For Bond’s sophomore effort you can really tell that the producers wanted to double down on double 0 with what they had previously achieved with Dr No. With a bigger canvass and more impressive set pieces it’s fair to say they succeeded as From Russia With Love strikes like a poisoned tipped dagger hidden in a shoe.
Concocted by a strategic mastermind who seems to be wearing Peter Lorre’s eyebags, evil syndicate SPECTER deploys a fiendish plan to obtain a Russian cryptographic device in where they hope to con MI6 into stealing it for them. To do this they hire unknowing Soviet cypher clerk Tatiana Romonova as a honey trap to lure Bond to Istanbul under the pretence that she has fallen in love with him and wishes to defect with the device thrown in as a sweetener for the British to take the bait. Pitting MI6 and SMERSH against each other while keeping Bond on-mission from the shadows is top SPECTRE lunatic Grant, a sadistic assasin who has a penchant for strangling victims with a wire hidden in his watch.
As Bond courts his admirer and enjoys all the perks the Istanbul branch of MI6 has to offer, Grant tightens the noose as SPECTRE seems to be destined to succeed in it’s aim. Can Bond possibly hope to thwart a villian he doesn’t even know exists?
Quite possibly the most purely “spy movie” of all the Bond movies (odd that, considering it’s a franchise centred around a bloody spy) and my personal favorite of the Connery era, From Russia With Love further cements more aspects of Bond lore which are still renowned to this day. A fond debut to both Desmond Llewellyn as Q and the introduction of various gadgets (the suitcase, containing a hidden knife, numerous sovereigns and an exploding tear gas cartridge may not be an exploding pen, but it still gets the job done) are both welcome additions to the world of Bond but most important of all is the induction of composer John Barry whose fantasic work further bolsters Monty Norman’s eternally iconic theme.
The script is sly and tricksy, with a nice line in eyebrow raising dialogue – “I think my mouth is too big.” utters Tatiana at one point. “No, I think it’s the right size… for me.” counters Bond with a lupine arch of an eyebrow – and entertainingly larger than life characters such as leacherous lesbian SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb and the gregarious head of MI6 in Istanbul, Ali Kerim Bey. Adding to the intriguing nature of the story is the fact that the usually in control Bond is led by the nose for most of the film by the shadowy machinations of Grant, his Russian opposite who, while being played by a steely eyed Robert Shaw, is one of the few Bond villains who you feel could actually whup 007 for good. Certainly the pre-credits sequence – where in a startling red herring Grant garottes an agent wearing a Bond mask – smartly plants the notion that Grant is every bit the English agent’s equal and it hovers over proceedings like a communist ghost. When the two finally face off and their posturing banter disintegrates into both of them beating the living shit out each other all around a train car, you totally feel like the series is hitting it’s groove with style.
The other action scenes are also thrillingly chaotic, with Bond running around a battle between gypsy clans seemingly randomly killing people on both sides (James Bond hasn’t got the time to check who is on his side and who isn’t, he’s a busy man, dammit!) and explosively detonating barrels of fuel to end a boat chase (watch one hapless stuntman legitimately almost lose his face to a freakishly close blast).
Of course, this being a product of 1963, certain moments have aged better than others (the gypsy catfight to the death is hardly what you’d call progressive) and there’s more casual bum smacking than is strictly necessary but on the whole FRWL holds together exceptionally well despite the awkward scene where Bond holds a elderly woman armed with a dagger-shoe at bay with a chair, but apart from these very tiny niggles it’s very much a case of from Russia, much love.