This is the one. This is where that certain magic something really occurred. It was in Dr. No too, but it was like unlit gunpowder. In From Russia with love, EON productions second Bond film, the fire was lit.
Before I tell you what I think of Russia, I have to grudgingly recognise that not everyone will agree with what should (to my mind) be obvious. I remember being mildly shocked when somebody once revealed From Russia with Love to be one of their least favourite Bonds. “Slow”, “boring” and “shite” were three of the imaginative adjectives used. They also called it “low budget”, which isn’t really true, and suggests that to some people a Bond film can’t be any good unless it’s got a space rocket or an fancy car in it.
On the contrary, I (like many others) consider Russia to be one of the series’ best entries. It certainly has one of my favourite Bond music scores, which was John Barry’s first for the series.
It’s Sean Connery’s favourite Bond film as well, didn’t you know?Personally, I like to think of From Russia with love as the Bond connoisseur’s Bond.
Russia has the first use of a pre-title sequence teaser. It’s by far the shortest, with Bond being hunted around the grounds of some large house. Bond is then apparently killed, only to be revealed as a guy in a rubber mask doing a training exercise. Assassin Red Grant (a deliciously ruthless Robert Shaw) is the killer. It’s all a bit corny, I’ll give you that, but its execution (no pun intended) was so damn stylish that you know the rest of the film is going to be good. Either that or you’re going to be really disappointed.
But disappointed I was not! The film is just class all the way and turns out to be a good film by anybody’s standards. Russia has often been compared to a Hitchcock thriller. I get the comparison, but I’ve always seen Russia having more in common with that particular type of fiction called “boys’ own adventures” (or “girls’ own” for that matter). Although the sex and violence give it a new twist. The attack on the gypsy camp and Bond being chased across Europe on the Orient Express seem archaic plot devices in comparison to what was to come in Goldfinger, but they work so well here. There’s a real sense of espionage and intrigue in this one too, perhaps more than any other film in the series. I think Ian Fleming would have been proud.
Terence Young directs, as had been the case with Dr. No and everything seems to gel together. Young was instrumental in refining the earthy Connery into the suave character of Bond. In many ways, Terence Young was James Bond, except he was the man behind the camera rather than in front of it. Something did pay off there though- Connery is arguably at his best. Charming but very dangerous. His fight with Grant in the train carriage is brilliantly done, with some real nasty dialogue between the two men. Even over 40 years later that fight scene remains one of the most intense and nasty outbursts to hit the screen.
It’s also worth mentioning how radical the story was.
The idea of the Brits and the Russians facing a common enemy was very novel for 1963. The enemy, in the form of terrorist organisation SPECTRE, would be a re-occurring theme throughout the 1960s Bonds. There is also the first appearance (or non-appearance) from the organisation’s charismatic leader- Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The real villain spotlight, however, is shining on Rosa Klebb for this episode (the very talented stage actress Lotte Lenya). A very nasty piece of work, she was a killer lesbian with dagger shoes. Her exit is brief but memorable and gives Connery one of his best quips.
Elsewhere Pedro Amederez is wonderfully engaging as Bond’s amiable Turkish contact and gang boss Kerim Bey and Eunice Gayson reprises her role as Sylvia Trench (the first woman to share a scene with Bond in Dr. No). There’s no sign of Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter this time though.
It’s also interesting to see how well the regulars do in this one. The perfectly cast Bernard Lee as Brit intelligence boss “M” and Lois Maxwell as secretary Miss Moneypenny have some really nice scenes in this one. I love the bit where Bond’s tape is being played back and Bond almost reveals a minor discretion on M’s part, much to Moneypenny’s amusement. Quite cheeky.
Russia was definately my favourite Bond when I was growing up. It had a forbidden kind of glamour about it. And Bond films were the only adult films I was allowed to watch at such an early age. It’s no wonder that Bond films shaped my ideas about style and sex, perhaps subliminally. Even though the early Bond films don’t show you much, the point is made. Passion and sex are there almost from the start. I mentioned John Barry’s music earlier, and his lush compositions were part of that intoxicating mix of dangerous passions. He defined the Bond films as much as anybody, and his sounds are the gorgeous punctuation to Bond’s on screen actions.
So, to my nine-year-old eyes, it was fascinating and had lasting impact. There where these people in exciting situations, exciting each others senses in ways I would never see elsewhere at that age. The sparks are certainly there between Connery and Daniela Bianchi who plays Tatiana Ramanova. A far more interesting character than Honey Ryder was, and the romance with Bond seemed quite natural. It’s quite a sexy film when all is said and done. Also, on a more basic level, it was stylish escapism. I also noticed how it had some strong females in there too. It might be a bit naive now to suggest that the gypsy girl fight was anything other than titillation, but it was refreshing to see the ladies having a go for a change.
So, a great Bond film then. With no outlandish plot, no futuristic set designs and clocking in at less than 2 hours (as Dr. No had). Yet it works brilliantly despite a few slow parts in an otherwise well paced narrative. A Bond film you can believe in, a real involving tale of cold war espionage. It drives home how little the later films made of Bond’s secret agent role. In Russia he is a true spy, with passwords and secret liaisons the order of the day. EON wouldn’t really make a Bond film like this again, although they came close on odd occasions. After Russia, the series embraced the futuristic optimism of the ‘60s and gave us spectacle.
Another big hit at the time, Russia ensured the series’ continuation. The time was ready for a Bond film that would be more than just a good adventure film. It would be a spectacular.
Goldfinger was to be the third James Bond film.