RETRO REVIEW: From Russia With Love (1963)

Robert Shaw as Red Grant and Sean Connery as James Bond in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE — Photo: United Artists / Eon Productions.

Directed by Terence Young — Screenplay by Richard Maibaum.

Dr. No was a huge financial success, so United Artists doubled the budget for its follow-up, From Russia With Love, which was allegedly the final film President John F. Kennedy screened at the White House. Though it is, naturally, a little bit dated, Terence Young’s From Russia With Love is a significant improvement on Dr. No. This feels much more ambitious and extravagant, even though it does suffer from some of the same issues that the first film did.

In From Russia With Love, following the events of 1962’s Dr. No, SPECTRE has devised a plan. One of their agents, Donald ‘Red’ Grant (played by Robert Shaw), has been trained to kill Agent 007, and he has been tasked with tailing the British agent, killing him, and then procuring a decoding device that James Bond (played by Sean Connery) is on a mission to retrieve for the MI6. Bond is convinced to take on the suspicious mission once he sees the photo of Tatiana Romanova (played by Daniela Bianchi and voiced by Barbara Jefford), the Soviet clerk, who Bond finds very attractive, that claims she is willing to defect with the device.

In my review of Dr. No, I mentioned how it was nice to see that so many trademark Bond-elements were already tethered to the franchise from the get-go. In From Russia With Love, the film series is sharpened and fine-tuned, and here we see even more Bond conventions make their debut. This is where we first got the Bond will return-line in the closing credits, we actually have an actual Bondesque title sequence, and it is the first time that we had a true theme song (even though it doesn’t appear in the aforementioned opening titles). A certain villain makes his first appearance, and, perhaps most excitingly, we are introduced to our first elaborate secret weapon-gadget. Appropriately, the late James Bond-legend Desmond Llewelyn, who played Q in 17 James Bond-films, is the one to introduce the aforementioned gadget in his very first appearance.

There were times when Dr. No looked both dated and cheap. While From Russia With Love, released the following year, might be dated, it by no means looks cheap. There are some really cool sets and sequences. Though it doesn’t do much more than set-up how calculated SPECTRE is, I really liked the game of chess that we see one of the major SPECTRE members participate in. Furthermore, I really liked the scene where we see several SPECTRE agents training rigorously. You get the sense that SPECTRE is a powerful organization in this film, which I think is really important for the film series to communicate. It is such a noticeable step up from what we saw in Dr. No. The film crew isn’t held back by the budget this time around and it shows.

Generally, I think the first half of this film is really fun. I really like the hedge maze opening where we see Grant prove how good he is at his job by suffocating an agent disguised as James Bond (using a face mask) for a training exercise. It is a very exciting sequence that probably took audiences by surprise when it first came out. However, I have one slight issue with the scene. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the SPECTRE agent to wear such an expensive mask in a training sequence (they are trying to fool the audience and not the characters in the movie). So, while this is a great opening because it catches you by surprise, I think it is a little bit of a cheat. Be that as it may, it is a strong, albeit slightly illogical, opening to a film that is really fun to watch in the first hour or so. I think the SPECTRE scene with No. 1’s cat and the aquarium is really great. Whenever we see this room, the movement of the camera, likely due to the scene probably having been shot on a ship, gives the scenes an almost disorienting effect. Where I think the film suffers the most, though, is with its pacing. Again, I think the first half of the film is really entertaining, but, like in Dr. No, there are some very slow sequences in the latter half. It is never as bad as in that first film, but I feel like they could’ve cut maybe ten minutes from the film.

“Once when I was with M in Tokyo we had an interesting experience,”

I think that From Russia With Love is also really funny. It feels like the MI6 cast feels more at ease here. It’s really fun to watch Bond flirt with Moneypenny (played by Lois Maxwell), and M (played by Bernard Lee) even gets one or two funny and memorable moments. I think Sean Connery also felt more relaxed here as Bond, but I will say that Bond (and Connery) sometimes treats Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova in ways that are tough to watch today. I didn’t like seeing Bond strike Romanova the way he does in the latter half of the film, and there were scenes where I didn’t care for the way he spoke to her. Again, this is a film from the early 1960s, so some things, like this example, will feel out of touch when you watch From Russia With Love today.

Though Grant feels like more of a henchman than a true Bond villain, I actually liked him more than Dr. No. He is a worthy match for Bond, and I thought it was pretty exciting to watch them engage in conflict at the end of the film. Since this film also sets up SPECTRE in a really impressive way, I was fairly happy with the foes in this film, even though we don’t learn nearly enough about Grant as an individual. While Dr. No‘s Honey Ryder might be a more iconic character, I think Romanova is a lot more interesting. Except for the moments mentioned above, I liked seeing Connery and Bianchi together. However, it must be said that Bianchi isn’t given much of a character, to be honest.

On the whole, though, this is a significant improvement. The film managed to make SPECTRE feel like much more of a worthy foe for MI6 and Bond, the action is executed much better and there is more of it, the supporting cast is more memorable, and it, frankly, is much more fun than the previous entry in the film series. Terence Young’s From Russia With Love is the first good James Bond movie.

7.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

2 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: From Russia With Love (1963)

  1. The best Bond movie. The plot is not over the top and if one takes away the 007 agent the movie can be be appreciated as an espionage thriller.
    Connery was never better and Robert Shaw brilliant. The fight sequence on the train is still unmatched though imitated imitated in other Bond movies.

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