After runaway success Dr. No introduced moviegoers to Ian Fleming’s stylish secret agent, 007, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had no trouble deciding which of the popular James Bond novels to film next. After all, President John F. Kennedy had gone public with his top-10 favorite books of all time, and Fleming’s “From Russia with Love” made the list.
But Cold War tensions inspired one major change from Fleming’s 1957 novel. With the Cuban Missile Crisis occurring just six months prior to filming, producers decided to shift the evil empire from Russia to an independent sinister organization, SPECTRE. In fact, the Soviets are relative innocents in this version, where British and American espionage agents race against SPECTRE to obtain a Soviet Lektor decoding machine.
Location, Location, Location
From Russia With Love still ranks among the very best–and not just because the tone is faithful to the Fleming books or because Sean Connery is at his Bondish best. It also scores big on all of the key elements that 007 fans have come to expect, and helps to explain why, so many years after the Cold War has ended, the Fleming serializations are still popular. First: location, location, location. Those of us who remember reading the spy novels as youngsters and imagining ourselves in all of those exotic places have come to appreciate the lavish location filming — in this case, Istanbul, Turkey. “Q” (Desmond Llewelyn) is also introduced in this film, and his exploding attache case with its hidden extras start a chain of gadgets that escalate with each new film. But just as some of the simplest gadgets — like Odd Job’s deadly derby in Goldfinger — are also the most memorable, it’s tough to find a better lethal gimmick or a more sinister villain than Rosa Krebb (Lenya) and her “switchblade” shoes.
Big Villains and Beautiful Babes
The bigger the hero, the bigger the villains must necessarily be, and Krebbs is wonderfully complemented by SPECTRE assassin Red Grant, played by Robert Shaw — the same Robert Shaw who’s most famous for his portrayal of shark hunter Quint in Jaws. Here, Shaw is young and lean and Arian-mean, and the fight sequence between his character and Bond on the Orient Express provides one of the film’s many classic moments. But “Bond” also means beautiful women, and here the cast can’t possibly be topped. Daniela Bianchi, who plays love interest Tatiana Romanova, won the Miss Universe crown in 1960, and the two women who fight with each other in the gypsy camp were also pageant winners.
Then, of course, Bond fans expect close calls, chases, and explosions that are as dangerous to film as they seem on-screen. Connery did his own stuntwork in a scene where he had to fall to the ground at just the right moment to avoid being hit by a helicopter in pursuit, and the timing of the climactic boat chase and blazing inferno were so difficult to film that the crew moved from the coast of Turkey to the coast of Scotland to get it right.
But if anything cements the appeal of this film it’s the engaging presence of Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz, who plays Kerim Bey, Bond’s Istanbul contact and sidekick. There’s great chemistry between Connery and Armendariz, made poignant by special DVD features which inform viewers that during filming Armendariz found out that he was dying of cancer. Broccoli and director Terrence Young promised him that they’d shift all of the shooting sequences so that they could film his scenes first, rather than replace him. It ended up being Armendariz’ last film.
Starring: Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Lotte Lenya, Pedro Armendariz Sr, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell
Director: Terence Young
Runtime: 119 minutes