Reel Talk

From Russia With Love and Espionage

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When it comes to a franchise like James Bond, it can be pretty hard to pick a favorite. It’s a series that has spanned 24 films, so there’s certainly a lot of choose from. You can figure out who you favorite Bond is, your favorite theme song, your favorite villain and henchmen, your favorite Bond Girl, really anything about the series you can rank. But it can often be hard to pick what you think is the all-time high of James Bond films. But I would say, fairly consistently, that my favorite James Bond movie of all time is From Russia With Love. I know that that’s not really a shocking statement, since it’s often considered the best of the bunch, but it really is everything I love about the franchise. I often see Goldfinger considered the best Bond movie, and while it’s certainly the one that’s most emblematic of the series, but I still would maintain that From Russia With Love is the best the Bonds ever were. Which maybe seems like a weird thing to say, since it’s the second movie, which would imply that everything else is downhill from here, but I’m of the opinion that all Bond movies are pretty great, and worthy of love, and just because this happens to be my favorite doesn’t mean that the rest aren’t worthy. But if I’m going to show someone a James Bond movie, or want to have them lose all respect for me while I rant about it for an hour, it’s going to be From Russia With Love.

This film, like most of the early ones, is based on the Ian Fleming novel of the same name, and I think it’s probably the film that’s most similar to it’s source material. Bond movies are often rather liberal with their adaptation of the Fleming novels, often leading to scenarios where you can barely recognize similarities between the two. And trust me, I’m going to be doing one of my Film Library posts for one of these movies, but it’s going to be something special. The Fleming novels often have a lot of issues, and have frequently aged even worse than the films in regards to social norms, so you can’t really fault EON for not wanting to translate them perfectly to the screen. But this one is different. This novel, which I would also consider my favorite, is a truly great read, and probably the most important of the whole series. It was the fifth book of the series, and is largely considered the book that brought the series some respect and love in America. And it’s all thanks to President John F Kennedy including it on a list of his ten favorite novels. And since the early 1960s was a time when people respected their politicians and wanted to be like them, people jumped on the series and started enjoying the novels, putting them down a path that eventually lead to this film being made.

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The film begins in what is actually a rather odd place. Because we don’t see James Bond for quite some time. Instead we open up on the various villains of the film. Dr. No established the existence of a wide-spread criminal organization known as SPECTRE, and this film starts off with an examination of said group. We get to see SPECTRE’s plans right from the beginning, as we see the mysterious leader of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, meeting with two of his top-level lieutenants, the recently defected Russian intelligence agent Rosa Klebb and the master-planner Kronsteen. It appears that SPECTRE is angry that James Bond killed Dr. No and ruined their plans in the previous film, so they’ve come up with a new plan that will help them get a Russian Lektor decoder while also humiliating Bond and getting revenge. So they simultaneously send Rosa Klebb to Turkey to convince a Russian office-worker named Tatiana Romanova to convince England that she wants to defect with a Lektor as long as James Bond is the one to help her, while also getting a SPECTRE agent named Red Grant to keep and eye on Bond and make sure everything goes according to plan. Which is when we finally catch up with Bond, who is being told about Tatiana’s proposal. Bond and M obviously smell a trap when a Russian agent claims to have fallen in love with a picture of Bond and wants to give them a decoder they’ve been after for years, but the chance to get a Lektor is too great, so Bond decides to go through with it, and heads off to Turkey!

Once in Turkey Bond meets up with his local contact, Kerim Bey, who introduces Bond to how the Cold War works when you’re this close to the USSR. They travel around Istanbul, keeping away from Bulgarian spies, hanging out with gypsy informants, and settling scores that Kerim has built up over the years, and just generally plan out how things are going to work. And while all of this is going on Bond is unknowingly being stalked by Red Grant, who is keeping Bond alive for the true revenge. Which is right when Bond finally meets Tatiana. Which of course means that the have sex in his hotel room, which just so happens to be filmed by SPECTRE. Bond starts spending time with Tatiana, confirming that she actually knows where the Lektor is, and that she wants to defect with him. And gradually, she actually does decide to defect with James, and helps him and Kerim cause an explosion at the Russian consulate building, giving them time to steal the Lector. At which point they have to flee and get Tatiana and the Lektor out of Turkey, which means they’re going to have to get on the Orient Express. Unfortunately they get spotted by a KGB agent, who manages to kill Kerim on the train before getting killed himself. So Bond sends word that he needs a backup agent, which is intercepted by Red Grant, who is finally ready to make his introduction. Grant pretends to be a British agent, just like Bond, and offers to help. And after drugging Tatiana Grant gets the upper hand on Bond, and reveals his true intentions. He’s going to take the Lektor, bring it to SPECTRE, kill Bond and Tatiana, and use their sex-tape to discredit both the British and the Russians. Bond manages to defeat Grant, through sheer luck and after having a brutal train-fight, and then makes the executive decision that they need to get the hell out of there. Bond and Tatiana grab the Lektor, escape the train, and after a boat chase they end up getting to Venice, where they’re finally free. Well, except for when Rosa Klebb and her poison-bladed shoe show up, but Tatiana proves loyal to James after all, and saves him, letting the British win yet again. Giving SPECTRE more reason to hate Bond.

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There’s just so much to love about this film. I could watch it over and over, and never tire of it. I think this is the best that Sean Connery is in the franchise, and he puts in an amazing performance as the spy we all love. I adore Pedro Armedariz as Kerim Bey, and he quickly becomes one of my favorite Bond allies of all time. Daniela Bianchi maybe isn’t the best as Tatiana, but she’s far from the weakest Bond girl we’ve gotten. Really everyone in the film is putting in a tremendous performance, but the real star of the show here is Robert Shaw, playing what may be my all-time favorite Bond villain. I mean, Red Grant is just perfect. He’s the evil James Bond. He has the same set of skills, he’s just as deadly, and he even gets the upper hand on Bond. The only reason that Bond escapes that train battle is because of luck. Grand doesn’t know that there’s a secret way to open the standard-issue attache case that 00 Agents get, and Bond manages to trick him into opening the wrong way. The two are almost perfectly matched, and Robert Shaw puts in a genuinely intimidated and frightening performance. There are some issues with the film, like the more or less needless segment at the gypsy camp, or the final speed-boat chase that really feels disappointing after the train-fight, but there’s nothing about these issues that distract from the fact that this movie is amazing.

But the thing that really interests me about this movie is just how realistic the film is. The novels, by and large, take place in a reality that more matches out own than the films. I mean, Dr. No was about a Chinese supergenius with metal robot hands who had his own nuclear power plant, and was using it to topple American rockets. Which, you know, is a tad cartoonish. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love James Bond movies, and they are frequently ridiculous. But there’s something great about how down to Earth and realistic the plot of From Russia With Love is. There’s no grand evil scheme involving secret bases and nuclear missiles, it’s just a story of revenge. SPECTRE is mad that James Bond foiled their plans, so they come up with a scheme to kill an agent. It’s a film where James Bond is helping a Russian agent defect in exchange for giving the British government a cryptographic device. That is something that I could easily believe actually happened during the Cold War. We get to see James Bond do actual spy work, and detective work, and that’s not something you see every movie. Usually when you’re looking for some actual espionage, you go to John le Carre or someone like that, it’s not typically James Bond that you’re going to. But From Russia With Love somehow takes all the trapping of the Bond franchise, which were still being established at this point, and used them to tell a fairly down-to-Earth and realistic spy story. There’s realism and grittiness to this film that makes you think that it should come from the 1970s, and not 1963, but that’s part of why I love it. So get ready for some tonal whiplash when we check out Goldfinger tomorrow, and prepare to see a story that probably didn’t actually happen in the Cold War.

From Russia With Love was written by Richard Maibaum, directed by Terence Young, and released by United Artists, 1963.

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