Review: From Russia With Love
The second official big-screen outing for MI6 agent James Bond (Sean Connery) sees him tackling agents of criminal organisation SPECTRE who are after a Russian decoding device. Their devious plan devised by chess champion and SPECTRE agent Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) is to use both Bond and an innocent pawn from the KGB named Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi, Miss Universe 1960) to retrieve the device, whereupon SPECTRE hired thug Red Grant (Robert Shaw) will wrangle it from Bond. Lotte Lenya is lethal SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb, an ex-KGB who specifically trained Tatiana and is used to keep her from suspecting a thing. Pedro Armindariz plays Kerim Bey, Bond’s ally in Turkey, whilst Walter Gotell plays not Gen. Gogol, but another, more serious Russian villain.
Many people’s favourite 007 adventure, and I can certainly see why. This 1963 Terence Young (“Dr. No”, “Thunderball”) film is a gritty, straightforward, no-frills Bond movie that will appeal to those who appreciate their Bond in such a manner. I like it too, though it’s my third favourite Connery Bond behind “Dr. No” (the first and best Bond film) and “You Only Live Twice”, which is basically the antithesis of this film. Overall it’s my 7th favourite Bond film in the entire franchise, sandwiched between the underrated “Octopussy” and the overrated “Goldfinger”.
We start with one of the best gun barrel themes to date, with a little hi-hat added with the necessary guitar. Even better, the opener is one of the best and most memorable pre-credits scenes to any Bond film to date. Yes, it’s a tad “Mission: Impossible”, but I think it’s probably top 2 Bond opener vintage alongside “You Only Live Twice” (and for similar reasons). Matt Munro’s Sinatra-lite title song plays over the titles, but in instrumental form only. Like “Dr. No”, it’s indicative of a film that doesn’t quite know what it’s yet to become in that respect. It was only with the subsequent “Goldfinger” that the typical Bond formula was fully in place. Anyway, you’ll have to wait a while to hear Munro, but as far as I’m concerned it’s better without Munro’s cut-rate crooning. The belly-dancing title design however is one of my absolute favourites, though Maurice Binder sat this film out apparently.
A direct sequel to “Dr. No”, the title character gets named dropped, and we also get a return appearance by Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), though Bond is forced to leave her behind to go on assignment. Still, it’s interesting to see a continuity rarely shown in any subsequent entry in the series up until the Craig 007 films. The script by series veteran Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood (“Dr. No”) is mostly terrific but the film’s one flaw is definitely a scripting one: The villains. Because SPECTRE itself is essentially the villain here, and because its head (the unseen Ernst Stavro Blofeld) doesn’t really play into things as an on-screen presence, there’s a real imbalance on the villain side of things despite three terrific performances by Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, and Vladek Sheybal that are among the film’s highlights. The actors certainly can’t be faulted, nor are their characters uninteresting. No the problem is that all three come across as the underlings that they are, and none of the three are in the film enough to have their on-screen prominence cover for it. Lenya’s Klebb in particular deserves much more screen time than she gets. You want Bond to be tackling Blofeld by the end of the film, and they just don’t give us that here. Still, Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya are particularly terrific when on screen. Shaw is scary as hell, the dude just looks mean and very capable of pounding your head in. The violent, constricted train fight between Red Grant and Bond is one of the series’ best scuffles for sure. However, it’s through Shaw’s performance alone that Red Grant proves to be far from the worst Bond villain if one still chooses to see the character as villain and not henchman. The film does deflate a bit after the section on the train with Grant, which is a shame.
As for our main Bond Girl, Daniela Bianchi is, like the film, better than I remembered from previous viewings. Definitely one of the more memorable Bond Girls of the Sean Connery films, she’s gorgeous. Some may find her a bit naïve, but she’s no mere decorative piece or bimbo. As for other girls, that’s two-time Bond Girl the bewitchingly beautiful Martine Beswicke as one of two wild gypsy girls having a catfight. I’m no fan of belly-dancing but it’s a good scene here followed by the aforementioned fight. Also a highlight is the late Pedro Armindariz, as Kerim Bey, Bond’s cheerful contact in Istanbul and one of the more enjoyable side characters in any Bond film. He almost steals the entire film. Speaking of Istanbul, the film shows off its lovely scenery throughout, in every sense of the term ‘scenery’. On a sour note, Bernard Lee gives his weakest performance as M. He looks bored. Despite one of the best gadgets in the tricked-up briefcase (said to be the series’ first real gadget), Desmond Llewellyn seems a bit bored here too, as Q/Major Boothroyd, which is weird given it’s his first appearance in the part (Hell, it’s only the second film so what’s up with Lee’s sour disposition too?). Bond’s exchange with Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny however, is one of the best.
As for our chief protagonist, Sean Connery (in his favourite Bond film apparently, as well as the favourite of actors Lois Maxwell, Timothy Dalton, and Daniel Craig) gives one of his best turns for sure. John Barry gets on-screen credit for the music score this time (Monty Norman was given the credit for “Dr. No”) and it’s an even better score than “Dr. No”. It will be a bit loud and piecemeal for some people’s tastes, but if it contains a lot of the identifiable theme with plenty of guitar, you know I’m not going to gripe much. I’d probably have to say that it’s my favourite Bond score of all time, followed by “Dr. No” and Barry’s work on “You Only Live Twice” a close third.
Although one could gripe that there isn’t a singularly top villainous force, this second Bond outing is still rock-solid entertainment with a trio of very fine henchman and an ever-efficient hero. The music’s great, the girls are too, there’s little to complain about this one. It’s just that if it gave us Blofeld as a prominent on-screen villain or beefed up one of the underling roles it’d be even better. Still very much worth seeing, and a lot of people consider it the series highpoint due to its harder edge and stripped-back nature.