From Russia with Love (1963) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for violence and innuendo
Running time: 115 min.
Cast: Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Robert Shaw, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Francis De Wolff, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Eric Pohlmann (voice)
Cameo: Desmond Llewelyn
Director: Terence Young
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood (adapted from the novel by Ian Fleming)
James Bond's (Connery, Marnie) second outing sees him teamed up with a female Russian counterpart, defector Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi, OK Connery), in order to obtain from her a highly valued, top secret Soviet decoding device, Lektor, which she is willing to give up for safe passage from Istanbul, Turkey to England. What neither side knows is that the world's deadliest organized crime organization, SPECTRE, is playing a game of chess to engage both sides against one another, weakening the world's two superpowers to increase their own influence in the world.
Some critics might tell you that From Russia with Love is, hands down, the best of the James Bond series. I won't disagree outright, but I will say that I think that's only understandable if you base it only on the final third of the film, and ignore some rather weak moments that occur during over an hour of film that precedes it. Until the film, directed by Terence Young (Dr. No, Thunderball), settles into its thriller groove, it is clunky, prurient, and not terribly riveting. When more time is given to gypsy women with heaving bosoms fighting each other over a man than in spending time with the background of major characters and their motivations, you can see that where the emphasis of the producers lies. An ensuing shootout drags on far longer than necessary, and is confusing, poorly choreographed and altogether gratuitous. Titillation comes first, then action, while the plot is merely a necessary evil.
That titillation starts off with a scene purely set up in order to play the audience, as we see James Bond die at the hands of SPECTRE hit man, Red Grant (Shaw, Jaws). Only, it isn't Bond at all, but rather, an imposter with a Bond mask on. It seems rather silly to believe that an organization like SPECTRE would actually go through the process of making a mask that makes its wearer look exactly like Bond, rather than have skilled assassins that would be formidable enough of a match to hone Red's skills. However, then one realizes that throughout their existence, SPECTRE has been defeated by Bond time and again; perhaps they are just bad at what they do.
Still, the build up to the climax and finale makes up for quite a bit. Once the characters are stripped down to a final three on the Orient Express -- good guy Bond, duplicitous Romanova, and enigmatic bad guy Red Grant -- the crimes of passion come to the surface, and for the first time in the film you feel like there is actually something vital at stake. It all culminates in a battle between Bond and Red in classic hand-to-hand fashion in small quarters that is easily as exciting as any explosion-filled outing that would dominate the later Bond films.
Although the next entry in the series, Goldfinger, would be the one most credited with cementing the Bond formula for the rest of the series, certain elements make their debut here, including the face-unseen, kitty-petting head of SPECTRE, Blofeld (voiced by Eric Pohlmann, Mogambo), a first appearance of the ingenious Major Boothroyd (Llewelyn, Diamonds Are Forever), aka "Q", and an introduction to the many cool gadgets that make being a superspy so alluring.
Though its placement in the rankings of the James Bond series is probably more romanticized than merited on its own overall quality, From Russia with Love does offer some of the better moments in any Bond film, and is well worth watching for fans of the series, and of Connery in particular. There are indelible images to be sure, including the SPECTRE pantheon of maniacal weirdoes (especially Lotte Lenya (Semi-Tough) as the feisty lesbian sadist, Rosa Klebb), Robert Shaw's beefy presence, and one of Bond's better romantic subplots involved with non-bimbo Tatiana. It ranks as one of the better Bonds, especially as it seems more subdued than the increasingly cartoonish future entries, but for my money, Goldfinger is still the pinnacle of action spy series for its balance of everything we love about the 007's adventures as a whole.
©2009 Vince Leo