I had From Russia With Love on VHS when I was a kid, so you’d think I would know this film a little. Nope, not with this memory. Watching it this time was almost like a first with only a few memories here and there.
For the MI6 agent’s second outing, James Bond (Sean Connery) has become #1 on SPECTRE’s most wanted list for killing Dr. No. Using the Soviet counter intelligence agency SMERSH as a cover, they lure Bond to Istanbul with the promise of getting his hands on a cryptography device known as LEKTOR. Better yet, LEKTOR will be handed over by the smashing Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a SMERSH operative who is looking to defect to the west.
Tatiana is, of course, unaware of how her strings are being pull by Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a former SMERSH colonel who has secretly defected to SPECTRE. Tatiana falls in love with Bond as they take a romantic ride on the Orient Express through Yogoslavia on their way the UK, but the train is a trap. SPECTRE has hired the Irish assassin, Donald “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw) to kill Bond and take the LEKTOR. Posing as an MI6 agent, he gets close to Bond after overhearing 007’s secret greeting. With Grant’s physical strength and skills, he will be deadly if he can get even closer.
There is plenty to like about From Russia With Love. Rosa Klebb is memorable with her poisonous blade hidden in her shoe. You don’t get too many female main villains in the Bond series. In fact, she was the only one until Elektra King in The World Is Not Enough in 1999. And her character was obviously the inspiration for Frau Farbissina in Mike Myers’ “Austin Powers” series.
There are a bunch of Bond firsts to keep an eye out for that became recurring elements in later films:
- It has the first cold open that follows the “gun barrel” opening sequence, but before the title credits.
- Female shadows during the opening credits.
- I’m going to say From Russia With Love sung by Matt Munro is the first “Title Theme”. Dr. No used John Barry’s James Bond Theme before going into a calypso version of Three Blind Mice during the opening credits.
- Desmond Llewelyn makes his first appearance. He isn’t “Q” yet and is introduced as Major Boothroyd from the MI6 Q Branch. Close enough.
- John Barry’s 007 makes its debut, the “other” James Bond song.
- The first appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the leader of SPECTRE. You only see his midsection holding a white cat in his arms.
- The first “James Bond will return in..” at the very end of the credits.
However, not every idea stuck. Sarah and I continued our contest to guess how long it will take Bond to get lucky. She went with 18 minutes and I chose 23. Sarah was almost dead on as his first scene with a lady is 18 minutes in but it takes him 95 seconds to seal the deal at 19min 35sec. Sarah still wins another round as she was the closest. Most surprising was the lady is Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), Bond’s girlfriend from Dr. No. Whaaaa? Bond was to have had steady girlfriend in the films but this was her final appearance.
There is scene where the film wears its ’60s sexism on its sleeve. There is a part where Bond and his Istanbul contact hide out in a gypsy camp. Two ladies there get in a physical altercation over a man. Bond is visibly uncomfortable with the altercation and asks for it to stop, but the entire scene serves no purpose. It was more eyeroll than cringe.
Bond’s gadgets are still grounded in reality. He has a brief case with a few tricks and carries a portable sniper rifle, There is no real Bond car but his convertible does have a phone that he uses to report into MI6 after they page him on a… pager. Cutting edge tech for 1963!
From Russia With Love saves some of its best moments on the back end of the film. There is a North By North West -like sequence involving a helicopter, a boat chase, and an impressive fistfight between Bond and Grant on the Orient Express. It appears that both actors are doing the heavy lifting during the scene instead of stunt doubles, which always earns bonus point from me.
My only complaint is how the pacing is sluggish before we get there. A little too much time is spent on the train and the gypsy camp section could have been dropped without missing a beat. For that reason alone, I found it to be a slightly weaker film than Dr. No.