The early Bond films have much to answer for. Although tamed down from the best-selling Ian Fleming novels, the phenomenally successful spy adventure movie series heralded a new era of cinema promiscuity and violence that had not then been shown in Hollywood and British cinema up to then.
The morally ambivalent lead character, who was laconically played by Scottish actor Sean Connery, is shown a heartless killer, playboy, and serial womanizer in a fantasy world of megalomaniac villains, vicious henchmen, treacherous beautiful women, expensive and exciting set pieces, tongue-in-cheek humor, and exotic locations.
Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli had always intended to develop a film series rather than a one-off, but the commercial success of Dr. No in 1962 ensured that they could start on that follow-up immediately.
The second Bond film, From Russia With Love, was released on October 11, 1963, and was made with twice the budget of Dr. No ($2 million) but it was a huge commercial and critical success.
The Story Begins
In the opening sequences of the film, international criminal organization SPECTRE is building a cunning plan to trap the British government, to steal the important Lektor cryptography device from the Russians, and to avenge the death of their agent Doctor No.
SPECTRE uses the services of their chief planner and chess grandmaster Kronsteen and former Soviet counterintelligence (SMERSH) colonel Rosa Klebb to carry out the orders.
Kronsteen, who devised the plan, informs SPECTRE Number One that the British will know it is a trap, but they regard a trap as a challenge. He also adds that the British will undoubtedly send their number one agent, James Bond.
Klebb’s assignment is to oversee the mission, to ensure that Donald “Red” Grant kills Bond at just the right time. Klebb instructs a beautiful cipher clerk at the consulate, Tatiana Romanova, to lure James Bond to ensure that the plan is carried out.
Thinking that Klebb is still working for SMERSH and with the threat of execution, Tatiana Romanova unwittingly agrees to follow Klebb’s instructions.
When receiving his orders from M, Bond says that he is up for the challenge and flies to Istanbul for the first part of his mission. The SPECTRE plot is working because Bond is falling for the trap.
Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood, the screenwriters for Dr. No, returned to write the impressive screenplay for From Russia With Love. Irish screenwriter Harwood, the first female Bond screenwriter of the series, adapted the script from the original 1957 novel.
Director Terence Young returned to create the finest work of his career, with the help of the gorgeous cinematography from Ted Moore which still impresses.
The majestic score, with big brass, rock guitar, and sweeping orchestra, was the first from legendary composer John Barry, although he did contribute to the music of Dr. No. John Barry went on to compose eleven Bond scores and won numerous awards for many other movies including Born Free, Midnight Cowboy, Out of Africa, and Dances With Wolves.
John Barry co-wrote the title song with Lionel Bart, the composer of the musical Oliver!
Sean Connery produces a memorable and more confident performance in the lead role. Connery’s Bond, especially in From Russia With Love, conveys cool charisma, toughness, and smirky humor that became the character trademarks for all future Bond leads.
Connery dominates every scene but the other cast members are great too. Italian actress Daniela Bianchi’s performance as Tatiana Romanova is often overlooked because her voice was dubbed. Bianchi’s gives a sensitive performance that effectively conveys vulnerability, tenderness, and beauty.
Acclaimed English actor Robert Shaw is perfectly cast as assassin Red Grant. In the novel, Red Grant is a homicidal maniac and serial killer, who preys on young women but this is not mentioned in the film. His viciousness is obvious from his mentioned reputation and by Shaw’s impeccable performance.
Veteran Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz plays the head of MI6 Istanbul branch, Ali Kerim Bey. During filming, Armendáriz found out that he had cancer and but continued to endure great pain during the production. He visibly limps in most scenes. Armendáriz committed suicide shortly after filming.
The decision to cast legendary Austrian-American singer Lotte Lenya as the villainous killer Rosa Klebb may have been controversial at the time but Lenya’s casting was inspirational. Lotte Lenya produces a memorable performance and her Klebb ranks along with all the finest big-screen Bond villains.
Polish character actor Vladek Shevbal is equally memorable as the sinister Kronsteen.
Lois Maxwell again plays M secretary Miss Moneypenny who has another flirty encounter with Bond, as she has in all the movies. This romantic tension is absent in the Ian Fleming novels.
Bernard Lee returns as the role of M, but From Russia With Love is the first film to star Welsh actor Desmond Llewellyn as Q, replacing Peter Burton who played the character in Doctor No.
Climactic Train Fight
There are exciting action sequences in From Russia With Love but the most acclaimed moment is the climactic fight between Bond and Red Grant on the train. Violent and tense, with excellent use of sound and lighting, and played out within a confined space, the train fight is one of the best of its kind in film history.
Pre-title Opening and Credit Sequence
From Russia With Love is the first Bond film to have a pre-title opening, which follows the signature gun barrel sequence, was the idea of editor Peter Hunt to help with the narrative flow in the film.
The hip flashy credit sequence, which became the norm for all Bond films, was created by Robert Brownjohn. Whilst quite tame today by today’s standards, the titles on the curves of belly dancer Julie Mendez would have been regarded as racy back in 1963.
Release and Reception
From Russia With Love received its world premiere on 10 October 1963 and was released worldwide on 8 April 1964. It was a box office success on release, earning $12.5 million ($103 million today), doubling Dr. No’s gross. It has always been revered by most critics as one of the best films of the series.
The success of From Russia With Love meant that the next Bond film Goldfinger was immediately announced as the next Bond movie, due for release in the following year. The critically acclaimed Goldfinger was produced on a huge budget but it became a box office giant, which ushered in the massive Bond cinema phenomenon.
Although all Bond films are of their time and are not immune to changing attitudes, they are immensely enjoyable. All the other actors who have played Bond in the official film series up to now (George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig) have been exceptional because they brought something fresh to the character.
But Sean Connery was the definitive big-screen James Bond, not just because he was the best, but that he shines in From Russia With Love, which is long regarded as one of the finest and most enjoyable big-screen adventures in cinema history.
IN TRIBUTE TO SEAN CONNERY (25 AUGUST 1930 – 31 OCTOBER 2020)