From Russia with Love (1963)
Though low-budget and a bit controversial, Dr. No had been a bit o a box office success. In the 1960s, as now, that meant a sequel was assured. It wasn't that much of a surprise as producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman intended Dr. No to be the first in a franchise, and it turned out their plan worked out well. With director Terence Young back on board and twice the budget, it was time to to film one of Ian Fleming's most popular James Bond novels.
SPECTRE is back, this time wanting to kill two birds with one stone: steal a coding machine from the Russians and get revenge on James Bond (Sean Connery). Even though we don't see his face, we meat Ernst Stavro Blofeld (and his white cat) for the first time as he plots with defected Soviet intelligence agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and chess champion Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal). The idea is to convince a low-level agent at the Soviet consulate in Istanbul name Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to pretend to fall in love with Bond and help him steal the machine, at which point SPECTRE's hired killer Red Grant (Robert Shaw) would step in, dispose of them both and make off with the prize.
Romanova is convinced by Klebb, not knowing that the latter had gone over to SPECTRE as the Soviet government had kept her defection quiet. While both M (Bernard Lee) and Bond are sure it's a trap, the chance of getting their hands on the machine is just too good, so Bond is off to Istanbul and, with the help of local Turkish intelligence officer Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) hatch a plan to both steal the machine and help Romanova defect. Everything seems to go too well, as Grant makes sure any danger to Bond is dealt with until, on a ride on the Orient Express from Istanbul to Trieste, he can put SPECTRE's plan into motion.
Ian Fleming's original novel was meant to be the last in the James Bond series, as up to then the books weren't selling too well. However, From Russia with Love turned out to be the one that turned the fortunes of the series around - a small problem as James Bond died at the end. It was also largely a straight Cold War spy story, with Romanova a trained operative and the real-life Soviet organization SMERSH (Smyert' shpionom, or "Death to Spies") being behind the operation. SPECTRE was something dreamed up by Fleming as he thought that the Cold War would be coming to an end soon and didn't want his books to be dated. Since that organization turned out to be behind Dr. No's plans in the first movie, it was only natural that the second film be retooled to include them. Also, unlike in the book, it is quite obvious that Bond survives, as Goldfinger was already in development.
Once again Terence Young does a great job with the directing. I thought that his handling of Dr. No made that movie seem a lot more like a modern action film, and that is even more true for From Russia with Love. The fight between Grant and Bond on the train (with Grant being the physical, but not mental, superior) is definitely a highlight, and Robert Shaw and his bleached hair making him a memorable villain. Kronsteen, who puts the plan together, only shows up toward the beginning and the end. Same could be said for Klebb, but Lotte Lenya's little time on screen as memorable, from her almost overt lesbian overtures toward Romanova to the final fight with Bond.
Sean Connery himself feels more at home with the character this time around. Where some of the newer films with Daniel Craig have retooled the character and given him a bit more of an origin story, Dr. No just dropped a fully-formed agent in our laps. Here we get less of a brass superhero and more of an experienced, and dangerous, spy. Pedro Almendariz is a great sidekick to him throughout most of the movie, with Kerim Bey's connection (not to mention virtual army of sons) helping to negotiate Istanbul.
Again, this where Young does a great job with his location filming. While a good part of the action scenes were filmed aboard the actual Orient Express or at Pinewood Studios, the actual location footage is almost done documentary style and gives the sense of how that ancient city was at that particular point in time. It also portrays Turkey in a bit of a better light than Fleming's novel did, as he often made the locals look like pure savages that were ready to cut your throat at any time. A little of this portrayal shows up during the visit to the Gypsy camp, which begins with two women having a catfight, moves into a major action scene as Bulgarian agents invade the camp and (with Bond's and Kerim's help) are fought off - and, of course, Bond winning both women in the end.
Of course Young doesn't stop there, giving us a helicopter and a speedboat chase (with some quite panicked stuntmen) for good measure. We also get an introduction to some of Bond's special equipment, courtesy of a first appearance by Desmond Llewellyn as Q.
Unfortunately, the only weak point in the movie is glaring: Daniela Bianchi. She is quite pretty, but nowhere near the trained and dangerous agent that Romanova should be. Instead she is treated merely as eye candy, like all the other female side characters other than Klebb. She, like the code machine, is just another prize for Bond to win.
When I first saw From Russia with Love back in the mid-1990s it was one of my least favorite Bond films, but, as I have been discovering lately, age does change the perspective a bit. Where Dr. No built the framework for the more comic book style Bond films, this second go set a more serious tone that really didn't return until Casino Royale.
From Russia with Love (1963)
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Almendariz, Robert Shaw, Lotte Lenya
Director: Terence Young