February 4, 2013

From Russia with Love (1963)
Grade: 72/100

Director: Terence Young
Stars: Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendáriz

What it's about. The second entry in the endless series of James Bond films. Bond (Sean Connery) is a top British spy under the direction of his shrewd boss M (Bernard Lee). Bond has a flirtatious platonic relationship with M's secretary, Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), but he prefers his women younger and hotter.

Bond is dispatched to Turkey, where Russian defector Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) will allegedly provide him with a Soviet decoder machine. Tatiana has allegedly fallen in love with Bond based on his dossier at Russian intelligence. It must be a trap, but since Bond is immortal, he goes anyway.

Once in Turkey, he hangs out with Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendáriz), an agreeable man whose family business is spying on the Russians and their Bulgarian surrogates. Tatiana shows up in Bond's hotel bed, a gorgeous and willing creature but under orders from Lotte Lenya, the harsh middle-aged female spymaster for Spectre, the sinister organization that makes money from pitting the West against the Iron Curtain.

Following an unlikely adventure at a gypsy camp and a bombing at the Russian embassy, Bond manages to secure both Tatiana and the McGuffin decoder device. But now he must contend with Spectre agent Robert Shaw, a serial murderer who plans to snuff out Bond and babe and take the device.

How others will see it. For decades, From Russia with Love was generally regarded as the best Bond movie. That changed in recent years with the Daniel Craig films, which are well regarded.

From Russia with Love was a critical favorite, though it was ignored by the Academy Awards. More importantly, it was a box office smash. The innumerable Bond movies over the years have blended its cultural impact, but it remains highly popular today.

At imdb.com, it has a considerable 53K user votes. There is a slight gender gap in the user ratings, with perhaps more female viewers cognizant of the sexism of the film. Only Lotte Lenya is presented as a woman with a purpose other to serve as someone's mistress. Even Miss Moneypenny, the secretary of the top British spy echelon, is more interested in flirting with Bond than in performing official duties.

How I felt about it. Bond has always had three personalities: the seducer, the connoisseur, and the action hero. In the end, it is the action hero that matters. The seducer exists to bring women to the theaters and provide eye candy for male viewers, but there would be little substance to the movie without the intermittent theoretical threat of mortal danger to Bond.

In later Bond movies, our feckless lead gradually assumes nearly superhuman abilities. However, we prefer him to be fallible, and involved in plots that don't necessarily involve Saving the World. From Russia with Love has an agreeably smaller scale. He is after a simple decoder machine. He blunders forth with confidence, but is in fact on a fool's errand, and succeeds only because he is helped by others. Robert Shaw saves him at the gypsy camp, Desmond Llewelyn's toolkit allows him to best Robert Shaw, and Miss Universe 1960 (his would-be Russian bride) saves him twice when faced with Lotte Lenya.

Obviously, we don't want Bond-as-human to become Bond-as-comedy, in Inspector Clouseau fashion. The right mix, where Bond is highly capable but cannot save the world by himself, is elusive within the admittedly lucrative and long-running franchise.