A charming sociopath, an ordinary Soviet girl, a murder on the Orient Express during a long journey, all wrapped in a tense thriller with the players all after the same MacGuffin. It’s not an Alfred Hitchcock movie - it’s 1963’s From Russia With Love!
(With three weeks until the U.S. premiere of Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, Jalopnik’s resident 007 scholar Justin Westbrook is counting down the 10 best entries in the series, with From Russia With Love at number 3.)
From Russia With Love’s plot really begins with 1962’s Dr. No, the very first Bond film in the franchise. In Dr. No, the lucrative and evil S.P.E.C.T.R.E. organization is introduced though its member and main villain in the film of the same name, Dr. No. Bond defeats him in that outing, though the mysterious evil organization looms large in the background of Bond’s world.
From Russia With Love expands upon that storyline by having this organization come after 007 in full force in an attempt to discredit the West by framing Bond, and simultaneously exploit profit from the Soviet Union.
The film established many traditions that have carried on in the films that followed. There are Bond franchise hallmarks like an elaborate tile sequence with a unique song to the film by John Barry and Matt Monro (Monro’s lyrics play over the end credits for this one), secret gadgets equipped by a quartermaster, and of course the introduction of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. big bad Ernst Stavro Blofeld, commonly referred to as “Number One.”
There has also been a significant sequence involving a helicopter in every subsequent film following this, except for one: The Man With The Golden Gun.
From Russia With Love is also suspiciously similar to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, with many of the famed director’s themes littered throughout the film. A few of the more obvious “borrowed” plot devices of Hitchcock’s are a MacGuffin in the Lektor decoder Bond is assigned to steal, someone innocent getting caught up in the caper, a sly and psychotic villain in Red Grant, a double-agent in Rosa Klebb, a lengthy scene on a train, a blonde lead actress, a man running from an aerial attack... the list goes on.
But 1963 was right at the peak of tensions during the Cold War following the Cuban Missile Crisis, and so naturally the Bond franchise put into production one of Ian Fleming’s most iconic Cold War stories. It also helped that then-President John F. Kennedy counted Ian Fleming’s 1957 From Russia, With Love as one of his favorite novels, generating massive awareness for the franchise in America.
From Russia With Love opens with, surprise! Bond’s apparent death at the hands of the intimidating assassin Red Grant in the hedge mazes of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. headquarters. It turns out Bond isn’t dead—it was just a man in a mask! I guess S.P.E.C.T.R.E. really goes out of their way with planning and execution. The franchise would go on to fake Bond’s death in Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and Skyfall.
What follows is the iconic brass of a John Barry film score with an instrumental of Matt Monro’s From Russia With Love playing over the dancing women. This title sequence is one of the simplest in the franchise, with colored names projected onto a woman Gypsy dancing, but I find it to be one of the most enjoyable and effective.
We continue on without a real introduction to our favorite British spy after the title sequence, instead meeting the villain/henchman Kronsteen at a public chess match. He is requested, at once, by a mysterious message at the bottom of his water glass.
This meeting between Kronsteen, Blofeld, and another of the film’s villains, Rosa Klebb—a Soviet defector to the organization unbeknownst to everyone else—is our first real introduction to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. proper, and what is built here is a magnificent ensemble of villainy.
Sam Mendes, director of Skyfall and next month’s SPECTRE, recently said that the audience shouldn’t know anything that Bond doesn’t. The opening of this film proves him dead wrong. The atmosphere built up in seeing Bond dead on screen and all four main villains introduced in the first five minutes is extremely effective.
We also get the gist of the film’s plot early on, with Kronsteen detailing his ingenious plan to pull the West’s most prolific agent, James Bond, into a trap to steal the Soviet Lektor decoder machine. The plan involves recruiting a young, beautiful analyst named Tatiana Romanova at the Soviet consulate in Turkey to “fall in love” with James Bond’s file photo and reach out to Britain, offering him and only him the decoder, and herself, upon his arrival to save her.
The tone is set for a unique film in the franchise where the audience is more in the know than Bond for the majority of the screen time. It’s one of the main aspects that make From Russia With Love stand out.
Bond arrives and meets with one of the franchise’s greatest allies to Bond, Kerim Bey, who is head of “Station T” in Turkey and has an entire organization of his many sons at his disposal, using the old adage “Blood is thicker than water.” Kerim helps Bond sniff out Tatiana’s play and aid Bond in his game of espionage with Soviets.
Red Grant also arrives in Istanbul but not to kill Bond. Not yet. S.P.E.C.T.R.E. plans to let Tatiana and Bond think they are working for their respective governments until they retrieve the Lektor, at which point Grant will step in and retrieve for the organization to sell to the highest bidder.
Grant’s meddling causes the Bulgars and Soviets to escalate the polite feud the opposing sides had been enjoying, leading to a shoot-out at a gypsy camp between Soviet-commissioned hitman Kurilenko and the Bulgars. Kerim decides to finish long-time enemy Kurilenko by shooting him out of his escape hatch—the mouth of an actress painted on the side of his building advertising the film Call Me Bwana, which just so happens to be the only film financed by Eon Production outside of the Bond franchise.
With the help of details from Tatiana and building blueprints from Kerim, Bond infiltrates the Russian consulate (where I recently noticed for the first time a portrait of Yuri Gagarin hangs on the wall) to steal the Lektor decoder, escaping in one of Kerim’s many underground passageways beneath the city, Lektor and Tatiana in stow.
The two lovebirds and Kerim board the Orient Express to return to Europe, but not before they are spotted by a guard from the Soviet consulate, who boards with them. Bond and Kerim capture the man, and Bond leaves to look after Tatiana. When he returns, Kerim and the Soviet guard have seemingly killed each other, but were in fact murdered at the hands of Red Grant.
Bond attempts to meet up with a British intercept named Captain Nash at one of the train stops, but not before Grant gets to him first. Posing as Nash, Grant coerces his way into Bond’s good graces over dinner. However Bond grows suspicious when Grant orders red wine with the fish they’re having - only because a true British gentleman would never order red wine with fish. Of course!
With that revelation, Grant drugs Tatiana and attacks Bond in their carriage, holding him at gunpoint for the inevitable “spill the whole plot” scene made famous by the Bond franchise—with Grant even telling Bond about his escape plan. Bond uses his booby-trapped attache case to distract Grant in a cloud of tear gas before the two share a brutal fight, with Bond choking Grant out with his own garrote-fitted watch.
Bond and Tatiana take advantage of Grant’s getaway plan, attacking his getaway driver and making their own escape. The group comes under fire by a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. helicopter once it’s realized Grant isn’t driving the truck.
The helicopter attack is extremely similar to the famous scene in North By Northwest, where Cary Grant’s character runs from a crop duster that swoops down at him. The helicopters make the same motions at Bond, with even the framing being near identical to the work of Hitchcock. Dodging the raining grenades, Bond manages to shoot the pilots of the helicopter causing it to crash and continue with the girl by boat on their way to Venice.
The pair are attacked yet again, but Bond dumps the spare fuel drums off the boat and ignites them with a flare gun, blowing up S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’s men, and they finally make their way to Venice.
Just when the film seems to be wrapping up, Klebb shows up yet again disguised as a hotel maid. When Bond stops her from walking out with the Lektor, she pulls her gun. Tatiana knocks it from her hand, but Klebb kicks out a poison-tipped blade in her shoe, shuffling with Bond in the room until Tatiana shoots her.
If you feel like this summary goes on just a bit too long.. don’t blame me! Finally Bond and Tatiana are truly safe, for real this time. The end. From Russia, with love. Phew.
From Russia With Love was James Bond’s first foray into gadgeted espionage with the introduction of Desmond Llewelyn as Major Boothroyd—he’s not called Q here. Llewelyn wouldn’t be titled Q. until the third Bond film, Goldfinger, where he got to play with things like the Aston Martin DB5.
For now Bond just gets a tricked out attache case, which is just a briefcase, only Q-Branch has fitted it with hidden gold sovereign coins, ammunition for a collapsible sniper rifle, and a compressed tear gas defense mechanism.
The sniper rifle could be disassembled with all the pieces kept in the butt of the gun. It comes in handy when helicopters attempt to nosedive into the back of you while lobbing grenades.
Perhaps the most stand-out and enjoyable aspect of From Russia With Love is the ensemble of villains. Blofeld’s ostensibly the main bad guy, but has the least amount of screen time. Kronsteen’s creepy ambivalent intelligence is chilling, with actor fitting a lot of character in a relatively small role.
Klebb also manages to shine with what little she’s given with safe-for-the-early-1960s-but edgy-enough hints at the character’s lesbian sexual orientation in Fleming’s novel. Her advances towards Tatiana are depicted as menacing, and with her shoe-knife, she’s easily one of the most memorable villains in the franchise.
The biggest trouble to Bond is Red Grant, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’s top sociopathic homicidal assassin, who enjoys seeing the great James Bond kneel before him.
The train carriage fight is brutal and brisk, something uncommon for the time. The editing of the scene is sharp with quick cuts and many different angles that give you a clear idea of the geography of the fight, but maintaining an intensity that hadn’t really been shown in a cinema before.
As a fight it really stands out as before it’s time, and it rivals the slower memorable fights like Bond has with Oddjob in Goldfinger for best-ever.
MI6’s man in Istanbul, Kerim Bey, is easily my favorite Bond ally. He far outshines any attempts at the Felix Leiter character, Bond’s equivalent at the CIA, that is commonly featured as Bond’s main ally.
Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova is extremely charming, as Kerim Bey puts it, and carries a youthful innocence amongst the tough, cold characters of the film, perfectly filling the role of a young Soviet woman thrust onto the world’s stage and into a dangerous game of espionage.
One last thing that I love about this film is the return of Trench.. Sylvia Trench from the opening Casino scene in Dr. No. She’s with Bond and his Bentley by the river at the beginning of the film, and it’s a lovely little piece of continuity that’s relatively rare in the franchise.
As great as From Russia With Love is, there are a few reasons for why it isn’t number one on the list.
As big of a threat as he is, Red Grant frequently acts alarmingly unlike a highly-trained assassin. He leaves Bond alive long enough to get monologuing, which we all know leads to the hero getting out of the trap. As Captain Nash, Grant apparently never attempts to open the attache case the real Nash was carrying before he meets Bond, as it would have exploded in his face as it did in the train carriage.
I also don’t understand how Bond would have gotten himself in that situation in the first place, as he notices Grant drugged Tatiana’s drink without saying a word until they return to the tight confines of their carriage. Couple that with the red wine and fish for dinner, and Bond’s alarms should have been deafening.
And why on Earth the filmmakers chose to put Matt Monro’s wonderful From Russia With Love song at the end of the film I’ll never know, putting the instrumental over the title sequence instead. It’s a lovely song, and one of my favorites of all 22 (23, counting Sam Smith’s The Writing’s On The Wall for SPECTRE).
And finally, the final line of the film doesn’t make any sense. Bond and Tatiana are in a gondola in Venice, and Bond remembers the film reel taken off of Grant’s body from when the couple first, uh, meet in Bond’s hotel bedroom. He remarks “He was right” and tosses the film into the water.
Who was right? Grant? Grant didn’t make any sort of statement in the train carriage about the reel that would give that line any context. It’s likely just something that was messed up by an edit, but it’s always a distracting note to end the film on for me. But hey! James Bond will return in Goldfinger, which was almost as good as From Russia With Love.
A strong cast of characters, the true menace of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. on display, an atmosphere of Cold War espionage in the beautiful city of Istanbul, and a plot that keeps Bond guessing until the very end is what makes From Russia With Love a easy number three on our list of ten best Bond films.
And we’re down to the final two! Can you guess what they are?
Stay tuned for next week, and until then, check out the rest of the list.