Kresal. Matthew Kresal tackles the difficult second Bond.
Dr. No's successful release in 1962 proved that a series of films based on Ian Fleming's James Bond novels was possible. However there was a new question: how long could that series survive? To follow-up Dr. No producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman choose to film not just one of the best Bond novels but one that had recently been revealed to be a favorite book of US President John F. Kennedy, From Russia With Love. The film they made was, like the novel it was based, destined to become one of the best, if not the best, of the James Bond films.
The key to the success is Sean Connery as James Bond. If Dr. No introduced Connery, then this is the film that really established him as Bond. Connery is very much the embodiment of Bond: suave, knowledgeable about everything from wines to fine dining, and seductive yet more then capable of becoming a killer for Queen and country in an instant. All this is well suited to the film as is evident throughout, and especially in two very famous scenes: the scene with Bond and Tatiana in the former's hotel bedroom and the fight between Bond and Grant towards the end of the film. The overall performance of Connery in From Russia With Love is not only an improvement on the already good one he'd delivered in Dr. No but one of the best performances of any actor as Bond.
Then there are the two villains. On a more intellectual side is Rosa Klebb played by Lotte Lenya, who, despite a limited amount of screen time, gives an effective if not at times creepy performance. On the physical side is Robert Shaw as her henchman Donald Grant. Calling Grant a henchman is an understatement of the highest order for Grant is the villain of the film for much of its length. From the opening sequence to his stalking of Bond across Istanbul and the Orient Express, Grant's physicality and menace reigns supreme. This is only heightened when Bond and Grant finally meet face to face in the lead up to one of the best fight sequences in film history which gives Shaw a chance to show off some real acting talent. Together, Lenya and Shaw present two of the best villains of the film series.
The only real letdown of the main cast members is Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova. This was Bianchi's first major film role and it shows. Bianchi performance is, for the most part, wooden and uninspired, something that shows up heavily in her scene with the much more experienced Lenya early on. Her and Connery do have some good chemistry though which makes the famous scene between them in Bond's hotel bedroom all the more effective. For the most part though, Bianchi's performance is a letdown.
The supporting cast is, like most of the main cast, splendid. Pedro Armendariz as 007's Turkish contact Kerim Bey is a particular high note. He is a highlight of any scene that he appears in, the energy in his performance being even more remarkable due to Armendariz being diagnosed with cancer during filming (and eventually leaving the production early before committing suicide in a California hospital). Other highlights of the supporting cast include Walter Gotell as Morzeny, Vladek Sheybal as SPECTRE planner Kronsteen, Eunice Gayson in her second (and final) appearance as Sylvia Trench, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny and Bernard Lee as M. One particularly notable edition to the cast was Desmond Llewelyn as Major Boothroyd aka Q, making the first of seventeen appearances as the soon to be famous gadget master to her Majesty's secret servant. The result was not only a strong cast but one that would set a standard for all Bond films to come.
The production values of From Russia With Love are also splendid. Production designer Ken Adams was unavailable for the film so Syd Cain took his place and the result is for the film's benefit as this Bond outing is based more in reality then either Dr. No or Adams other films. On occasion the film does venture off in the grand and larger then life, such as the chess tournament set early on, or the SPECTRE island training ground, but Cain proves more then up to the challenge. Peter Hunt's editing keeps the film moving at a pace which suits not only the fine direction of Terrance Young but the atmospheric cinematography of Ted Moore. All of these elements come together to create classic sequences such as the fight on the Orient Express and the various action sequences that lead up to the ending. The result is superb all around.
From Russia With Love is notable also for the being the first Bond film to feature a score by John Barry. Barry, who had worked on the James Bond Theme for Dr. No, creates a score that is everything the music of Dr. No wasn't: highly atmospheric, individual and far from repetitive. Barry not only uses the Bond Theme but also supplements in with a new theme, the 007 Theme, which makes its debut during the battle at the gypsy camp sequence. Barry's score is highly effective in any scene it is heard in.
The script by Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood is just as much a star of the film as its actors or production values. On one level it is a highly faithful adaptation of Fleming's original novel, yet downplays some of the Cold War elements and adds a bit to the ending as well. It is also a good example of story construction from an opening where the viewer thinks they know what's happening to the build up of suspense right up until the last scenes. It's a script full of interesting characters, action sequences and yet faithful to its source material at the same time. A rare combination indeed.
Looking back at From Russia With Love with more than five decades of hindsight, it's clearly the produce of a very rare combination. Everything works almost perfectly, including cast, production values, direction, music and script. It's a film full of suspense that plays on the expectations of viewers before surpassing them. From Russia With Love turned out to not just be a superior second film but, more importantly, proved that Bond could work as a film series by creating one of the best, if not the best, Bond cinematic outings. It remains a perfect example of how a series can improve, not falter, as time goes on.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.