Welcome to the second entry in Does It Look Like It’s Our First Time?, a James Bond retrospective. This week Allen Strickland and I are taking a look at perhaps one of the most beloved entries in the franchise, From Russia with Love.
CJ: With From Russia with Love we finally get introduced to one of the most famous tropes of the series, the cold open. This particular cold open occurs at a SPECTRE facility as we see a man who appears to be Bond get killed by Red Grant as part of a training exercise. Before we the audience can get too worried we see that the man killed was not in fact Bond but was actually just a guy in a Bond mask. Needless to say, this helps to starts off the film with a bang. From here we go to the title sequence where we see another trope established, a woman’s figure somehow integrated into the opening credits.
Allen: This is where the tradition of a cold open to kick off a Bond film began and From Russia With Love kicks off with one of the most iconic opening sequences in the history of the franchise. We watch who we believe to be Sean Connery’s James Bond moving through a courtyard at night, followed by a menacing figure. Moments later the figure pounces garroting Bond, only for it to be revealed that SURPRISE, the “Bond” in question was merely a man in the mask being used to train the menacing Red Grant. This delightful bit of deception knocks the audience back on their heels to start and promises an exciting new adventure. Also introduced in From Russia with Love, the tradition of somehow integrating the female form into the opening credits, in this case projecting said credits onto the body of a belly dancer.
CJ: This particular movie seems to be all about introducing tropes. In this case we hear our first song specifically written for a Bond film. While it is only performed instrumentally in the opening credits we finally hear it again with the lyrics during the end credits. While it is a catchy little tune I wouldn’t say its anything special, especially compared to future themes. John Barry is without a doubt an amazing composer. However, the music throughout the movie didn’t really seem to stand out to me. Of course part of that could be blamed on the fact that this is a movie that sucks you in to the point where everything else just kind of fades into the background.
Allen: From Russia with Love is also the first Bond film to feature a unique theme song. While performed entirely orchestrally over the opening credits, a version featuring lyrics can be heard both playing on a radio during a scene featuring Bond and Sylvia Trench as well as over the end credits of the film. Overall John Barry’s work on the score is as usual quite remarkable merging Russian, Middle Eastern, and Romani influences together to create something truly unique.
CJ: This was such a better plot than Dr. No. With this there are no big theatrics, no world ending plot, no trying to create a deeper backstory for Bond, etc. It is just a simple spy movie and I love what it managed to do. In this film as revenge for killing Dr. No in the previous film, SPECTRE has decided to try and kill James Bond. But first, through the use of a seductive Soviet cipher clerk they must trick him into stealing a Lektor decoding machine so that they may then sell it back to the USSR, after killing Bond of course. By far this is a more coherent and interesting plot than the previous film.
Allen: Compared to almost every other film in the franchise the plot of From Russia with Love is quite restrained. SPECTRE in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone hatches a plan to kill off Bond while also extorting the Soviet government. The plot, is to use an unknowing Soviet cipher clerk to seduce Bond and draw him to Turkey with the promise of a chance to obtain a Lektor decoder machine which would allow the British to decode Soviet messages. Once Bond had the Lektor SPECTRE planned to kill off Bond and sell the machine back to the Soviets. No giant space lasers, no world ending threats, just seduction, assignation, and extortion. It is to the film’s credit then that it is one of the more cohesive and thrilling plots of the entire franchise.
CJ: Oh how I love a good mysterious figure. In this film we get to “meet” the head of SPECTRE, an unnamed man that just goes by the title of Number One. We never see his face or really learn anything about him other than he has a cat. But for the few minutes that he is on screen he becomes someone to be feared. His very presence strikes fear in the heart of his underlings in addition to the audience. You can tell that everything he says is precisely calculated to intimidate those around him. You learn quickly that this is not a man you want to be on the wrong side of. Of course Number One is not the only villain, we also have Rosa Klebb who is in charge of Tatiana Romanova (the previously mentioned cipher clerk) who doesn’t do much except for yell and try to kill Bond at the end after everything else has failed. However, one of the performances that surprised me most came from Robert Shaw’s character, Red Grant. This is a man in peak physical shape who is perfectly conditioned to take on someone of Bond’s caliber. Robert Shaw (imagine my surprise when I realized that was Quint from Jaws) manages to create a character that to this day stands out as one of the top Bond villains.
Allen: The two primary antagonists in From Russia with Love are Rosa Klebb and her handpicked assassin Red Grant. It is Klebb who operates as the handler for the Russian cypher clerk and carries out the orders from the as of yet unrevealed leader of SPECTRE, Number One. However it is Red Grant, the merciless assassin that truly shines in this film. Played by Robert Shaw, Grant is portrayed very much as SPECTRE’s answer to Bond. He is brutal and efficient in his execution and manages to with hardly any lines put together one of the most iconic villain performances in the history of the franchise.
CJ: It was nice to see Sylvia Trench from Dr. No for all of five minutes. While the idea of giving Bond a steady girlfriend now may seem preposterous it was nice to see the producers at least make an attempt to not make Bond such a womanizer. But alas after those previously mentioned five minutes are up we never see Trench again. For this film we are introduced to Tatiana Romanova, a cipher clerk who is unknowingly working for SPECTRE. Her orders are to give Bond “Whatever he wants.” Make of that what you will. While she is definitely a step up in personality from Honey Ryder she is still unfortunately mainly treated as eye candy for the majority of the movie.
Allen: While it once again features Sylvia Trench returning to play a humorous scene in which Bond is called away just before the fun can begin, the main Bond Girl for From Russia with Love is Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova who plays the Russian cipher clerk who is fooled into aiding SPECTRE’s dastardly plan. Operating under what she believes to be Soviet orders to give Bond whatever he wants, she eventually falls in love with him and his promise of a better life in England. Sadly that is the full extent of her role and when combined with the fact that all of her lines where overdubbed by another actress, it becomes perfectly clear what Bianchi’s exact role in the narrative was.
Bond (actor, performance):
CJ: Sean Connery returns and is even better than his last go at the role. He’s still as suave and dangerous as ever. It’s nice to get to see him become a little more comfortable as Bond which only helps to solidify his performance. Unlike with some actors, especially ones in action/spy films, you don’t look at the screen and think “Oh, that’s Sean Connery!” you look and think “Oh, that’s James Bond!” You actually believe the person being played on screen is real, if only for a moment and that is a hallmark of a great actor.
Allen: Connery is back and once again puts on a powerhouse performance in his role as Bond. Each actor to portray Bond has brought their own specific spin to the character and Connery’s specific combination of brutality and refinement is something to behold. His first two performances as Bond are some of the most career defining work ever seen out of a young actor and cannot be overpraised.
CJ: Once more, another trope is established. In this case we see both Q Branch and their toys introduced. Unlike some of the more over the top gadgets (I’m looking and rolling my eyes at you, invisible car from Die Another Day) the one introduced in this movie is rather restrained. We see Bond issued a simple briefcase, which just happens to be equipped with a rifle, a hidden knife, tear gas, and some gold coins. Simple, practical, and as we find out later, rather handy when fighting Red Grant.
Allen: It is in this film that we are introduced to the first ever gadget in the history of the franchise, as well as the Q branch itself. That gadget? A briefcase. Outfitted with a hidden throwing knife, 20 rounds of ammunition, fifty gold coins, a folding sniper rifle, and a tear gas canister rigged to the side that would release if anyone opened it improperly. While rather simple for the standards of the franchise it is what kicked off the gadget craze that would almost sink the franchise in the later years.
CJ: With the success of Dr. No came an increase in the budget for From Russia with Love. It definitely shows when talking about the stunts/action. The one action sequence that really stands out among the rest comes towards the end. We see Grant and Bond finally face off after an entire movie of Grant tailing and at times protecting Bond. Once the time has come for the inevitable fight it does not disappointed. In an area smaller than an average sized bedroom they have one of the best fights I have ever seen. These are two people who are so evenly matched in both strength and skill that if one didn’t know about the other movies then they could very well think that this could be the end of Bond.
Allen: While it features a noticeable increase in stunts and action from its predecessor, it is in one scene in particular that From Russia with Love shines. The train fight near the end between Bond and Red Grant is one of the most iconic and well-constructed fight sequences, not only in the Bond franchise but of all time. Frenetically paced and surprisingly violent and well-choreographed for the era, it set the standard for action in the franchise and few films have lived up to it since.
CJ: I’ll be honest, I had never really given much thought to the city of Istanbul, where the majority of the film takes place. However, after seeing the architecture and the culture of this place I think I have a new city on my list of places I want to visit.
Allen: Set mostly in the city of Istanbul, the film makes full use of the unique architecture and history of the region to craft an exotic tale of a spy all but alone in a foreign land. It makes excellent use of the area and culture to add a wonderful layer of ambience to the film.
CJ: By far the most iconic scene is the fight on the train that I previously mentioned. However, I would think that it would be safe to say that a close runner up is any scene that Number One is in. As the head of SPECTRE we know that he will play an even bigger role later on down the road.
Allen: The above mentioned train fight is by far the most iconic shot to come out of this particular film. So iconic and enduring was it that the franchise has been homaging the sequence ever since, going back to the well again and again with train sequence after train sequence with mixed results.
CJ: Oh thank God it’s not as cringey as the last one. However, there were a few times where I couldn’t help but roll my eyes or shake my head. Come to think of it, most of them revolve around Romanova, especially when she is slapped by Bond about two thirds of the way through the movie. Also, the scene at the gypsy camp just felt useless, skeevy and uncomfortable. Though overall the cringe level is low compared to the previous film.
Allen: While not near as cringey as its predecessor, From Russia with Love definitely has its moments. From the manner in which Tatianna is treated, being ordered to seduce Bond, and being abused by just about everyone she comes in contact with (including Bond who slaps her quite forcefully at one point) to the exoticism angle that is heavily used during the gypsy sequences, it is very much a film of it’s era.
CJ: This is by far a superior movie to Dr. No in every respect. The action is better, the acting is better, the script is better. Everything has been improved across the board. It has set a bar for the future Bond movies, some of which have met that bar, some of which have not.
Allen: From Russia with Love is one of the gold standard entries into the Bond cannon. While still featuring many of the recurring issues of the franchise, it more than makes up for this with it’s narrative economy and brilliant use of tension. That combined with some of the better action of all 24 films makes it one of the best entries in the history of the franchise.
That’s all for this week! Come back next week as we meet “the man with the Midas touch” in Goldfinger. Also be on the lookout next week for a special James Bond edition of The Bus Stops Here, the official Lewton Bus podcast!