Continuing my series on the EON Pictures James Bond films, I examine the second entry in the series, From Russia with Love. As a reminder, since I’m analyzing the film both in relation to its period and how well it stands up today, this essay contains spoilers.
In 1963, the Cold War was at its hottest. Any edge the West could gain over the Soviets (and vice versa) absolutely had to be explored. So when MI6 is tempted with a Soviet Lektor decoder machine, they have to bite.
Gorgeous Russian cypher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, contacts the British consulate and says she is willing to defect and turn over a Lektor if the agent who helps her is James Bond. Allegedly, she has fallen in love with him from a file photo.
In reality, it’s an elaborate plot by the sinister criminal organization, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. The U.S.S.R.’s head of Smersh (the assassination arm of the KGB), Rosa Klebb, has defected to S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and it is she who sends Romanova on her mission, telling her it is a plot to disinform British Intelligence.
S.P.E.C.T.R.E. intends to have Romanova help Bond steal the Lektor, kill them both, and then sell the Lektor back to the Russians, making a tidy profit in the process.
Moreover, Romanova will seduce Bond, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agents will film them in bed, and then, after they are dead, make it look like a murder-suicide, wherein Romanova threatened to go to the press with the film. All this is revenge against Bond for killing Dr. No in the previous film and foiling his plan to topple U.S. rockets.
Naturally, the evil plan goes awry when Romanova legitimately falls in love with Bond and when he proves too much for the killers S.P.E.C.T.R.E. sends after him.
It’s impossible to examine the second James Bond movie without comparing it to the first. Dr. No is a compact film that takes place almost entirely in Jamaica. From Russia with Love is a sprawling adventure story with locations in Istanbul, a gypsy camp, Venice, and a deadly train ride that invokes Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Dr. No has a mysterious villain we know little about and don’t see until nearly the end of the movie. In From Russia with Love, we meet almost all the bad guys before Bond even steps in front of the camera for the first time. Moreover, Dr. No is a mystery, wherein we’re trying to guess what’s happening. From Russia with Love tells us what the villains are up to right away.
There’s another major difference between the two movies that will impact how the series develops. Dr. No is pretty grounded. The film is exotic — from its Caribbean location to Bond’s sexual promiscuity — but it is more or less a realistic detective story.
From Russia with Love moves the series into the realm of fantasy. It is the first movie to feature gadgets. Bond’s briefcase has secret throwing knives and an exploding tear gas cartridge. Red Grant kills by garroting his victims with a wire concealed in his wrist watch. Rosa Klebb has a poisoned knife in the toe of her shoe.
Other fantasy elements infuse the movie with a sense of wonder. Bond visits a gypsy camp, and a huge fight breaks out when rival Bulgars attack, trying to kill 007’s ally, Kerim Bey. The minor villain, Krilenko, is shot trying to escape through a secret hatch in his apartment building. A boat chase through the Mediterranean Sea results in lots of explosions.
And the whole plot is over the top. Fearing Russian reactions if they adapted Fleming’s novel exactly, the producers altered the story to make S.P.E.C.T.R.E. the villain instead of Smersh, like in the book. Thus, the whole thing takes on a more fantastic feeling. It is a Cold War thriller, but by changing the bad guys from the Soviets to S.P.E.C.T.R.E., it’s not gruesome.
Where It Fits
It’s strange to label only the second movie in a series as long as James Bond as a transitional film, but that’s what From Russia with Love is. It stands as a bridge between the mostly serious spy film that is Dr. No and the all-out fantasy of the next chapter, Goldfinger.
FRWL has a strong Cold War espionage flavor. Bond is in Istanbul, and the Russians are watching everything he does very carefully. Indeed, the goal of the mission is to steal important spyware from the Soviets.
Red Grant is a heartless killer. He’s almost completely dispassionate. Bond does manage to goad him into losing his temper once. But even that is controlled. Grant otherwise displays no emotion as he kills victim after victim to ensure Bond gets out of Istanbul with Romanova and the Lektor.
But there’s also a lot of outrageous material that will come to be hallmarks of the series. In addition to the aforementioned gadgets and the credulity-stretching plot, the characters become larger than life to complement Bond.
Kerim Bey has a broad personality, and he steals every scene he’s in. Funny, likeable, and capable, Kerim is the perfect ally for the suave, British spy.
From Russia with Love has multiple villains. It is the first movie to feature a privileged henchman — the superhuman killer Bond must defeat before he can take out the mastermind — in Red Grant. And then there is Klebb, who is running the operation for S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and chess master Kronsteen, who conceives the plot and plans out all the details. Both of them, though, are lackeys themselves in the employ of the mysterious, unseen head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., who, despite being named as Ernst Blofeld in the closing credits, is referred to only as “Number One.”
The fact that From Russia with Love is a hybrid between the first Bond picture and the ones that follow it makes it my favorite film in the series. It has all the intrigue of a spy thriller with enough fantasy to make it a lot of fun.
More than 50 years after its release, From Russia with Love holds up well. The politics woven through the film are long gone, but the story is complex enough without being obtuse that it plays very well, even as a period piece.