James Bond: Classic, Cheese or Crap? – “From Russia With Love”

“From Russia With Love”

1963

Bond: Sean Connery

Classic, Cheese or Crap?: Classic

“From Russia With Love” was the second Bond film ever made. At that point, the franchise wasn’t even a franchise. I mean, if you only have two movies, wouldn’t the second one just be called a “sequel”? It’s widely hailed as being the most realistic Bond movie ever… that the action and plot of this film hew more closely to the real world activities of Cold War era spies than any other Bond film.

It’s undoubtedly a classic.

Yet I have to admit it’s my least favorite of the five “good” (DN->YOLT) Connery Bonds.

Probably the most widely known distinction about “From Russia With Love” is that JFK was quoted as calling it his favorite book of all time. This was a point in the Bond series when the movies were still adapting the novels directly. After the success of Dr. No, UA was all too happy to greenlight a second film, doubling the budget Saltzman and Broccoli had to work with.

“From Russia With Love” revolves around SPECTRE’s attempt to get revenge on Bond specifically for his role in the death of Dr. No (how this movie wasn’t considered a “Direct Sequel” I’ve never figured out). Knowing he’s a notorious womanizer, they dangle a gorgeous blonde in front of him, defecting with a prized piece of codebreaking equipment – the Lektor. Knowing its a trap, MI6 sends Bond after it anyways.

The main selling point (for me) are the villains. Primarily the fantastic Red Grant, played by the inimitable Robert Shaw. He’s shown to be an imposing assassin at the beginning of the film – a physical specimen à la a 1960s Ivan Drago. He tracks Bond and poses as a MI6 agent, having a civil chat that does double duty as a game of cat and mouse. Eventually the ruse is up, and he and Bond have a close quarters fist fight in a train compartment that is easily one of the best Bond battles of all time.

Bond is also up against the sinister Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), another great Bond villain. She’s nasty and mean, and packs a switch blade in her boot of all things. Undoubtedly she was the inspiration for Frau Farbissina. Kronsteen has his moments, too, but he’s not all that memorable.

My biggest issue with the film has always been that it’s sparse on action until the end, and then when the action comes, it feels “Tacked on”. The reason it feels that way? Because it was. The two final action sequences (the Bond vs the Helicopter battle and the speedboat chase) weren’t in the novel, but were added exclusively for the film in order to give the movie an “explosive finale”. I’m not sure about anyone else but to me, that’s exactly what it’s always felt like… an addendum.

But overall, I think… of all the “Good” Connery Bonds, this one feels the oldest to me. The slowest. It feels less “Modern Bond” than any of the others, and I know a lot of people relish that… I don’t so much. Please don’t misinterpret, I love the flick. Just saying its a lot further down in my top ten than most people’s, and some of the films I have ahead of it would surprise you.

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33 thoughts on “James Bond: Classic, Cheese or Crap? – “From Russia With Love”

  1. It’s been such a long time since I saw this film. Can’t honestly remember much of it – well, I do remember the speedboat chase. Be crazy if I completely forgot that. For that reason alone, I don’t think I can judge this one! Boo!

    • Yeah, that’s a bummer. I saw it fairly recently… They’re always on tv it seems.

      It’s a good one. Certainly a “Classic Movie” though, so the pacing standards are different. But Connery’s great and the villains are awesome.

  2. I’m with you on this; it’s obviously a cracking film, but feel unjustified that it stands near the top of the pile based on popular rating. It’s such a slow burner…

    Red is the man though, an archetype for villain after villain throughout the next 20 (and probably more) films. Agree with you on the action, it was definitely a film about spying instead of explosions… until the last 20 minutes – still, I feel the Red/Bond train fight is the most memorable set piece.

    Top review, brings me back to James Bond January!

    • Red IS the man. There’s no doubt. If the 20 minutes of Train time he and Bond have was the whole movie, I’d be much more enthused.

      I did some research which I may share eventually where I found all the 1-23 rankings I could find on the net and compiled them. Then I factored in the Rotten Tomatoes scores and the IMDb user scores. I called the end result “The Consensus”.

      FRWL was like #3. I think I have it more like at 8 or 9, personally.

      • Totally agree, although it’s hard to pick tops this wouldn’t even make it in to my top ten I don’t think. Unlike some of the others, I can’t even figure out why this is held in such high regard…

        The gypsy fight in particular hasn’t aged very well, and comes across a bit leery…

  3. I don’t think you can fairly criticize this movie for adding things that were not in the original novel. Most of the Bond movies that are “based” on the novels are very, very, (incredibly) very loosely based. They always seem to add, delete, or completely change things up compared to the books. It does seem like an older, slower Bond movie. I find that appealing. Great movie.

    • Good point. Good point.

      So let me clarify –

      I dont care one way or another what the book had. I’ve read a grand total of one Bond book. And in general I dont care about faithfulness to source material (there’s exceptions of course), I care about what makes it to the screen and what the movie is.

      But in the movie… those scenes feel “added on” to me. It feels like the movie was supposed to end, but some exec watched it and said “There’s not enough action. Can we add some chase scenes and explosions at the end?” and thats what happened. I may be off base – I often am – but to me, those last two scenes always stood out like sore thumbs. The movie feels like it climaxes when Bond defeats Red. Denouement with the Rosa Klebb boot kicking scene… boom. There’s your end.

      It’s ironic that I’m complaining about the action in a movie that I’m arguing needs more action… so I guess the proper way to state my issue should have been they should have given more thought to the action beats throughout the film, spread them throughout more evenly and then made them more organic to the film. Not that the Bond films dont have a proud history of inserted set pieces… but… I have to call it like I see it.

      • That makes much more sense. I do agree that the added helicopter and boat chase scenes were likely the doing of some executive wanting more action. The movie industry will never change.

      • “Siamese fighting fish, fascinating creatures. Brave but of 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!” HA!

        I love that Spectre uses a Boris Spasski clone as it’s theoretical tactician and that Rosa Klebb’s name translates as “women’s rights”. That the whole plot rotates around sex on the Orient express, and that Kerim Bey turns out NOT to be a bad guy after all (I’m hating that almost every one of Bond’s modern field associates turns out bad in the end). I love the Gypsy fight scene. I love that Bond’s suitcase was ACTUAL spy gear, that was a fully, physically possible, useful, not to mention plot driven accessory. If there’s a part where they lose me, it’s the giant boat fight at the end.

  4. This isn’t one of the small number of Bond films I’ve seen, but I’ve been enjoying this series of posts quite a bit. I especially want to say “Thanks” for mentioning that this is essentially a direct sequel to Dr. No. I’d been operating under the assumption that most Bond films could be viewed in any order, so it’s good to know there are cases where it’s a good idea to watch a particular one first.

    • LOL.

      Well I guess that comment completely answers my question as to why its not considered a direct sequel.

      There are literally like, two sentences that refer to the previous movie. So no, its not required viewing (Dr No) to appreciate this one. You wont miss anything.

      All the Connery Bonds are solid bets except for “Diamonds”. Including this one. Sometimes my habit of criticising a movie even though I like it can throw my review off. This is a rock solid flick if you get a chance on this on CO.

      Oh. And they’re ALWAYS on TV. LOL. I read your “Poor Man’s Guide” this morning. Just didnt comment. :) So these are some you should catch up on man!

  5. I agree with almost all of your points, especially about the “tacked on” nature of the ending action setpieces. I hadn’t read the novel, so didn’t know that they weren’t part of the orginal story until you mention it here.

    However, I have this one in my Top 3 Bonds, and I like it kind of because it’s such a throwback. More than any other Bond film, it does feel like a product of it’s time, a Cold War relic. It’s that background where Bond really and truly works the best.

    If I were in charge of the Bond franchise, I don’t think I’d ever try to “update” Bond. I’d simply set all of his adventures during the Cold War.

    • That’s a unique Idea. I like keeping Bond in and of his time, personally. But hey, the way Hollywood churns ‘em out? I wouldn’t mind some throw back period piece Bonds.

      I completely forgot to add Cold War era cool to the “plus column” of this flick. It’s a total plus. I love the era. Probably hits its zenith in “Goldfinger” for me (I know that movie’s not “Cold War”), but yeah, the “times” are awesome here.

      A lot of people have it in the top three. In fact… MOST people. I have to upload that spreadsheet somewhere so people can see it. This is one of the ones I’m the furthest from the “Norm” on. This and “The World is not Enough”, which I’m a much bigger far of than most people.

  6. Let’s go out to the lobby..Let’s go out to the lobby..
    Let’s go out to the lobbeee and have ourselves a treat.
    Oh ok I’m on… Sorry!
    Well I usually carry my switch blade in my garter holster so being reminded of Rosa’s shoe thing was really refreshing. Thank you!
    And definitely with the action at the end…it’s been a while since I saw the movie but….
    The Reaseses still should go on the bottom first, then mix them throughout and then again on top of the whipped cream…

  7. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two good Connery Bonds – “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” and “THUNDERBALL”. I don’t agree with your assessment that FRWL was slow and “not modern”. I have my own qualms about the movie, but they are different from yours.

    • What? No love for “Goldfinger”? Blasphemy! :D

      What are your “qualms” on FRWL, if you dont mind me asking.

      And I still like it, I dont consider it a bad Bond. Just not as much as some others.

  8. Great post, I just watched the trailer for Skyfall. It looks really good, if you haven’t seen it give it a look as I know you’re a Bond fan.

  9. I like the pacing of this film, it is less frantic than most of the later Bond films. You are right about the climax of the picture being the the defeat of Red Grant, but just about every film story has a coda. “Psycho” goes on for fifteen minutes after the reveal, and I would much rather have a boat chase and a helicopter attack, plus a tussle with Rosa Klebb than fifteen minutes of debriefing with M. I also like the fact that Bond is being pursued here instead of him being the pursuer. Usually when 007 infiltrates the enemies lair, the whole complex blows up and that is the climax of the film. FRWL is much more like a film of the traditional spy mold than those that came after. Once Goldfinger set the bar, it is a constant battle to top yourself. This is a self contained story that feels like it could simply be another case that Bond is handling. Oh yeah, you also get that romantic theme song in the movie (it is playing on the radio when Bond is out with his girlfriend on the river) and over the credits.

    http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2011/06/robert-shaw-festival-part-4from-russia.html

    • Yeah… I dunno, I mean, I hear you. That’s pretty much the “company line” on FRWL, but I just dont have it as highly as others do. I think the fact that it IS a “much more traditional spy film” isnt a selling point. Bond is awesome in part due to the colorful characters and crazy gadgets, etc… I just find the lack of all of those here to be a detriment.

      I mean, dont get me wrong, its still a top ten Bond, I just have it pretty low in the top ten, and I know most Bond purists have it in their top three or four…

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