Welcome to the second installment in my James Bond retrospective. This here is one of my personal favorites. Before we get into it, let’s go over some of my rules:
- Mainstream, EON films only.
- I’m doing these in release order. I’ll reference future films, but I won’t judge them by future film standards.
- There will be spoilers.
Without further ado…
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)
Aaaaand we’ve hit the peak of the series. Pack it up, go home everybody. Nothing can top this. What’s that? We have 22 more movies to go? Dang.
What makes the film special is the brilliant mix of engaging storytelling that actively explores the themes of the film. Most spy films will only pay lip service to the themes behind their conflicts, but here it’s front and center. The Cold War isn’t just a backdrop here, it’s the intellectual meat of the film.
The terrorist organization known as SPECTRE is pissed that Bond killed one of their members (as seen in Dr. No). They have a plan to steal a Russian decoding device, and they have two saps to pin the whole thing on. They tell loyal Soviet code-breaker Tatiana Romanova of a confidential mission to seduce British Secret Service agent James Bond by pretending to defect and offer the decoding device as bait. Tatiana believes she is working deep undercover for the Soviets and knows nothing about SPECTRE.
Bond is informed of the mission and everyone at MI6 knows it’s a trap. The decoding device is too good to pass up, however, and Bond is sent out anyway to see if there’s any legitimate chance at retrieving it. The meeting is supposed to take place in Istanbul, where Tatiana is supposed to fall in love with Bond and escape by train into the West. Bond and his contact Kerim Bey travel around and deal with rising tensions from the Soviets until Bond and Tatiana eventually meet. Bond takes a liking to her in between questioning her about the device. Tensions reach an all-time high as bombings threaten the delicate relations and the couple are put on the train to escape.
SPECTRE agent Red Grant appears on the train to steal the device and kill the two agents, framing the two and leaving no evidence of SPECTRE’s handiwork. Bond escapes the gunpoint and kills Grant. They escape the train and shoot down a helicopter. Bond and Tatiana escape by boat and survive one more SPECTRE ambush in their hotel room before they happily enjoy their time off from work in each other’s embrace.
A Closer Look:
Like the previous film, the opening this time around also does not feature Bond. Instead it is meant to set up the physical antagonist of the film, Red Grant. Grant is played by Robert Shaw of Jaws fame! How many times do we get a henchman played by an actor as capable as this? What I also like about the opening sequence is its recurrence throughout the film. When Red Grant is stalking Bond, the wide location shots where Bond wanders around (such as in the gypsy camp or the mosque) echo that intro sequence and effectively get your heart pumping. The cat and mouse game where the mouse doesn’t fully know what’s going on sets a perfect tone. That’s how you set up an interesting antagonist and obstacle for the hero.
I love these opening credits. The song selection feels a little underwhelming because they don’t use the title song for the opening; they use it for the ending. The sequence itself is really simple, but beautiful. It’s a belly dancer dancing in front of the projected opening credits. The names and titles warp around her body, and disappear into the background when not on her skin. It’s beautifully elegant, yet has a raw sexuality. It maintains the artistic flair the first film’s credits had while doubling down on its indulgences, but also hints towards a unique part of the film in the Gypsy camp.
To get into the political conflicts that underlie the film, From Russia With Love shows that rising tensions between the two powers come not from their own motivations and escalations, but the individual actions of selfish men. Istanbul being the central location for most of the film represents this conflict. In Istanbul, Bey is a family man that often compromises to get the job done and has a unique working relationship with the Soviets. There, the Cold War is more than just a little cold. Everyone follows and listens in on everyone else and nobody fights back or actively tries to hide anything. The balance only becomes fragile when Bond enters the picture and SPECTRE bombs important landmarks in ways that look like acts of war. Suddenly, diplomacy gets way messier.
The spy dynamic also plays into this cold war. Bond and Tatiana both serve the interests of their parent countries and their roles are a constant back and forth of who’s playing whom. As far as the romance and role as the love interest goes, Tatiana is a different breed of Bond girl. Yeah, she’s submissive and their first meeting is immediately physical to the point of awkwardness, but her motivations as a Russian spy and her true personality create a feeling that not everything she says or thinks is meant to be taken at face value. We’re supposed to be put off by the two immediately locking lips. It’s important to recognize her words to Bond are just as hollow as Bond’s. Bond’s goal in every conversation is information on the device. Their first meeting in the bedroom is a performance for both parties. The room even had secret spectators to view their disingenuous consummation, drawing a parallel between the audience and the evil SPECTRE. We demand so much of our handsome and beautiful heroes and heroines.
When they get on the train, their interactions become way more genuine. They are told to play another role, but now they’re enjoying it, because they’re playing the roles together. Tatiana is even given some humanity when Bond isn’t present. My favorite moment with her is when she plays with her long golden hair, pretending it’s a mustache. She even has a character arc, a rare feat for a Bond film. By the end she chooses Bond over her orders. When she stares down Klebb, her will is tested and her bravery proven.
And for Bond himself? His character is a man dedicated to his job. Not once does he lose sight of his goal, and again his improvisational skills save him. This time, he convinces Red to look inside a rigged briefcase under the guise that Red is stealing money from him. It’s even smarter than that: Bond’s lie comes from a last request for a cigarette and the fact that the briefcases just happen to have money is what ultimately causes Grant’s downfall. Bond doesn’t grow as a character, and he almost never does in these films.
My analysis of the film already featured a lot of gushing, but I want to run through some of the odd remainders I couldn’t fit into it.
I like the continuity that carried over from the last film. People unfamiliar to the franchise don’t see continuity as something very important, but the little bits of it we do see in these movies are greatly appreciated.
It’s also important to note here that the stakes in this film don’t feel too abstract. Often you’ll see the villain’s plans be ridiculous and have too grand of a scale. No melting of polar ice caps here. In this film, the conflict feels more personal and more urgent. The best way Bond films can get me to care about the world dying is a countdown, but here you almost hold your breath when Bond does something dangerous.
It’s shallow, but I like how everybody looks in the film. The girls are some of the prettiest you’ll ever see in a Bond film, the spies have a great presence, and the villains have a unique brand of ugly that’s both dark and expressive.
What Doesn’t Work:
Turkey. I think the pacing of the film is perfect near the start and once they get on the train. The middle section where Bond is hanging around with Bey and they react to the bombings doesn’t really have the same impact the rest of the film has. It may paint the political drama, but for an almost two-hour run-time a lot of frames are dedicated to this. Don’t get me wrong, Bey as a character and Turkey as a location were done with way more care than Jamaica in the previous film. Bey is still portrayed by a Hispanic man rather than a Turkish man. Ugh. Thankfully, there are no really bad stereotypes beyond the gypsies and thick Russian accents, which, yeah, are bad. At least we see it coming in a Bond film. More green screen is also present during difficult scenes, and it doesn’t look very pretty. This is often done on the boats, and particularly during the interview about the decoder, it comes off as poorly done. Maybe it’s the high-definition talking, but I think they just threw those two on a boat set and thought that was exotic enough to be interesting. Nope.
The gypsy camp Bond visits in the film feels like an inappropriate distraction. That’s considering Turkey as a whole, too. I hate the fight between the two women; it feels like the kind of exploitation that no film should feature. The Bulgarian raid itself is pretty solid and the kind of action that could not have been seen in Dr. No and could only exist on an expanded budget.
The first time watching this it may be hard to understand SPECTRE’s plan at large. So wait, if one of the heads of SMERSH is a SPECTRE puppet why doesn’t she just secretly steal the decoder? Why involve all of this extra crap? It’s not super practical when you think about it, but it’s way more practical than dressing in a maid outfit and hoping to just run away with it at the end of the film. That’s embarrassing and honestly, after the train sequence, Bond and Tatiana just run through an action gauntlet. Klebb’s death is really just to tie a loose end. It feels rushed because it is rushed. The gauntlet is quick and painless, though.
The Bond franchise doesn’t stop after this. I guess they tried to be funny and decided their production team should have the Midas touch, because we’re going to watch Goldfinger. Goldfinger is going to take everything you saw in these past two films and distill them into their most recognizable forms. The intro, the theme song, the villain, the fortress. The gimmicks! Oh Lord, the gimmicks! If you were to only see one Bond film in your life, the best would probably be something tasteful like From Russia With Love, but the one that is most representative of the franchise would have to be Goldfinger. It’s also totally worthy of analysis, as Bond still hasn’t become cliché yet and the story does offer some unique perspectives I promise to explore. You know me, I just love talking about Pussy Galore. Don’t miss it.
What I Drank:
A Moscow Mule, of course! 1 1/2 ounces of Vodka, 1/2 ounces of lime juice, 1/2 cup of ginger beer inside a copper mug with ice and a lime garnish. I drank it once Bond met Tatiana for the first time. That’s when the film really gets going.