WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: MI6 hear that a young Russian woman is going to defect, bringing with her an invaluable decoding machine. James Bond is obviously the man to escort her from Istanbul, but something about Tatiana’s defection seems too good to be true. So it should, because the trouble-stirring, cat-stroking hands of Blofeld and SPECTRE are behind the whole thing.
James Bond may have foiled SPECTRE’s plans to disrupt the Western World in Dr. No, but they aren’t about to take the setback lying down. Blofeld (the gravelly voice of Anthony Dawson) summons two of his operatives, Rosa Klebb and sometime chess champion Kronsteen (Lotte Lenya and Vladek Sheybal), to hatch a plan to cause trouble; if they make it known that attractive Istanbul Consulate worker Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) is defecting to the West, and taking a Lektor decoding machine with her, they can get Russia and Britain at each others’ throats. If they can manipulate it so that James Bond (Sean Connery) is chosen to accompany her and the machine back to the West, so much the better, since they have a trained killer in Red Grant (Robert Shaw) all ready to bump him off. While Bond has his work cut out just staying alive in Istanbul, he’s helped by local contact and big family man Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz); meeting up with Tatiana has its compensations, too. However, when Grant climbs on board Bond and Tatiana’s train bound for Venice, the spy meets his match as the killer cunningly passes himself off as a friendly face.
My chief criticism of Dr No was that it felt a bit staid, possibly an unfair dig nearly fifty years down the line. The same accusation could never be levelled at From Russia With Love. SPECTRE’s thirst for vengeance on Bond has a nice sense of continuity from its predecessor, boosted further by Eunice Gayson’s return as Bond’s ‘girlfriend’ Sylvia Trench; but you can tell that more attention has been paid to the exotic and – almost needless to say with Bond – erotic potential of the tale. The lure of sex hangs over the whole film, from the early and entirely gratuitous presence of Jan Williams’ busty masseuse to belly dancers, Kerim’s mistress, whatever we imagine happens overnight with Bond and the catfighting gypsy women (the whole business with the gypsies is a little odd, in fact), and of course James and Tatiana’s first extremely saucy encounter, filmed by SPECTRE for potential blackmail purposes. FRWL is as sexist as hell and while never sleazy, it pushes at the boundaries of what was acceptable for its time, as shown by a number of obvious cuts made by the censors.
Were it just about the sex, (also-trimmed) violence, James’s glib one-liners and Q‘s gadgets, From Russia With Love would escape the self-parody tag just by dint of being early Bond – speaking of which, Desmond Llewelyn makes his first appearance as Q here. Luckily, there are further incidental pleasures, such as the running gag about Kerim and his omnipresent ‘sons’. More importantly still, the film for the most part delivers effective and tense drama; while MI6 clearly suspect that Tatiana is a honey trap, they don’t know whose honey she is and we don’t know to what extent her interest in 007 is staged. Additionally, when Grant stalks Bond on the train (there’s a very good shot of Bond walking along a platform while Grant moves along the train, observing) and introduces himself as a contact, the dramatic tension is palpable: how much does James truly believe this man is an ally? Robert Shaw makes a brilliantly cold killer and sparks nicely off Connery, making up for the fact that, for me at least, Bianchi is beautiful but bland and submissive. As for Connery, I defy anyone to really pay attention to the first three films and still believe any of the other Bonds do it better (to borrow a phrase): here, he’s an irresistible combination of ego, libido and torso and it’s a shame (though perhaps an inevitable one) that he tired of the role by the time You Only Live Twice came along.
Popular opinion puts FRWL alongside Goldfinger as possibly the Best Bond movie, but I won’t have it. For one thing, the Lektor machine is a pure MacGuffin to set things in motion, whereas Goldfinger’s dastardly plan has worldwide repercussions. For another, Goldfinger builds up to a single, heart-stopping climax; once Bond hops off the train, FRWL turns into an overlong race by truck and boat to the safety of Venice, menaced by SPECTRE helicopters and boats just waiting to explode in impressive fireballs. Just like bare flesh and fighting, though stunts and explosions are exciting for a little while, it’s only when they’re integral to the story that Bond films truly come alive. Here, the climactic – or are they? – explosions feel like the film-makers didn’t like, or couldn’t make exciting, the book’s original conclusion and went for the simplest, noisiest solution.
I have stated in plenty of other reviews that I’m not a devotee of 007, but the viewing and reviewing journey has largely been from the later Bonds backwards. Watching the earlier films has given me a greater sense of why 007 commands so much respect from his fans. Connery’s Bond is the personification of alpha-male super-confidence in a man still young enough for the arrogance to be justified (sorry Roger). Though From Russia With Love isn’t quite the complete package, it’s a sexy and dangerous adventure. Who, in their wilder moments, wouldn’t want a bit of that?