Terence Young | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | UK / English | PG / PG
If Dr. No gives the impression that the cinematic James Bond was born almost fully formed, then its sequel stands in stark contrast: with hindsight, it’s hard to avoid the fact that, for great swathes of its running time, From Russia With Love doesn’t feel that much like A James Bond Film. And yet it is nonetheless one of Fleming’s best novels turned into one of the series’ absolute best movies.
Uncommonly, it’s a very faithful rendition of the book. That makes it a Cold War spy thriller, albeit one with fantastical touches — it switches the novel’s Russian villains for Blofeld’s independent SPECTRE organisation, which is duping both the Brits and Ruskies. Mostly, though, it feels remarkably plausible. Sequences like the theft of a decoding machine from the Russian consulate, or the famous confined train carriage fight with Red Grant, have real-world heft rather than typical Bond action sequence fantasticism. With the Daniel Craig era (and Timothy Dalton, if only in retrospect for many) the franchise’s later years have shown it has room for both.
Indeed, those who note Craig’s general toughness undercut with the odd sliver of wit or sarcasm would do well to take another look at films like this one. At this early stage Connery’s Bond can be cold and calculating, as in the sniper-ish assassination of a Russian agent, or the previous film’s wait for Dent. He even slaps a woman. She’s drugged so perhaps it’s not entirely uncalled for, especially by the era’s standards, but it still strikes the viewer. Plus he’s not throwing out puns at every opportunity, or quipping with every particularly notable dispatch of a villain, but instead tosses the odd line or even just glance. There’s a direct line between this and the Craig films, neither of which seemly hugely similar to the more comical Moore (or even Brosnan) era.
In terms of the franchise’s development, FRWL does offer us the pre-titles action scene. Not scripted as such, but moved in the edit for effect, it was producer Harry Saltzman’s idea to kill off the hero in the opening minutes. Even when you know what’s going on, it’s still an impactful sequence. It segues wonderfully into Robert Brownjohn’s title sequence, with the credits projected onto close-ups of gyrating half-naked women. They have some relevance to the film itself rather than being wholly gratuitous (see the gypsy camp scene), but between this and his similar work on Goldfinger, Brownjohn’s significance to the familiar style of the Bond title sequence is perhaps understated. These aren’t the silhouettes and complex visual choreography of Binder’s even more distinctive work, but it’s a step in that direction from the flowing dots of Dr. No.
At times in the series’ past, From Russia With Love has been overlooked as an anomaly; a serious-minded stumbling block in the series throughline of outlandishness that leads directly from Dr. No to Goldfinger to hollowed out volcanoes in You Only Live Twice and the daftness that characterised so much of the Moore years. Recently, it’s garnered appreciation, both as not that much of a sore thumb and as an exceptional film in its own right. It’s well-deserved, because on any level this is one of the absolute best the series has to offer.
Reviewed as part of an overview of the Bond movies. For more, see here.