In the No Time To Die Countdown, Jake Tropila takes a look back at every Bond film – official and unofficial – in anticipation of the release of the latest entry.
Dr. No was a rousing critical and commercial success. Producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli heroically went all-in on their nine, trumping the dealer’s lowly eight and outright bankrupting the entire casino. Cue the cheering spectators and many downed glasses of poured champagne – celebrations were needed to be had.
Okay, flimsy baccarat metaphor aside, Dr. No truly did kickstart something huge, something that would ultimately outlast Broccoli, Saltzman, and original author Ian Fleming. But after such an assured jumping off point, how do you repeat success? How do you guarantee another astonishing turnout? Just where the hell do you go from here?
Simple: you go to Russia. Or, more precisely, you go from Russia to England, Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Italy. With love, of course.
As Sean Connery’s sophomore effort, From Russia with Love does a magnificent job of broadening Bond’s horizons. It’s a grander, more realized film than Dr. No, replete with a compellingly intricate plot, a thrilling sense of adventure, and a murderer’s row of diabolical villains. Some would argue this is Bond’s finest outing, and dammit, I’m inclined to agree. It’s certainly Connery’s finest hour.
It also makes for an outstanding spy picture, brimming with exhilarating acts of espionage. Granted, they aren’t quite the “subtlest” (the central mission is executed via an explosive act of terrorism), but From Russia with Love never loses sight of its central objective, and subsequent films in the franchise have yet to match this one’s intelligence. It really is something. Let’s hop on the Orient Express and find out why, shall we?
To Catch a Spy
From Russia with Love’s pre-title sequence plays out in ruthless efficacy. It’s night, and Bond, dressed in a dinner jacket, is nervously stalked in an ornate garden setting by hulkingly silent assassin Donald “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw, light-years away from salty ol’ seadog Quint). As the tension is ratcheted, the unthinkable happens: our hero gets garroted by a deadly wristwatch. But alas! It was just all just an elaborate training exercise orchestrated by SPECTRE. Cue opening titles and a montage of glowing belly dancers.
I still enjoy the “Bond death fake-out” opening, even if, admittedly, it really only works to goose the audience (“Has James Bond finally met his match???”). Using a realistic-looking rubber mask might seem highly impractical, but it’s also a testament to SPECTRE’s utter conviction: they’ll murder live targets to train the baddest and fiercest agents in their organization.
Speaking of SPECTRE: they were teased in previous films, but now they’ve graduated to main villain here. Still sore over the loss of one Dr. No, the combined efforts of former SMERSH operative Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), chess expert Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal), and the aforementioned Red Grant, have conspired to assassinate Bond and obtain a Soviet cryptography device known as the “Lektor,” through the use of naïve desk clerk named Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a poison-tipped shoe, and a sex tape scandal. Oh my!
Much like the novel on which it’s based (wherein 100 pages elapse before the name “James Bond” is even mentioned), From Russia with Love takes its time establishing the semi-byzantine machinations of its plot, introducing every single one SPECTRE’s core players and motivations. We even get our first glimpse of one Ernst “Number One” Blofeld via his menacing hands, famously stroking his white Persian cat.
Of these names and faces, Red Grant makes a convincing argument for being the series’ greatest villain. Barrel-chested, implacable, and eerily silent, yet capable of wearing a tailored suit as well as Bond, Grant is the walking Angel of Death, laying waste to everything in his path. My lone gripe is that he’s often relegated to “henchman” in annals of Bond history, but I don’t subscribe to this belief for one second – he’s clearly meant to be Bond’s equal, as he’s working alone, has agency, and is just as efficient and deadly. He’s also rather sharp, and more than just a mountain of muscle mass. This has been my argument for “Red Grant is a Bond Villain and Not a Henchman.”
Bond himself doesn’t properly appear onscreen until eighteen minutes in, enjoying some riverside canoodling with Sylvia Trench before being called into action. But before 007’s mission can even begin in proper, we must first meet MI6’s Most Valuable Player. Enter Desmond Llewelyn as Q, the avuncular quartermaster and kindly inventor of Bond’s many nifty gadgets. Here, he presents a banger of an attaché case, equipped with a tear gas cartridge that will explode and stun should one fail to turn the catches horizontally before opening normally. His first appearance as Q is appropriately understated, but Llewelyn firmly establishes himself as a franchise stalwart and would go on to appear in sixteen more Bond films after this one. His brief moments are always a joy to watch.
Onward to Turkey. Much of the spy work that made me so enthusiastic about Dr. No returns in full force here. Observe, for instance, the sequence in which Bond inspects his hotel room upon arriving in Istanbul. Again, Connery is simply strolling around the room, peeking behind paintings in search of the inevitable bug while Monty Norman’s theme blares on all speakers. Truly invigorating stuff, if you ask me.
Murder on the Orient Express
Bond’s contact and guide in Istanbul is head of MI6 Station T, Ali Kerim Bey. As far as field allies go, Kerim Bey is the gold standard. A wonderfully gregarious man, backed by an army of loyal sons and sporting a smile that can light up a room, Kerim Bey ticks every box for what makes an exceptional Bond Ally (he even sneaks in a sly oral sex joke at one point – the censors must have been asleep at the wheel for this one). His murder of Krilencu, a rival Bulgarian assassin, with the aid of Bond speaks volumes of the connection between these two men. All of this can be credited to Pedro Armendariz’s amazingly charismatic performance. This might be Connery’s finest hour, but Kerim Bey is the beating heart of the film. It’s a shame he suffers such a harsh fate (knifed to death by Red Grant). The real ones die hard.
(This is true of Armendariz as well: he was battling cancer while shooting this film, and upon completion of his scenes, he shot himself in the hospital after securing his family’s financial security. Truly a remarkable man, and one the Broccoli’s have not forgotten – one of the actor’s sons would appear in a future film).
Another strength of From Russia with Love (and this also applies to many of the early Bond films) is its sense of place as character. The city and culture of Istanbul are captured beautifully on-screen, rendered as a tangible location and not mere window-dressing for a spy film. As the globetrotting expands from film to film, it’s always refreshing to see the production make the most out of its exotic locales (though I will admit that the gypsy catfight is a little bizarre; thankfully Bond has the good taste to break it up after it gets interrupted by a gunfight).
As the Bond Girl, Tatiana is rather strong and fills her role in SPECTRE’s scheme rather nicely. Bond may be the star and Kerim Bey may steal the show, but it is Tatiana’s arc that carries the narrative through-line of the film. From meek desk clerk to avenging field agent, Bianchi plays the part credibly, keeping Tatiana grounded but allowing her to grow organically as a character, a rarity for parts like these. High marks all around; she’s sincerely overlooked as one of the greats.
All points eventually converge on the Orient Express. Red Grant, who spends a majority of the film lurking in the shadows (half the fun of From Russia with Love is seeing him pop up in the background every five minutes to observe the main action), is finally unleashed in a climactic showdown for the ages. Posing as a fellow agent, good culture ultimately prevails when Bond sniffs out the imposter (note to viewers: never order red wine with fish). Grant ultimately regains the upper hand and his standoff with Bond palpably tense. Shaw is terrifying in how well he underplays the part, and he delivers this line with such relish: “The first [bullet] won’t kill you. Not the second. Not even the third. Not till you crawl over here and kiss my foot!”
Luckily, Q’s attaché case saves the day. The ensuing brawl in the train cabin is a series high point and sets the bar high for many more scraps to come. Just two professionals, out for blood in a confined area, clobbering each other in a mesmerizing sequence of sheer brutality. Even by today’s standards, the choreography is robust and holds up incredibly well; every punch thrown is meaty and visceral. If there are seeds for Daniel Craig’s blunt instrument of pain, they are definitely sewn here. In the pantheon of James Bond’s greatest fights, this one has yet to be topped.
Conclusion: From Russia With Love
Everything gets swiftly resolved after the Orient Express. There’s a helicopter attack, an explosive boat chase, and Rosa Klebb finally gets in her kicks before being put down by Tatiana. It’s all exciting and very satisfyingly pulled off, culminating with Matt Monro’s Sinatra-esque title track that leads us into the end credits. From Russia with Love is a complete and total success as both a Bond film and a spy film, loftily enjoying the best of both worlds as it further establishes an indomitable template for more adventures to come. There will always be arguments made over what the best Bond film is, but I truly believe things don’t get better than this. At least not for Sean Connery.
So, if this is Connery’s finest hour, is everything downhill from here? I’m not sure about that, but what I can tell you is that the next film features a man who loves only gold, only gold, he loves gold, he loves gooooooooooold. The No Time to Die countdown will return with Goldfinger.
What do you think? Is From Russia with Love the best spy film the series has to offer?
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