Hidden in with all the other reasons for Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman choosing From Russia with Love as their next James Bond adaptation (apart from the fact it’s one of Ian Fleming’s best novels) is the fact that it was a favourite read of one John F Kennedy. By tragic irony, it is also credited as the last movie the President watched before his assassination. In a nod to Kennedy’s averting of the Cuban missile crisis and thawing of the Cold War, the villains in the story were amended. Fleming’s version has Bond battling covert Sovet organisation, SMERSH, whilst in the film both 007 and the Russians turn out to be pawns in the plans of international terrorism ring, SPECTRE. Indeed, such were the renewed feelings of warmth towards the USSR that in the movie it’s best represented by glamorous defector, Tatiana ‘Tanya’ Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), possibly the most adorable Bond girl of the lot thanks to being given enough screen time to work her charms both on Bond and the audience.
FRWL underwent a fraught production process. Costs rose ridiculously, expensive stunts were botched and director Terence Young relied more and more on the creative editing of Peter Hunt to pull the shambolic movie into a cohesive whole. Its problems were encapsulated by Pedro Armendàriz, who was hired for the pivotal role of Bond’s Turkish liaison, Ali Kerim Bey. It’s widely accepted that Armendàriz gives a charismatic, winning performance, yet in reality the actor discovered halfway through shooting that his previously undiagnosed cancer was already in its advanced stages. Refusing to give in to the disease whilst simultaneously getting weaker by the day, Armendàriz’s scenes were brought forward in the shooting schedule. At times, he had to be propped up as he delivered his lines. Within two weeks of completing his work on the film, Armendàriz was dead, shooting himself rather than allowing his body to waste away. The loss was felt by the entire cast and crew, though it’s impossible to see any of the actor’s suffering within his memorable playing on the final piece. A dedicated professional who carried out his duties through sheer force of personality, Armendàriz is indeed one of the best things about the movie.
And what a movie! Though Goldfinger is considered to be perhaps the definitive Bond, FRWL is the franchise at its finest. Despite the problems everyone experienced in making it, the finished product is a treat, not just a fantastic 007 film but excellent also as a single body of work. Part of this no doubt has to do with everyone involved having experienced Dr. No and being more comfortable in their roles, whilst having the drive and ambition to make something even better. Fortunately, ‘better’ did not necessarily mean bigger in this instance. Though Q’s gadgetry makes its introduction here, what Bond receives isn’t some impossible toy straight out of the realms of science fiction but rather a briefcase featuring a few subtle refinements. The villain isn’t based in an incredible underwater lair and, as in Dr. No, 007 needs to rely on his own skills to prevail.
It’s fair to suggest that as his tensure progressed, Sean Connery’s boredom with the role of Bond was beginning to show. But that was later. Here, Connery was comfortable in the shoes of his secret agent protagonist and thriving. There are many moments in FRWL where he is compromised or uncertain of himself. His is a 007 who could fail or die and that enriches his character, as does the disappointment glimpsed on his face when he learns someone is betraying him. He is nearly matched by the richy played pair of baddies. Lotte Lenya plays Rosa Klebbe, SPECTRE Number Three whose advances towards Tanya hint at the sort of character depth that’s unusual for the franchise.
And then there’s Red Grant (Robert Shaw), the assassin who tracks Bond through Istanbul. For the majority of the film, he is 007’s silent shadow, a malevolent presence who leaves a trail of corpses whilst never quite keeping the agent out of his sight. As we learn in the teasing opener, Grant is a fearsome killer and more than a match for Bond, who clearly knows it also. The scenes between the pair on the Orient Express are charged, Bond coming across Grant as a friend and then slowly finding out that he isn’t at all what he appears. Grant leaves clues for his foe, ordering red wine with fish, which pricks at 007’s gentlemanly sensibilities almost as much as being irritatingly referred to as ‘old man.’ When the pair inevitably fight in a confined train carriage, it’s a visceral, ‘to the death’ affair. Had it been filmed now, it would no doubt have featured the jump cuts that speed up the action to confusing dimensions in an effort to be more grittily realistic. But Young keeps everything coherent and spares us not one single blow.
Perhaps even more sizzling than the fight is the banter between Bond and Grant. Cornered and vulnerable, 007 tries every trick in the book to buy time for himself and it’s only when he offers Grant money that we find a chink in the assassin’s armour. When it comes down to it, for all the relentless tracking he’s done the killer is a petty criminal at heart who risks it all for a belt of sovereigns. Before this point, he seems utterly unstoppable, indeed he goes down as one of the scariest Bond villains. Silent until his meeting with the agent, his face more or less an impassive mask, he cuts a sinister foe, never more so than when Bond is pacing outside the Orient Express waiting for his contact to arrive whilst on the train Grant follows him, the spectre of death floating from window to window and never taking his eyes off his prey.
The scenes containing Grant are so electric that his exit leaves a vacuum, one the film tries to fill with the kind of expensive, set-piece action sequences that 007 would become so famous for. It works, largely because of the previous lack of excess. Bond and Tanya are pursued by a SPECTRE helicopter as they flee through the Croatian countryside (Argyll substitutes for a part of the world that was behind the Iron Curtain), whilst a later attempt by the agent to sail to Venice leads to an ambush on the Adriatic. This is good exciting stuff, if slightly undermining the slow burning narrative developments that took place beforehand. It also gives a hint of the direction the series would take. Whereas one might have hoped for further labyrinthine plots as served up here, what we got were elaborate stunts, grand explosions and the suggestion that money was being thrown at the screen instead of relying on imaginative scripting and giving the performers time and space to act.
But that, of course, is what makes this instalment so special. According to the DVD’s ‘Making Of’ documentary the producers were concerned viewers would be put off by the dense plotting that underpinned the movie, the ‘cat and mouse’ game SPECTRE plays with both Bond and the Soviets. They needn’t have worried. FRWL is all the better for its intelligent story and for making its star look at times like a human being capable of feeling and even the occasional sign of vulnerability. It’s the closest Bond will ever get to being a ’spy’ movie, with all the espionage and undercover machinations this implies. The next episode, Goldfinger, would take the series down an entirely new route, that of the action hero, a point from which it would never quite return. FRWL is simply as good as it gets and even contains some of the most memorable music that John Barry contributed to the franchise.