UK / USA, 1963
Review by Marcus Gilmer
Posted on 19 March 2005
Source MGM VHS
Features: The Genealogy of James Bond
The second movie in the Bond series, From Russia With Love is considered, along with it’s successor, Goldfinger, as one of the quintessential Bond movies. The pattern of the Bond franchise was still fresh; it had yet to become, in essence, a formula. While Dr. No had been a successful opener for the franchise, From Russia With Love featured several firsts: a pre-title sequence, the appearance of Q, the use of gadgets. The list goes on.
SPECTRE is attempting to gain control of LEKTOR, a decoding machine used by the Soviet government. Number Three, Rosa Klebb, has hoodwinked an unsuspecting Russian agent, Tatiana Romanova, into thinking she is working on behalf of her country in a plot against the evil Western Powers. Tatiana’s instructions are to act as though she were defecting and to ensnare British agent James Bond. Bond, once informed of the “defection,” is suspicious, but never one to turn down a pretty girl, and goes along with the act.
Once in Istanbul to collect Tatiana and LEKTOR, Bond befriends Kerim Bay, an ally to British Intelligence, all operating under their own suspicions. Meanwhile, pursuing them is Red Grant, an assassin trained by SPECTRE to take care of all three and retrieve LEKTOR. SPECTRE’s manipulations pit the Russians and British against each other, beginning with the assassination of a Bulgarian agent. The two sides battle throughout the movie, including a dazzling shoot-out at a gypsy camp where Bond has been taken to hide out.
Once the trio board the Orient Express to escape with LEKTOR to London, the film’s pace quickens. Bay is murdered and the moment allows Connery to show true emotion from Bond, a move that becomes less and less common in the series’ progression, even in the wake of the murder of Bond’s wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The film leads us through a series of exciting action sequences and gives us one of the more ingenious ideas of a villainous gadget, Klebb’s poison-tipped boots.
Aside from the establishment of the Bond Movie Protocol, another strength of the film is its camerawork. Given the opportunity to film in picturesque locales such as Istanbul, the camera takes in the surrounding landscapes, the narrow and winding city streets. The ability to capture these landscapes, particularly in the underground scenes, help to emphasize the general mood and create a necessary tension in this complex tale of espionage and double-crossing.
The cinematic element climaxes with the film in the showdown between Grant and Bond. Prior to their encounter, there is a shot of Bond walking outside the Orient Express while behind him, shadowing his moves, is Grant, visible through the train’s windows. It’s an uncomplicated move, especially for creating suspense, but there is something to be said for the simplicity of the moment, an unknowing Bond being tracked by a stealth assassin.
The ensuing hand-to-hand fight between Bond and Grant in the tight confines of Bond’s cabin is one of the best of the series. Again, the camerawork lends a claustrophobia to the scene, and once the lights go out, creating an eerie blue hue in the cabin, the suspense is heightened. In the back of our minds, we know Bond is going to prevail. There wouldn’t be twenty more movies if Bond dies, after all. But that the suspense is there, that there is actually a question of whether or not Bond will make it, verifies the sequence a tangible success.
It’s a brutal sequence and one can’t help but think if this is where Tarantino got the idea for his similar, lauded fight-scene-in-a-trailer in Kill Bill 2. And like that sequence, there is an underlying humor when Bond and Grant break through a partition and continue the fight into the compartment where a drugged Tatiana peacefully dozes, unaware of the vicious fight that rages beside her.
Later, when Bond literally dodges an aerial attack from a helicopter, the swooping shots not only capture a diving Bond, but also capture the sweeping landscape, a move that is at once both grandiose and gratifying. Bond is a small being, an ant, running and diving for his life. He seems, Heaven forbid, human in the midst of such a landscape and moment of duress.
From here, the franchise made Bond less human and more of a caricature. Likewise, the actual cinematic achievement of the Bond films begin to slip into standard action picture setups, rather than trying to accomplish anything as unique as the claustrophobic feel of the climactic train battle. It is a disappointment that a series like Bond reaches its peak so early. But a fan makes the distinction and appreciates From Russia With Love for what it is: the moment at which a storied franchise was hitting on all cylinders.