May 29, 2018
6 things to love about From Russia with Love (1964)
I’m a huge James Bond fan, and I love all of them, even Lazenby. And the number of Bond movies I truly hate can be counted on half of one hand. For a franchise spanning some 50 years and 25 films, that’s pretty damn good. If you asked me which Bond film is my favorite, I would be hard pressed to pick just one. You’ve got the over-the-top fun of The Spy Who Loved Me, the gritty Casino Royale (the 2006 version. The one made in 1967 is shit), and the amazing Goldeneye. But if you held a gun to my head and forced me to pick the one that rises to the top, I would have to say it’s From Russia with Love.
From Russia with Love is the second film of the James Bond franchise, coming out just a year after Dr. No (I still think it’s incredible that there were three Bond movies in just three years, and four in just five. It really does illustrate just how huge a phenomenon the franchise was back then), and it builds on the foundation of the movie that came before it.
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The plot goes as follows: months after James Bond defeats Dr. No, the organization known as SPECTRE decides to kill two birds with one stone and get revenge on our favorite British secret agent for killing their operative and to use him to get their hands on a Soviet Lektor decoding machine. Their plan is to have a female Soviet officer based in Istanbul pretend to have a crush on Bond and contact him through his superiors with an offer to help him get one. Said officer, Tatiana, is merely a pawn being manipulated by Rosa Klebb, a former Soviet officer who’s been turned by SPECTRE. Bond and his superiors are well aware this is a trap, but the opportunity to get their hands on a Lektor is just too good to pass up…
So, what are the components of this film that make me enjoy it so much? Let’s break it down.
1. It’s gritty and realistic.
Many James Bond plots involve a criminal mastermind threatening the world in some way, be it Auric Goldfinger irradiating the United States’ gold supply (and bear in mind what a big deal that would have been; The U.S. was still using the gold standard, which was in part one of the reasons America and Europe’s economies were ticking along so well and oil was $1 a barrel. Wipe out that gold, and the dollar essentially becomes worthless. It’s actually a pretty cool plan. I just think the movie Goldfinger as a whole is pretty boring), to Ernst Stavro Blofeld (ver. 4.0) using a satellite equipped with a jewel-encrusted laser beam in Diamonds are Forever. Even Dr. No has a huge secret lair with its own nuclear reactor, and he’s using some radio beam to knock down American rockets for… reasons. Honestly, I can’t remember exactly why he’s doing that. Do they ever explain it? Is there a ransom demand like there was in Thunderball?
Looking at From Russia with Love, the villains have two clear goals: get the Lektor machine from the Soviets which can either be sold back to them or to the highest bidder, and kill and discredit James Bond to avenge Dr. No. There are no world-shattering plots, and nothing outlandish. It’s rather refreshing, really, and we don’t see its kind again until much later in the franchise with The Spy Who Loved Me.
What I also like is how the Cold War is very much a factor in this story. I’m not saying Bond writers need to utterly immerse themselves in the real world, but the franchise suffers when it strays too far from it (I’m looking at you, Moonraker). Now, if one is to talk about the tone of the films, then one has to talk about the gadgets. Which brings me to…
2. The advent of gadgetry.
There was a time when I loved the Aston Martin with the ejector seat, oil slick, and machine guns, and the Lotus that turned into a submarine. And then I grew up.
Okay, okay, that sounds cynical and bitter. Don’t get me wrong, I like the more outrageous James Bond films for what they are and they can be fun, but sometimes I do think things can get, well, kind of stupid. From Space Marines firing lasers (seriously, what is it with lasers with these writers? Goldfinger had one, Blofeld uses one, Bond gets one in a watch, sheesh!) to invisible cars, I think the franchise is at its lowest when things get eye-rolling-ly over the top.
Bond is most interesting to me when the focus is on spy craft rather than gadgetry. That doesn’t mean I’m against the principle of gadgetry; the CIA museum is full of the stuff, and gadgets can be fun. I just think it’s when you enter the realm of science fiction (the aforementioned laser beam watch) that I have issues. The first film that had Bond using such exotic equipment was From Russia with Love. Here, James is given a special briefcase…
…containing a collapsible rifle, equipped with a tear gas bomb that will go off in the face of any thief who doesn’t properly open it, as well as a hidden dagger and concealed emergency swag in the form of a cache of gold sovereigns. The entire briefcase was believable and functional. And Bond was not the only one using gadgetry. SPECTRE was apparently outfitting their agents with boots/shoes containing poison blades…
…and Bond’s opponent Grant had a way cool garrote watch.
I think it’s cool when the minions get outfitted with their own special toys. This brings me to…
3. The rise of the henchman.
One of the problems with Dr. No, and one of the reasons why it’s not fondly remembered, is the lack of memorable bad guys. Yes, Dr. No is very cool, but he doesn’t appear on screen until late in the third act (granted, you do hear his voice in an earlier scene, which is staged in a very effective, menacing manner). His stand-ins are largely forgettable minions that no one really cares about, and who don’t pose much of a threat to Bond at all.
Fortunately, that problem is solved in later movies with the rise of the henchman. Who can forget Goldfinger’s Odd Job, the most iconic minion of all time? Or The Spy Who Loved Me’s Jaws? Or Goldeneye’s Xenia Onatopp? Live and Let Die’s Tee Hee? Diamonds are Forever’s Wint and Kidd? But all of them pale in comparison to From Russia with Love’s Grant, played by Robert Shaw.
Grant is everything you can ask for in a murderous subordinate. He’s low-key enough to fade into the background, intelligent enough to make decisions on his own, and frighteningly competent. Over the years, this franchise’s henchmen have gotten cartoonishly silly; even Famke Jennsen’s Onatopp was a bit ridiculous with her over-the-top sadism, and her method of assassination, which involved crushing men with her legs.
No, Robert Shaw’s Grant makes the top of my list, with the way he stalks Bond throughout From Russia with Love, even saving Bond’s life once (seriously, in that scene Bond was a dead man if it wasn’t for Grant) because he has yet to acquire the Lektor. It also helps that unlike many of the other actors who would play minions, Robert Shaw was Sean Connery’s match in terms of acting, which made their exchange on the train so memorable. And both men were of a size, which implied that in many ways they were equal but opposite. I won’t deny part of my bias regarding this film stems from my admiration for Robert Shaw, an actor who died too soon.
Of course, one can’t talk about the henchmen without discussing their superiors. Which brings me to…
While it was revealed in Dr. No that the titular character was working for the organization, it wasn’t until From Russia with Love that SPECTRE was truly born. Here we saw the organization in action, along with its iconic elements, such as Blofeld and his equally iconic cat…
…to its numbered field generals.
A Bond film succeeds and fails based on the strength of its villains. For example, I don’t rate Quantum of Solace very highly, because quite frankly, Dominic Greene is a pretty lame bad guy (seriously, Bond uncovers the existence of Quantum just by following him), and has arguably the dumbest-looking minion ever.
The only thing this guy is memorable for is that haircut; you have to go watch Despicable Me to find somebody who looks stupider. I had to IMDb him to find out his name is “Elvis”. He looks like Moe Howard’s child molesting grandson.
And what about Quantum itself? By movie’s end (and implied by Skyfall, due to its absence), Quantum is destroyed. SPECTRE in From Russia with Love? Bond only gets to see a tiny part of it. He doesn’t even have any idea that the architect of the plot is Kronsteen; SPECTRE is smart enough to compartmentalize. Their security is tight, and though James has won this round, all SPECTRE has lost is a few minions.
There was another thing that I liked about SPECTRE: anyone could potentially be a member (an idea liberally borrowed in Quantum of Solace). With Kronsteen being part of the organization, it’s like Bobby Fischer possibly being the mastermind of numerous terrorist and extortionist plots worldwide. In From Russia with Love, SPECTRE is low-key and their aims are believable, whereas in Dr. No, their goals are nebulous, and in Thunderball, their plot to blackmail, well, everybody promptly puts them on the shitlist of every intelligence agency in the world.
Honestly, all the CIA and MI-6 have to do is tell the Soviets that SPECTRE was behind that nonsense in Turkey, using Klebb as a pawn to manipulate Tatiana, and I’d say there’d be a five-year truce between spy agencies so everyone can concentrate on wiping out Blofeld and company (which, now that I think about it, is more or less the plot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., where East and West cooperate to take down THRUSH. I never thought I’d find myself admitting The Man from U.N.C.L.E. made, in one significant way, more sense than the Bond franchise). Hell, why the Soviets and CIA don’t right away assume its SPECTRE messing with their space flights in You Only Live Twice is beyond me. You see what frustrates me about some of these films? From Russia with Love just makes more sense, at least in how the villains are handled.
And how about the way Blofeld himself is presented, faceless and menacing, as if he personifies SPECTRE itself (much like Dr. No was shown in the prior film)? I think once we got to see the man’s face in You Only Live Twice, the mystique was gone, to be parodied by later generations.
Hell, Blofeld’s name isn’t even spoken in From Russia with Love. That’s just so cool.
5. Bond isn’t perfect.
One of the reasons Roger Moore’s Bond never appealed to me is how flawless he seemed. Not a hair out of place, slacks perfectly creased, always cool and calm, charming smile permanently spread across his face, along with the fact there was never a sense that he was in any peril. And he always seemed to know everything. Not so with Connery’s Bond.
The writers weren’t afraid to put him in situations where he was on the ropes, helpless and ignorant. In From Russia with Love, Bond is manipulated into taking a room with a one-way mirror so he can be filmed having sex with Tatiana, and throughout the film, Grant stalks him without Bond being aware of his existence. Bond is Kronsteen’s pawn in his chess game. Perhaps one of the reasons why I like Craig’s Bond so much is the way he’s handled echoes the early Connery films. Yes, I know Bond isn’t going to die. All the same, I much prefer my heroes to seem both mortal and fallible; that makes the victory mean so much more.
6. The best Bond.
Everyone has their favorites, and often it’s the Bond they grew up with. But for me, despite Roger Moore being my generation’s Bond, I’ve always felt Connery was the greatest. He was equal parts smooth and rough, charming and merciless, able to order the right wine with fish or ruthlessly gun down an unarmed assassin because he’s given up all the information he has and is now useless (to me, the best scene in Dr. No). Other Bonds were alright; I thought Dalton got shafted, getting just two films, and I would have liked to have seen him get more. And Daniel Craig has done a stellar job. But for me, Connery will always be the best.
My only regret is that Connery came back to do Never Say Never Again. I feel that film just hurt his legacy.
I’m aware From Russia with Love is not perfect. Bond sleeps with four women, firmly establishing his status as a man-whore. Kerim Bey’s death perpetuates the cliché that being Bond’s friend means you’re likely going to wind up on a slab somewhere. Kronsteen is killed for his failure, which makes me wonder why anyone would want to work for SPECTRE in the first place if you get punished for making mistakes. Using that logic, then maybe Blofeld should be executed for giving Kronsteen the job, eh?
The movie also doesn’t stand completely on its own, as it relies on the events of Dr. No to set up the plot. And the theme song is one of the weakest, least memorable tunes in the history of the franchise, lacking Shirley Bassey’s brassy voice with Goldfinger, or Tom Jones’ passionate performance of Thunderball, or even the still-cool rock sound of McCartney’s Live and Let Die (which was used to awesome effect throughout the film of the same name). But compared to most Bond films, I think it easily holds its own.
So, what was your favorite Bond film and why? Let me know in the comments below!