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From Russia with Love Retro Review: The James Bondest

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BY June 25, 2020
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Once again, it is time for a return to Retro Reviews, in which we take a modern look at stuff we missed the first time around. In case you didn’t know, I’m currently working my way through the James Bond movie series. I missed many of them the first time around because I was inconveniently not alive then, according to records. I do know a little something about James Bond–shaken, not stirred–thanks to the way he’s saturated popular culture, though, and I’m learning more as I go through the films. We’re up to number two on the list, so here’s my From Russia with Love Retro Review.

(And if you’re new to James Bond or this series, start here with my Retro Review for the first James Bond film, Dr. No.)

What’s That Ol’ James Bond Up To This Time?

from russia with love retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists

As with Dr. No, From Russia with Love doesn’t explain anything. It just drops you into the action and expects you to keep up. And when I say “action,” I’m saying it with levels. The movie starts with SPECTRE murder training, for example. In addition, the first image we get of Bond is of him making time with Sylvia Trench. As per usual, M calls him in for a meeting.

It seems that a SMERSH clerk, Tatiana “Tania” Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), wants to defect. However, she’ll only do it, bringing a cipher decoder device with her, if Bond handles the defection. It’s obviously a trap, but MI-6 wants that Lektor (the decoder). So, they send Bond to meet Romanova in Istanbul, Turkey.

Once in Istanbul, Bond first checks in with the local MI-6 station chief, Ali Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendáriz). He helps Bond lay low by taking him to a Roma camp, where they watch women wrestle. You know, spy stuff. Finally, Romanova gets in contact.

And boy, does she. She arranges to meet him at a hotel and by “meet,” I mean she gets in bed clad in no more than stockings and a ribbon to greet him. At this point, I thought there must be some frames missing, especially when they start kissing immediately. They just met!

from russia with love retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists

After that, she tells him how to steal the Lektor from the Russian consulate. Wait, she doesn’t have it? Bond has to steal it AND spirit her out of the country? I mean, I guess.

Anyway, while he’s working on all that, there is danger afoot. Remember the murder training I mentioned? Yeah, that’s all for Bond’s benefit. SPECTRE is pretty miffed about the whole Dr. No situation, so they’re training agents to take out that pesky James Bond. As such, they send Donald “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw) to get the job done. Will Bond make it through unscathed? (Absolutely, obviously.)

The World of James Bond

Like Dr. No introduced some important parts of the James Bond canon, so did From Russia with Love. I’ll be pointing out that kind of stuff from now on.

Like SMERSH. SMERSH was a real Soviet organization that ran counter-intelligence agencies. (The name is a portmanteau for the Russian phrase that means “death to spies.” Aw.) However, in real life, it lasted only until 1946, when the government folded its operations into the MGB, Soviet state security. Soviet officials would continue retooling the agency through a few different iterations before it became the KGB.

Ian Fleming, who created Bond, uses SMERSH in the novels as a kind of quasi-KGB. With its power and reach, it’s more like the infamous security agency than any other Soviet apparatus. Fleming could see the writing on the wall, though, and assumed that the UK wouldn’t always have the same enemies. So he created SPECTRE, an all-purpose, multinational terrorist group.

Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys?

from russia with love retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists

From Russia with Love formally introduces a character who would become an essential part of the Bond canon. And of course, I’m speaking of Q (Desmond Llewelyn). In case you didn’t know, Q isn’t actually his name–it refers to the department he heads, Q Branch. They’re MI-6’s research and development department.

A version of Q (with Peter Burton in the role) does appear in Dr. No, but he’s introduced as an “armourer.” In From Russia to Love, the character, billed as Major Boothroyd, really gets to shine. For the trip to Turkey, Q supplies Bond with an attaché case. However, it’s no ordinary briefcase. This attaché case has everything: gold sovereigns, ammunition, surprise knives, an AR-7, and tear gas.

But Bond’s not the only one with wild weapons. The villains he faces will often have have unusual defense mechanisms. (“Who throws a shoe? Honestly!”) And in this one, they’re fighting with poison shoe knives! I know that sounds like I just threw a dart at a list of nouns, but it’s true.

Note: This film also introduces another iconic villain, but since we don’t properly see him in this one, I’ll wait until his big debut to talk about him.

From Russia with Love Retro Review

from russia with love retro review image via Eon Productions and United Artists

With all the trouble they had filming it–Armendáriz was terminally ill, for one thing, and is often limping–it’d be a wonder if they made a movie that was just watchable. That they made a movie nearly this seamless is a miracle. But that’s not to say it’s perfect.

The plot can be plodding, for instance. Like Dr. No, it takes some time to get the story going. There are also a few detours that feel pointless before we get to the main action. And Tania is no Honey Ryder. Though I’m sure she has her fans, I thought she was a simpering bore. (That might not be Bianchi’s fault, though–they used to dub the hell out of these movies, and as such, Barbara Jefford dubbed all of Bianchi’s lines.)

But it has cracking action sequences and it’s James Bond at his James Bondest. From hopping into bed with Tania like, literally five minutes after they meet to sly one-liners, this is Sean Connery as a fully realized Bond. He was convincing in the last outing, but his confidence and comfort in the character has grown. Still, though, he remains charming. And Grant rises up to meet him, coming off as a much more menacing foe than Dr. No. Even if you had no idea that Bond would continue after Dr. No, you’d still be able to suspect it. With Grant, though, you can believe that Bond might not survive. But survive he does, and I look forward to watching his next outing. Join me, why don’t you?

What do you think of this From Russia with Love Retro Review? Let us know on social media or here in the comments. And stay tuned for Goldfinger.

featured image via Eon Productions and United Artists

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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