It was a foregone conclusion that with the success of Dr. No, the uptick of the cold war, and the beginning of the spy craze, Bond would return to the big screen. The political tensions being what they were, the producers already agreed to avoid potential trouble by replacing SMERSH with SPECTRE, a move that allowed for an even greater threat than the real world Soviet Union was capable of delivering on its own. The only question would be, which story would follow Dr. No?
The answer came from an interview with President John F. Kennedy in LIFE Magazine. Kennedy had commented that Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love was among his ten favorite novels, and the president’s popularity made it all come together with the kind of advertising money can’t buy.
This film introduces us to the faceless head of the organization, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, known here only as Number 1. Though credited with a question mark, Blofeld is first played by Anthony Dawson, who played Professor Dent in Dr. No. His voice was provided by Viennese actor Eric Pholmann. Having previously established Dr. No to be an agent of SPECTRE, Blofeld’s aim is to pit the British and the Soviets against one another, with Dr. No’s assassin — James Bond — caught in the middle. In short, it’s a revenge play that happens to walk right into SPECTRE’s goals.
Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal), SPECTRE’s Number 5, and expert strategist and chess master, manipulates Bond into stealing a Lektor cryptograph machine from the Soviets. Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), ex-SMERSH operative and SPECTRE’s Number 3, recruits assassin Donald “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw) and cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi in her first role). Grant’s assignment is to protect Bond until he acquires the Lektor, then to kill him and retrieve the device so they can sell it back to the Soviets. Romanova, believing she is still working for SMERSH, is ordered to lure Bond into the quite obvious trap with the ruse that she has fallen in love with Bond because of a photograph she found in an intelligence file, can help him acquire the Lektor, and is wanting to defect, willing to trade the Lektor for Bond’s protection.
The story that unfolds from here is one of the most excellent portrayals of back-and-forth espionage ever depicted on screen. Bond is dispatched to Istanbul to meet with station head Ali Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz), where he discovers that the cold war plays out quite differently as the operatives trail each other back and forth openly as part of a game. Bey allows Bond to see who the opposing players are via periscope beneath the Soviet consulate, but plans go awry after that, resulting in some narrow misses due to Grant’s secret intervention. When Bond returns to his suite, he finds Romanova waiting for him in his bed, and he sleeps with her because, well, that’s who Bond is. Neither are aware that SPECTRE is filming them.
Romanova goes to the pre-arranged rendezvous at the Hagia Sophia the next day, dropping off floor plans for the consulate, and Bond retrieves them as his Bulgarian tails are being dropped by Grant to ensure success. Bond and Bey steal the Lektor and escape with Romanova aboard the Orient Express. I’ll spare the details here, but suffice it to say, Grant is exposed as an enemy agent because he orders red wine with fish, something Bond declares as most uncivilized. It’s certainly not a mistake anyone aboard that train would make. Bond tricks Grant into setting off the trap in his attaché case, then stabs him with the concealed knife before strangling him with his own garrote.
Upon receiving the report of Grant’s death, Number 1 summons Kronsteen and Klebb. As a reminder that SPECTRE does not tolerate failure, Kronsteen is executed, and Klebb is given one final chance to complete the mission. Klebb dispatches agent Morzeny to intercept Bond enroute to Britain with a squadron of SPECTRE boats, which Bond evades in what can only be called trademark levels of destruction. Bond and Romanova reach Venice, where Klebb, disguised as a maid, attempts to steal the Lektor. After struggling with Bond, she is shot by Romanova, who then rows into the distance with Bond in a gondola.
From Russia With Love introduced several conventions that would become part of the Bond formula. The pre-title sequence, the Blofeld character, the secret weapon / gadget, a helicopter sequence (which is in virtually every Bond film with the notable exception of The Man With the Golden Gun), an action sequence after the primary climax, a theme song with lyrics (this time used in the end credits, but that would change), and the comment line “James Bond will return / be back.” Another long-running addition would be actor Desmond Llewelyn stepping into the role of Major Boothroyd, better known as Q, a role he would assume until his death in 1999.
Behind the scenes, actor Pedro Armendariz was recommended to director Terence Young by John Ford to play Kerim Bey. Armendariz experienced increasing discomfort on set and then diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He worked as long as possible before his death, with his final scenes utilizing a stunt double and the director himself as stand-ins.
After disputes involving the James Bond theme song (the producers were dissatisfied with it!), composer Monty Norman was replaced by John Barry, who worked with Norman on Dr. No and would go on to score Bond films through the Connery and Lazenby eras, every other Moore film, and the first for Timothy Dalton, for a total of 12 scores. His “007” theme introduced here was intended to be a secondary and ultimate replacement of the original theme, but the original managed to overshadow every attempt, and it got worked back in during post-production. In retrospect, it’s one of the most recognizable theme songs on the planet, so it perhaps seems unthinkable that such attempts were even made. Barry also tried to incorporate the influences of local music for film, but he found Turkish music had a comedic tone to it that he felt wasn’t right for the dramatic feel of the Bond films.
The reviews for this film were off the chart. One critic declared it as “highly immoral in every imaginable way; it is neither uplifting, instructive or life-enhancing. Neither is it great film-making. But it sure is fun.” Almost everyone else had similar things to say, commenting on the relentless pace, the sets, and all of the things that would go on to characterize the franchise as a whole. As a lurid adventure feature, From Russia With Love carved a greater worldwide niche on the cutting edge of pop culture, the effects of which can’t be overstated. The arc of success through the next two features, Goldfinger and Thunderball, would serve to cement the legacy. Today, From Russia With Love is considered one of the finest in the 007 franchise, with many declaring it to be the best Bond of all time, a title often disputed with Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The producers of the films often declare that they go into every production trying to make another From Russia With Love and end up making another Thunderball, declaring this film to be where the Bond style formula was perfected, before it reached its over-the-top levels of comic book action. The producers stand by this to the point that every audition involving a new Bond actor or a new Bond girl uses as the screen test the scene where Bond meets Romanova in his bed.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the over-the-top stuff as much as anyone. My first Bond was Roger Moore, and that’s what sold me. But I always come back to these early Connery films with admiration. The actors play everything straight here. There are subtexts and overtones, but there’s no hamming it up for the camera. The gadgets are there, but they’re understated. The focus is on the people and the mission. The villains seem more threatening because less is more. There’s more of the intent of Fleming’s original here than in many of the subsequent films, but more than that, Connery is pushing that role to make it his own. It may not be Connery’s first Bond, and it certainly wouldn’t be his last, but it’s easy to look back and say this is where he became a star. He didn’t have to compete with the likes of Jack Lord this time. His star power shines through and makes everyone else on set look better as a result.
From Russia With Love was the last film President Kennedy saw at the White House on November 20, 1963, before going to Dallas.