So this morning I realised that Skyfall is coming out in UK cinemas on October 26th. For some reason I had it in my head that the film was being released in November. I had best get on with these Bond movie reviews then. Up after the jump Bond No2….of 23… what have I gotten myself into?…. Oh, From Russia With Love!
From Russia With Love is, in my opinion, one of, if not the best Bond film. There, best one out the way already! Maybe. To be fair there’s plenty of other Bond films you could argue are acceptable choices as the best. This is just mine. From Russia With Love exists at an interesting point between the more restrained but fairly humour laden Dr No and the more over the top and flashy Goldfinger. But From Russia With love isn’t a middle ground tonally. In fact it easily heads away from both of those films styles. The film is a lot grittier, more serious in tone and doesn’t feature a single villains liar of improbable proportions. Even Dr No had his underground radioactive island fortress.
From Russia With Love (have I ever mentioned how I dislike abbreviations?) contains a handful of firsts for the Bond series. It is the first with a pre-credits opening sequence. An editorial choice that has stayed with, I believe, every single Bond since, and has also influenced many other films and television productions. It’s a little tease to get you amped up for the adventure ahead before the film’s second first kicks in. This is the film that created the Bond title sequences we know and perve over today. Sure Dr No had one but it was a random mixture of colourful shapes, some people dancing in a sequence that, thanks to David Lynch, always reminds me of Mulholland Drive now and 3 silhouetted blind men. It was odd and very 60s. This title sequence is pure sexy. This sequence was designed by Robert Brownjohn rather than creator of Dr No’s titles and future stalwart of the series Maurice Binder. Clearly though Brownjohn’s approach influenced Binder when he returned to the franchise on Thunderball. This one features a belly dancer having the films title credits projected onto various body parts. I like it.
Another first for this film is the appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as Major Boothroyd, or Q to his friends. He’s actually introduced with little fanfare and not even named on film but with him he brings the first Bond gadget, a suitcase. Well a suitcase that has hidden ammo, a hidden knife and contains not only a compact sniper rifle but a canister of tear gas and some gold coins. The gadget was always a great invention of the Bond series. It gives the audience a few objects they can anticipate being used so that when Bond is in trouble the viewer can be shouting at their screen to use whatever trickery Bond has up his sleeve, sometimes literally. To add to all those firsts From Russia With Love is the first in the series to name what film is coming next and the first to have a helicopter sequence. Don’t think having a helicopter matters? Watch all the Bond films and tell me they aren’t a reoccurring theme.
So, the story. Rather than be a straight adaptation of the book of the same name the film’s producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli decided to swap out the villains of mother Russia for criminal organisation SPECTRE who were first mentioned in the previous film. This is a smart move as it allowed the series to really start to build up a villainous organisation for Bond to gradually work towards. SPECTRE’s Number 1, Blofeld, has set about a plan for revenge against Bond for the death of Dr No. The plan involves forcing a Russian woman named Tatiana Romanova (Daniella Bianchi, voiced by Barbara Jefford) to entice MI6 and Bond to Istanbul with the promise of a Lektor decoding machine. Naturally MI6 can’t resist because they’ve really, really wanted one for years. They pretty much do say that. She’s the bait for hired killer of the elite variety Red Grant (Robert Shaw, yes THAT Robert Shaw) to trail them and kill Bond at the right moment. As the story unfolds Bond, aware from the beginning that this is likely a trap, works on finding a way to uncover the true villains, not get killed and leave Turkey with the decoder and the girl.
The film’s pace is snappy enough to keep the story moving along but never once does it degenerate into a mindless action-a-thon. The action sequences that are present are all fast paced and suitably unique from one another. I especially have always been fond of the close quarters train car fight between Bond and Grant which is choreographed for brutality within limited space. Years later fights like this would be the basis for the fight sequences in the Bourne films. All tight and fast with a more gritty level of brutality. Mostly From Russia With Love keeps the story focused on character relations and investigations. This is very different from how pretty much every Bond from now on will be presented. Tellingly the most critically successful Bond films are the ones that err closer to grit than flash.
Bond girl Tatiana is a much more involving character than Honey Rider, who only showed up to walk out of the ocean and be captured. Tatiana has problems of her own not realising that she isn’t working for her country at first like she thinks she is. She’s been picked out and made to seduce Bond, which is probably the easiest job in the world, and doesn’t realise that her real employers have every intention of killer her once they get to Bond. She has more to do here than Honey Rider ever did but she’s still pretty much there for eye candy. A status Bond girls will have to put up with for quite a few years yet. At least she’s a fully fleshed out character though. Something that was quite rare in a lot of mainstream films in the 60s. Just look at say The Italian Job and how the love interest in that gets sent home by Michael Caine when the real heist begins and she actually leaves never to be seen again. Wouldn’t get that happening these days.
From Russia With Love was made with the benefit of having over double the budget of Dr No and it does show. Whilst, as mentioned, there’s no massive villain’s base, the amount of locations and scenarios has roughly doubled from the previous entry. This gives the film a much grander scale than Dr No had and begins to set up the globe trotting nature of many of the succeeding Bond films. The film has the same fast editing with occasional sped up footage as Dr No which became a trademark of the earlier Bond films. Can’t argue with how the film is shot either. Clearly director Terence Young wanted to capture some larger vistas than he had the budget to on Dr No. The presentation in general is a step up from Dr No and started to establish the standard needed for the series. It was Goldfinger that really nailed down the presentation and use of music. I mentioned in my Dr No review that there was a lot of very obvious ADR used. It’s still present here but the ADR has been managed a lot better this time around. As good as you could expect it to be in a film of this era to be honest.
Overall From Russia With Love is a smartly written and more human Bond adventure than Dr No. It’s a remarkable template of what future Bond films will be capable of being. It’s no surprise that many consider this the best Bond, a scene from this film has actually been used as the screen test for all future Bonds and Bond girls. That being Tatiana and Bonds first scene together when she, quite a lot like a crazy stalker, breaks into Bond’s hotel room and jumps into his bed all naked and whatnot. Most people would ring an alarm. By most people I mean women and gay men because to anyone that’s ever wanted to be Bond this is what’s referred to as a “Jackpot”. I love this film to bits for how tight and tonally spot on it is. From Russia With love might not be your favourite Bond but, with a few exceptions, most people will pick a great one out as theirs. Speaking of great Bond films, next up Goldfinger!