Double-0 Christmas - From Russia With Love

From Russia With Love

It's nearly Christmas so there's bound to be a James Bond film on TV somewhere. This week, we're looking back at Stuart Mulrain and Barnaby Eaton-Jones' series of articles on the 007 films. Here, Barnaby Eaton-Jones remembers From Russia With Love...

“I get a kick out of watching James Bond find out what a bloody fool he's been.”

There's a school of thought that says that this is as good as Bond got. That, after Dr. No and From Russia With Love, the films got bigger and sillier and less about being a spy and more about being a hero. There's another school of thought that says that this is where the films started to find their footing. That this was the stepping stone between the Bond of Ian Fleming's books and the Bond of the silver screen. There's also a School of Rock too but, to be fair, nobody's going to cast Jack Black as James Bond unless it's From Rocker With Larynx: The 007 Musical.

Oddly, this is the book that immediately precedes Dr. No and, as the story goes, the reason it was chosen next to film was because hotshot USA President John F. Kennedy listed it in his Top Ten Books after meeting Ian Fleming at a party and, being so taken with his wit and style, decided to check out – and publically promote - his literary output. Thank goodness he didn't read Chitty Chitty Bang Bang instead, otherwise Sean Connery would have suddenly become Caractacus Potts and the Aston Martin that turned up in Goldfinger would have had wings and flew.

Allegedly, From Russia With Love was the book that JFK and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, were reading the night before the fatal cavalcade shooting in Dallas, Texas. It's also reported that Ian Fleming's suggestion to JFK about how to get rid of Fidel Castro (the Communist leader of Cuba and a thorn in JFK's political side) was to start a rumour that beards attract radiation and make their wearer sterile. That, in itself, would make Castro shave off his iconic beard and the people would lose faith in him. I'm not sure how much of this story is apocryphal but it's the sort of plot that wouldn't have looked out of place by the time we get a bit further down the line with 007 movies. So, although purists moan that 007 gradually divorces himself from the literary Bond as the films gather pace, this story alone shows that Fleming's surreal imagination as a writer was more than a match for Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman's as producers!

Talking of the Producers, they stumped up double the budget for this film, after the runaway success of Dr. No. But, admirably, they spotted that they people behind a winning formula are not just the creative talent onscreen but the creative talent behind the scenes too. So, the majority of the crew from the first film, including director Terence Young, were brought back. What that meant was that the look and feel of the film is more lavish and expensive-looking, without the creative content being compromised.

I'm of the opinion that this is the bridging gap between Bond being a spy and Bond being a cinematic superhero (his first 'high-tech' gadget is introduced here, with the attache case he's given that houses many weapons he can use – all of them practical and believable and functional. The gadgets would get more ridiculous and less 'spy-in-the-field' as the series went on). There is, of course, a case of the films moving with the style and times of the age they are shot in, which is a good argument for how the films evolved during the series too.

From Russia With Love - Bond and Kerim


In this instance, Bond is sent on a search for a decoding machine (for Russian codes) – this being the height of the Cold War – and off he trots to Turkey. There, his right-hand man, is a resourceful, moustachioed character called Kerim Bay. This gleeful, witty and full-of-life character was played, in his last screen role, by Pedro Armendariz. Sadly, Pedro already knew he had terminal cancer when filming began and, it is said, was in considerable pain throughout. The energy and passion he channels into making his last screen role so charismatic must have exhausted him and he eventually took his own life once filming was complete. Aside from robbing the real world of a talented character actor, it also robbed 007's world of a character that definitely deserved re-visiting in future films.

Of course, no mission is as simple as it sounds, and the Russian device is merely a set-up by SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion – which is so much of a convoluted mouthful, you can see why they plumped for the acronym), who are out for revenge on the man who killed their own Dr. No. Baiting this trap is an unwitting pawn called Tatiana Romanova (former Miss World and novice actress, Daniele Bianchi, who gives such a spirited and seductive performance that it's a shame they decided to overdub her dialogue with British actress Barbara Jefford, who would return to overdub main characters in Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me). She is recruited by ex-KGB agent and all-round scary matriarch, Rosa Klebb (played with real sadistic venom by Lotte Lenya) and doesn't realise she is working for SPECTRE, as she is the one who acts as the go-between for the passing over of the Russian 'Lektor' decoding machine and ensnaring 007 with her beauty. Then, to add to the mix, there's Robert Shaw's psychotically charming Red Grant – a tall, muscular, blonde-haired bundle of charm and psychopath.

He's like the negative version of Bond and it would be easy to imagine Robert Shaw, with his natural coloured hair, as 007 himself at that stage in his career. But, his defining turn as Red Grant – which ends with an iconic battle in the cramped carriage of a train, where the sheer brute physicality of Sean Connery and Robert Shaw crashes across the scene in an painful and punishing fight to the death (and all because Red Grant made the fatal mistake of giving himself away as someone pretending to be British because he chose the wrong wine to go with the wrong course of food. This, of course, adheres closely to the snobbery and roots of Fleming's Bond novels) – means that you can't even believe it's the same actor portraying that role and then in his other most well-known roles; shark-obsessed hunter Quint in Jaws and ruthless mobster Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting.

As always, with Bond movies, there's always moments that stand out but this film does seem to be particularly littered with them. The pre-credits pursuit of Bond (where he is strangled to death!), the fight in the Gypsy encampment, the agent climbing out of the mouth of the girl in the huge poster (who is shot as he shimmies down the rope), the darting helicopter churning up the countryside with gunfire as Bond and Tatiana desperately try and find somewhere to hide as they run from their car with the Lektor machine, the poisoned dagger in Rosa Klebb's shoe and then the motorboat chase and its explosive finale.

It is the shortest and most complicated plot-wise (though not too complicated to follow) of all the 007 movies and really feels like a 'whole' movie than a series of set-pieces that 007 movies can have the tendency to become.

Terence Young's assured direction, who was credited with turning Sean Connery into James Bond, is a steady hand on the tiller and Connery himself seems more assured in the role and has gained a little swagger. There's also the first appearance of Desmond Llewellyn as 'Q', who would continue on in the role for another 36 years, and the luscious score of John Barry replaces the oddly muted one that Monty Norman delivered for Dr. No. Of course, the legendary Bond theme itself was written by Monty Norman, so we have him to thank for that, but it's given its traditional style and tempo by John Barry's re-working of it in From Russia With Love.

All in all, it's a transitional film. It's bigger budget gives it more freedom and scope, heading in the direction that the rest of the series would take – distancing themselves from Fleming's novels to make 007 a truly cinematic character. But, it still holds onto those tight, spy thriller roots and, therefore, becomes a bridge between the two styles. There's a lot to love in From Russia With Love (and not just the Bond and Tatiana dialogue where he declares her mouth is just the right size for him, which classic scene has been used to screentest every other Bond and Bond candidate forever after!). So, grab a decoding device and see if you can complete the mission of re-watching this film with a view to seeing how Bond might have continued on if the budgets and the plots hadn't grown so much bigger with each outing!

Image - IMDb.