James Bond #2 : From Russia With Love
I realised about ten minutes into re-watching From Russia With Love that it must be one of the Bond movies which I have seen the least amount of times. Less glamourous than other Connery efforts and less action-packed than pretty much any outing that followed, it has an almost sombre and downbeat tone that actually makes it a very effective spy thriller. It feels much more akin to the spy game tactics of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” than the other Bonds of its time.
The plot is a noticeably more complex affair than that of its predecessor. The story revolves around the terrorist group SPECTRE, who hatch a plan with the dual purpose of exacting revenge on James Bond for his killing of their operative Dr No, as well enflaming Anglo-Russian tensions. The scheme involves a honey-trap of sorts that would see a beautiful Russian spy (unwittingly acting on behalf of SPECTRE), offering a Russian decoding device (“Lektor”, a Hitchock-esque maguffin) to the secret service which will be exchanged in Istanbul, Turkey. Once there, several diplomatic incidents would be pinned on Bond, before the super spy himself is then ultimately also assassinated.
The film’s two key settings are Istanbul and then the cramped confines of the Orient Express. Istanbul itself is not shot with the typical glitz and glamour we have come to expect from Bond locales. Bond spends a lot of time in the chambers of station head Ali Kerim Bey (played by Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz who was incredibly ill with terminal cancer at the time of shooting), as well as beneath the city itself in a maze of underground sewers. There’s also a slightly out of place jaunt to a nearby gypsy camp that features a slightly cringeworthy woman-on-woman fight clearly there purely for titillation.
Bond is at his macho peak in this movie, with his virility thrust front and centre to the point that he appears even more of a sleazeball than usual. He’s with one lady at the films outset, then appears to entertain both the gypsy fighting girls at once as some sort of reward, all before he shacks up with his main love interest for the film Tatiana Romanova ( Daniela Bianchi). The latter is then involved in one of the cheesiest lines in all Bond history where she complains to Bond that she thinks her mouth is too big, to which Bond replies with a smirk, “I think it’s a very lovely mouth. It’s just the right size, for me anyway!” Oh James. You’re better than that. This is a moment that Austin Powers would be proud of.
It’s Bond adversaries who really shine amidst this strong cast however. Lotte Lenya’s vicious Rosa Klebb is unforgettable as the former Russian colonel turned SPECTRE “number three”. She is ruthlessly committed to her mission and even packs hidden poison tipped blades in her shoes. It’s Robert Shaw’s Donald “Red” Grant who really steals the show however. The bleach blond behemoth is one of Bond’s most capable foes, a hulking brute with cunning to spare who engages Bond in the movies finest moment, a unflinchingly brutal fight in the confines of his train cabin. Even by modern standards the close-quarters fight scene is pretty hard hitting. It’s also a rare moment where to all intents and purposes, Bond is bested. Grant has him cornered and it’s only thanks to a momentary lapse in concentration that Bond manages to escape with his life. Grant does gives himself away in a slightly obscure manner however as while he is impersonating an English officer, he makes the fatal mistake of ordering red wine with fish. No true English gent would be so foolhardy.
Bond gets out of his sticky situation with Grant with the help of a handy weaponised briefcase, the first real example of that classic Bond staple, a handy gadget courtesy of Q branch. This film also marks the debut of Desmond Llewelyn as Q. From Russia With Love packs a few firsts for the Bond series, including the first pre-title sequence, the first theme song with lyrics, the first “James Bond will return in…” line during the credits and also the debut of the mysterious “Number 1” of SPECTRE, a character who would go on to be known as Blofeld.
The climactic show down involving a Hitchcockian attack with a helicopter coupled with a speedboat chase is enjoyable but isn’t amongst the series’ most innovative or memorable. In general this is less action packed then many Bond’s, far more willing to focus on spy work and slow building tension. It works superbly as a cold war thriller though, an underrated early Bond classic that packs in plenty of intrigue.
Best Scene: Easily the bruising fist-fight in Bond’s cramped train compartment between Grant and Bond. You can practically feel the punches landing.
James Bond: Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something.
Donald “Red” Grant: You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees. How does it feel old man?