From Russia With Love (1963 Britain)

You don’t review James Bond movies, you evaluate them, rate them according to how well they meet expectations. Today, the Bond franchise is second only to Star Wars in value, and second only to Godzilla in number of films. It’s MGM’s mainstay, and its title role is among the most coveted in the British film industry. But at the beginning, it was far from clear that it would be this way. Dr. No, while hardly a flop, was also less than a resounding success. It did decent box office, but reviews were mixed, and Ian Fleming himself was reported to be somewhat unhappy with the result. If the second Bond wasn’t an improvement, the series might not have continued much longer. But From Russia with Love was better, in practically every way, an interesting fact considering that it had the same director and leading man.

A letter from Russia to British intelligence brings an incredible offer. A Soviet Embassy clerk in Istanbul will defect with Russia’s latest encoding machine on one condition: she must be accompanied by Agent 007, James Bond, who she fell in love with after seeing his picture. It’s clearly a trap, but the payoff is too good to pass up. And no-one, not even the bait, knows what the real game is. Thus begins one of- if not the- best James Bond film…What makes the biggest difference here is the story and setting. From the moment he enters Istanbul, Bond is immersed in a colourful world of espionage and surveillance, plots and counter plots, not unlike Kipling’s great game. It’s a world of secret passages and Gypsy assassins, where everyone has a tail and you can count on your hotel being bugged.

It’s so rich in the Cold War intrigues that Dr. No was missing. And that’s before Spectre becomes involved, seeking to play the British and Russians against each other in a truly ingenious scheme that will leave a long trail of bodies on both sides. From Russia is further buoyed by one of the series’ best supporting casts. Daniela Bianchi plays Tatiana, the aforementioned embassy clerk. She and Connery generate amazing chemistry as they play two people who must pretend to love each other, only to fall in love for real. Each of them knows that the other is only following orders, and yet they develop real feelings for each other, even as they remain suspicious and remind themselves that they have a job to do. There’s just something right and pure about a love that can transcend nationalities and agendas, and it makes this perhaps the most romantic of all the Bond films.

And this movie features one of Bond’s best sidekicks, Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz). The head of a local, family operated spy-net, Kerim is a larger-than-life figure. He’s open, friendly, and a consummate host, even to his enemies. He has an infectious zeal for life and a wonderfully unconventional sense of humour. His set of connections and knowledge of Istanbul is second to none, and he relishes every aspect of his profession. All in all he’s one of the most likable, eccentric characters in the series. Being a Bond flick, there are excellent action scenes – the shootout at the gypsy camp and the fiery boat chase are well done and exciting. Another high point is the death of the Bulgarian assassin, which generates a great deal of suspense and provides one of the series’ most iconic sights. Best of all is the climactic confrontation between Bond and Spectre assassin Donald Grant (Robert Shaw of Jaws fame). It’s a hell of a fight scene. From Russia With Love is everything a good Bond film should be.

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