James Bond wasn’t born--he’s a fictional character. In fact, as I’ve already discussed in previous articles, he didn’t even originally appear in films, he was a character of literature, and From Russia With Love wasn’t even his first appearance; but for many people, From Russia, With Love defines the epitome of Bond. FRWL is consistently rated by both professional and amateur interweb critics as the “Best Bond” or “Highest Rated Bond” or “The ‘classic’ Bond” for numerous reasons: not necessarily for the plot (convoluted), nor the actors (because one of the female leads was (hopefully) cast for her atrocious hideousness), but instead for its classic Bond conventions (which weren’t the classic Bond ‘things’ when the movie was released, merely new directions the burgeoning franchise had chosen to take). However, the rosy goggled 20/20 vision of hindsight has since made those producers in 1963 seem like geniuses with some sort of super-secret Q branch future vision machine.
Speaking of Q branch: let us start right there. From Russia With Love was the first movie to have real James Bond Gadgets, and the first appearance of one Desmond Llewelyn (who still holds the record for most appearances in Bond Films, appearing in every film until Bond19 (The World is Not Enough)). Credited only as Boothroyd, (in later films referred to only as Q), Bond and "Q" meet early in the film for their equipment briefing, a scene which becomes standard in all Bond films up through Bond20 (Die Another Day) and Q presents Bond with a rather interesting piece of luggage. While the briefcase is certainly no x-ray specs or invisible Aston Martin it definitely is a very cool package that not only packs quite the wallop, but also foreshadows many of Bond’s exciting exploits ahead. The movie also contains a scene with a helicopter; making this the first Bond Film to include a helicopter, even though every Bond movie since has included at least one scene with a helicopter, and I believe this particular scene inspired one Steven Spielberg in his filming of Sean Connery disabling the plane in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
Bond’s Quartermaster briefing isn’t the only convention defined and typified by this film--so much of “classic” Bond franchise originates with this film. First-off we notice that there is now a scene before the opening credits. This opening pre-credits scene at the time was a new concept, and while now we almost take this idea for granted, it was groundbreaking at the time. Further, From Russia With Love was the first Bond film to have a theme song made just for the film. Again it seems obvious to us now that a movie needs a theme song, but in 1963 these producers were breaking new ground. Also while this seems like a rather obvious idea now, FRWL was one of the first films ever to include a stylized opening credits sequence.
Another huge Bond convention that started with From Russia With Love was Bond's proclivity to jet-set to numerous exotic locales during the course of his mission (or the course of the film). Bond begins the movie in Britain, as almost always, but during the course of the film, jaunts first to Istanbul, where the Cold War isn’t so cold, and the work of a spy involves an amazing and gorgeous scene of canoeing through the underground reservoir of the Emperor Constantine, followed by peering into the Russian Consulate with a re-purposed Submarine Periscope. After a brief stay at a Gypsy camp, (with a tremendous girl fight/ belly dancing / gun battle scene that could easily be a defining moment in any movie) Bond really gets to business. He seduces / manipulates / cavorts with a Russian file clerk, and later escapes from Turkey with her, and a stolen Russian Lektor Decoding machine, via the Orient Express. Eluding the Russians to make it on to the train, and then cleverly dealing with a SPECTRE agent who poses as an ally but exposes his true criminal nature by “ordering red wine with Fish,” Bond escapes with the girl from the train, and then from the helicopter, and then from a regatta of enemy boats, all while making his way towards safe territory in Venice. After watching this film one definitely gets the feeling like they have gone on a mini European vacation, a sensation that audiences have always loved, and as such the producers have always kept Agent 007 moving through as many exotic locations in the films as possible.
Perhaps the most compelling plot facet established by FRWL is the fictional James Bond’s place in the very non-fictional Cold War. It has become so ingrained in our collective unconscious that Bond has always been a crusader for “our side” that without serious thought the average viewer could easily assume that the “bad guys” are the Commies in almost any or all of the early Bond films. In reality, (or Bond’s reality anyways) the “bad guy” is almost always SPECTRE. However at the time when the film was made you have to look at history to grasp the full gravity of what the film meant to the free world. The year was 1963, Dr. No had been a smashing success, and the producers had been green-lighted to begin work on the sophomore film in an extremely popular franchise. JFK was in office and he had been a huge fan of the first film, so when the producers began to debate which novel they should bring to life next for the silver screen, the fact the President’s favorite Bond novel was From Russia With Love, the decision became very easy. Tragically, From Russia With Love would be the last film that JFK screened in the White House theatre before leaving for Dallas.
From Russia With Love is without a doubt an outstanding Bond Classic, with so many memorable scenes one could easily dub it the “Citizen Kane” of the James Bond franchise. Director Terence Young easily outdoes his original film. Daniela Bianchi while not the most gorgeous in the long litany of Bond Girls (certainly no comparison to Ursula Andress) portrays an extremely believable Tatiana as the lead female and Sean Connery seems to grow into his Bond tuxedo almost perfectly. In the very last moments of the film, the final James Bond convention which we have all grown to know and love, is introduced, and so much like this series of reviews: “James Bond will return in Goldfinger.”