Of all the James Bond movies, From Russia With Love feels most like a classic film. It is the one you would not be surprised to see on Turner Classic Movies some Sunday afternoon nestled among the works of Humphrey Bogart and Alfred Hitchcock.
From Russia With Love’s classical nature derives both from its place in the film series’ chronology and from its source material. This second film in the Bond series is more assured and more accomplished than its predecessor, Dr. No. The first film certainly holds its share of glories, but with a million-dollar budget that didn’t match Bond author Ian Fleming’s imagination for that particular story, Dr. No plays like a well-crafted B-movie — a B-movie with potential, if you will. It is still rough at the edges, and so is its star, Sean Connery. In a few scenes, particularly his interrogation of the female photographer in Puss Feller’s bar, we glimpse the uncouth Edinburgh trucker that Fleming dreaded when Connery was cast.
If Dr. No was a B-movie with potential, From Russia With Love fulfills that potential. Returning director Terence Young was given twice the budget as Dr. No and spent it well. Filmed when Technicolor was still glorious, From Russia With Love is a gorgeous film, each time-capsule view of Istanbul a treasure.
Connery has improved as well. The cultured Young coached the blue-collar actor in the art of savoir faire. He got Connery about 85 percent of the way in Dr. No, but by From Russia With Love Connery hits 100 percent. Gone is the tendency to angrily snap off a line of dialogue. The actor is more relaxed, and this Bond is a professional agent in command of his situation. He is cool. He is imperturbable. He is the apex of controlled masculinity.
Connery is more sophisticated, and so is everything about the film. The dialogue is sophisticated, the humor is sophisticated, as is the deft touch Young brings to the pacing. Future Bond films will have the quality here and there, but no other has it in such abundance.
In the the next film, Goldfinger, everything will change. New director Guy Hamilton will turn the attitude more arch and the tone more fantastic. Goldfinger will be the blueprint for the rest of the series, turning it into its one genre, and Bond would become what 1970s Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz eventually described as “Disney for adults.”
With From Russia With Love, the series would remain, for one last moment, somewhat realistic escapism for adults. With Goldfinger, the films start to peel themselves away from Fleming books that inspired them — slightly at first, then radically only two films later with You Only Live Twice. From Russia With Love is still firmly set in the world established by Ian Fleming. And if the film feels the most like not just a classic movie, but like a classic spy movie, that’s because the book was Fleming’s deliberate attempt to write a classic spy novel.
Many fans, including myself, consider From Russia, With Love Fleming’s finest Bond novel. Encouraged by American author Raymond Chandler, creator of the hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe, Fleming decided to up his game with From Russia, With Love, the fifth book in the series. Bond had faced off against American gangsters in the previous installment, the lamentable Diamonds Are Forever, and Fleming chose to return his hero to the Cold War stakes of Casino Royale. But this Cold War story would take on the trappings of a “between the wars” espionage thriller, with intrigue in the Balkans and aboard a luxury train hurtling through Eastern Europe. Fleming tips his hat to one of the masters of the form by giving Bond a copy of Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios to read on his flight to Istanbul.
In a 1961 article for Life Magazine, President John F. Kennedy famously included From Russia, With Love in a list of his 10 favorite books. Overnight the Bond novels, received indifferently in the United States until then, became bestsellers on this side of the Atlantic. Kennedy’s endorsement was a major reason Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman chose the book to be adapted as their second film, released in Britain in October 1963. The film would not arrive in America until the following spring, but a print was sent to the White House screening room in November and From Russia With Love would be the last movie President Kennedy would see before his assassination.
Although the filmmakers were still being faithful to Fleming, they were not slavishly following his books. In fact, Richard Maibaum and other screenwriters who worked on those early films soon discovered that once Fleming’s descriptive language was removed, his straightforward plots supplied only about an hour’s worth of screen time. Additions were necessary. In Dr. No they extended the Jamaica section of the film with a plodding detective story that climaxes in Bond’s shocking, cold-blooded shooting of Dr. No’s underling Professor Dent, a scene that established Connery’s Bond as more brutal than his literary counterpart.
In Fleming’s From Russia, With Love, published in 1957, Bond is targeted by the Soviet murder organization SMERSH, a Cyrillic acronym for “Death to Spies.” This also necessitated a change because in the six years since the book’s publication, Broccoli and Saltzman sensed a thaw in the Cold War and no longer wanted to play the Russians as the heavies. The solution was to take SPECTRE, the criminal organization Fleming created for Thunderball that had already been introduced in Dr. No, and to make the book’s villains Soviet defectors to SPECTRE, enacting the novel’s plot to play the British secret service and SMERSH against each other.
Far more satisfying than shoving a subplot into the middle of the story a la Dr. No, this was an ingenious solution that added a satisfying twist to the plot. However, it caused headaches for Maibaum and director Young. They kept rewriting the script all the way into post-production until they licked this extra layer of intrigue. Watch the scene aboard Blofeld’s yacht where he spells out SPECTRE’s plot to Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) with sharpened eyes and you’ll spot the sleight of hand editor Peter Hunt uses to sneak in explanatory dialogue filmed weeks after principal photography had wrapped.
From Russia With Love was not an easy shoot. Aside from the rewrites, Istanbul turned out to be a production nightmare. When weather made the climactic boat chase impossible there, it was postponed and moved to a Scottish loch. This location brought another disaster when Young’s helicopter crashed into the water, nearly killing him.
The astonishing thing about From Russia With Love is that none of these hardships shows on screen. Everything appears effortless, and so do the performances. In one case, this couldn’t be further from reality. Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz was dying of cancer when he played Bond’s Turkish secret service contact Kerim Bey. Yet his performance is filled with vitality. Kerim is Bond’s most memorable ally in the series, eclipsing all the actors to play the erstwhile Felix Leiter. (After completing his final scenes, Armendariz smuggled a gun into his hospital room and committed suicide while the movie was still in production, adding considerably to the gloom on set.)
During the 1960s the Bond producers had a fine eye for casting, giving roles to many of Europe’s best character actors. From Russia With Love boasts the series’ strongest ensemble (though On Her Majesty’s Secret Service comes close). As the bait to lure Bond to Istanbul, Daniela Bianchi is the most sympathetic and loveliest of Bond women. Yes, I prefer her to Ursula Andress. Bianchi’s black choker and blue negligee trump Andress’ white bikini in my book.
Once the action moves aboard the train (which I noticed upon my latest viewing is never identified in the film as the Orient Express) I adore everything Bianchi does. As Tatiania plans her future in London — “I shall wear this in Picadilly” — and enjoys playacting as Bond’s wife, Bianchi turns her into the most innocently beguiling of Bond’s leading ladies. Watch how she mouths her cover name, Carolyn Somerset, when Bond hands her her forged passport. Watch how she pulls a lock of hair across her upper lip and pretends it is a mustache. “Charming,” as Kerim says. “Charming.”
From Russia With Love doesn’t have a central villain but a terrifying tag team played by Lenya and the young Robert Shaw. The Austrian-born Lenya, best known as a singer, stage performer and the wife of Kurt Weil, was an offbeat but brilliant choice to play the venomous Klebb, famous for the poison-tip knife that popped from her shoe. Until her death in 1981, Lenya said people always glanced nervously at her feet when they met her.
Shaw was three years away from his Academy Award-nominated role as Henry VIII in A Man For All Seasons and 15 years away from becoming the shark’s final meal in Jaws when he was cast as SPECTRE assassin Red Grant. He is introduced in From Russia With Love nearly nude, all glistening muscles and a shock of bleached blond hair. Shaw is mostly silent after that, haunting every move Bond makes once he arrives in Istanbul. Young often captures Grant’s image reflected in mirrors and windows. When Grant finally speaks after boarding the train his voice is a surprise.The killer’s high-pitched, nervous impersonation of an English gentleman is not menacing — not immediately. The affected accent is a verbal sneer at Bond, and Bond sort of deserves it.
The hero strolls through most of the film as if his assignment were a lark and he is never under threat. He enjoys himself during the fight at the gypsy camp. Not until Kerim is killed does Bond realize something has gone wrong. And even though he immediately suspects Grant when he poses as a secret service contact (“Red wine with fish…”), Bond still steps into the trap SPECTRE has set from the beginning.
The only way out is to fight, and the fight between Bond and Red Grant remains one of the best ever filmed. While much of From Russia With Love is classic and old-fashioned, this savage fight was starkly modern in 1963 and remains so today. The elegant choreography of a past Errol Flynn sword fight is forgotten, and the precise blows of a future Bruce Lee kung fu battle are not forecast. These are two men in the confined space of two train compartments hurling each other into walls, slamming each other into doors and clumsily kicking and punching at any available target. Hunt’s innovative quick-cut editing pumps our adrenaline but never makes the fight an incomprehensible blur. This is a fight to the death between professional killers. Connery’s Bond would never face such desperate stakes again, and no matter who played him, the character would rarely be in such palpable danger afterward.
While Goldfinger would set the pattern for the rest of the series, From Russia With Love does include several important firsts. It is the first to have a pre-title sequence (Grant stalking a Bond lookalike in SPECTRE’s training camp). The first to have expansive action scenes (the gypsy camp fight, the helicopter attack and the boat chase). The first appearance of Blofeld (sort of) and his white Persian cat. The first score by John Barry (whose arrangement of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme” got Dr. No off to a stirring start). The first title song (performed by Matt Monro over the closing credits rather than the opening titles). The first major gadget (Bond’s feature-packed attache case) and, significantly, the first time a gadget is delivered by Desmond Llewelyn.
Llewelyn will not be called Q until Goldfinger. In From Russia With Love he is introduced as the equipment officer and identified in the credits as Boothroyd, the character Peter Burton played in Dr. No. Along with his initial, Llewelyn doesn’t gain the gadget master’s characteristic exasperation until Goldfinger. His job is From Russia With Love is to dutifully introduce Bond to his briefcase and explain its hidden weapons so the audience will know what is coming in the third act. But even as he stands and delivers his exposition, Llewellyn displays more charisma than Burton did. And so the Bond films landed their most beloved supporting character.
Whenever a mainstream publication such as Entertainment Weekly proclaims the best James Bond film, the knee-jerk choice is Goldfinger. I always wonder if these taste makers have seen the film lately. It certainly ranks among the best of the Bonds, but it hasn’t aged well. So much of it is stuck in the mid-1960s — even the “wah wah” horns of Barry’s excellent score. And while the gypsy girls’ catfight in From Russia With Love cannot be viewed today as a triumph of feminism, at least Bond doesn’t rape his leading lady in this film.
Ask Sean Connery, and he doesn’t punch you in the face for bringing up James Bond, he would tell you that From Russia With Love, not Goldfinger, is his best 007 film. After 50-plus years, it holds up better than its immediate successor because it is classically constructed, elegant escapism that still presents itself as a spy thriller that could take place in the real world.