From Russia with Love is a curious beast. It does not “work” according to the distinct rhymes and reasons of what would become the “Bond film” archetype. It does not establish its own vision of what cinema ought to be, as so many other Bond films went on to do, starting with the very next film in the series, Goldfinger. It lacks the pop art, it lacks the pizzaz, it lacks the chutzpah of those other glammy, punchy Bond films that established a certain modern cool-chic lifestyle porn take on watching movies simply because they could give you visions of things that life in its mundane reality never could. On most of the basic “rules” by which Bond films are generally judged, it doesn’t even attempt to pass muster. In fact, it is, excepting its predecessor Dr. No, a work that could charitably be described as “mundane”.
But Terrence Young’s film may very well be the best film in the entire series, and it may be the best specifically for how it does not meaningfully have anything to do with “being a Bond film”. What the lack of a formula bestows upon it is the freedom to simply focus on being itself, on being the best individual film freed from the expectations and rules of a specific form and a style. It is freed to the point where it can utilize its editing, its framing, its acting, and its writing, to simply be the best film it can be, freed from any expectations in the world of fitting a well-defined formula.
Connery, for instance, is freed to define a role rather than to fit the already existing definition (something, admittedly, that he would do with perfection a few times over). He is given the leniency to fill in the shoes of Bond with tactile weight, to manicure the smirk, to add authority and sway to the brusque push and the way he stares with eyes that could kill or seduce in the same instant. He creates not only an image here, but a character, and a cold killer. A killer whose suave, debonair characteristics belie a very real haunt, a need to put on the facade of sensuality to cover up, from others, and from himself, the necessities of his brutal everyday actions. There is an icy chill, a forced confidence that is the result of understanding the weight of his actions, in his persona that adds fear, danger, and impact that the character arguably never had again. This is not a sober James Bond; it is a Bond of unfinished business.
From Russia with Love is much more than the film where Connery came into his own though. It is a defining feature for Terrence Young, who finally took the genre from its relatively mundane origins in the decent spy thriller Dr. No, grabbed the franchise by the horns, and catapulted it into the future. His best feature as a director is emphasis on wide framing shots to set up the geography of the confrontation and allow best-in-show editor Peter Hunt to absolutely take the film by his hands and run away with it. Hunt is so good at the essentials that it is almost difficult to remember how innovative his editing style was at the time, and how radical his utilization of a perverse variant of Soviet style montage was for 1963. It isn’t something that would have been obvious before, and it is difficult to explain in the technical sense, but the editing of From Russia with Love is a minor revolution. The way it times its cuts, the way it moves back and forth with the action to reduce stagnancy, the way it just hurts and makes you brace with impact. These things just didn’t exist at the time, and they make From Russia with Love a markedly forward-thinking cinematic Bond film.
And all of this in a film defined primarily by its refusal, relative to the other Bond films, to pander to individual moments of action for satisfaction. Instead, it is a resolutely streamlined Bond, free of sideways exposition. It is mercenary in its building blocks, assembling each one with such efficiency it almost hurts. It chops away any fugitive or stray subplots trying to take the film in directions it needs not go in. It just feels so crisp, so perfectly assembled at the level of basic film mechanics, thrilling in the way a classic gangster pic would have been a duo of decades before-hand. And this is not merely the domain of action. The everyday existence of Love is enlivened by its editing, hurtling the film forward and conveying information in the slightest possible amount of space. One early conversation is depicted over two fish fighting one another to the death, but it is the way the fish are edited, cutting on-action counter-intuitively in jarring, challenging, disconcerting ways that alert us and perk us up, that really sells the deal.
Elsewhere, the basic story mechanics (and Love is nothing if not a film that absolutely has the basic mechanics of everything down pat) work in a methodical, systemic way free of ostentatious oversight. Essentially, evil organization SPECTRE, headed by an ominous, unseen Blofeld this time out, plans to destroy Bond for having killed their operative Dr. No in the previous film. In the meantime, they want a Russian decoder device, which is to be given to a Russian clerk named Tatiana Romanav (Daniela Biachi), known by SPECTRE to be defecting to the UK. When Bond, aided by his ally Ali Kerim Bay (Pedro Armendariz), comes to meet with her in Turkey, having been lulled into a sense of security, SPECTRE will use operative Red Grant (Robert Shaw) to kill Bond and grab the decoder. Planning the plot are agents Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) and the taciturn, brutally efficient Rosa Klebb (Lette Lenya). Bernard Lew and Lois Maxwell make the rounds, and do wonders with them, as M and Miss Moneypenny, respectively (Maxwell in particular makes an impression as a Hawksian middle-aged woman who can compete with and match Bond with determination). Both define the roles they would soon fill-in time and time again with gusto.
If that narrative sounds like a mouthful, the simplicity and composure with which it is all distilled on the screen is one of the film’s chiefest pleasures, and there are many smaller moment-to-moment highlights as well. The way Bond casually investigates his hotel room in Turkey to check for bugs with cool efficiency, like he’s merely tying his shoes, for instance, or the low-slung grit of the monstrously effective train carriage fight scene between Grant and Bond, still in the upper echelon of hand-to-hand fights to this day and all the more notable for how grisly, sweaty, and non-professional it seems. The cruel opener, as we watch Grant hunt down a man in a hedge-maze is also, like so much of the film, a perfection of itself. At some level, From Russia with Love is a collage of these little pleasures, so wonderful individually, but functioning like sheer clockwork in the larger picture. Bond has been bigger many times since, but he has never been this tooth-and-nail, this ruthless, or this single-minded in his desire to do what he does best, leaving any and all frills by the wayside.