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From Russia with Love (1963)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Sean Connery, Robert Shaw, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya

Written By: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Ian Fleming (novel) Directed By: Terence Young

The Short Version

James Bond returns for his second silver screen adventure.

It’s also Sean Connery’s favorite.

The tone lies somewhere between what James Bond would become and Hitchcock.

Eon was very wily indeed to go with SPECTRE as the villain.

From Russia With Love is one of the truly great 007 films.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Not everyone’s first choice, but a solid one when you give it a go.

Pairs Well With...


Turkish booze with notes of anise.  It’s just the thing to accompany a gypsy catfight.

“Siamese fighting fish: fascinating creatures.  Brave, but on the whole, stupid.  Yes, they're stupid... except for the occasional one such as we have here, who lets the other two fight while he waits.  Waits until the survivor is so exhausted that he cannot defend himself, and then, like SPECTRE, he strikes!”

It is said that while the James Bond film franchise was still in the planning stages – even before it was decided which of Ian Fleming’s books would be made into a movie first – one of the ideas tossed about was to bring on none other than Alfred Hitchcock to direct an adaptation of “From Russia with Love.”  Though this of course never came to pass, it is clear after watching the version of From Russia with Love that did become a reality that director Terence Young certainly chose to study a few pages from the great man’s playbook.  Naturally, the results aren’t quite the same, but they are none the less quite excellent; indeed, the film would go on to become one of producer Albert Broccoli’s favorites, and actor Sean Connery’s single favorite.

And yet, with many modern audiences – at least in North America – From Russia with Love doesn’t seem to get quite the same respect that it used to.  Personally, I’m willing to go out on a limb and blame the likes of Michael Bay.  Sure, there’s action – and good stuff, too – but the pacing is so deliberate that modern short attention spans might not have the patience to deal with it.  Shame, that.

From Russia with Love is a classic old school intelligence thriller played out as a chess match, featuring double and triple crosses that rely on strong foundations of character building and plot setup to work.  This deliberate style of storytelling remains outside of the franchise mold that would come to be defined with the next film, but an important script decision helps to assure the ultimate long-term survivability of the series.  In Ian Fleming’s original novel – a favorite of John F. Kennedy, whose declaration of such helped to make the character of James Bond popular in America not long before the films started to hit the bijou – 007’s adversary was SMERSH, the real Soviet counterintelligence agency whose long form name happened to mean “Death to Spies” in Russian.  An American studio would have eagerly jumped on this idea and taken advantage of the political climate to rile up the audience; Eon Productions, however, felt that the tension of the Cold War made it imperative that SMERSH not be used as the “bad guys” of the film, instead opting to continue the SPECTRE angle introduced in the first movie, which required the introduction of additional convolutions and at least one subplot to screenplay.  The result is a picture that’s much more timeless than a standard “Soviet-bashing” flick would have been, and the fact that the franchise would continue in this vein (rogues notwithstanding, the Soviets would always be looked upon as respected and almost friendly competition) helps the entire series to keep from becoming too dated (though it would always be timely).  Very well played.

The unique opening act is also very well played.  James Bond himself doesn’t truly appear until more than eighteen minutes into the film; until then, everything is told from the perspective of the villains.  It’s a fascinating artistic choice that would not be repeated, but it works extremely well here, taking what had been an abstract two sentence concept of SPECTRE as described in the previous film and fleshing it out into a fully functional – and damn dangerous – organization capable of standing toe to toe with the great intelligence services of the world.  Because of this, the rest of From Russia with Love is infinitely more effective, as the setup pays major dividends while the audience enjoys the deliberately paced, Hitchcock-style action.  Drawing heavy influence from pictures like North by Northwest – the helicopter scene is a direct homage – From Russia with Love is a travelogue laced with bullets and intrigue, flowing freely from assassinations in the Hagia Sophia to an implied threesome with a pair of gypsy women to even more murder on the Orient Express.  It’s as dangerously adventurous as it could be without making threats to go over the top, making its points with no gadget more unusual than a wristwatch with a retractable garrote or a briefcase where the deodorant stick inside is really a little tear gas bomb.  The frame is in place, and Sean Connery is much more comfortable in the skin of 007 than he was just the year before, but the essential “James Bond-ness” by which the rest of the franchise would be defined would need more film to come to the fore.

And that, I think, is why so many modern audiences are willing to pass up From Russia with Love.  It just doesn’t meet the expectations of a longstanding fan who picked things up in the middle; indeed, even the first film bears a greater resemblance to the over the top actioners we’ve all since come to know and love.  (After all, it did feature an open air nuclear reactor, whereas this one has… a flare gun?)  Taken from that perspective, I can understand the point, but I absolutely don’t agree with it.  From Russia with Love is still definitively enough a member of the club, and from there deserves to be taken as its own movie.  Sure, it’s different, but it’s wonderfully different.

It pays attention to the details of its story in a way that wouldn’t truly be seen again until Casino Royale.  The acting is marvelous; Sean Connery really comes into his own here, and Pedro Armendariz delivers a performance for the ages that would, sadly, also be his last.  Robert Shaw – yes, the same guy who’d go shark hunting in Jaws – so wonderfully defines the role of henchman-as-main-villain-substitute that he would become the template for all of those that followed.  From Russia with Love is rich in so many ways that it’s really hard to catch them all in one sitting; it’s the sort of movie that begs to be watched over and over again.  If that’s not an indicator of great cinema, what is?

(Coming full circle with the trivia, one particular member of the audience would, unfortunately, only get to see the movie once.  Though it wasn’t officially released in the United States until 1964, there was a special screening of From Russia with Love held at the White House for 007’s biggest American fan: President John F. Kennedy.  It happened on November 20, 1963, making this the last film that JFK ever saw.)

If I must find one flaw with this film, it’s the theme song, which, while fitting for the era, is just plain dull.  It might have worked if Dean Martin had been asked to croon it instead, but alas, no such luck.  Other than that, though?  Nope; nothing wrong here.

From Russia with Love may not be your typical James Bond flick, but there’s a reason that it’s become a (or the) favorite of so many people involved with its making.  The reason is that it’s a damn good movie, and very much worth anyone’s time.  Whether you’re an established 007 fan or not, you can’t go wrong spending an evening with From Russia with Love.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2013

More From The Bar! | Dr. No | Goldfinger | Strangers on a Train | Telefon | Spectre |

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