bey takes Bond to meet his “gypsy friends” who assist him in the fight against the Russian-backed Bulgarian spies. The night-time location looks fabulous with lots of warm oranges and cool blues. Bey and Bond are invited to eat with them as a belly dancer entertains. Wait… THAT’S why there was a belly dancer in the credits – they hint at a story element of the film. Nice. The scene neatly introduces multiple conflicts – two of the gypsy women are about to have a fight, Bulgarian spies are about to attack the camp, and Grant is there lurking in the shadows. Where else but in Bond can you have an excellently shot set piece that goes from belly dancing to two sweaty women having a cat-fight, to an almost Western-style shootout with flaming carriages, throwing knives, arrows, falls from great heights, and spooked horses – all to the fantastic rattle of John Barry’s urgent brassy and percussive “007” theme. And then Grant starts shooting at the Bulgarians, making sure Bond is kept safe! Shortly afterwards, Bond and Bey get revenge on one of the spies, Bond steadying Bey’s shot as he targets the Bulgar trying to sneak out of his apartment in the dark (strangely, his open window just happens to be the open mouth of Anita Eckberg in a huge poster for the Bob Hope movie “Call Me Bwana”). A bizarre contemporary nod. Bond quips “She should have kept her mouth shut”. Oh, that reminds me of that comment about the size of Romanova’s mouth. Shivers.
The Orient Express Fight.
Bond, Bey and Romanova jump onto the Orient Express which they will use to get to an airstrip. Grant ends up impersonating an agent sent from M, which leads to an excellent fight. Establishing the confined space for the fight is a great device for the film. You may be able to think of other more recent examples of such fights, but this must be one of the first. Bond will have other train fights in Live and Let Die and Spectre but I’d argue this is the best: the build-up where Bond doesn’t realise who Grant is, some great fight choreography in the confined space, and brisk editing by Peter Hunt. Of course, the fight begins with Bond using one of his gadgets in the briefcase to disorient Grant and ends with Grant being dispatched by his own garrote.
The big villain’s face is never seen, but we hear him and see him cuddling his white cat, on his luxury yacht floating somewhere off the coast of Italy. Number 1 is never given a name in the film, although the credits reveal his name as “ERNST BLOFELD” with the enigmatic “?” instead of an actor name. By the end, number 3 and number 5 are dead – the lower level operatives may not survive, but SPECTRE remains, a great way of maintaining the threat over the series of films. We’ll see number 2 in a while. Stop sniggering.
The Helicopter/Speedboat Chases.
The best thing about the helicopter chase is that it gives the impression the SPECTRE has unlimited resources and are seemingly unstoppable. The fact that Bond is exposed on the hillside facing a helicopter is a great scenario. Unfortunately, it is let down by some repetitiveness in the pursuit and a few unfortunate edits around the model helicopter exploding. Bond and Romanova steal a speedboat, but soon SPECTRE is onto them, still trying to get the Lektor device. Bond destroys them all using a neat trick involving fuel tanks and a flare, with a spectacular fiery explosion. Actor Walter Gotell, whose character was training Grant at the start and perishes in flames, returns in later Bonds as a recurring Soviet character.
Just when Bond and Romanov arrive in Venice and all seems safe, Rosa Klebb appears disguised as a maid, and attacks Bond with the poison-tipped blade in her shoe. We’ve said it before – this villainous organisation will never give up. After this, the closing shots of the film follow our couple as they take a trip on a gondola, and Bond throws the incriminating film of their bedroom scene into the water. Sure, the little wave he gives to the tape is more than a little cheesy, but the film really does make sure all the loose ends are tied up.
From Russia with Love may not appeal to lovers of the bigger budget, crazy-destruction Bond films, but the Cold War plot, the exotic settings, the immediate threat of Grant and the deeper threat of SPECTRE make it a cracking entry point to the franchise if you didn’t see Dr. No. The fact that the Bond producers have copied whole elements of the film over the years is perhaps testament to the esteem with which they view it.
The girls, the villain, the gadgets, the slick humour, everything was in place, and the franchise was a runaway success. “Goldfinger” was teased in the credits.
Singing the theme tune already, aren’t you?
Producers: Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli.
Director: Terence Young.
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum.
Adapted from the Ian Fleming novel by Johanna Harwood.
London Premiere October 1963.