From Russia with Love Movie Review: Checkmate on the Orient Express

Written by Leo Sopicki

From Russia with Love, (1963) directed by Terence Young (Dr. No, Thunderball, Wait Until Dark, and Inchon), has two beginnings, both of which, in classic Hollywood style, foreshadow future action.

The second in the series of Bond films, it was the first to use the pre-title action sequence which became a hallmark of the franchise. Before the titles roll, we meet the assassin, Captain Nash (Robert Shaw). Even though I was a fan of Shaw for his work in the TV adventure, The Buccaneers (1956-7), I didn’t recognize him in From Russia with Love (the first time I saw it) as the brooding, menacing Nash who rarely speaks until late in the second act. (His performance was excellent and I was only 14).

The pre-title sequence pits Nash against a Bond look-alike whom Nash dispatches with a wristwatch-concealed wire garrotte. The garrotte reappears later in the film at a pivotal moment.

After the titles, salaciously projected on the body of a belly-dancer in action, we are presented with the second beginning: a chess match. The match, between a Russian, played by Vladek Sheybal (who bears a striking resemblance to a young, skinny Vladimir Putin) and an Englishman, is interrupted when the Russian player receives a note on a napkin. The note tells him in menacing terms that he is needed elsewhere. And thus, we are given a foreshadowing of the film’s plot: a chess match between the English counter-intelligence service, MI5, and the Russian spy agency SMERSH, but with a secret third player pulling hidden strings — the international criminal organization SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion).

But, before I go too cinematically geeky on you, don’t get me wrong: From Russia with Love will never make it onto the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest Films. It is comic book level action-adventure, but a darn good comic book adventure. Its action moves along, lots of things explode, it provides hotties in underwear, and it also is significant to the development of the franchise as well.

Besides Sean Connery as Bond, the film features series regulars Bernard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as the ever lust-lorn Miss Moneypenny, and introduces Desmond Llewelyn as Major Boothroyd, a.k.a., Q. Also of note, one of the villains with whom Bond must deal, Rosa Klebb, is played by an actress with a place in literary history, Lotte Lenya.

In terms of its importance to the franchise, From Russia with Love is significant in several ways. As the second film in the series, it grossed nearly $80 million, outdrawing it predecessor, Dr. No, by $20 million, pretty much guaranteeing a third installment. John Barry’s music made its first appearance, super villain Ernst Blofeld (who returns in six more Bond films) was introduced, and super-gadget guy Q. Llewelyn continued as the character until his death in 1999. He was succeeded by John Cleese (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, A Fish Called Wanda) and Ben Whishaw (Brideshead Revisited).

In terms of plot, it is considered the most realistic of the Bond films. There are no flying cars or space ships, only the classic spy favorite, the Orient Express train. No one is trying to conquer or blow-up the world, and there is no far-out technological gimmickry. Q’s first modest contribution is a booby-trapped briefcase, concealing a knife, ammunition, and some emergency cash.

The plot involves SPECTRE trying to assassinate Bond in retaliation for his negating Dr. No. It lures him into a trap with the promise of a Russian code-breaking machine and love notes from a sexy cipher clerk. That could really happen. In terms of super-weapons, all we get is a poisoned-tip, spring-loaded knife in Lotte Lenya’s shoe. I could build that in my garage.

Lotte Lenya. Where have I heard that name before? Well, her name gives From Russia with Love some class. By people who take musical theatre seriously (note the “r” before the “e” at the end of theatre – that shows I’m serious), she is remembered for performing songs of her husband, Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera, The Seven Deadly Sins). For those of us not as familiar with pre-WWII theatre, we first heard her name in the lyrics to The Threepenny Opera’s “Mack The Knife”, when Ray Charles, then later, Bobby Darin, replaced a character’s name with hers. Cinematically, she made her mark with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. (I saw that when I was 12, and it was way over my head.)

Of course, there are Bond girls. Eunice Gayson plays Sylvia Trench, a Bond girlfriend who also appeared in Dr No.  Bond’s main squeeze, however, is the Russian cypher clerk, used as bait, Tatiana Romanova, played by a former Miss Rome, Daniela Bianchi.

So, should you see From Russia with Love? Yes, it is an important milestone in a cinematically significant series of influential British films. And did I mention the belly dancer, and the gypsy dancers, and the girl fight? Dude, see this film with a six-pack.

Operation: BOND will return with Goldfinger.

Cinema Sentries

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