Director Alfred Hitchcock was once approached to be the one to direct the James Bond franchise. Author Ian Fleming had contacted him via telegram with the script treatment for Thunderball. Hitchcock declined the offer as he did not want to make another spy thriller so close to North By Northwest. Funny enough, North By Northwest is the perfect template for From Russia With Love.
Terence Young, director of the previous Bond outing Dr. No, borrows from Hitchcock’s direction and style. There’s the blonde love interest, the use of a MacGuffin, and palpable tension throughout. It’s a spy thriller in every sense of the genre. It’s also a benchmark for the series that shows Bond is more than a matinee on a lazy Sunday, it’s a cinematic experience. This would carry over into the rest of the franchise, but here, it’s distilled into near-perfection.
James Bond (Sean Connery) is under heat from those at SPECTRE after he killed fellow operative Dr. No. Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) enlists the help of fellow SPECTRE agent Kronsteen (Vladek Shabel) to get a Lektor coding device. To do so, the duo set a trap using Russian cryptographer Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to get Bond to go along with getting the device. It’s a trap that manipulates both sides to get what they want. Bond sets out to travel to Istanbul (not Constantinople) to kick off the journey, only to be trailed by SPECTRE’s henchman Red Grant (Robert Shaw). Will Bond get out of the trap or fall deeper into it as time passes?
From Russia With Love is a near-perfect Bond film handling all the tropes associated with it with a clearer vision for the character and the series. By following in Hitch’s footsteps, the film becomes a bigger and more involved film. There is an investment in the characters as we, the audience, know they are in a trap.
Bond himself feels as if something is going on behind the scenes, but the anticipation comes when he realizes it completely. We see Bond at his best (and worse by today’s standards) for the time being. He is a master of clever plans and traps of his own including the timing of a bomb to get the coding device. He has connections with friends such as Kerim Bay played with sheer delight by Pedro Armendáriz in his final film role. He still woos (and slaps) women who are still written more as props than actual people. He cracks one-liners that are either groaners or knee-slappers. Connery comes more into his own in his cold interaction, but the expected fun with his character is coming into the light. This is not solidified till the next entry. This sets him even more on the map with a dynamic performance.
One great thing about this film is him having to play the agent disguised as Bond chased by Grant for practice. There’s a genuine notion of fear and nervousness that one rarely sees or thinks of when it comes to Bond. It shows that Connery is more than one note in the role. Bond is quite the spy too never losing sight of the goals even after a brief pit stop or two. One of my favorite parts is when he proceeds to go-ahead to take the Lektor device. Rather than inform Tatiana of the correct date, he informs her of another to catch her by surprise. The timing of the bomb for the consulate is great too. Bond tests to see if the Russian consulate does have the right time on their clocks only for the bomb to go off a few moments later. It’s comical, but also in tune with the type of plan Bond would create.
Tatiana Romanova is also great. Dubbed vocally by Barbara Jefford, is the quintessential “Bond girl.” She is the stereotype one thinks of with “Bond girls,” but she has actual dimensions to her. There is a naivete there, but she is also whip-smart on the same scale as Bond. Romanova’s character sets a template for other Bond girls. Much like the blondes in Hitch’s films beforehand, Bianchi has the same qualities being a companion on the mission. She’s written at times to be enthralled by Bond wanting to love him every second of the day. Yet, here’s a dynamic to her character that makes the chemistry with Bond feel so tight-knit. They are both roped in a situation out of their hands and have to be united throughout the circumstance. It makes both of them play off one another well. There’s a reason the first introduction of Romanova is used as the audition scene for Bond actresses to test their chemistry with Bond. It’s one step beyond the one dimension of Honey Ryder’s participation to encourage even stronger “Bond girls” in future outings.
The action and thriller set-pieces in this movie are stupendous. It’s a complete night and day difference from the low-budget battles of Dr. No. The battle at the Romani camp (though not called that in the film) is brilliant with chaos all about. There are fistfights between the camp residents and the invading Bulgarians. An endless hail of gunfire streams as explosions surround the place. This movie loves explosions be it in a boat chase that rivals that of the Waterworld stunt show to a helicopter being shot down and exploding on impact. The copter scene in particular feels lifted straight from North By Northwest with Connery being the perfect replacement for Cary Grant. But, unlike in that film, Bond came prepared with a rifle. Connery was also almost hit in during filming, so the nervousness about him is genuine as hell. The best scene in the movie is not bombastic in an explosion or surrounded by flames.
It comes with the closed-quarters fight between Red Grant and Bond. These two throw hands like nobody’s business in manic ballet between the two. The camera doesn’t shy away either. It stays focused as they battle between two rooms on a train car with relentless energy. The tension of whether Bond will meet his end or not is high. It helps that Robert Shaw is intimidating throughout the film, lurking in the shadows or plain sight with a menace to him. This is a far cry from his most well-known performance as Quint in Jaws. Yet, it’s in this stellar sequence where we see the true menace that has been building up this entire time. Grant set the benchmark for notorious henchmen. Except for Jaws (the man, not the shark), henchmen seem to have never reached such heights again.
A small number of firsts do happen in this film setting the groundwork for Bond. First is the appearance of Demond Llewelyn as Q, the gadget supplier of Bond. He gives Bond the suitcase that houses so much more than paperwork. It contains a secret dagger, gold coins, and if open by another, a tear gas trap. Q is delightful in his appearance with constant reminders for Bond to pay attention. It’s brief here, but there will be more of him later on. The second and final first is the appearance of Blofeld. The head of the nefarious SPECTRE is known only via voice and a hand petting a cat. His shadowy appearance of him makes him all the more dangerous with many wondering who can it be. The simple taste of who Blodfeld is will whet the appetite of those watching these films for the first time. Blofeld is also the subject of parody thanks to Austin Powers’s character Dr. Evil.
From Russia With Love is my favorite of the Bonds for the reasons above and so much more. It’s one of the few Bonds I often come back to alongside GoldenEye and Casino Royale. It’s high on my tier list of films out of the canon because it came at a time when I started getting more into classic films. Bond is one of the first two big franchises and it’s startling to see the roots where the series grow from. Russia set that template for what makes a stellar Bond film. There’s a MacGuffin, there’s a beauty of a companion, and there is an intriguing story. The best Bond films encapsulate that.
What makes Russia stand out is that like many franchise films that came after it, it took inspiration from elsewhere and made it into something of its own. It expanded upon something seen before and injected new life into it. It’s a product of its time, but it stands alongside other Hitchcockian efforts. Even better, it’s the Bond that very well feels the most like a spy thriller. There are true stakes involved and intrigue to everything. There is a sense of dread along with the thrilling excitement of it all. There is also the urgency of possible betrayal given both Bond and Romanova know nothing of one another. Death could occur (and they do) at any moment. It’s intriguing and engaging never missing a step and never becoming a bore. From Russia With Love is a masterpiece that serves as one of the series’ greatest highlights.
From Russia With Love: 5 out of 5
Bond: The 60s Six 2/6 Complete
Next time, it’s the Bond that takes the foundations and the framework of the past two films and builds its legacy. It’s time to come face to face with Goldfinger.