In Soviet Russia, Bond loves you
From Russia With Love is the second installment of the James Bond film series with Sean Connery reprising his appearance as Agent 007 and Terence Young returning as director. The film is based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Ian Fleming and also stars Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, and Daniela Bianchi.
When Dr. No turned out to be a financial success, United Artists gave the thumbs up for a second James Bond film, doubling the budget to $2 million. President John F. Kennedy had named Fleming's novel, From Russia With Love, one of his ten favorite books in Life Magazine, and this was the inspiration that made producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli decide on From Russia With Love to be the follow-up to Dr. No. From Russia With Love was the last film that President Kennedy saw, seeing it on November 20, 1963 just before he headed to Dallas.
Several essential components of the Bond film series that were not present in Dr. No were introduced in From Russia With Love: a pre-title sequence, secret-weapon gadgets for Bond, a helicopter scene (which would be repeated in nearly every Bond film afterwards), an action scene after the climax, a theme song with lyrics, and the promise of "James Bond will return in ____" during the end credits. So that is to say that From Russia With Love has the honor of being the first Bond film to find success with the established 007 formula, a formula that has been largely triumphant over Bond's ever-growing film history.
Taking place some time after Dr. No (I've heard it's six months, but I can't be too sure), the organisation SPECTRE seeks revenge on James Bond and begins to train agents to kill Bond. The star trainee is Donald "Red" Grant (Robert Shaw). Meanwhile, SPECTRE's Chief Executive Number 1 (His face is never shown. Anthony Dawson is given credit for the body and Eric Pohlmann is given credit for the voice) seeks to obtain a Soviet coding machine, but decides that Bond should be allowed to obtain the machine first before he is killed. Number 1 assigns Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) to protect Bond until he retrieves the coding machine. Klebb then recruits the beautiful Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to assist in the scheme.
I would think that From Russia With Love, both the novel and the film, benefited in some capacity from their times of release: the late 50s and early 60s respectively, when the Cold War was still in its relatively early stage. There were plenty of Cold War thrillers to hit the screen during the 60s, but From Russia With Love was one that was making no prominent attempt at poking the bear and stirring up controversy between opposing sides. This is most evident in how the Soviet undercover agency SMERSH was replaced by SPECTRE in the script so as to avoid any and all controversial political overtones.
- The doubled budget certainly shows, because the actions scenes are delivered in earnest. Bond has a well-choreographed fight scene on a train with Grant, followed by two more thrilling sequences in which Bond evades an attacking helicopter and later escapes with Tatiana by boat from SPECTRE henchmen. All three of these major action sequences happen back to back to back, and I was shocked to find out that Sean Connery almost got killed during the helicopter scene because the helicopter pilot was inexperienced. Bond is still a spy first and then an action star second, but here we get our first taste of the kind of eye-popping thrills that the series would become famous for later on.
- Sean Connery rocks again as Bond. That's all that needs to be said about that.
- I could just not get quite on board with From Russia With Love, largely because the film is clumsy with its inner plot details. The villain and the end goals are fleshed out completely fine, but, boy, everything that happens in between is just confusing as all hell. Bond arrives in Istanbul where he meets up with Ali Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz), and the two undergo some investigative work on Soviet agents in the area, and this is where my frustration was near its peak level. Why does this part of the plot frustrate me so much? Because for what feels like the longest time, we seem to be wrapped up in a different story altogether - something resembling a hostile confrontation between British and Soviet intelligence - that is until Grant comes along on the Orient Express to remind us that SPECTRE is still the real villain and not some secret Soviet boss that might be masterminding the whole operation. It's a smart story as a whole, but being smart is only half the battle; communicating your smarts is also essential, and that's where From Russia With Love drops the ball a little bit.
- When it comes to balancing the pure spy and pure action parts, From Russia With Love is uneven. As I mentioned, the film's three major action sequences all happen one after the other, and the only other part of the film resembling action outside of those three scenes is an attack at a gypsy settlement earlier in the film. The train brawl, helicopter attack, and boat chase all occur in the film's third act, leaving with you almost strict spy work from Bond in the films' first two acts. I found myself lingering towards boredom during several segments of the film, especially because of how difficult it is to keep up with the story.
In the end, From Russia With Love is more of a mixed bag. The good parts, Connery and the action sequences, are really good, and the bad parts, well, they're not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, though they do leave more to be desired. All the right pieces are there for this to be one of the upper level Bond films. Unfortunately, those pieces don't fit in all the right ways, leaving us with more of a modestly satisfying Bond film as opposed to an exhilarating one.
Recommend? If you're an avid Bond fan, then yes. Otherwise, I wouldn't go out of your way to see it.
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