James Bond 007: From Russia with Love (1963)

The second film in the 007 series, From Russia with Love fits nicely alongside its predecessor, Dr. No. There are many correspondences between the two films, from large structural patterns, such as the time each film takes to introduce James Bond, to the repetition of small events, such as Bond bedding Sylvia Trench back in England before embarking on his mission abroad. (Many of these patterns, such as Bond’s flirting with Miss Moneypenny, eventually became the templates that James Bond films are now largely constructed from.) The pair are lean yet muscular films, and they are both more concerned with actual spying than other Bond movies. More confident than the first film though, and more serious than the rest of Sean Connery’s entries, From Russia with Love is, in my opinion, the best of the Connery Bond films and one of the finest overall.

The early scenes in From Russia with Love relate SPECTRE’s plans to take revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No, who had functioned as No. 2 in the organization. The film came out a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, and in the film SPECTRE intends to pit each side in the Cold War against the other. With the pretense of a defecting Soviet cipher clerk (Daniela Bianchi) fallen hopelessly in love with Bond’s photograph, and with the possible prize of winning a Lektor cryptographic device, Bond is lured to Istanbul, Turkey, where he must meet the girl and bring her over. From Russia with Love also introduces (though we only see his arms and hands as he strokes a cat) No. 1, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who serves as Bond’s main nemesis in the Connery films, albeit usually behind the scenes.

In spite of its connections with Dr. No and the rest of the Connery series, From Russia with Love also stands alone as the most streamlined and suspense-oriented Bond film. Once the trap is set against him, Bond goes to Istanbul and meets with Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz), the head of Station T (for Turkey), and together they eliminate the only apparent roadblock—a Bulgarian agent—in a quiet, suspenseful scene with a sniper rifle. Once Bond connects with Tatiana Romanova, the defecting clerk, and checks her out (of course, in more ways than one), they steal the Lektor and board the Orient Express back to the West. Roughly an hour into the film, things have gone mostly according to plan—or so the British think, since things are actually going according to SPECTRE’s plan.

From Russia with Love is a film about dualities and duplicity though. East versus West is actually being manipulated by the Bad against the Good. It’s important to point out that Tatiana is actually a good character, though a Soviet. And little does Bond know, but he’s actually been followed closely throughout the film by Red Grant, SPECTRE’s top counteragent. Introduced in the first pre-credits sequence with the faux Bond, Grant (played by an impressive, if mostly, silent Robert Shaw) is Bond’s SPECTRE counterpart, but also his dramatic foil.

This becomes more apparent as the film enters a superb half-hour sequence aboard the Orient Express. These are, in my mind, the best scenes in the film, and among the very best in the Bond canon. Director Terence Young brilliantly utilizes the confined setting aboard the luxurious train and a steam-filled station to create a wonderfully tense and ominous atmosphere, as Grant insinuates himself amongst Bond and Tatiana. The entire train sequence is very Hitchcockian, as the audience knows that Grant is bad, but this information is withheld from the main characters in order to generate suspense. Thus, as the Bond movies were forging new ground for action filmmaking, they are were also borrowing from the styles of the time. The sequence culminates in a two-minute, tour-de-force fight scene between Bond and Grant. Taking place in extremely close quarters—a pair of attached sleeping cars aboard the train—the fight is an explosive assemblage of fast cuts and angle changes. In terms of film form, the scene is years ahead of its time, and it holds up as one of the most gritty, intense, riveting onscreen brawls in movie history. Connery and Shaw performed most of the fight themselves, and apparently it took three weeks to film.

There’s also an interesting class dynamic between Bond and Grant in the film. When Bond, cornered by Grant, asks for a last cigarette, Grant mocks, “Your word of honour, as an English gentleman?” Grant chews over those last two loaded words. The former signals Bond’s national allegiance, which stands in contrast to the international, nationless evil of SPECTRE, while the latter marks Bond here as upper-class (probably of the gentry, if we recall his family estate of Skyfall). Grant’s style of talk marks him as working class, and, earlier at dinner, Grant’s ordering red wine with his fish alerts Bond that’s there’s something suspicious about his new partner. Robert Shaw’s performance is primarily physical (he only has a few lines), but the way he spits his threat at Bond—saying that he won’t let him die quickly, “Not until you crawl over here and kiss my foot!”—suggests that Bond’s “For King and country” mentality repels Grant. There’s a palpable hostility between the characters, and plenty of social subtext in their interactions. Of course, Grant doesn’t beat Bond in the end (that shouldn’t be a spoiler). Grant, who had appeared to be Bond’s nemesis, the inescapable agent of his downfall, has in turn become merely a defeated counteragent. But as the SPECTRE meeting late in the film indicates, Bond’s true nemesis remains at large.

Class tensions and international politics aren’t the film’s only serious interests. From Russia with Love also presents Bond’s misogyny perhaps more visibly than any other film in the series. (Here, I’m talking about the character’s attitude towards women, not the film’s, although I admit they’re not entirely separate—the film is the first to introduce the dancing girls title sequence, after all.) When Bond thinks Tatiana had a hand in Kerim Bey’s death, Connery’s cruel, tiger-like expression as he slaps the girl suggests there’s perhaps more than revenge in his eyes. We might gather the same from a joke earlier in the film. After Kerim Bey shoots a Bulgarian agent as he attempts to flee through an escape hatch, which happens to be positioned in the mouth of a large, building-side poster of Anita Ekberg, Connery quips, “She should have kept her mouth shut.” If Roger Moore’s Bond is typically charming and courteous, cultivating a sense that he’s a womanizer because he loves women so much, then From Russia with Love suggests there are issues of power involved in Connery’s Bond’s desire to bed most of the women he comes across.

All this isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have its silly moments and weaker parts. The gypsy cat fight is ludicrous as well as lurid, and perhaps egregiously gratuitous. No. 1’s lethal treatment of his henchmen that fail has been so parodied that it’s hard to actually fear. And the final helicopter attack and boat fight have not aged as well as other action scenes from the early years. Dr. No might be more solid overall, but it never reaches the formal heights and psychological depths of From Russia with Love.

I want to end by highlighting one last moment from the film. Midway through the movie and just as Bond begins yet another sexual conquest, the camera pans up from Bond and Tatiana kissing to the mirror above the bed. The shot then reverses, and we see the other side of what is actually a two-way mirror. In the darkened room just behind the glass, a cameraman records the lovemaking, and SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) watches intently. As the shot reverses, the romantic music fades to the lone sound of a film camera rolling. Bond is no conqueror; in fact, he’s being played. Not only is this moment one of the great, darkly humorous touches that subvert expectations and expose serious interests throughout the film, but it’s also a brilliant act of self-reflexivity. The moment lays bare the film’s lurid presentations as well as the viewer’s voyeuristic pleasure in those events being presented.

It’s little moments like this that make From Russia with Love one of the most complex and fascinating of all Bond films. Though still larger than life, in comparison to other James Bond movies, From Russia with Love appears sharp and bare, structurally and psychologically. Of course, I also think it’s a lot of fun.

10 out of 10

From Russia with Love (UK, 1963)

Directed by Terence Young; screenplay by Richard Maibaum, adapted by Johanna Harwood from Ian Fleming’s novel; starring Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Robert Shaw, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Eunice Gayson, Lois Maxwell, and Bernard Lee.