Bond / Thriller

James Bond Retrospective: From Russia with Love

Though Dr No had been a huge success, the Bond franchise wasn’t yet fully formed. And whilst the second movie, From Russia with Love, didn’t quite set the future Bond template (that would come with the third film, Goldfinger) it did go some way to securing the franchise. From Russia with Love is a considerably more complex and more confident film than its predecessor, and is possibly the best film in the series – its at least tied for joint first place with two others. From Russia with Love is a brilliant and intelligent spy thriller and Bond doesn’t get much better than this.from russia with loveThe plot centres on evil organisation SPECTRE, lead by the mysterious, and here faceless, Blofeld, who are looking to get revenge on Bond and MI6 for their derailing of the Dr No scheme. SPECTRE, lead here by former SMERSH operative Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) hatch a plan to convince the British Secret Service that beautiful beautiful cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova (Daniele Bianchi) has fallen in love with Bond, and is looking to defect with the USSR’s vital Lektor decoding device. Klebb’s henchman Red Grant (Robert Shaw) is on hand to kill Bond and Romanova along the way, placing the Lektor into SPECTRE’s hands whilst shaming the British government internationally with a fake sex-murder-spy scandal.russia3If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Rewatching From Russia with Love after becoming familiar with the Bond tropes, what’s most surprising about it is the plot. This is a complicated spy thriller, made for adults, which never panders down to the audience and forces you to pay attention. SPECTRE’s scheme is fantastic, built on playing the British against the Russians with some clever, Cold War style propaganda built in too. Whilst the scandal element of the plot wouldn’t fly in today’s post-Nixon post-Clinton world, it has a lot of weight in context here, and for a Bond villain plot its brilliant. This is one of the few times where you feel like the villains could win and this keeps the movie suspenseful throughout. It’s refreshing to see a Bond movie which leans so heavily towards adults, and the team here construct a clever and tense spy thriller, with more in common with North by North West or other 50s Hitchcock classics than the franchise films which followed. This is the Bond that all the later reboots aspire to be; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights and Casino Royale owe a great deal to From Russia with Love.russia4At this point, the franchise trademarks aren’t quite set but they’re getting there. We’re treated to the first pre-credits sequence, a strange and surreal moment suggesting Bond’s death (an idea which crops up in numerous opening sections, right up to Skyfall) which sets the tone of mystery and intrigue which follows. Though there’s a fittingly Eastern song by Matt Munroe, we’re only given the full version at the end, left with a nice instrumental for the credits sequence, which for the first time contains the infamous dancing women. Binder hasn’t quite perfected his style yet but there are hints of what’s to come. Following the film’s notion of firsts, we get the first appearance of Q (Desmond Llewelyn), though he’s much dryer here with much less to do. Gadgets wise, this is an extremely restrained Bond, with Q’s briefcase only a slight help – this is a film where for the most part, Bond must rely entirely on his wits.russia5Terrence Young is a much more confident director this time around and the film as a whole is a much bigger beast than Dr No. There’s the first hints here of how big the franchise could become. The Turkish and European settings – with beautiful ancient scenery and mountains – provide a suitable backdrop for the action, and unlikeDr No, there’s a lot of action this time around. Young keeps things moving with only a slight lag in the centre – the gypsy fight is especially jarring these days – never letting focus fall from the plot whilst allowing the action to come naturally from within it. This is a Bond which builds however, working with a clear structure, the late-second to third acts are very action packed and there’s some iconic moments near the end. The Orient Express battle, which is utterly brutal and one of Bond’s best fight scenes, is wonderful – it comes after a very tense exchange between Bond and Grant and there’s a shocking switch in tone when the fight begins, illustrated by the broken light and window, which instantly changes the audio and visuals of the scene. The train exchange and subsequent fight is possibly the strongest scene in the entire Bond series. The follow-up moments involving helicopters and boats are strong and the pace towards the end never lets up – it’s a good indication of the root the series would later take, but here remember how the action is built upon the complex plot; it makes a difference, and makes this a more mature and interesting Bond movie. Critics have said that From Russia with Love is the Bond Hitchcock would have made, which says a lot about its quality.russia9Connery is confident in the role here, more assured than in Dr No, but still with an element of menace – there’s a real sense that Connery’s Bond could take care of himself when threatened, an idea lost with certain later incarnations – but we’ll get to Roger Moore later. As the Bond girl, Bianchi is utterly stunning – it’s entirely believable that Bond would fall for such a lure – and though she’s not given a huge amount to do besides fall for Bond, she works within the narrative and makes for a warm, sexy centre. But where From Russia with Love really shines is in its villains. Blofeld as the Big Bad makes for a threatening and ominous presence, but this isn’t his movie yet – with Lenya and Shaw really stealing the show here. Lenya is visibly striking with her small build and iconic with her knife-shoe, and she gives a wonderfully acidic and poisonous performance too. She feels smart, dangerous and nasty and makes for a great foil, one of the more accomplished villains in a series full of great monsters. Shaw’s Grant is probably the best henchman that Bond has had to face – he’s smart, brilliant and cunning, with a vicious streak on top of a solid, threatening body-build. There are no gimmicks to Grant – he’s just a counter assassin, and extremely good at his job, which makes him the perfect antagonist for Bond. Shaw fills the room and his performance on the train particular is brutal and chilling. Bond movies rarely go for actors of Robert Shaw’s calibre, tending to use character actors for the villains, but on the rare times that accomplished performers are used the difference is clearly noticeable. Basically, good actors make for good villains.russia8From Russia with Love is often thought of as the best in the franchise, and it probably is. It’s refreshingly more mature than those which followed, coming across as an adult focused Cold War spy thriller, and it’s great to see a Bond so dependent on its plot. This is a Bond movie for grown ups, and a very good film, one to be savoured and remembered. From Russia with Love however wasn’t the movie to truly cement the franchise – it wasn’t until the next movie, the fun and fantastic Goldfinger, that the rules were really laid out for the first time.

5/5

James Bond will Return in Goldfinger.

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8 thoughts on “James Bond Retrospective: From Russia with Love

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