From Russia With Love

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Dr. No starts with SPECTRE trying to cover up an evil plan, accidentally drawing the attention of MI6. Bond meets the sexy baccarat player Sylvia Trench before being called away to get his mission. He schmoozes with Moneypenny, gets some intel from M and a new piece of gear from Q, hooks up with Sylvia, and flies to an exotic location where a mysterious figure in a car spots him leaving the airport and tails him to his meeting with MI6’s local liaison.

From Russia With Love starts with SPECTRE initiating an evil plan to draw the attention of MI6. Bond hooks up with Sylvia Trench before being called away to get his mission. He schmoozes with Moneypenny, gets some intel from M and some new gadgets from Q, and flies to an exotic location where a mysterious figure in a car spots him leaving the airport and tails him to his meeting with MI6’s local liaison.

After the success of Dr. No, it’s not surprising that director Terence Young and producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman wouldn’t want to deviate too far from the formula with their first James Bond sequel. Thankfully, as the movie gets going, it manages to overcome its weak start and its own misguided ideas of Bond as a playboy, to finish with a strong second half, becoming a great spy movie in its own right and outshining Dr. No.

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So Bond travels to Istanbul because MI6 has gotten word that a Soviet cipher clerk wants to defect to the West, bringing with her a prized cryptographic device. This is actually an elaborate plot by SPECTRE to pit Britain against Russia (a cool use of the Cold War setting that Dr. No mostly eschewed) and get their revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No. Unfortunately, this elaborate plan doesn’t work as a mystery since we’re shown right from the very start what SPECTRE is doing and how they’re doing it. There’s no mystery in the movie because we’re never in the dark about who is pulling the strings and what they’re doing to influence the plot.

The upside of seeing SPECTRE’s inner workings straight from the beginning of the film (even if it means spending a little too long before getting to Bond) is that SPECTRE is goofy as hell. Like Dr. No’s dragon tank and lair, SPECTRE is also where From Russia With Love gets to get over-the-top and silly: the impractical training ground with flamethrowers, Blofeld’s always hidden face and his iconic white cat, and the poisonous shoe knife used to dispatch underperforming employees all add a flavor to the movie that’s mostly missing from the main proceedings with Bond. These scenes never feel as silly as Dr. No’s but they’re a fun way to break up the spy stuff that Bond is doing in Istanbul and build mystery for Bond’s future run-ins with the organization.

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For Bond’s side of things, From Russia With Love is a mostly straightforward spy story. The first half of the movie sees him traipsing around Istanbul and getting drip fed information about the defecting Soviet Tatiana, the cryptograph that they plan on stealing, and their plan to escape back to Britain, all the while Bond acts like a sexist pig. Unfortunately, Young, Broccoli, and Saltzman must have thought the misogynist stuff in Dr. No worked great because they’ve decided to up the ante in this one.

The fact that the opening credits are projected onto the half-naked body of a belly dancer is a massive warning sign for fans who hate the pick-up artist side of Bond’s character. There are a number of needless, pointless scenes featuring women who only exist to be objectified by the camera and slept with by Bond, including two Romani women who fistfight over a man before they’re essentially handed over to Bond to sleep with. Not content to just throwing women at him, the movie’s creative team also has Bond making gross, sexist quips (something I don’t recall Dr. No having) while spying on Tatiana.

The movie taking one of Bond’s worst elements and ramping it up is all the more frustrating for the fact that From Russia With Love is a great example of how the less pervy that Bond is, the more enjoyable watching his antics become. As the movie progresses, Bond and Tatiana genuinely fall for each other and Bond’s objectification disappears, though there is a terrible scene in the latter half of the movie in which Bond hits Tatiana, showing that his and the filmmakers’ misogyny is never completely gone. It’s easier to enjoy the movie as the fun action/spy romp it should be when Bond isn’t being a menace to women. Bond gets into shootouts, punches dudes, shoots down a helicopter, and makes cheesy quips (there’s nothing as cool and cold as the “Smith and Wesson” line from Dr. No) and it’s all more enjoyable to watch the farther it is removed from the scenes in which Bond objectifies the women in the movie.

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It’s a shame that From Russia With Love doesn’t value its women because Tatiana is the best Bond Girl of the first two movies, easily more interesting and dimensional than Honey Ryder. Tatiana begins the movie as an unknowing pawn of SPECTRE but her allegiances shift as she defects, helps steal the cryptograph, and travels with Bond on the Orient Express across Europe. In the movie’s final scene, she shoots her Soviet superior in order to save Bond and protect the cryptograph. The movie seemingly forgets to keep track of her allegiances and the scene where her fake defection turns into a real one during its middle act, but it’s a solid arc and she gets a few nice moments along the way (certainly more than Honey ever got).

The Bond Girl isn’t the only supporting character to get a major facelift between Dr. No and this movie though. The local MI6 liaison, who was just a forgettable British dude in Dr. No, is given ample screen time in From Russia With Love to develop a personality. Kerim Bey leads Bond around Istanbul, avoiding explosions, getting into shootouts, sniping a Russian agent, and pulling the heist with Bond and Tatiana. The running joke about him having a seemingly endless number of sons in every job imaginable is a funny way to build out his background and bring some absurd levity to the movie. Unfortunately, as Bond’s “sidekick” and sole person of color in the cast, like Quarrel in Dr. No, Kerim Bey is killed off before the movie’s end.

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M and Moneypenny also get an extra scene in the middle of the movie to do something besides just spouting exposition and flirting with Bond, respectively. Bond sends a recording back to MI6 of Tatiana describing the cryptographic device punctuated with her yearnings for Bond. M, clearly embarrassed, sends Moneypenny out of the room. She flips on the intercom at her desk so she can still listen in when M tells her to send a telegram back to Bond since she’s “no doubt listening” anyway. It’s a short scene but it establishes M as more than just an exposition machine and it shows that the two have a relationship that, while not necessarily personal or close, has a level of familiarity and understanding. Q still isn’t actually a character yet, but this is the first time he’s played by Desmond Llewelyn and he does get to explain a few gadgets that aren’t just a new gun, so that’s something.

From Russia with Love (1963)

From Russia With Love also gives Bond his first good henchman to fight. Grant, or as I referred to him in my head “Evil Blond Bond,” is mute for the most of the movie, a silent, seemingly emotionless killing machine that shadows Bond. Because SPECTRE needs Bond to succeed in stealing the cryptograph, there’s a fun reversal of expectations in the first half of the movie as Evil Blond Bond secretly assists Bond in his mission, while also stirring up tensions between the Russians and the British. When Grant does say his first line of dialogue at least an hour-and-a-half into the movie, he’s impersonating an MI6 agent and speaks in a very formal, slightly too pleasant British accent and constantly refers to Bond as “old man.” Once he gets the drop on Bond and Tatiana, he morphs again, revealing his plan to kill the two and stage it as a murder-suicide with a simmering joyful sadism.

The fight that follows inside a cabin of the sleeping car on the Orient Express is tense and frantic, easily the best action scene from the first two movies. It’s brutal, using the environment to maximum effect, and filmed in close-ups that make it feel claustrophobic without ever being confusing. It also allows Bond to use some of the gadgets Q gave him, one in particular that genuinely surprised me as it hadn’t been mentioned since Q first explained it near the very start of the movie. It’s the kind of frantic, fast-paced, down and dirty fight sequence you might not expect from a movie over 50 years old, but it’s pulled off spectacularly.

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After the train fight, the movie quickly launches through two more action scenes before it gets to its conclusion, the aforementioned scene where Tatiana saves Bond. There’s a decent helicopter showdown that’s obviously cribbed from North by Northwest and an anticlimactic boat chase that feels like it was added because they wanted an extra action scene and they noticed they had extra money in the budget. Neither of them are terrible, but with most of the movie being more evenly paced, it’s surprising to get three relatively big scenes back-to-back-to-back.

From Russia With Love adds some classic Bond elements, notably the gadgets, the title song, and goofy quips, but it mostly leaves behind the silly sci-fi stuff that Dr. No waded into in its final 20 minutes. It’s a more grounded, straightforward spy movie that takes great advantage of its setting, puts a stronger focus on developing Bond’s supporting cast, and features one truly exemplary action scene. It’s first half is uneven and marred by its wrongheaded belief that a womanizing Bond is a cool Bond, but once its plot gets kicked into action, it’s a fun and exciting ride, pretty much exactly what you could want from a 1960s spy movie.

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