Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. It continues as Connery locks horns with Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love.
Whilst producing duo Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli were working on Bond debut Dr. No, President John F Kennedy did an interview with Life magazine. In it, he revealed that Ian Fleming’s fifth Bond novel – From Russia With Love – was one of his favourite books. This led to Broccoli and Saltzman selecting it as the ideal source material for their first sequel, with star Connery and director Terence Young back on board.
The story is a quintessential Cold War tale, based around paranoia and plotting, with Bond and the British government being played like a piano by SPECTRE.
It built on the work of Dr. No and continued to perfect what would become the formula for the perfect James Bond film.
Springing the trap
In order to avenge the death of one of their top operatives at the hands of Bond (Sean Connery), SPECTRE plans to disgrace and kill the British agent, whilst embarrassing the British government and making easy money from the Russians by stealing a decoding device, convincing them of Bond’s responsibility and then selling it back to them. Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) is placed in charge of the operation, using attractive Russian official Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) as bait and Red Grant (Robert Shaw) as the man who will be Bond’s assassin.
Compared to the relatively simple narrative work of Dr. No, From Russia With Love is a fairly complicated tale of multiple betrayals and elaborate scheming on the part of SPECTRE. This gives the film a distinctly slower pace than its predecessor, but creates palpable tension.
“Blood is the best security in this business.”
From Russia With Love bravely has Bond spend the first hour and a half of the movie conducting an investigation that turns out to be little more than a wild goose chase. SPECTRE uses Bond’s own weakness for an attractive woman against him, exposing the character as something considerably more fallible than a superhero.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, the MI6 crew is bolstered by the first appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as technology expert Q. Llewelyn would go on to portray the character in 16 further Bond films until his death in 1999, when he was replaced by John Cleese.
Q is not the only new piece of the Bond puzzle that is added by From Russia With Love. The film features the first pre-credits sequence, now a Bond mainstay, and also debuted the notion of a blockbuster theme song playing over stylised images of gyrating women.
The narrative may be a little complex and the pace slower than the best of the Bond franchise, but From Russia With Love might be the first truly traditional Bond film.
The SPECTRE of villainy
From Russia With Love is an odd Bond film in that its primary villain isn’t fully revealed. SPECTRE leader ‘Number One’, named in later films as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is heard but not seen in the film, handing out work to his employees Klebb and Kronsteen, as well as the assassin Red Grant.
Klebb, portrayed with icy coolness and poison-tipped shoes by Lotte Lenya, is the nominal main villain, but it’s Robert Shaw – as sociopathic hitman Grant – who emerges as the most dominant evil presence. Shaw, considerably more well-dressed than in his future role in Jaws, makes a real splash as the posh-tongued brute, who proves both a physical and mental match for Bond.
“She’s had her kicks.”
The scene in which the two men meet in a battle of wits and fists on the Orient Express is, without doubt, From Russia With Love’s brutal highlight. Shaw, classically trained and accomplished in the theatre, shimmers with villainy as he exchanges barbs with Bond. When the two finally lock horns in the confines of a train compartment, it unfolds in a scene that’s shockingly violent for the time period and incredibly visceral.
There are few one-on-one encounters in the Bond franchise that have the same level of intensity and tension as his face-off with Grant.
The beauty of From Russia With Love’s revolving door of villains is that it opens the door for multiple, impressive action sequences. The film was made with double the budget given to Dr. No and Young does a great job as director, ensuring that every penny of that budget goes up on the screen in a number of spectacular set pieces. A third act explosion at sea is particularly impressive.
From the box office with love
On its release, the film became a box office hit. It doubled the gross of Dr. No and even scooped a BAFTA for Best Cinematography amongst a handful of other awards nominations.
It also landed well with critics, who lauded the political heft and substance of the narrative. To this day, From Russia With Love is still held up by some as the best movie in the entire franchise. Writer Danny Peary praised the lack of gimmickry in the film and celebrated the characterisation of Bond and Tatiana – who is far more than just a “Bond girl”.
However, the film is, for me, flawed. Its pace is glacial and there is a tad more complexity than the narrative requires. Tatiana is sidelined too often and it seemed as if Young couldn’t decide which of the three or four climaxes to throw the most at. This is echoed by Sinclair McKay who, in his book The Man with the Golden Touch, said that a lot of the film is “crashingly dull”.
“Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something.”
For all of its flaws, though, From Russia With Love works as an interesting paranoid thriller with one of the franchise’s best henchmen at its centre. It also packs another charismatic performance from the best actor to ever wield the Walther PPK – Sean Connery.
Next week, it’s my personal favourite of the Bond films and a proper British classic – Goldfinger.
What do you think of From Russia With Love? Where does it stand in the pantheon of Bond films? Is Sean Connery the best lead in the franchise’s history? Let me know in the comments section and keep your eyes peeled for more Bond Reloaded next Monday.
You can read my look back at Dr. No here.