Starring: Sean Connery, Robert Shaw, Daniella Bianchi, Lotte Lenya, Vladek Sheybal, Pedro Amendariz, Walter Gottell
Music: John Barry
End title song performed by Matt Monroe
Based on the novel by Ian Fleming
You may have noticed that I haven’t posted reviews for some of my favourite James Bond films. This is not because I don’t want to do them, but I want to do them justice. I want every word to be perfect (but as you know, this will be the usual scattershot scribble – but give me points for trying!) In conversation I could talk about From Russia With Love for half a day and still not be out of breath – admittedly, all I’d be saying is ‘Daniella Bianchi is gorgeous’ over and over. When it comes to the written word I could write ‘Daniella Bianchi is gorgeous’ over and over, and in my mind, that would still make it a good review – although slightly repetitive. But I want to give you more, especially as this is one of the best spy films of all time. It is a tight cold war thriller which has a good plot, some great fight scenes, particularly in a gypsy camp and on board the Orient Express, and intriguing characters. The story concerns Bonds attempt to retrieve a Russian decoding machine from Istanbul. But along the way Bond encounters Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya, who are a pair of particularly nasty villains working for S.P.E.C.T.R.E. – Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.
The previous Bond film, Dr. No did not have a pre-title sequence. The series’ first pre-title sequence happens in From Russia With Love, and it is now an integral part of the Bond formula. But the legacy starts here, and this film has a magnificent cow-catcher. The film opens in a hedge maze at night, on S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Island. In the maze are James Bond (Sean Connery) and Red grant (Robert Shaw). It slowly becomes apparent that a cat and mouse game is going on between the two men. It seems that they want to kill each other. As the ‘game’ continues, Grant gets the drop on Bond. As Bond moves from his cover, Grant grabs him from behind and then produces a garrotte wire from his wristwatch. He then proceeds to choke Bond to death. Bond dies and collapses dead on the grass. Suddenly giant flood lights flick to life. The whole exercise was a training exercise for psychotic S.P.E.C.T.R.E. killer, Grant.
What about Bond though? Grant’s trainer, Morenzy (Walter Gotell) walks over to Bond’s corpse and reaches down. He removes a mask revealing the face of an unfortunate S.P.E.C.T.R.E. thug. The real Bond is still alive. This man was just a training tool.
Next comes the title sequence. Most Bond fans are aware that Maurice Binder was responsible for the famous gunsight logo at the beginning of each Bond film. They are equally aware he provided many of the title sequences throughout the series. However he did not do the titles for From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. These were created by sixties Graphic Design guru Robert Brownjohn. From the book ‘Robert Browjohn: Sex And Typography’ by Emily King…
“Brownjohn often told the tale of how he sold the idea for From Russia with Love: gathering producers and executives into a darkened room, he turned on a slide projector, lifted his shirt and danced in front of the beam of light, allowing projected images to glance off his already alcohol extended belly.”
After the titles, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. introduces it’s fantastic scheme which is the product of an evil mastermind named Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal). We meet Kronsteen at the Venice International Grandmasters Championship, which is a chess tournament. It is the match final, and he is facing off against the Canadian champion McAdams. Against the wall is positioned a giant chess board so a gallery of spectators can follow the game as it progresses.
As the game is played out, a glass of water is brought out to Kronsteen. He raises the glass and napkin to his lips only to see a secret message visible at the bottom of the glass – written on the napkin. It says: ‘You are required at once’, and underneath is the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. logo – which appears (in this instance) to be a four legged octopus. Kronsteen is forced to finish the game quickly, which he does – showcasing his superior intellect.
Next we join Kronsteen on a boat where he outlines his scheme to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and Rosa Klebb. His scheme is quite complicated. At the heart of it all is a Lektor decoding machine, which the Russians use to send and decode secret messages. Practically every intelligence agency in the world wants to get their hands on one. The Americans want one – so do the British. And S.P.E.C.T.R.E. want one to sell to the highest bidder. But S.P.E.C.T.R.E. don’t want to do their own dirty work. Kronsteen’s plan involves the theft of the Lektor by M.I.6. To achieve this end, Rosa Klebb, who was a high level Russian Security official, but now works for S.P.E.C.T.R.E., orders a young girl, Tatiana Romanova (Daniella Bianchi), who works at the Russian Embassy in Istanbul to seduce British agent, James Bond. Romanova still believes that Klebb works for Russian Intelligence and agrees to the mission (she has little choice).
A photo of Romanova is sent to M.I.6 headquarters, along with a letter saying that she wishes to defect to the West. It also indicates she has access to a Lektor and is willing to bring one across with her. M.I.6 jump at the chance to obtain a Lektor. But the defection has one condition – the agent sent to bring her in must be James Bond. She has seen a file photo of him and has fallen in love. ‘M’, the head of M.I.6 doesn’t buy into the lovey-dovey stuff for a second and realises it is a trap – but he decides to send 007 to Turkey anyway. S.P.E.C.T.R.E., of course expect Bond to acquire the Lektor, and then they step in, kill Bond, and take the decoder.
On paper, and scrawled in longhand, the plot for From Russia With Love seems terribly contrived and complicated, but as the movie unfolds the story plays out beautifully. Every piece of the puzzle fits expertly into it’s slot.
Another plot point worth mentioning is that the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. don’t just want to steal a Lektor. They also want revenge for the death of their operative Dr. No. That is to say, they want to kill James Bond – you may have gathered that from the pre-title sequence. The S.P.E.C.T.R.E. operative chosen to eliminate Bond is Red Grant, who, once again was featured in the pre-title sequence. Grant is a nutter who enjoys killing. His confrontation with Bond on board the Orient Express is one of the best fight scenes in the series.
From Russia With Love being an earlier Bond film, isn’t as gadget reliant as some of the other films in the series. But none-the-less it still features one or two little devices. I don’t know if you’d call a briefcase a gadget, but the case presented to 007 by ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewellyn) has quite a few handy features including a flat throwing knife, a gas canister that explodes when the case is opened, and a supply of gold sovereigns with which an agent could buy his way out of trouble.
It seems strange to say this, after all it is a Bond film, which these days is synonymous with big action scenes and adventure, but From Russia With Love is almost a character piece. The film has a varied and interesting ensemble of characters. Lotte Lenya, who plays Rosa Klebb, the ex-SMERSH director of operations, who now works for S.P.E.C.T.R.E, is a hard piece of work. It’s even intimated that she may be a lesbian. There’s definitely some ‘man-hating’ tendencies in her character. She bullies and abuses her henchman, Morenzy (Walter Gotell), and introduces herself to Red Grant by hitting him in the stomach with a set of brass knuckles.
Another interesting character is Kerim Bey, played by Pedro Amendariz. Amendariz was riddled with cancer when the film was being made, and committed suicide after the filming of his scenes was complete. The character though, is warm and cultured, the complete antithesis of Rosa Klebb.
The music for the previous Bond film, Dr. No had been composed by Monty Norman, and it has been acknowledged that he wrote The James Bond Theme. But John Barry is credited with arranging and performing The James Bond Theme. It was his work on that track that landed him the gig as composer on From Russia With Love. Although it would be the next film down the track, Goldfinger, which locked in the Bond sound, the score for this film is of a very high standard. The musical interludes in Turkey are particularly good. The soundtrack also introduces the ‘007 Theme’ which would reappear in later films in the series. Although there are no lyrics to the title track, Matt Monro croons the end title song, which is pretty smooth.
From Russia With Love is universally acknowledged as one of the best Bond films, but I would take that further – From Russia With Love is one of the greatest films of all time, regardless of genre. It has a great story with intriguing characters – each of them portrayed by the perfect actor for the role. The film is a timeless classic and superior cinema.
..and, of course, ‘Daniella Bianchi is gorgeous’!