After the roaring success of Bond’s first cinematic adventure, Dr. No, producers moved quickly to capitalize on audience interest to further the series they hoped to create. Thus, a year after his first silver screen appearance Sean Connery was back in theaters as James Bond in spy thriller From Russia With Love. The budget was double that of its predecessor and the box office was even better. Clearly, Bond was becoming a hot commodity. In fact, by the time FRWL opened in the US production was already underway on the third film in the Bond series, Goldfinger.
It’s difficult to think about just how profoundly this changed cinema since we live in a blockbuster-centric world where the majority of movies are either sequels, reboots, remakes, prequels, or at least part of a ‘cinematic universe.’ But franchises were virtually nonexistent in 1963. The closest you could come were Universal’s old monster movies. Jaws gets a lot of credit for moving Hollywood in the direction of blockbusters, but the seeds were actually planted right here.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
The plot moves at a faster pace and there are bigger action sequences (not to mention more of them) now that the success of the first film boosted the budget a bit. SPECTRE, the villainous organization that repeatedly vexed Bond in the early films, also moves into a more primary role here. You see, SPECTRE is pissed that Bond caused the downfall of their buddy Dr. No and wants revenge. Their plan is an elaborate scheme in which a beautiful clerk at the Soviet Consulate pretends to defect to Britain, promising a Lektor Cryptographic device (to allow MI6 to decode Soviet transmissions) as a show of good faith–but only if 007 himself agrees to oversee her transport from Istanbul. It’s clearly a trap, so it’s up to Bond to stay one step ahead of his enemies, determine the true intentions of the lovely Soviet clerk, escape the clutches of SPECTRE, and get the Lektor whoozy-whatsit back to Britain.
The plot is definitely more complicated than the glorious simplicity of Dr. No, but the movie carries it off well. We haven’t gotten overly complex yet. The execution is actually very light and entertaining–nothing is too difficult to follow and there are enough explosions to keep things moving. Plus there’s a gypsy fight and a SPECTRE agent in a skimpy towel. What more do you need?
There are, however, some problems. The Bond Girl is dull and problematic. If the movie did more to toy with the idea that she might be leading 007 on, it would have been much more fun. Instead, she’s so Snow White sincere that you never really doubt which side she’s working for. And while henchman Red Grant is a great bad guy, the film’s main villain, Rosa Klebb, feels toothless in comparison.
Desmond Llewelyn makes his first appearance as Q, and Bond gets his first real gadget in the form of a trick briefcase. Q made a brief appearance in Dr. No but was called Major Boothroyd and played by Peter Burton (who was unavailable for FRWL). Llewelyn would become a fan favorite and remain with the series into the Pierce Brosnan years before transitioning the role to John Cleese. From Russia With Love also establishes the template that every Bond movie would follow from here on out: gun barrel, pre-title sequence, opening titles, and then the movie itself.
Producers stayed in Ursula Andress mode by hiring a woman more for her beauty than her ability to speak English, so we get Daniela Bianchi, an Italian runner-up for Miss World 1960, playing the very Russian Tatiana Romanova. In a twist that surprised absolutely no one, she became the second Bond girl to be dubbed because her Italian accent didn’t lend much credibility to her portrayal of a Russian double agent. Given that so much of the action pivots around that double agent status, it’s disappointing that Romanova is dull as dishwater. The most gorgeous dishwater ever, but still. As I mentioned above, producers used the “is she a good guy or a bad guy?” angle as a hook for the plot, but they weren’t actually very interested in toying with it. Instead, they focused on the idea that her potential defector demanded to have Bond escort her back to London because she had fallen in love with him. She’s basically a Bond Girl crossed with a contestant on The Bachelor, which is not a pairing that should ever happen.
Supporting Bond Girl
Eunice Gayson makes her second and final appearance as Bond’s stay-at-home girlfriend, Sylvia Trench. This is a blessing because producers clearly had no idea what to do with her and her single scene in this film basically reduces her to a nag begging James not to leave her again. But keep your chin up, Sylvia, because this also means you’re the only woman to play the same Bond girl in more than one movie (even if this appearance isn’t counted on the official Bond Girl register). Attagirl. Now put your clothes on, collect your dignity, blast “I Will Survive” on the ride home, and find yourself a man who appreciates you.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of SPECTRE and 007-hater extraordinaire, makes brief appearances as the faceless overseer of all the bad deeds going on. He’s played by Anthony Dawson here but dubbed (because everyone was dubbed in the early 007 movies) by Eric Pohlmann. Dawson would also appear as Blofeld’s physical form in Thunderball, which makes him the only actor to portray the character more than once–and you never see his face or hear his actual voice in either movie. Poor guy needed a better agent.
The main baddie, however, is Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), who recently defected to SPECTRE from SMERSH (a Soviet counterintelligence agency). Klebb is dowdy, angry, and downright ruthless. Lenya tears into her role with vigor, making Klebb an unhinged badass with poison-tipped knives in her shoes to prove it. But she feels like more of a henchwoman than an outright villain since she merely collects orders from Blofeld. And her actual henchman has both more screentime and more of a sense of danger–and since he enacts all of Klebb’s orders she ends up feeling like a glorified middleman. Just as Rosa starts to get her own hands dirty she’s defeated by a chair (I wish I was kidding). It’s part and parcel with the series’ completely inept handling of female villains. It can handle a female henchman just fine, but the only two female characters who could be called outright villains (Klebb and The World is Not Enough‘s Elektra King) are so diminished that it’s outright insulting.
Much of the dirty work chasing down Bond falls to Klebb’s personally selected henchman, Red Grant, an operative who has literally been training to hunt and destroy 007 for a long time. He’s not much for words, as evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t utter a sound until over an hour into the movie, but Robert Shaw (the guy who played Quint in Jaws!) manages to cut quite the menacing figure even so. He’s like the Terminator with blonde hair and a teeny tiny towel around his waist to keep him modest. He certainly steals all Klebb’s thunder–and not just because he looks good nearly-naked.
Even though producers did a great job nailing the Bond-movie format in the first two movies, they curiously bungle handling the theme song here. You barely even hear it in the movie because the title sequence uses a sped-up instrumental version to better pair with the visuals of gyrating gypsies. You only hear the actual song as background music halfway through the movie. The song itself is good but it’s kind of like a light version of Sinatra–although it establishes the opening flourish that would become a staple of Bond themes. Meanwhile, the gyrating women in the opening credits are another first, and the series will not let this go for … well, ever. Nowadays the women don’t shake as much, but they’re still pretty naked. Objectifying women during opening credit sequences is part of the franchise.
Bond stealthily sneaks into a palatial garden, alternately stalking and being stalked by Red Grant. Grant gets the best of 007 and strangles him with a wire hidden in his watch. As Bond’s dead body falls to the ground spotlights illuminate the area, revealing the whole thing was a training exercise and the dead man was simply wearing a Bond mask.
FRWL is disappointingly light on truly iconic moments, but I’m going to go with the moment 007 returns to his hotel room to find Tatiana Romanova waiting to introduce herself to him in his bed. This scene has been used in auditions for numerous Bond (and Bond Girl) hopefuls because it near-perfectly captures the series’ delicate balance between seduction and danger.
Grades: Movie: 5/5; Bond Girl: 3/5; Villain: 1.5/5; Henchman: 5/5; Theme Song: 3/5