Page to Screen: From Russia With Love (1963)

From Russia With Love
based on the novel by Ian Fleming

Second verse, same as the first verse. Basically, I’ve copied my friend Natalya’s initiative to watch all twenty-three Bond films, albeit a little backwards. So far, I’ve seen Skyfall, Dr. No, and From Russia with Love, the latter two over Thanksgiving. Three down, twenty to go. (And yet somehow, this is easier than getting through Star Trek: The Original Series. Who’d have thought?)

From Russia With Love finds the organization SPECTRE seeking revenge on James Bond for killing their operative Dr. No in the previous film. When their expert planner Kronsteen devises a scheme to steal a cryptographic device from the Russians in order to sell it back to them, he also adds a component that can eliminate Bond—recruiting a young Russian woman who believes her superiors are Russian, rather than SPECTRE, to seduce Bond, and recruiting an assassin to finish the job off. It’s obviously a trap, but the cryptographic device proves too tempting for MI6, and off Bond goes, into another whirlwind adventure.

Released a single year after Dr. No, From Russia with Love is a bit more cooked according to the Bond recipe. Bond takes forever to show up (something that reminds me strongly of the CSI and Law and Order franchises…), but there’s gorgeous, lush sets, evil villains, beautiful women, and witty, bawdy one-liners. From Russia with Love sees the introduction of SPECTRE proper (after being mentioned by Dr. No in his eponymous film) with its head, Blofeld (unnamed here and, delightfully, credited as a simple question mark), who I like to think of as a cat with an extremely deep voice. It also sees the introduction of the now formulaic pre-credit sequence (usually an action-packed sequence, such as this film’s manhunt through a topiary labyrinth) and the credit sequence, where the credits are projected onto the bodies of scantily clad women. There is a theme song, performed by Matt Munro, but it’s not played over the credits. It still needs a little time in the oven, but it’s mostly there. (Can you tell I’ve been cooking and baking like a madwoman?)

Like Dr. No, the pacing is… well, I’ll be honest—I fell asleep towards the end of From Russia With Love, during a tense scene between Bond and the assassin out to get him, who is, shall we say, monologuing. To be fair, I had just cooked Thanksgiving dinner and eaten this bittersweet chocolate and pear cake, which will make you see God, so it’s not like it’s the film’s fault. (Advice from Natalya: “Rewatch that scene, Clare.” So the scene is vouched for.) There’s a bit more structure here, as Bond doesn’t have to investigate before incurring the wrath of the antagonists to get the plot going. Rather, we watch Bond on guard throughout the entire thing, trying to play his adversaries as they play him. Dr. No, despite the big, villainous finish, was much more a mystery; From Russia With Love is much more a spy film. And perhaps that’s why it feels more like a Bond film—it’s getting closer to spy thriller.

The politics of From Russia with Love remain much the same as Dr. No, with the addition of “EVIL LESBIAN!” (yawn) and more racial issues. Kerim Bey is the station head of the MI6 station in Istanbul and he is an utter delight; warm, funny (there’s a running gag about his numerous sons essentially constituting the ground troops of MI6 in Turkey), and still capable of getting business done, such as killing a man whilst having a wounded arm. If original flavor Bond is all about the culturally approved sociopathy, Kerim Bey is all about neatly balancing one’s own life with MI6. The fact that Pedro Armendariz was able to pull this off while painfully and visibly dying of cancer is astonishing, but we still must deal with the fact that a Mexican-American actor is playing a Turkish character. And the less said about the film’s visit to a “Gypsy” encampment the better, really. (“Ah,” I told my mother, “clearly this will be a nuanced depiction of the Romani people.”)

…Yes, Moneypenny remains delightful; the moment she’s ordered out of a room because M doesn’t want her to hear an embarrassing story, she eavesdrops on it. I had a conversation with my friend Natalya where we concluded that original flavor Moneypenny is an indoor cat, but no less awesome for being so.

Bottom line: From Russia with Love has the young franchise finding its legs, adding SPECTRE, a pre-credit sequence, the infamous credit sequence, and a theme song. The pacing remains a little slow, but it’s tighter than Dr. No, and Kerim Bey is a delight. The usual awful politics still apply, however.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

2 thoughts on “Page to Screen: From Russia With Love (1963)

    • Well, the next review that’ll go up is Goldfinger, but these posts are scheduled well into the future, so the next one I’m watching in real time will be The Man with the Golden Gun, once I have a weekend where I can skip on down to our local independent video rental place. I’ve got a lot of difficulty with availability from public libraries for the Moore films, actually!

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