Retrospective: From Russia With Love (1963)

I wanted to write a retrospective on a Bond movie for a while as the franchise has been a familiar friend from a young age. I remember recording it on tapes and watching it over and over again from the age of 6 or 7. It’s always been very hard to choose which movie is my favourite although admittedly at times the series has been very inconsistent. According to the producers, the second in the movie franchise, From Russia With Love, was the one they most hoped would recapture the magic of the book series as it seamlessly combines Cold War paranoia, humour and sex appeal.

It can be seen as a tribute to Hitchcock in many ways, not least with the long train sequence and clothes (Carry Grant’s suit in North by Northwest looks awfully similar to Bond’s on the train sequence towards the end). There have been many actors who have played the role of Bond over the years and for me, although I like all the actors and their respective talents (with the exception of George Lazenby), Sean Connery will forever be Bond. This movie encapsulates the magic of Bond that few of the other movies have managed, exemplified by the rather large misstep they made with Thunderball not long afterwards, although I always put Goldfinger (the following movie) and You Only Live Twice as my other two favourite movies from the series.

You rush home from school running down the stairs two at time to watch your favourite thing. You’ve brought a friend to show them the thrill of James Bond, the hero you always wanted to be. Cramming the video cassette into the player; you here the distinctive music and the memorable opening credits of Bond walking across the screen through a gun barrel, before he shoots you and the blood floats down the screen. You excitingly tell your friend what happened in the other movies. YOU saw how cool it was when he electrocuted that baddie in the bath with a broken lamp. Then the movie starts, showing Bond do a cool thing with a special gun. For all you know it can shoot through anything at any range. You see a baddie sneaking around a country mansion and he strangles Bond to death as you sit there speechlessly horrified…

A red herring beginning became something of a Bond trademark in the early movies. The introduction of the characters is seamless as we see Bond sleeping with an old flame at Cambridge and rediscover old characters from the first movie: Monypenny, M and the introduction of Desmond Llewellyn as Q, who gives Bond a very restrained set of tools compared with later movies. They are introduced to Spectre, the bane of Bond throughout the early films and he becomes the main villain in a very sinister way as we hear much but see little of him and his white persian cat. The film introduces a sinister chess master (one of the few action movies to include a chess scene) and a Russian double agent who coerces the most beautiful Bond girl into sleeping with Bond (Tatiana Romanova played by Italian actress Daniela Bianchi), who is portrayed as naïve but loyal. Finally the plot McGuffin is what makes this Bond movie so interesting because of how irrelevant it is compared with later movies and other action movies. It’s a coding device which the western allies would rather like to look at. Not a doomsday device, a nuke, or something magical (a problem that kept on appearing in later movies worst being Die Another Day), it’s just something to get Bond’s love interest and assassin to the same place and locale and not overshadow the whole film with its cliché.

It has a I nice sense of character development as Bond develops his relationship with a helpful Turkish contact. There’s an interesting bit of culture shock as Bond observes the easy nature between the west and the east on the border and unofficial rules such as following each others cars and bugging hotel rooms as a matter of course. The fact Bond isn’t a combat god and is saved both by the assassin (earlier) and by the girl at the end makes this even more enjoyable.

The introduction of Tatiana Romanova should be mentioned as it is an iconic and wonderful bit of filmmaking as you see her through a filter, getting into bed nude and earing nothing but a black choker making it such a sexy scene. It’s a wonderful bit of titillation and typical of why Bond movies became such a well-known brand as it combined spy mysteries with sex, loosening up of censorship.

You settle into the theme of the movie, enjoying the atmosphere, dreaming of the exotic places and traveling in the sort of luxury Bond enjoys. All of that champagne to order if money was no object, consider what to smoke and what to order in the most luxurious of places. You don’t know if you’ll like any of it but it’s what Bond orders and he looks cool doing it and so will you. Exotic locales, beautiful women, lots of exciting looking drinks and you just hope you can persuade mum or dad to let you try a martini. You hope Bond gets into a big fight and shows what a great fighter he is and he always provides a good quip you can try and remember.

Another fact which makes this movie so good is that it has a sense of humour. It is funny in places and tries to keep quite a lighthearted tone throughout. Now onwards to one of the nicest sections of the movie, the daring escape with the lector machine (the plot McGuffin). It starts with a train journey through Europe on a steam train (how romantic), through the Balkans but with a twist as everyone on board seems to be a Russian spy or assassin. Bond and his Turkish friend Ali Kerim Bey are on the train trying to make a daring escape across the frontier. This is very reminiscent of North by Northwest, Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps. It also has an example of what The Incredibles called ‘monologing’, where the enemy has a character at their mercy and then starts explaining their plan, only for it to inevitably blow up in their face having unnecessarily revealed so much.

It is a classic example of fiction innovating at the time and so very distinctive in its style and well worth watching even if you do not like the rest of the series. It is a very good movie in its own right as its what you want to see in these sorts of movie. Its age is frankly irrelevant as there are so few areas where it feels out of date and it would be churlish to complain on age when its look is so iconic and its style is still copied to this day. Undoubtedly, this is the movie that the Bond franchise has endeavored to recapture the magic of ever since.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl


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