In the 1960s, when most 007 film fans were also avid Ian Fleming readers, From Russia With Love had a reputation as the best Bond simply because it was the closest to its source. Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood's adaptation retains Fleming's great characters, and the producers cast them brilliantly. Famed stage and film legend Lotte Lenya is the lesbian Russian spymaster Rosa Klebb, armed with a poisoned blade in the toe of her shoe. Noted stage actor Robert Shaw is Red Grant, an English turncoat who engages 007 in his first classic fight scene. Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz does nicely as Ali Kerim Bey, Bond's Turkish ally in Istanbul.
Daniela Bianchi is the supposedly love-struck Russian "cipher clerk" Tatiania Romanova, who claims she's willing to defect with a Soviet decoding box called The Lektor, should James Bond 007 be willing to collect it in person. Sean Connery is back with an even better portrayal of everyone's favorie secret agent. Connery is winningly un-flappable while fighting Turkish assassins and Russian embassy staff, but also breaks out a sweat when confronted with a really formidable foe.
From Russia With Love is the Bond novel that John F. Kennedy listed among his ten favorite books. After the science fiction trappings of Dr. No, this story plays out as a fairly standard-scale spy adventure. Most of the content remains within the realm of reason -- Bond's suitcase hides a knife, not an atomic reactor. Nothing is patently unbelievable, like NASA's inability to locate Dr. No's intense radio transmissions that 'topple' NASA's rockets. The twist this time is that Bernard Lee's M purposely sends James Bond into danger, knowing that the promised Lektor is bait for a trap. The enemy plan, formulated by the chess master Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) is to not only kill Bond, but to involve him in a sex scandal that will embarrass the British secret service. Tatiana Romanova isn't privvy to the entire scheme: Klebb and Kronsteen intend to kill her too.
The changes made to adapt the book to the screen establish the Bond series as a conservative Cold War fantasy. Apparently advised to downplay the Russians as villains, Maibaum and Harwood again bring the fantasy "International Terrorist Crime Syndicate" SPECTRE into the picture. Russian spymaster Rosa Klebb is a traitor on the payroll of the evil Mabuse substitute Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Like Doctor Mabuse, Blofeld stays a shadowy figure, directing most of his expendable minions by remote control. From Russia With Love shows only Blofeld's hands petting his fancy white cat, while his face remains unseen. 1
Thus, MI5's battle is against various traitors and super-criminals, not the Soviet Union. Klebb, Kronsteen and other SPECTRE functionaries are reprehensible scum. The worst is Red Grant, a (gasp) traitor to Mother England. Meanwhile the movie extends a warm hand to "noble allies" like the pro-UK Ali Kerim Bey: Turkey's strategic location has always enabled it to secure plenty of support and approval from The West. Bey and his loyal sons contrast strongly with the swarthy "Bulgars", seen here as murderous rabble threatening Bey's "friendly" gypsies. Later movies would place Bond as sort of a Galahad figure, and MI5 as the key force maintaining the balance between East and West, a fantasy that pretends that England is still a key world power. Propaganda-wise, the Brits didn't do badly -- between Bond, the Beatles and Swingin' London, 1960s England almost cornered the market for pop culture.
Director Terence Young makes excellent use of Istanbul locations, making From Russia With Love the only Bond film in which 007 functions more or less like an actual secret operative. Travelogue views of St. Sophia and the Bosporus are interspersed with a tour of Constantine's underground waterworks and a periscope peek into the Russian consulate. Bond finally engages in conventional bedroom scenes with the teasing Tatiana, after fun & frolic interludes with a pair of gypsy cat-fighters and the ever-ready Sylvia Trench. If we really decide that Fleming's character names are all double-entendres, Sylvia's name makes her sound like nighttime physical labor.
The story's second half is an extended ride on the Orient Express, involving mistaken identities, a double killing in a sleeping compartment and Bond forced to make contact with a relief agent he's never met. In the book and the movie, this train section appears to have been adapted wholesale from the earlier Film Noir classic The Narrow Margin. The eclectic writer Fleming must have used the Richard Fleischer film as a pattern; there are just too many similarities to be ignored. I've outlined the relationship between From Russia With Love and The Narrow Margin as well as Goldfinger and White Heat, in another Savant article.
Bond finally meets Red Grant on the train, which leads to one of the best screen fight scenes in movie history. In later, more spectacular Bond pictures the concluding battles quickly got out of hand, involving armies, jet planes, spaceships, etc.. Here, trapped in a claustrophobic sleeping berth with the powerful assassin Red Grant, Bond is truly one man alone, up to his neck in trouble. The bone smashing fight to the death that follows is all the more impressive for taking place in a space barely big enough to throw a punch. 2
Also much discussed is the hilltop helicopter chase, an action scene not in the book and commonly identified as a steal from Hitchcock's North by NorthWest. Rather well directed, it frees the action into the open for a "big scene". What we tend to notice now is that the chase is almost completely superfluous. It could be lifted from the movie from the without affecting the story in the slightest.
MGM / Fox's Blu-ray of From Russia With Love makes this second Bond adventure look better than ever before on Home Video. Dr. No screened for years in Technicolor prints but Russia soon circulated in grainy Eastmancolor copies. Previous videos and even the DVD were rather lackluster. Given a full 4k film and digital restoration by Lowry Digital, it's now quite a beauty. Even the many rear projection process scenes now look sharp and colorful, and the many dark interiors are rich and attractive.
Unfortunately, MGM was unable to restore an unwelcome censor jump cut in the final scene, that excises a line referring to the 8mm sex film meant to compromise 007 and embarrass his superiors. I've written about the mystery jump cut in a Savant Article from 1998. MGM restorers have been looking for an uncut element for this missing bit of footage for years, and have sadly turned up nothing.
The extras are accessible through a difficult-to-navigate menu system that hides featurettes and docus behind "official" MI6 jargon, and forces one to click constantly to see what one's choices are. This is as far as I've gotten through the menus; the Bond Blu-ray discs play fine on some new machines but have experienced many difficulties on a range of players both old and new. By loaning my disc to a friend, I've been assured that all of the Ultimate Edtion extras have been retained as well as a few new features that access individual scenes, and content that has been edited in HD. None of the menus can hold a candle to the exciting animated designs created for the original 2000 Special Edition DVDs. The exhaustive extras produced for those shows are still exciting to watch.
But please, MGM, the Photoshopped disc cover is pretty pitiful. The designers clearly wanted a Bond portrait with an image of the chief "Bond Girl" placed over his shoulder. Apparently they could find no acceptable still of Daniela Bianchi to adapt, so they did an ugly paste-up job that makes it look as though her neck has been snapped her neck faces in different direction than her face. I've seen better forgeries with images of Sarah Palin.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Talk about brilliant, my six-year-old daughter saw From Russia With Love and, having already seen plenty of her father's Science-Fiction stories, concluded that THE CAT was Blofeld, communicating telepathically! That makes perfect visual sense to me!
2. Another typical political adjustment between book and film: in the novel Red Grant is a an Irish rebel who hates England; Bond trips him up by getting him to talk (or, to "monologue", as The Incredibles might say.) In the movie Red Grant limits his gloating to the surreptitious sex film that will make Bond look like a dead traitor caught in a Profumo-like sex scandal. Grant's Achilles Heel turns out to be his greed, a deadly sin that 007 fantasies always assign to dastardly enemies, never to our own authority figures.
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