One of my pet “theories” I wanted to test during this viewing run (based on the Dalton/Brosnan/Craig eras) was that the first film in each actor’s run was the best of that run. As far as the Sean Connery run goes, From Russia With Love strangles that theory dead. I definitely enjoyed Dr. No as a solid first stab, but felt it wore a bit thin in parts. Of course, its success meant the producers had more resources to refine what was great about the debut, with Terence Young brought back as director with the mission to add some more glamour and set the ground rules for the whole series.
As with all the Connery flicks, I’ve sat through this for the first time. But as I’ll be doing with the whole series, now I’ve actually watched it, there’ll be a ton of spoilers in this write-up.
For the first time we get a cold opening to the movie; Mr Bond skulks around a castle before being garotted by an mysterious assassin. As it turns out, it’s not actually Bond, it’s some poor sap wearing a Bond mask “for immersion”, and it’s actually a training mission for “Red” Grant. Although it probably seemed like the real thing for the victim.
If anything the opening credits are a bit more low-tech than Dr. No, but hey, if having a bellydancer shimmering in front of a projector gets the desired results, then why not.
From Russia With Love gets a new hook, but the classic Bond theme twangs into the soundtrack as regularly as you’d demand. It’s the first soundtrack from John Barry and it tumbles along quite suitably. There is also a title “song”, but rather than accompanying the opening titles, it’s buried very late in the action with a reprise in the end credits.
The bulk of the film is Istanbul and surrounds, featuring the Hagia Sofia in one key scene, some vintage water supply infrastructure, and, um, a gypsy village. The action moves onto the Orient Express for some frenetic dogbox action, before the final helicopter and boat action sequences in Scotland pretending to be Croatia.
Venice bookends the film, starting off with bad guy Kronsteen quickly wrapping up a chess match so he can scheme and finishing back there with Bond and Romanova having a cuddle.
Of course there’s also SPECTRE Island, in an undisclosed location, which is a cool island with a big mansion with grounds full of supervillians dodging flamethrowers, plotting, scheming and getting massages.
The gadget department gets real under the new quartermaster, played by Desmond Llewellyn. Q refrains from questioning the manliness of Bond’s firearm, instead he supplies a suitcase with a number of neat toys, like a smoke bomb that activates if you open the suitcase the normal way. Of course, the principle of Chekov’s Gun holds firm so we get to see all these stuff in action. There have been occasions where people questioned whether the toys were overshadowing other aspects of the film; my answer is, gadgets are cool.
Of course it’s SPECTRE head Blofeld and his fluffy white cat, although only referred to this time around as Number 1 – Blofeld, that is, I assume the cat is called Snookums or Splodge or Rimsky-Korsakov or something like that. Anyway, old mate Blofeld is rather peeved about Bond’s recent curtailment of Julius No’s rocket tampering activities, and indeed the curtailment of Julius No, so he brings some deputies on board and they have a collaborative brainstorm to come up with a plan.
Kronsteen is a chess genius and amateur pornographer, Krebb is a ex-Smersh defector and amateur housecleaner; together, they scheme! Well, in theory anyway. Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) comes up with a plan that involves disposing of Bond and, almost a secondary objective, acquiring one of the Soviets’ Lektor encryption devices. Rosa Krebb (Lotte Lenya in some pretty fantastic work) is charged with putting it into action. They’re a bit hands-off, at least at first, so to carry out the coup-de-grace of killing Bond and snatching the code machine, they’ve called up Donald Grant – the assassin from the opening sequence.
Grant (played by Robert Shaw) is appropriately thuggish yet business-like. He tails Bond all through the film, clearing a path for Bond’s mission because the only guy who gets to kill Bond is himself. He very nearly manages that too, as frankly Bond is a bit slow on the uptake. But there are 20-odd more Bond films after this one so you’d have to deduce that he failed.
Daniela Bianchi plays Tatiana Romanova, a Smersh agent who is set up by Krebb as a lure for Bond by Krebb. (And they got so close to passing the Bechdel test at point too.) Romanova knows she’s bait, but is led to believe that Krebb is still working for Smersh and Mother Russia. Romanova does what she’s told and throws herself at Bond, and for much of the movie it’s hard to tell whether she’s sticking to her mission or has actually decided to defect for real. I guess I need to say whether she’s pretty or not. Yes, she’s pretty, very much so. But it is just as well Bond girls got more capable and hands-on later on.
MI6’s man in Istanbul, Kerim Bey, is an avuncular yet resourceful chap, one of those resources being the local gypsies whom he utilises to do his dirty work against the Soviet proxies, the Bulgarians. (Gypsys? Really? Oh well, at least it’s not Octopussy.) Of course, Pedro Armendáriz became gravely ill during filming and struggled to complete his part before dying – he puts in a solid charismatic performance, and perhaps only a limp suggests something was off in spite of the great pain he would’ve been under.
There is of course one point that I’d classify as farce, which is probably putting it mildly. Kerim Bey drags Bond off to the gypsy village, which looks really off to modern eyes, but particularly the girl fight. Just as it looks like it’s going to go all Rousey v Tate, a good old-fashioned massive fight scene breaks out in time to get everyone’s mind off how skeevy it is to have two women fighting over a man. Also, Bond, “gypsy” is not the preferred nomenclature. Roma people, please.
Bond takes a liking to the Romany liquor and suffers few apparent ill-effects. He also sasses his would-be assassin about having red wine with white meat but completely fails to notice Grant giving Romanova roofies. Very observant, Mr Bond.
The success of Dr. No meant double the budget for its follow-up and not much of it was wasted. I had a look at the behind-the-scenes doco on the disc, of course, so it was pretty illuminating about where it all went, and where they had to improvise towards the end of production, especially as the script often went through significant rewrites deep into filming. The editing, too, deserves note. Dr. No didn’t have a pre-credit sequence and it felt weird.
I am quite fond of the opening beats – bleeding gunbarrel, high adrenaline cold open, pervy yet surreal title sequence with a big dumb song; Bond usually recuperating from the cold open with some warm body, when he’s summoned into the office where he gets to be an arsehole to everyone at MI6 including M, Moneypenny and Q. And then we head back into the Great Game. Paradoxically, when they mess with the formula it’s still fun because, hey, we’re being kept on our toes.
Anyway, the Big Dumb Song isn’t in full effect yet, but all the other hallmarks pretty much are and it just feels right.
Like everything else, the effects are also more elaborate than last time. They’re also almost all real with just some added in during post. Real enough that several stuntmen getting injured during SPLOSIONS, and of course there was another close call with a camera chopper flipping and falling into a lake, nearly drowning Terence Young and his art director Michael White. Maybe the train carriage scenes looked a little cheap, as did the boat chase, but everything is generally a notch higher.
Yes, I was entertained. The plot was suitably convoluted with three factions in play, and it unfolds nicely – we’re in on SPECTRE’s scheme from the start but it’s still fascinating watching Bond work it out as he’s about to get garotted. Ian Fleming’s concept of high espionage is ludicrous at best but when put onto celluloid it makes for entertaining viewing. The enemy ensemble is suitably cunning but not quite cunning enough for Bond in the end.
A thing that surprised me was how brutal the climactic fight scene was. Up until the gritty re-imagining of the Craig movies, the violence in the Bond films seems stylised or else just completely ridiculous – so you can call it entertaining. As I said in the last post, Julius No went out like a punk. This time around, Bond and Grant were just laying into each other. Bond didn’t even have a corny quip at the end of it.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that the energy of the 007 behemoth draws much of its source from From Russia With Love, setting a benchmark that later films would strive to meet, and yet remain entertaining even if they fell slightly short. I think I may still love some of the later ones more, sometimes for dubious reasons, but this is definitely pure Bond.
I give it 18 Lektor machines out of 20