James Bond Retrospective: From Russia With Love (1963)
Our 50th anniversary Bond retrospective continues with From Russia With Love, the 2nd in the series and one which introduced many of the hallmarks we have come to associate with the saga.
As James Bond prepares for his 23rd official outing in Skyfall and to mark next year’s 50th Anniversary of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time I have been tasked to take a retrospective look at the films that turned author Ian Fleming’s creation into one of the most recognised and iconic characters in film history.
Following the huge success of the first James Bond film Dr. No, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were keen to start production on a follow-up. With United Artists offering the pair $2 million, double the budget of Dr. No, to quickly get a sequel in the works Broccoli and Saltzman were left to decide which of Fleming’s novels to adapt next.
In an interview with Life magazine the then US President John F. Kennedy had mentioned the Bond novel From Russia With Love in a list of his top ten favourite books. Despite the fact that the book was the fifth in the series and Dr. No had been the sixth, it was decided with the increased budget that From Russia With Love would be the ideal choice for the next Bond film allowing more globetrotting and scope to expand the character.
Sean Connery returns to the main role brimming with self confidence and charm however he still seems to be finding his feet with the character. Some of his quips and one-liners fall a little flat, lines such as “I’d say one of their aircraft is missing” after shooting down an enemy helicopter or the equally bad “She had her kicks” following the defeat of blade-footed Rosa Klebb, just feel a little forced and lack the timing of later more memorable lines from future films, he also fails to say the immortal line “Bond, James Bond” at any point. That said, Connery establishes a style in the role that will remain through all interpretations that follow and with the film’s more complex plotting in comparison to Dr. No, Connery is given more opportunities to show all sides of Bond’s personality.
Pre-Credits & Theme Song
The film opens with the first pre-credits sequence of the Bond series, a rather shocking scene that sees Bond murdered in the first five minutes only for it to be revealed that it is actually a man in a mask and part of an elaborate training exercise for SPECTRE hit-man Red Grant, played by Robert Shaw. The scene may not be as action packed as some of the later Bond pre-credits sequences but it sets the tone perfectly establishing SPECTRE’s desire to have their revenge for the killing of Dr. No making Bond a prime target for assassination.
The opening titles are basic but really effective with the titles projected onto the bodies of belly-dancing women gyrating to the sounds of an instrumental version of composer Lionel Bart’s theme song. The full vocal version sung by crooner Matt Monro appears over the closing credits and begins the trend of having contemporary pop stars singing the Bond theme song while incorporating the film’s title into the lyrics. The title music is referenced throughout John Barry’s score for the film and also recalls themes from Dr. No including the James Bond Theme which seems a little overused and inappropriate in places. The Bond Theme has become so synonymous with action that it seems odd to hear it played as he checks into a hotel and unpacks his suitcase.
From Russia With Love is a true sequel to Dr. No in that the story follows directly with the main plot threads linking the two films. The majority of future Bond films would eschew this in favour of stand-alone adventures with occasional recurring characters and it was not until 2008’s Quantum Of Solace that Bond would appear in another proper sequel to his preceding mission.
Looking to avenge the death of their agent Dr. No, the leader of SPECTRE Ernst Stavro Blofeld puts into motion a plan to obtain The Lecktor, a Russian decoding device, while at the same time luring Dr. No’s killer, James Bond into a trap. Bond is assigned to Istanbul to meet with Russian cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova, herself a pawn in SPECTRE’s game, to assist her defection to the West and gather information about The Lecktor. In an operation led by Blofeld’s numbers 3 and 5, Rosa Klebb and Kronsteen, they enlist the services of former SMERSH assassin Red Grant to steal The Lecktor from Bond killing him in the process.
As with Dr. No, the film evokes a similar style and pace to an Alfred Hitchcock movie, with most obvious nods to North By Northwest. The climactic scenes with Connery running across the hills dodging a low flying helicopter even ape that film’s famous crop duster scene and with a large portion of the film set on board a train the comparisons are clear. The plot takes the form of a complex game of cat and mouse between Bond and SPECTRE focussing on Cold War spying tactics and espionage.
Terence Young returns to direct following his success with Dr. No bringing the majority of the crew with him in the process. The most obvious omission is set designer Ken Adam, who after director Stanley Kubrick had seen his work on Dr. No immediately hired him to design the sets for his current film Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. As a result the film does lack the grand sets that helped define the previous film but certainly not to the detriment of the story, in fact, From Russia With Love has a much more believable real world feel.
Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz plays Ali Kerim Bey, Bond’s liaison in Istanbul. Armendariz is the first in a long line of expendable characters that will assist Bond throughout the series. He adds a great deal of humour to the role and is the perfect foil to Bond while also playing a key role in moving the film forward. Sadly this proved to be Armendariz’s final film with the shooting schedule altered so he could finish his scenes as quickly as possible once it was discovered he was suffering from an inoperable cancer.
Joining the cast of regulars Bernard Lee as M and Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny is series favourite Desmond Llewelyn as Major Boothroyd, head of Q division, British Intelligence Gadgetry Department. The character made a brief appearance in Dr. No played by Peter Burton who was unavailable to return so director Young offered the role to Llewelyn, the former Second Lieutenant in the British Army, with whom he had previously worked on the 1950 film They Were Not Divided. Llewelyn would continue to play the role in a further 17 Bond films and proved to be one of the best loved characters in the series providing Bond with his most famous gadgets.
While the film shows the beginnings of many of the trademark components that have made the Bond films so popular over the years it also stands alone as being one of the least formulaic of the series. It follows completely different beats to later films that would all take the same basic structure. By having a number of different villains and a more multi-layered plot the film is more of a traditional spy thriller without the over the top excess that would prove to be a sticking point in the future.
The Bond Villain
From Russia With Love is very different from most Bond films in that it does not really have a central bad guy. Bond’s most famous adversary Blofeld puts in an early appearance, albeit only shown from the neck down and on this occasion played by Anthony Dawson who had previously appeared in Dr. No as Professor Dent. Dawson would go on to play the role one more time in Thunderball again without disclosing his identity.
James Bond: Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something.
Red Grant: You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees. How does it feel old man?
Aside from Blofeld’s brief introduction, From Russia With Love is populated mostly by henchmen. Robert Shaw’s Red Grant is the main standout and is surely one of Shaw’s greatest performances. From the opening scenes to the final confrontation with Bond aboard the Orient Express, Grant proves to be Bond’s equal, hard-as-nails but intelligent with it. He is a cold, calculating assassin who even saves Bond, without him realising, during the gypsy camp ambush just so he can have the pleasure of killing Bond himself.
Rosa Klebb is also one of the most memorable characters of the series, the vicious lesbian with a poisoned flick knife hidden in her shoe. Played by Lotte Lenya, who by all accounts was one of the sweetest people you were ever likely to meet, she proves to be as ruthless as Grant and can probably be considered the film’s main villain orchestrating the whole operation to kill Bond. When all attempts fail she takes it upon herself to have a go leading to a great fight scene taking place after the main climactic action sequence starting another great Bond tradition of post-climax, pre-closing credits action scenes where the villains have one last effort to stop Bond.
The Bond Girl
Eunice Gayson returns for the final time as Bond’s supposed girlfriend Sylvia Trench. It’s a real shame that her character was dropped after this film as there is some great chemistry between her and Connery and I really like the idea that Bond has a relatively normal life and relationship outside his day job, however given the number of women he beds when he is at work it would probably be a little odd to expect him to have a stay-at-home partner.
James Bond: You’re one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen.
Tatiana: Thank you, but I think my mouth is too big.
James Bond: No, it’s the right size…for me, that is.
For the role of the main Bond girl producers looked to the 1960 Miss Universe runner-up Danielle Bianchi fromItaly. Once again as with Dr. No’s Ursula Andress her voice was deemed to have too strong an accent for world audiences so her dialogue was overdubbed in post production by Barbara Jefford. Andress would prove to be a tough act to follow, despite the fact Bianchi is given a much larger role in the film, especially as it is her story that provides the main plot thread, sadly her character is not particularly strong or interesting and is often cast aside for Bond to handle the situations they find themselves in. As a result, through no fault of her own, she is possibly one of the least memorable Bond girls from the whole series.
With the introduction of Q, Bond is provided with the first of many gadgets that will become a signature aspect of all future Bond films. In this film he is presented with a fairly simple briefcase containing a sniper rifle, a hidden knife, an exploding talcum powder gas canister (if the case is opened incorrectly) and 50 gold sovereigns sewn into the lining. As with all Bond gadgets this briefcase just happens to be perfect for this particular mission and all features and functions are used to his advantage at some point in the film.
James Bond Will Return…..
From Russia With Love proved to be even more popular than Dr. No taking almost $80 million at the box office. The huge success meant Broccoli and Saltzman were assured they could continue to bring Fleming’s character to the screen for the foreseeable future. With a further 12 books to choose from, the producers knew they would need to make the right choice and create something special with the next instalment to keep audiences interested….