From Russia with Love (1963) – The 2nd James Bond Film; The 2nd (of 6) Sean Connery Films – Directed by Terence Young – Starring Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Pedro Armendáriz, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, and Bernard Lee.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is an absolutely fantastic movie that perfectly illustrates the advantages of keeping the main action simple and using the background action to provide the deeper sub-text.
RUSSIA pivots on the relation of its three main characters to a specific object: James Bond (Sean Connery) wants the Russian Lektor cryptographic device. Russian Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) has access to the Lektor device. SPECTRE operative Grant (Robert Shaw) has been put in charge of taking the device from Bond and Romanova. Each of the characters has a simple mission that the film gently complicates, but never in a forced manner. Bond knows Tatiana is likely playing him, but he ends up falling for her anyway. Tatiana knows that Bond is her mark, but she ends up falling for him, too. Grant knows that he’s going to kill Bond, but he needs to keep him alive long enough for Bond to get the Lektor device.
You might read all of that and think, “Yeah, I’ve seen this all before.” Know what? You have, but you’ve rarely seen any of it done better.
The plot unfolds naturally, and the characters are all engaging enough that you forgive the film’s ridiculous plot machinations to put them in place. Tatiana is a Russian clerk at the Russian embassy in Istanbul (not Constantinople) with access to the Lektor device. SPECTRE wants it and Number 3/Rosa Klebb is charged with getting it. She’s ex-SMERSH (Russia’s version of MI6) but SMERSH decides not to tell any of their operatives this because … well, because the film needs them not to tell anyone. Klebb tells Tatiana she’s been selected to carry out a top secret mission: seduce James Bond and give him the Lektor device.
For his part, Bond knows it’s almost certainly a trap but MI6 can’t pass up the opportunity to get the device so they send him after it.
It’s a really adult set-up – people who could be trapped by their duty to their governments instead embrace what’s put before them, knowing the danger but not running from it. When Bond and M have their chat about this being too good to be true, their tone is business casual – they know the stakes are serious, but it’s not like it’s this is a “save the world” mission, and even if it was, this is the business they choose. Instead, whatever reservations they might have, Bond, Tatiana, and Grant all treat themselves as pawns to be played at the whim of their organizational handlers.
In watching RUSSIA, you can see why the filmmakers originally wanted Cary Grant to play Bond. RUSSIA has a lot in common with a film like North by Northwest in terms of its style and pacing, and it’s easy to see Grant breezing through this film. Connery doesn’t have to take a backseat to anyone, of course, because he gives Bond an edge and youthfulness that might ring false coming from Grant. (A Grant Bond might play much like the Roger Moore Bond – better with the charm than the action.)
Connery is fantastic throughout the film. His Bond often derives pleasure from his ruthlessness (his job says he has to sleep with Tatiana, but his heart says he wants to do it regardless) and he’s far from perfect. Grant (the part, not the actor) gets the drop on him after killing the MI6 operative Nash and taking his place. Bond misses that Nash is probably a phony when he orders red wine with his dinner and his mistake almost costs him his life, forcing him to think his way out of a jam.
The showdown between Grant and Bond in the compartment car on the Orient Express is the best part of the movie. Grant has been this quiet, efficient, expressionless, shadow/killer all movie long, serving as Bond’s twisted guardian angel (saving Bond so he can be the one to kill him) but now when it’s time to strike, Grant is both smart, ruthless, and then surprisingly talkative. He takes this huge delight in explaining everything to Bond and since we know everything that Grant tells Bond, it doesn’t come off as one of those “villain explains the plot” moments. He’s rubbing it in “the great James Bond’s” face. When Bond chides himself for overlooking Grant’s wine ignorance, Grant retorts back with the film’s best line. “I might not know the right wines,” he sneers, “but you’re the one on your knees.”
Terence Young has done such a masterful job of building up to this moment that when Bond and Grant start fighting in the cramped car it adds tension and personal motive to the brutal fight. I like when fight scenes look good, but I love it when they feel good. I love it when you get that sense of the danger the combatants experience. When Bond and Grant throwdown and things start breaking around them, its a visceral and emotional extension of the physical fight at the center. A door being kicked in doesn’t happen just because it looks cool, but because it’s a fine visual extension of the fight.
Bond’s relationship with Tatiana is obvious but expertly played. You know these two crazy kids are gonna fall for one another, but it’s all done so sublimely that it feels completely natural that they’d fall in love. Tatiana has been told by Klebb to do whatever Bond wants, but when he playfully slaps her ass aboard the train, she playfully and verbally slaps back. “There are some English customs that are going to be changed,” she promises him. He never forgets its business first, though, and that their relationship is taking place in the context of a very deadly game. When he believes she’s keeping information from him, he’s not above getting rough with her. To get him to stop, Tatiana pleads, “James, you’re hurting me.”
“I’ll do worse than that,” he assures her, reminding her (and us) that he hasn’t lost the plot when he gained the girl.
Ali Keram Bay (Pedro Armendáriz) provides plenty of support and humor in the early stages of the film. In later years this would be the Joe Don Baker role, but the filmmakers give Armendáriz so much more screen time than Baker gets that Bay becomes a real, well-rounded character and not just the colorful local yokel.
RUSSIA doesn’t over-examine the motivations of its characters and if you want to point out the inconsistencies and holes you can, but it’s one of those movies that’s going to make you wax over wondering why SPECTRE doesn’t just get the Lektor from Tatiana and then shoot Bond as a separate assignment. The reason they wax over it is because it would make for a different movie. Combining the two elements seems to be SPECTRE being clever just because it can, and a case of being overly complex to your own detriment. Without that, there wouldn’t be a movie, of course, or at least not FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, and that would be a shame.
Unquestionably, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is one of the very best James Bond movies.