What I’ve Been Watching: From Russia with Love (1963).
Who’s Responsible: Terence Young (director), Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood (screenwriters), Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, and Pedro Armendariz (stars).
Why I Watched It: Research.
Seen It Before? Many times, including a theatrical re-release with Dr. No in my youth.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 10.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 1.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 9.
And? Following the cinematic nadir of Moonraker, it’s quite an experience to revisit Ian Fleming’s From Russia, with Love, which was adapted with such fidelity—apart from the comma—that you can see and hear the film playing out in your head while you read. The first four Bond movies were based on novels at the very center of the series; this one, Doctor No, Goldfinger, and Thunderball were published consecutively (bracketing the collection For Your Eyes Only), with four more novels on either side, and filmed in almost the same order. The first great Bond novel, this is longer than its predecessors, and Fleming keeps 007 offstage for a third to introduce bad guys Rosa Klebb, “Red” Grant, and Kronsteen.
Ironically, it looked like this would be the last Bond book, 007’s climactic confrontation with a poison-tip-shod Klebb in a Paris hotel room leaving him apparently dead or dying. Accounts vary as to whether Fleming actually meant to kill him off, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had intended to do with Sherlock Holmes at the end of the aptly named “The Final Problem,” but needless to say, the film has a happier outcome. Aside from that, though, almost every scene is an analog, compression, or variation on one from the novel, with the screenplay credited to Maibaum and the adaptation to Harwood, both veterans of Dr. No; this was Harwood’s 007 swan song, although Maibaum stayed on board until 1989.
Another woman racking up her second and final Bond credit was Eunice Gayson, whose character of Sylvia Trench (to whom 007 introduced himself in Dr. No as “Bond, James Bond,” an immortal phrase Fleming first used in From Russia, with Love) was originally intended to appear at the opening of each entry. “Famous firsts” include the pre-credit teaser, with Walter Gotell—later a series regular as General Gogol—as a SPECTRE agent, and the “James Bond will return in [fill in the blank]” closing credit. This was also the debut as “equipment officer” Major Geoffrey Boothroyd (aka Q) of Desmond Llewelyn, who died the year his last Bond picture, The World Is Not Enough (1999), was released.
The role of Kronsteen (the splendidly weaselly Vladek Sheybal, one of the series alumni later recruited for the Casino Royale spoof) is reduced, but his plan is the same. Bond is to be lured to Istanbul by the offer of shapely Russian pawn Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) to defect with a top-secret decoding machine, and murdered as ignominiously as possible by Grant (Robert Shaw). Consistent with the retconning of villains in the early films, his primary antagonists here represent not the Soviet counter-intelligence agency SMERSH but SPECTRE, in which Klebb (Lotte Lenya)—who, unknown to Tania, has herself defected as the head of operations for SMERSH—and Kronsteen now rank third and fifth, respectively.
It’s often said that a Bond film is as good as its villains, and these are among the best, but Fleming also gave 007 an unforgettable ally in Darko Kerim, the colorful head of Station T Turkey, here renamed Kerim Bey and portrayed by Mexican actor Armendariz. One of many to develop terminal cancer after making The Conqueror near a nuclear test site, he took his own life shortly after completing his scenes; eerily, he had recently discussed his friend Ernest Hemingway’s suicide with Fleming at a party thrown for him by Young—on the day I was born. In the film, Kerim goes down swinging as he and Russian security man Benz (Peter Bayliss) kill each other during the trip aboard the famed Orient Express.
The film depicts an event only alluded to in the novel, as Kerim narrowly escapes death from a limpet mine placed on the wall of his office by Soviet-hired Bulgarian Krilencu (Fred Haggerty), who later leads an attack on the Gypsy camp where Bond and Kerim witness a fight between Vida (Aliza Gur) and Zora (Martine Beswick). Kerim eventually kills Krilencu, shooting him as he emerges from his hideout through the mouth of Anita Ekberg on a billboard for Eon’s Call Me Bwana (replacing the novel’s no-longer-timely reference to Marilyn Monroe and Niagara). Beswick later had a somewhat larger role in Thunderball, and also starred as the distaff half of Hammer’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.
One of the film’s main interpolations is a sequence in which Bond plans and executes the theft of the decoder (the name of which was, not surprisingly, changed from “Spektor” to “Lektor”) by detonating a tear-gas bomb in the Russian consulate, slipping Tania and the Lektor out amid the confusion. Building on a plot point from Fleming, in which Kerim left a bomb to be detonated in the event of his death, this is actually an improvement on the novel, where she blithely carries out this vital gizmo without so much as a by-your-leave. The filmmakers also add an exciting helicopter-and-speedboat chase as Bond and Tania follow the escape route offered by Grant, impersonating slain agent Captain Nash.
Bond’s duel to the death with Grant aboard the train is justly celebrated as a high point of the series, and exemplifies why Connery—who may never have looked better as 007 than in this film—remains unsurpassed in the role. In spite of his train-bound donnybrooks in Live and Let Die and The Spy Who Loved Me, it’s impossible to imagine Roger Moore in this kind of brawl, and Shaw is one of 007’s most physically formidable foes. I’ll repeat my standard observation that while I would never name him as one of my favorite actors, Shaw did appear in four of the B100 (The Sting, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Jaws, and The Deep), plus John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, between 1973 and 1977.
John Barry had greater involvement in the scoring than he’d had on Dr. No, but still was not entrusted with the title tune, written by Lionel Bart (best known for the music, lyrics, and book of Oliver!). When sung by Sinatra sound-alike Matt Monro later on in the film, this is just a schmaltzy love song, but Barry had the last laugh, because the instrumental version he orchestrates for the credits is electrifying. Then—just to assure us that we’re not screwing around—he segues into a pulse-pounding arrangement of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme,” liberally applied throughout the film; Barry also left a lasting mark on the series by introducing his signature “007” theme, which recurred in several sequels.
Bernard Lee has a little more screen time than usual as M, and the repartee is delicious: when Bond sees Tania’s photo, his twist-my-arm reaction to the mission reminds one of nothing so much as Galahad’s “Well, I could stay a bit longer” at the Castle Anthrax in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. To be fair, the screenwriters did have the benefit of rich characterizations and a solid story to work with, and rightly assumed an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it attitude. But the combined contributions of Young (making his second of three Bond films), Barry, cinematographer Ted Moore, editor Peter Hunt, art director Syd Cain, stuntman Bob Simmons, and other regulars put this among the greatest Bonds.
Go to Dr. No.