The 007 Collective is a bi-monthly column in which I revisit every official feature in the James Bond franchise and review how they hold up today. Along with a review of each film, each article in this 10-month-long series will dive into the historical place and production of each film in question. It will also feature a dossier i.e. a fact sheet with superlatives, ratings, rankings, best, worsts and other fun stuff in line with the format you’ve seen in my annual Year in Superlatives articles. This project isn’t meant to be the final word on the Bond franchise. It’s merely my take on the series. For previous entries, click here.
I close out the famed Sean Connery era with the Scottish actor’s second and arguably best film—the slow-paced Hitchcockian Cold War spy thriller FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.
Mission Title: From Russia with Love
James Bond: Sean Connery
Release Date: October 11, 1963
Source Material: Based on the novel ‘From Russia with Love’ by Ian Fleming
Tagline: JAMES BOND IS BACK! His new incredible women! His new incredible enemies! His new incredible adventures!
After the events of Dr. No, global criminal syndicate SPECTRE plan a complex revenge plot to trick James Bond and MI6 into stealing a Soviet decoding device called the Lektor, with the help of a naïve Russian clerk. Bond, who is well-aware that the plot may be a trap, willingly goes along the show, travelling to Istanbul in order to secure the decoding device, and to unveil the puppet masters. Little does he know that the organization has sent their best henchman, the psychopathic Red Grant, to eliminate him without remorse or mercy.
Dr. No may have kicked off the franchise and Goldfinger may have perfected the formula that would go on to be replicated in every Bond that would follow but it’s Sean Connery’s sublime second outing as Ian Fleming’s indelible hero that found the sweet spot between low-budget pulpy thriller and full-on blockbuster cinema. More confident and cerebral than its predecessor and a lot more complex and serious than the iconic one that would follow, From Russia with Love is the best of the Sean Connery Bonds, and easily, one of the franchise’s best.
What’s fascinating about From Russia with Love, and what makes it one of the series’ best, is how un-Bond-like it feels. The formula, which would be firmly established in Goldfinger a year later, is nowhere to be seen. The Cold War spy thriller-like plot, which revolves Bond’s attempts to steal a Soviet decoding device from a consulate in Istanbul using the help of a beautiful defector who may be a double agent, is complex, layered and brimming with strong characters. You can’t really say that for most of the movies—even many of the good ones. The setting of Istanbul, while beautiful and chock-full of history, is hardly sun-kissed like Miami, sexy like Jamaica, or exotic like Japan. Even the cinematography by Ted Moore, which was so colorful in Dr. No, is awash with shadows and dark rooms. I may be wrong on this one but I think this may be the only Bond movie in which most of the action is confined indoors.
Unlike most of the movies that would follow, this one isn’t exactly about world domination but a sneak peek into how the British, Americans and the Russians went about their business during the Cold War – constantly eavesdropping on each other, following each other in unmarked cars, stealing secrets and using proxies to do their dirty work for them. While the appearance of SPECTRE, sexy women and a gadget-laden briefcase do add fun and humor to the proceedings, this is still a relatively straight-laced thriller – one where intrigue, mystery, tension and mood are emphasized over action, comedy, camp and explosions. The Bond franchise routinely gets mocked for being over the top and silly but if anyone wants proof that it was once grounded in reality, this would be the one to prove it. Who would have thought that one day this same franchise would go on to produce a movie like Moonraker?
Interestingly, it was this very novelistic, low-key approach that had me detesting the film during my teenage years. Well, detesting is a harsh word but let’s say I didn’t care for it all that much. And why would I? For a kid who grew up on 80’s and 90’s action movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, and the Pierce Brosnan Bonds like GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies, watching a slow burn spy thriller like From Russia with Love must have been downright perplexing, not to mention frustrating.
For all its “un-Bond” trappings, From Russia with Love is still a film that introduced or polished many of the elements that would go on to become staples of the series. It’s the first Bond movie to have a pre-credits cold open. It’s the first to have a theme song play over its credits, even if the song with lyrical content is relegated to the end credits. The credits themselves are the first to feature scantily-clad women. Another first: It marks the first appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as Q, who goes on to give Bond his first notable gadget: the aforementioned briefcase. From Russia with Love also has the distinction of being the first to feature the organization of SPECTRE, and its founder Ernst Stavro Blofeld, as primary antagonists. While Bond’s meetings with M, and Miss Moneypenny were already depicted in the previous film, they’re more ironed out this time around. In particular, Bond’s relationship with Moneypenny comes off more natural and lived in this time around. The same applies for Connery who strikes the right balance of a blunt instrument and a suave gentleman. While the performance doesn’t quite match up to his work in Goldfinger or Thunderball – he’s still not as sharp with his delivery of puns and quips as he would go on to become in subsequent efforts – the edge he brandishes here is ideal for a story whose themes involve deception and duplicity.
Indeed, with its themes of deception and duplicity, it’s not hard to see why From Russia with Love has been often compared to a Hitchcock film. Aside from the thematic similarities, there’s the use of the MacGuffin plot device—in this case, the Lektor that everyone wants but one that plays very little importance to the direct events of the plot. The primary female character, Tatiana, is a blonde woman – a hallmark of Hitchcock’s heroines. There’s also the lengthy sequence on a train – a setting featured in many Hitchcock films from Strangers on a Train to Shadow of a Doubt to The 39 Steps to North by Northwest. The later film is also explicitly paid homage to in one of From Russia with Love’s final sequences in which a SPECTRE helicopter chases and tries to run down Bond as he runs across a field. Here’s a piece of trivia: From From Russia with Love onward, there has been a scene featuring helicopters in each and every Bond movie, save for The Man with the Golden Gun. SPECTRE looks to continue that tradition.
Seeing how I’ve managed to write over 800 words about the film without even going into the behind the scenes production, like I have with the majority of the other Bond movies, I’ll be brief. After the grand success of Dr. No, MGM green-lit the production of a sequel almost immediately. Bond producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman chose to adapt Ian Fleming’s fifth novel From Russia with Love into a feature primarily because the novel had been recently named by President John F. Kennedy as one of his 10 favorite books of all time, causing the book’s sales to skyrocket up the best-seller charts. Tragically, From Russia with Love was also the last movie Kennedy watched before his assassination in October 1963.
With a bigger budget, double the size of Dr. No, all the primary crew from that film, including director Terrence Young, screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood, cinematographer Ted Moore, editor Peter Hunt, and composer John Barry returned for the sequel. The sole hold-out was production designer Ken Adam who was whisked away by Stanley Kubrick to work on Dr. Starngelove. Like many of the Bond movies, the production went through a series of bumps—the most notable one being the tragic death of Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz (who plays Kerim Bey) during the film’s production from cancer. The death of Armendariz, coupled with re-writes during production and a series of very unfortunate (and expensive) accidents during the filming of the two climactic action sequences (the helicopter chase and the boat chase) led to the film going vastly over-budget and behind schedule. Still, upon its release, From Russia with Love was met with near universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike, allowing the film to soar at the box office and put the franchise in position to become the most successful ever— something it would accomplish a year later in arguably the most famous Bond movie of them all.
From Russia with Love was the first Bond movie with a cold open. Unlike many of the opens that would follow it, this is a rather subdued affair. It opens with Bond, dressed in a tux, running in a labyrinth-like garden of a gigantic estate—stalked by a mysterious blond brut. The two men play their spy game of hide and seek until the blond man steps on a branch, alerting Bond to shoot in his direction. No luck. Suddenly, the man appears from behind Bond and horrifically garrotes him to death. Movie over. Well, here comes the twist. Turns out the dead man isn’t Bond (naturally) but a man in a mask, and the entire sequence was a test operation conducted by SPECTRE representatives. Apparently Bond is targeted for assassination, and we’re just getting started.
Title Designer: Robert Brownjohn & Trevor Bond
Title Song: A medley of “The James Bond Theme,” “From Russia with Love” and “James Bond is Back” – all performed by the John Barry Orchestra.
Famous Quote: N/A
Even though Matt Munro sings the title song, it only appears during the end credits. Instead, the credits sequence of From Russia with Love is scored to a medley of three pieces orchestrated by John Barry. The first one, “James Bond is Back” is a classic brassy tune that lights the fires to the tires, setting the film in motion, while the second “From Russia with Love” functions as the romantic interlude before “The James Bond Theme” concludes the show.
The visuals for the credits sequence were designed by Robert Brownjohn & Trevor Bond since Maurice Binder was unavailable at the time. Brownjohn would also go on to design a similar credits sequence for Goldfinger a year later. As much as technology and filmmaking techniques have advanced in recent years, the credits sequence of From Russia with Love still stands as one of the most effective of the series. The effect of the credit text being projected over the moving bodies of belly dancers is incredibly sexy, especially considering the usage of red and orange hues. You also have to love the placement of the 007 logo.
The Big Bad: SPECTRE. For the only time in Bond history, there isn’t a single big bad. Instead, it’s a murderer’s row of SPECTRE members. SPECTRE founder and leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld green-lights the operation that takes place during From Russia with Love, as he does during with plots in which SPECTRE is involved, but he is a mere bystander in this film—appearing only in two scenes, including a memorable one in which he compares the crime syndicate to a Siamese fighting fish that shrewdly waits while its enemies kill each other before striking. Notably, we never see his face. Blofeld was played by Anthony Dawson who played Professor Dent in Dr. No while he was voiced by Eric Pohmann.
Chess grandmaster and SPECTRE agent Number 5 Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) comes up with the master plan to steal the Russian Lektor decoding machine but it is SPECTRE Number 3 and recent Soviet defector Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) who executes the operation – hiring both Tatiana and Red Grant for their respective roles. In fact, she may be the closest thing to the film’s central Big Bad. A shrewd, devious and manipulative woman who instills fear in anyone who speaks to her due to her authoritative and sadistic demeanor, Klebb never takes no for an answer, and answers to no one save for Blofeld.
Psychopathic mass murderer Donald “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw) who gets pleasure from killing his victims slowly and brutally, ensuring that life is extinguished from their bodies in the most painful possible way. Taken under the wing of SPECTRE brass, and trained in the ways of a spy, Grant becomes a suave and brilliant killing machine, capable of changing his accent effortlessly at will. SPECTRE’s most terrifying trained dog.
World Domination Plan: To steal the Soviet Lektor decoding device by tricking MI6 and James Bond that a Russian woman (Tatiana Romanova) is defecting with the device. When Bond is able to retrieve the device from Tatiana, they will kill him, plant false evidence that he murdered the woman and committed suicide in shame—thereby humiliating MI6. The plan is also set in motion as a way to seek revenge against Bond for murdering their agent Dr. No.
Primary: Sultry, seductive and smart Soviet double-agent Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) who is recruited by Rosa Klebb to seduce James Bond into thinking that she’s a defector who is willing to trade her freedom for the Lektor decoding device. Little does Tatiana know that Klebb is now working for SPECTRE and that she’s merely a pawn that is meant to be sacrificed in a scheme to publically humiliate MI6. The fact that Tatiana plays an extremely integral role in the plot of From Russia with Love, even saving the day in the end, means that she’s by default, a lot better than most Bond girls. Add in Bianchi’s exotic beauty, sultry voice and playful performance and you have all the makings of one of the best and under-appreciated Bond girls.
Others: Trench, Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) who returns from Dr. No as Bond’s sometime girlfriend/friend with benefits.
Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz): An exceedingly smart and intuitive Turkish (and MI6) intelligence agent whose vast network connection proves to be a massive asset for Bond. Like Bond, Kerim is a womanizer who enjoys drinking and guns. His devotion to the mission, even when injured, and his invaluable help in getting Bond out of Turkey safely make him one of Bond’s best local allies. Armendariz, who found out that he was terminally ill during the filming of the movie, valiantly completed all his scenes as a way to give his family a safety net after he passed. Once all his scenes were completed, he tragically killed himself at a local hospital.
M (Bernard Lee) who gives Bond his assignment with the knowledge that the mission may be a trap. Bond understands the risk but goes forward with it after he sees a picture of Tatiana.
Q (Desmond Llewelyn): The great Desmond Llewelyn makes his debut in the Bond franchise here when he gives Bond his gadget-loaded suitcase. Save Live and Let Die, Llewelyn would go on to appear in every Bond film until The World is not Enough in 1999, during which the character retires. Interestingly, he is credited not as “Q” but as “Boothroyd” in the film’s credits—a name that would be mentioned again in The Spy Who Loved Me.
Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) who shares a rather rare sweet moment with Bond when embrace each other cheek to cheek. There’s a palpable chemistry between the two actors, and that comes through in the characters’ jovial friendship/flirtatious relationship.
Briefcase: The first major gadget in the Bond franchise. Bond’s business briefcase contains multiple hidden compartments and weapons including an exploding tear gas container that explodes whenever opened by someone unfamiliar with the secret code to open the case. Other weapons include a knife that could be popped out from the side of the case, a sniper rifle with infra-red scope, a pocket to store ammunition, and another to hide 50 gold sovereigns. The case comes most in handy when Bond uses the tear gas weapon, sovereigns and the knife all to gain the upper hand against Red Grant.
Box Camera with concealed recording device: Self-explanatory. Used by Bond on the bay in Istanbul to gather information from Tatiana as she pretends he’s taking pictures of her.
ODDS & ENDS
Most Memorable Quote:
[After Bond realizes that Grant has been pretending to be a British agent]
James Bond: Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something.
Catching a villain by his taste in wine? That’s some classy spy shit right there, Bond.
Most Embarrassing Quote:
[Bond has just met Tatiana, who is lying naked under the sheets on his hotel room bed]
James Bond: You’re one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen.
Tatiana: Thank you, but I think my mouth is too big.
James Bond: No, it’s the right size… for me, that is
[Cut to a close up of Tatiana’s mouth]
An oral sex reference followed by a shot of Tatiana’s mouth; not very classy.
Most Memorable Moment:
Come on now… It’s easily the brutal fight between Bond and Red Grant in the train compartment—one of the best, if not THE best hand-to-hand fight scene in the franchise’s history. Vicious, violent, and devoid of any humanity—it’s what a fight between two stone-cold killers would be. It also happens to be magnificently cut and shot.
Most Cringe-Worthy Moment:
The embarrassingly gratuitous scene in which two gypsy women, clad in skimpy outfits fight to the death while the men watch for pleasure. Later on, both women are taken to Bond’s tent, on his request, as a reward for saving the life of the gypsy leader. After proceeding to sleep with both of them, we see them slavishly in love with him, massaging and taking care of his needs subserviently. Oh, the ‘60’s.
The hilarious scene in which MI6 listens to the tape of Bond interrogating a horny, smitten Tatiana about the Lektor decoding device. Key quote:
Tatiana: The mechanism is… Oh James, James… Will you make love to me all the time in England?
James Bond: [casually] Day and night. Go on about the mechanism.
Most Touching Moment:
In a spy thriller such as this, there’s little time for emotions but the death of Kerim Bey, and by extension actor Pedro Armendariz who died during the production of the film, is a sad moment.
Most Shocking/Outrageous Moment:
Once again, I’m going with the scene in which Bond is given the choice to sleep with the two fighting gypsy women, who then turn into subservient slaves, fulfilling his every need. Turns out, all you need to train a woman is a little sex with James Bond.
Best Pun/Double Entendre:
[Bond and Kerim are looking through a periscope from which they are able to see a Russian Consulate room from the floor up. That’s when a faceless Tatiana walks into the room]
Kerim Bey: How does she look to you?
James Bond: From this angle, things are shaping up nicely.
Worst Pun/Double Entendre:
[After Kerim Bey has shot his enemy, a Bulgarian Soviet agent, as he escaped from a secret exit located between the mouth of a woman’s face on a wall poster.]
James Bond: She should have kept her mouth shut.
Taken in the context of the film, the aforementioned quote is funny. But think about it for a moment and you realize that the humor is derived from the act of physical abuse. Ugh.
Best Stunt/Action Scene:
Technically, it’s the raw and brutal hand-to-hand fight sans weapons between Bond and Grant in the train compartment on the Orient Express but since I’ve already listed that scene as the movie’s best, I’ll give a shout-out to the North by Northwest homage in which Bond is stalked by a helicopter with SPECTRE agents across a field in Italy.
Most Dated Reference:
Other than its shamefully embarrassing treatment of women, this movie has aged like fine wine.
Number of Times Bond Has Sex: 6 (once with Sylvia Trench, once each with the two Turkish gypsies, and thrice with Tatiana)
Number of people Bond kills: 18
Best Kill: Red Grant
After a lengthy and particularly grisly fight to the death in the train compartment on the Orient Express, Bond is able to gain the upper hand by stabbing Grant with his hidden pocket knife, and then garroting his assailant with the man’s own strangling device. After the man drops dead, Bond coolly takes out a film from his vest, along with some money, before casually stating, “You won’t be needing this, OLD MAN.” Yup, that’s how it’s done!
Locations visited (In order of appearance): London, Istanbul, Belgrade, Zagreb, Trieste, Venice
Misogyny Meter: 9/10
The Sean Connery movies were a buffet of misogyny and sexism, and this comes as news to no one. The ‘60’s were a notoriously embarrassing time in Hollywood, especially when it came to the on-screen treatment of women and minorities. From Russia with Love may not have any sequences in which Bond attempts to rape any women who are averse to his charms but it does have its share of embarrassing scenes that have dated extremely poorly. We have the early scene in which Bond loudly slaps Sylvia Trench for flirting and teasing him while he’s on a call with MI6. Meanwhile, another scene finds Kerim Bey’s exotically horny wife demanding that she give him a good plugging, to which he sighs and responds, “Back to the salt mines.” There’s also the gratuitous sequence in which a belly dancer performs for Bond while the camera ogles her body in tight close-ups. As previously mentioned, the fight between the two vengeance-fueled gypsy girls is only resolved when Bond decides to sleep with both of them. When we see the two independent women again, they’re both serving him cocktails and massaging him like slaves. Apparently, all women’s’ troubles can be solved by a little conflict.
Homophobia Meter: 5/10
The depiction of Rosa Klebb as a butch lesbian caricature is all you need. She blatantly checks out Tatiana, asking her to take off her robe, and then touching her knees, thighs and back as she offers her the mission.
Racism Rating: 6/10
Gypsies are depicted as savages who settle arguments with fights to the death as men watch in glee. It’s a good thing the British government has sent suave British agent James Bond to train these savages and make them into beneficial allies.
Box Office: $24.7 million ($223.7 million, eighth highest, adjusted for inflation).
007 Chronological Listing: 2/24
Director: Terrence Young
Screenwriter: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkley Mather
Cast: Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Robert Shaw, Lotte Lenya, Pedro Armendáriz
Producer: Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman
Running time: 115 minutes
Companies: EON Productions, MGM
The 007 Collective will return in:
LICENCE TO KILL (1989)
Previous entries in The 007 Collective:
- Goldfinger (1964)
- A View to a Kill (1985)
- Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
- The World is Not Enough (1999)
- Die Another Day (2002)
- Quantum of Solace (2008)
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
- Octopussy (1983)
- Thunderball (1965)
- GoldenEye (1995)
- The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
- The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
- The Living Daylights (1987)
- Skyfall (2012)
- You Only Live Twice (1967)
- Live and Let Die (1973)
- Moonraker (1979)
- Dr. No (1962)
- For Your Eyes Only (1981)
- Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)