From Russia with Love: Sean Connery at his very best as James Bond in one of the greatest Bond films that’s also a terrific Cold-war thriller

From Russia with Love (1963) is the second film in the James Bond film franchise. Directed by Terrence Young and starring Sean Connery as Ian Fleming’s MI6 agent 007 James Bond, the film is one of the greatest Bond films ever made that captures the cold-war induced tension and paranoia of the ’60s perfectly.

From Russia with Love (1963) is the second film in the James Bond film franchise. The film retains much of the crew and cast who created the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962). The film is produced by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli through their Eon Productions; the director is again Terence Young, and James Bond is played once again by Sean Connery. But the film also boasts a lot of firsts too:

  • It’s the first film to have a pre-title sequence; a title song that explicitly references the title of the film; and also a post-climax action sequence.
  • It’s the first film to have the full fledged John Barry score, where he created the percussion heavy second Bond theme.
  • The film also has the first appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as ‘ Q’; and also the scene where he briefs Bond and presents him a package of gadgets just before the latter goes on his mission.
  • The film is also the first time when we are introduced to SPECTRE No.1 Blofeld, though here we get to see only his fingers playing with that iconic white cat.

“From Russia with Love” also has a continuing sequel structure- which the later Bond films abandoned; that’s until the Daniel Craig Bond films, where all 5 films were continuations from the previous episode. The first Bond film, Dr. No, had British MI6 agent, James Bond going to Jamaica and assassinating the eponymous SPECTRE agent. So “From Russia with Love” begins with SPECTRE plotting revenge on MI6 and Bond. They devise a plan to lure Bond to Istanbul with the inducement of securing a Lektor decoding machine from the Russian consulate. The plan is devised by chief planner, Kronsteen,  a Czechoslovak chess grandmaster, and executed by Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) , who used to be a member of SMERSH, but is now working for SPECTRE. She is assisted in this mission by SPECTRE’s chief assassin, Donald ‘Red’ Grant (Robert Shaw), an Irishman specifically trained to kill Bond. To trap Bond, Klebb recruits a cipher clerk at the consulate, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), to unwittingly assist in the plan, tricking her into believing she is still working for SMERSH. As part of the plan, Romanova informs MI6 that she has fallen in love with James Bond, and wants to defect; that’s if Bond would come to Istanbul and personally escort her out of there; she is willing to exchange the Lektor for her defection to the west. When Bond is informed of this development by ‘M,’ he suspects a trap; ‘M’ concurs, but asks him to leave for Istanbul anyway, as there’s a possibility of getting the Lektor.

Upon arriving in Istanbul, Bond works alongside the head of MI6’s branch in the city, Ali Kerim Bey, while he awaits word from Romanova. As it turns out, Istanbul is a hotbed for cold war maneuvers between the Soviets and the Western powers, with SPECTRE manipulating both sides for its benefit. Bey comes under an attack from SMERSH agents, after one of the Russian agents is assassinated by Grant, who makes it appear that the murder was committed by MI6 agents. Even though Bey survives the attack on his life, the situation remains ‘hot,’ with SMERSH agents mounting a surprise attack on Bond and Bey when they are visiting a gypsy camp. Bond is nearly killed in the attack, but he is saved at the last moment by Grant; Grant’s orders are to keep Bond alive till he gets hold of the Lektor; Grant would then kill Bond, steal Lektor and then sell it back to the Soviets. Eventually, Romanova meets Bond at his hotel suite, where she agrees to provide plans to the consulate for him to help him steal the Lektor. The pair spend the night together, unaware SPECTRE is filming them as part of Kronsteen’s plan. Bond is successful in stealing the Lektor with Romanova’s help, and the twosome, along with Bey, boards the Orient Express and escape from the city. But they are spotted by Russian agents who also board the train; also aboard the train is Red Grant, who kills both the Russian agent and Bey. Now without Bey, Bond cannot go through with their escape plan.

In response to Bond’s request for a new escape plan, MI6 sends it Yugoslavian agent, Nash, to meet up with Bond when the orient express reaches Zagreb. But Grant, having discovered these plans, manages to kill Nash and impersonate him. Grant meets Bond pretending to be Nash and promises to help him out of the situation. Once he has successfully distracted Bond, Grant manages to overpower Bond and hold him at gunpoint; he had already drugged Romanova, who is lying unconscious in the cabin. Grant then goes on to reveals the entire plot hatched by SPECTRE: Grant intends to kill both and stage it as a murder-suicide, leaving behind faked blackmail evidence (the film of Bond and Romanova having sex in Bond’s suite) that will scandalize the British intelligence community. Despite being trapped by Grant, Bond still manages to trick Grant into setting off a booby trap in his attaché case and thereby disarming him. A brutal fistfight ensues between Bond and Grant inside the claustrophobic cabin; at the end of which Bond somehow manages to strangle Grant to death. Taking the Lektor and the film of their night together, Bond and Romanova leave the train in Istria, Yugoslavia and use Grant’s escape plan. They evade helicopter and boat attacks by SPECTRE agents before reaching safety. But they still have to fend off one last attack from Rosa Klebb, who has followed them to Venice and attempts to steal the Lektor. Finally, Klebb is shot dead by Romanova; the film ends with Bond and Romanova taking a romantic boat ride through the canals of Venice.

Sean Connery considered “From Russia with Love” to be his favorite Bond film; and you can understand why?: the film is the most brilliantly plotted of all Bond movies, with a very well-defined Bond character. The film is constructed in the mold of the best Hitchcock crime\spy thrillers with great plot twists and set-pieces; in fact, the extended train sequences and the helicopter attack sequence is directly inspired from Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” . This film, being a more down-to-earth, low-key, low-tech exercise devoid of fancy gadgets, hyperbolic villains and over-the-top action set pieces, relies very much on the taut screenplay, stylish direction, realistic atmosphere, wonderful cinematography, stunning locations, fast-paced editing and superb performances of the actors to keep the film going. The film still has enough imaginatively choreographed stunt sequences to keep the audiences on the edge of their seats, with the fight between Bond and Grant being one of the greatest close-quarters, hand-to-hand action sequence ever filmed. Additionally, there is the terrific John Barry score to complement the film at all times. Though the film does depend a lot on Bond’s unique character for its plot development, it’s still a very strong stand-alone-film in the sense that even if James Bond is replaced by any other British\Western operative the film would still work very well.

This film is, first & foremost, a superbly constructed cold-war espionage thriller- rather than a typical Bond film; the paranoia, tension and intrigue of the cold-war era has never been better represented in any other Bond film. That makes it perhaps the best film in the James Bond franchise. The only other film – for me – that’s similarly well-plotted and acted is Daniel Craig’s “Casino Royale.” I consider these two films to be the best films in the Bond film franchise. I don’t mean that these two are the best ‘James Bond films’; nope, the best ‘James Bond film’ is “Goldfinger” that came out immediately after this film and set the template for most of the Bond films that came after it; that film got the mixture of all the trademark Bond films elements perfectly right. “Goldfinger” is the paradigmatic James Bond movie; and when someone refers to a ‘James Bond film,’ that film and its several clones (including some really great ones like “The Spy who loved me” & “Goldeneye”) are what comes to mind. But “From Russia with Love” and “Casino Royale” are great films in totality from a cinematic point of view that happened to feature James Bond as the central protagonist. And on that note, it’s really fun to compare Connery’s second outing with Craig’s first . Now “From Russia with Love” is not a fully perfect film; it is handicapped by the the sensibilities (cinematic & social) of the times it was made; it has cheesy elements, like the entire section set in a Gypsy camp: we get a belly dance; then a catfight; then a big action sequence ,which is the least effective in the film; and then quite a bizarre scene where Bond is seen ‘living in’ with two women to assess their ‘capabilities.’ “Casino Royale” was made in this millennium, so it is completely devoid of cheesiness, but “From Russia with Love” gets the mix of seriousness and fun just right, while “Casino Royale” is too straight, serious and intense- devoid of any humor or fun.

The same difference in the tone of these two films can be spotted in the characterization of Bond, and in the performances of the actors playing them. Connery’s fondness for the film’s script and Bond’s characterization is felt in the almost every scene he’s in. This is the smoothest, most confident, and most sincere he has ever been as Bond. In Dr. No, he was just getting a feel of the character, but here he’s in full command, and we see why there never was a cooler or tougher James Bond. Connery effortlessly carries the picture with his magnetic screen presence and smooth charisma; with a performance that combines elements as varied as toughness, irony, humor, sympathy, coldness, cunning, intelligence, aggression, tenderness and vulnerability; this is one of those rare films where we feel that Bond is in real jeopardy. No other actor who played Bond got all these elements together the way Connery does. Craig was very good at being tough, cool and being vulnerable, but he could never get the elements of humor, suaveness and fun into his performances. Roger Moore was all charm, fun and games; Timothy Dalton was through and through serious; Brosnan got the mixture of most of these elements right, though he lacked Connery & Craig’s ‘killer instinct.’ The combined effect of Connery’s rugged, masculine & imposing figure, panther-like sexy walk, cool delivery of lines (in that infectious Scottish accent) and insouciant attitude is just deadly. Compared to that Craig, who actually matches Connery in his rugged physicality and aggressive demeanor, moves and delivers his lines in a very impassive, robotic style. Connery’s Bond is an efficient, relentless agent; travelling around the world and aggressively chasing down criminals, but he is also romantic, charming and mischievous; the latter qualities are completely missing in the Craig-era Bond films.

Coming to the rest of the cast & crew, Daniella Bianchi may not be quite as iconic as Ursula Andress, but I think she’s one of the prettiest Bond girls ever; and as a pawn manipulated by both Bond and her Machiavellian superiors, she’s sufficiently tender and vulnerable. Bianchi and Connery makes a lovely couple on screen. And, as was the custom with most of the early Bond girls, Bianchi’s dialogue was dubbed by the theatre-actress Barbara Jefford. By the way, this ‘pawn’ motif is established fairly well (and very early in the film) by director Terence Young: SPECTRE’s chief planner, Kronsteen, is a grandmaster, and he is introduced through an elaborate chess game (a very accurate reenactment of Boris Spassky’s victory over David Bronstein in 1960) staged on a grand set. Throughout the film, Romanova (and Bond) are pawns in a sinister chess game played by SPECTRE. The film’s screenplay, by Richard Maibaum, is constructed in the vein of an complex chess game, filled with frequent moves and counter moves, which, if not paid attention closely, becomes difficult to grasp. One key element missing in the film is the fantastical production design of Ken Adam; he was busy working on Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” and was replaced by Dr. No‘s art director Syd Cain. But this works to the benefit of the film, because this is a very realistic, and less flashy production, and Adams glossy sets may not have been suitable for it. Despite its muted color palette and lack of spectacular sets, the film is still a very beautiful looking film, thanks to the work of the great cinematographer, Ted Moore.

Robert Shaw is simply amazing as the robot-like assassin Donald ‘Red’ Grant. He is one of the greatest adversaries Bond has ever gone up against, and Shaw’s performance is truly chilling. Without any kind of hyperbolism or fancy hardware associated with the character – like ‘Jaws’ or ‘oddjob’ – he makes it appear that he might just be the one to kill Bond. This is established in the film’s pre-title sequence itself, which brings together the paranoid atmosphere of the film, the ‘revenge’ theme, and the skills of this super assassin: where we see Bond nervously moving through the courtyard of a mansion, and is then strangled to death by Grant. It’s only after the kill that it’s revealed that it was actually a training exercise in SPECTRE’s lair and the man killed is a SPECTRE agent wearing a Connery mask. Shaw depends on his stern walk and menacing glare, not to mention his powerful physicality and voice to portray the character. His fight sequence with Connery, brilliantly edited by trailblazing editor, Peter Hunt, is the highlight of the film. Shaw also makes a great team with Lotte Lenya, who plays Rosa Klebb, and together they go after Bond and the intelligence agencies of Britain and Soviet Union. Klebb is the scariest and most malevolent ladies ever to appear in a Bond film. Though the role is small, Lenya, though very diminutive with harsh features, makes her truly outstanding. Two scenes seal her place forever in Bond lore: one where she hits Shaw in the stomach with a pair of brass knuckles; and the other, in the climax, when she battles Connery with a poisoned knife sticking out of her shoes. For Pedro Armendáriz, who plays Ali Kerim Bey, head of MI6 Station T in Istanbul, this was his last British film role before his death in June 1963. Though Armendáriz was dying when the film was shot, it does not reflect in his gregariously entertaining performance. He makes a solid partner as well as a fresh pairing for Connery’s Bond- who is usually paired up with someone like CIA operative, Felix Leiter.

After the first James Bond film, “Dr. No,” had proved to be a worldwide success, it was obvious that a follow up would be produced. But the choice of Fleming’s novel “From Russia with Love” was made after then American president John F. Kennedy revealed that it was one among his ten favorite books of all time. The sad irony in all this is that “From Russia with Love” also turned out to be the last film President Kennedy saw at the White House (on 20 November 1963) before going on that fateful trip to Dallas. Upon its release, “From Russia with Love” turned out to be an even bigger success than “Dr. No.”. I believe it was the first sequel ever to outperform its original at the box office. The unprecedented success of this film ensured the continuation of the James Bond film franchise, which, in time, would become the most successful and long-lasting film franchise in movie history.

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