Just a note – Stephen has asked me to publish these posts, one per month, while he is out of the country (Brasil) serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He left me strict instructions that I should publish one per month, and I apologize that I have failed to post the reviews for June and July. So, here is the first installment, and within a week, I’ll post the review for July and then (hopefully) be on track for the balance of the two years. Enjoy. vlj
The lone moon shone high above the hedge maze, though despite its light, it could not dispel much of the darkness. This made it easy for Red Grant to move unseen. He knew his target and read up on everything about him. James Bond, codename 007, licensed to kill, or as the case may be, be killed. Grant spent an hour before Bond arrived just studying the area and memorizing its footprint. If Bond turned down a path, Grant knew where the path led and how to get there faster than Bond. If he wanted to, Grant could finish this in a minute. However, Grant enjoyed the fruits of patience too much. He wanted to savor this hunt and build up the thrill of the chase. Revenge is called for, and that’s exactly what Grant intends to serve.
From Russia With Love is very different in tone from the first film, and is considered the template of the films to come. It is also often regarded as the greatest of the franchise. This is arguable but it is definitely up there. Sean Connery agrees that this is the favorite for him, and depending on the day, it is also my favorite. Why is this so? Because it is a masterpiece.
Plot Summary: S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the organization from Dr. No, decides to hatch a plan to cause an actual war between the East and the West. The plan is simple. One Russian woman will seduce a British Agent and seem to defect over to them, along with a valuable code deciphering machine. The Russians will then launch a plan to go after the British, and the whole thing will escalate. The second reason for doing this is because the man who will most likely be assigned to the job is none other than James Bond; the man who killed Dr. No, who was a top ranking agent of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Bond gets assigned to the case and travels to Istanbul, where a Russian cipher clerk named Tantiana Romanova claims to have fallen in love with Bond. Tanya (name shortened) was told by Colonel Rosa Klebb that this plot was to help Russia. Klebb works for S.P.E.C.T.R.E., but Tanya doesn’t know this.
A series of events occur where Bond foils the Russian’s plans to kill the head of Station T, Kerim Bey, because the Russians are lead to believe that the British killed one of their agents. Bond meets Tantiana, and they agree to go forth with the stealing of previously mentioned decoding machine called the Lektor. The plan occurs smoothly, but when Bond, Tanya, and Kerim board the train out of Istanbul, one of the Russians see them and goes after them. Once on the train, Kerim Bey decides to keep the Russian occupied in his compartment. Soon after, Bond discovers Bey and the Russian are both dead. This is the latest in a series of events where Bond is saved from death. Seems a bit coincidental; Bond sends a message off to his contacts to have another agent help them get to London safely. A young man named Nash conceives of a plan to get them to London, but drugs Tanya. He then turns on Bond. Turns out Nash is Red Grant, an assassin hired by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. to watch over Bond and then kill him and Tanya in order to ensure a war between England and Russia. Bond gets the upper hand using a gadget he received from Q Branch, and gets Tanya and himself to Venice, along the way dodging more and more S.P.E.C.T.R.E agents.
Finally, Rosa Klebb catches up to the couple in Venice and holds Bond at gunpoint. Tanya then turns on Klebb, having fallen in love with Bond for real. Bond kills Klebb and once again, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’s plans are foiled.
The film uses tension rather than action to keep our interest. The director, Terence Young, knew that he had more of a budget and a better story this time around, (he directed Dr. No) and used this to his advantage. The film keeps S.P.E.C.T.R.E. mostly in the background, and uses the few appearances of Red Grant throughout to remind us of the overarching plot. We, the audience, are introduced to Grant earlier in the film and thus we know that Grant is protecting Bond until he can kill Bond himself on the Orient Express later in the film. Bond and Kerim are the main characters and without the reminders, we could be fooled into forgetting about S.P.E.C.T.R.E. It’s a different kind of battle royale, and it works.
Part of the problem with Dr. No is that it didn’t have very memorable characters, apart from the ones who would show up later again in the series. This isn’t the case here. Pedro Armendariz delivers a charming performance as Kerim Bey, and we really feel the weight of his death by the end of the film. Robert Shaw is a powerful actor, and his mostly silent Red Grant is one of the best villains in the series. Lotte Lenya delivers a great performance as Klebb and brings real menace to the part. We get introduced to series mainstay Desmond Llewelyn as Q. He doesn’t have the great relationship with Bond in this one that he will develop later in the films, but his appearance is fun nevertheless. We get introduced to Blofeld in this film; we never see his face in this one or later in Thunderball, but he acts as the arch nemesis of Bond throughout the first 7 films. To this day, he is the ultimate bad guy for Bond. Daniela Bianchi delivers a much better performance than Ursula Andress did in the last one and feels more like a real character. One of the things that make her standout is that the relationship between her and Bond feels like a real romance rather than the throwaway ones that will come later. Finally, Sean Connery is at his best in this film. He is debonair, delivers the one liners, and takes his job very seriously although there is room for the occasional joke.
This film introduced much of the other of the main elements that Dr. No didn’t. Dr. No gave us “Bond, James Bond”, vodka martinis, “M” and Moneypenny, exotic locations, beautiful girls, the gun barrel, and the main theme. This one gives us Blofeld, provocative main titles, sweeping music, likeable allies, Q and his gadgets, a helicopter sequence, and a pre-credits sequence. It isn’t until Goldfinger that we get the Aston Martin, but by this point, you have seen everything that people know James Bond for.
From Russia With Love is one of the few films in the series that references events from a past film. The Bond series are true sequels in an ongoing story; they are more like additional adventures featuring the lead character, much like the Indiana Jones films. Thus, it allows for the series to have greater freedom in the stories they want to tell, and they aren’t tied down to having to progress the overarching story. This was decided because the filmmakers weren’t interested in a dynamic character (one who goes through character archs) and just wanted to adapt all of the stories regardless of the release history of the novels. Dr. No wasn’t the first Bond book, but it was chosen because it seemed to be the easiest to adapt to film and also the smallest. The choice for the next film was actually pretty obvious. Though Russia actually preceded No in the print form, President Kennedy had chosen Russia as one of his favorite books. Being a Bond fan, I have read each of the original Fleming books and most of the ones done by other writers. I have to agree with Kennedy that Russia happens to be one of my favorite of the books, if not the best.
Many other reviewers have said that this is the best because it avoids the formulaic comic book style of some of the later films. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, but the film’s small Cold War focus does help. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that this film could have happened in our world. Each character is played down to earth, and it helps to make the film seem more grounded in reality than the rest of the series.
The music in the film is great. John Barry, who wrote the definitive arrangement of Monty Norman’s Bond theme, was called in to do a grand orchestra score. The strings and Turkish instruments help to remind us of the setting and draw us into Bond’s world.
All of the scenes in this film are memorable, but the three standout scenes of this film are the gypsy camp, the fight on the train, and the boat chase. The film’s action scenes are some of the best in the series, and none deliver the fun of the gypsy camp fight between the two girls and the subsequent attack of the Russians. It is sexy, tension filled, and full of gags. The fight on the train is widely known as one of the best fights in screen history. Connery and Shaw performed most of the fight themselves, and it is brutal. I’m surprised Bond isn’t in pain after this. Part of what makes this fight so great is the buildup to it. Grant taunts Bond, and Bond provokes Grant in a fun way. The scene’s great acting reminds me of the dinner scene in Dr. No. Finally, the finale where Bond shoots the gasoline in the water and blows up the boats is a classic moment, and Connery’s one-liner is a great way to cap off a scary scene.
From Russia With Love may not be the greatest in the franchise, but it comes pretty freaking close. It is one of the few films I can watch over and over again and never get tired of. It is such a breath of fresh air and injects some much needed tongue-in-cheek into the franchise. If you have yet to watch this, get off your lazy butt and go rent it or buy it!
RATING: 10 out of 10. I tend to save this rating for true cinematic masterpieces, but this is so much fun and classic that I can’t give this film anything less. The characters are great, the story is a wonderful diversion, Istanbul and Venice look amazing, and the music is some of my favorite in the series.