After just short of two months, it’s time to return to the James Bond series with the second film, From Russia With Love. I hadn’t intended for it to take so long to get back to “Chronological Bond”, but I honestly just lost track of it for a bit. But delays or not, the series will saunter onward.
As I enjoyed Dr. No, I was glad to see that director Terence Young was still at the helm for the second film. I already knew Connery would remain as Bond for a while, of course, but the Bond directors aren’t talked about quite as much as the Bond actors. It’s a shame because there are definite signs of growth in From Russia With Love in terms of the action and the story.
And in the use of sinister feline imagery.
When I reviewed Dr. No, one of the things I noted — not as a complaint, but just as a point of interest — was that early on it didn’t feel like a spy film so much as it felt like a detective film, with Bond investigating the disappearance of a colleague. That doesn’t apply here. From Russia With Love feels like a spy film from the very beginning, opening up with an assassination training session and segueing through a few scenes until it comes to a covert meeting of SPECTRE. SPECTRE has a plot to both assassinate James Bond and gain themselves some money through obtaining and ransoming a cipher device belonging to the Russians. Their dupe in the ploy is a somewhat naive Russian agent, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), who believes she is acting under the orders of her superior officer. Bond willingly lets himself be drawn into the ploy, knowing it’s a trap but believing he can turn it to his advantage.
And Bond of course loves to take advantage.
The movie is set in Istanbul, which allows for a neutral playing field where neither side has a distinct advantage. Thus it enables a solid game of cat-and-mouse as Tatiana is lured into luring Bond, and SPECTRE works at stirring things up between the Russians and the British and their allies. Pedro Armendáriz plays the Turkish Kerim Bey (possibly the only Bey ever to be named Pedro) and is an entertaining counterpoint to Bond. While Connery’s Bond is hardly sombre, the jovial Bey still strikes a distinct contrast. There’s also a simple contrast with the opposition leadership. While Bey, as one of the good guys, is outgoing and friendly, Russian-turned-SPECTRE Rosa Klebbs (Lotte Lenya) is cold and closed. She’s highly capable, but the nature of her work requires her to be circumspect with what she says to Tatiana, her supposed subordinate.
There are a handful of named villains of varying importance — including the first semi-on-screen appearance of the infamous Blofeld — but Robert Shaw as Grant is one of the more interesting ones. For much of the film he appears to be the standard silent assassin, but we get to hear him speak his mind eventually; while it’s not vastly different from the usual villain speech, it’s still a nice twist on expectations. It shows while he may still be two-dimensional, he’s not quite one-dimensional.
He has to have something to monologue about, after all.
Thanks to starting off with the spymaster planning and setting it in a place where the various agents can engage in back-and-forth actions with ease, the film has a fair amount of spy action in it. This isn’t always big explosive stuff, but the gamesmanship keeps the film moving at a brisk pace; it’s a lot of fun to watch, and there are few slow moments. James Bond even has the first of his familiar complex gadgets. Dr. No was a very enjoyable film, but overall it feels as though director Terence Young learned a few things from it and improved on them just a bit. It feels more like a spy movie, with different sides playing off of each other. The threats — while sometimes seeming to come out of the blue — seem more credible than the “dragon tank” of Dr. No. It even does a better job of dubbing in the lines for the female lead (as with Ursula Andress, Daniele Bianchi had an accent that was wrong for the character she was playing.) If Goldfinger similarly improves on the formula, it’s likely to be a great film.
All this isn’t to say From Russia With Love is without its flaws, however. I thought the scene with the gypsies, particularly the inept cat-fight, was superfluous. And Tatiana’s motivations evolve quickly with little explanation other than proximity. But these are mild complaints about a film that is, overall, quite good. I’m not prepared to call From Russia With Love an all-time great film, but the James Bond franchise is definitely starting to show how its reputation is built.