From Russia With Love (Ultimate Edition) Review
The name of Bond rings around the corridors of SPECTRE, as much in outrage at his killing of Dr Julius No as in calls for revenge to be taken. All that is needed is the means and at a secluded mansion, Colonel Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) surveys the result of SPECTRE's long search for the perfect weapon with which to kill Bond, assassin Donald 'Red' Grant (Robert Shaw). Klebb, confident of success, leaves for Turkey and to an attractive young diplomatic clerk who will act as bait for the womanising Bond.
In London, MI6 receives a note from Corporal Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), who claims to have fallen in love with James Bond (Sean Connery) based on her seeing a photograph of the agent. Included in her note is a request that she defect to the West and to that, she adds an incentive that is sure to appeal to the British secret services, a LEKTOR decoder. Attracted both by the notion of this smitten Russian cypher clerk and by the Russian decoder, Bond leaves for Istanbul, not suspecting that he is being led into a trap that SPECTRE hopes will end with his death at the hands of Grant...
Deep within the Bond series lies a murky, densely plotted spy thriller far away from what one assumes to be the legacy of the James Bond films. Within a smaller frame than its predecessor and never as flirtatious as those that followed it, From Russia With Love is a low-key revenge thriller that reveals how the shadow of SPECTRE infiltrates both East and West, predating the more modern concept of terrorism without national allegiance. There is nothing that one might expect of a Bond film but Bond himself, assigned to the cobbled streets of Istanbul in an attempt to steal both Tatiana Romanova and a LEKTOR decoder out of the Russian embassy, little suspecting that the journey home on the Orient Express will see them joined by a SPECTRE-trained assassin, whom Bond suspects of nothing so terrible as murder, least of all his own.
The enjoyment in the film is, contrary to what one expects of a Bond thriller, not in the set pieces. Where, for example, The Spy Who Loves Me thrills with his pre-credits sequence or Goldfinger impresses with its raid on Fort Knox, the outstanding moments in From Russia With Love are in its treachery. The meal that Bond and Grant share on the Orient Express, during which Grant famously orders red wine with his fish course, allows the audience to watch Bond being drawn into a SPECTRE trap, his ability with a gun of no use in the dining car. This time around, the subterfuge is in the silences between Bond and Grant, the increasing lack of interest they have in the presence of Romanova and the use of the phrase, '...old man', with Bond's irritation at it contrasting with Grant's affectation of it to imply a trusted Britishness. There is little surprise when, after Bond puts Romanova to bed, the two of them get down to business, uncovering one another's secrets and resolving matters as only they can, naturally with a killing.
Of course, this is still Bond and the filmmakers - Boccoli, Saltzman and, returning from Dr No, director Terence Young - take pleasure in revealing the towering pomp of international terrorism. SPECTRE's mansion is revealed to be little more than a front for a parade of international terrors, including bomb making, karate-kicking assassins and sundry other nuisances whilst the lesbian killer Rosa Klebb is, with the flick-knife hidden in her shoe, more memorable a villain as Dr Julius No. The pre-credits killing of Bond is a great red herring, which would return in later films, whilst the fight in the gypsy village and the later gunfight are brief moments of action in a film that's largely without them.
From Russia With Love stands out, though, as being a film that brings Bond closer to home, figuratively and literally. Recalling Bond from the Caribbean paradise of Jamaica to a drizzly England and on to the dark streets of Istanbul, From Russia With Love places Bond within Europe and the uncertainty of the Cold War. More importantly, From Russia With Love fixes Bond better than any other film in the series. Later films present him as a man dispatched to bring the plans of megalomaniacs crashing back down to Earth - literally so in the case of Moonraker's Hugo Drax - and one who often stumbles upon a possible apocalypse in the course of investigating something else entirely but From Russia With Love has no sense of Bond doing right in his heart.
Instead, Bond is presented as a servant of the state, closest to Ian Fleming's description of him as, "an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department." In the course of the film, he may fall in love with Tatiana Romanova but one doubts it, suspecting that their time together in London will be brief and, for her, second to a career that thrives on the unexpected. Fleming leaves his reader with no doubt that it is the thrill of danger that sustains Bond but only From Russia With Love makes it clear, suggesting this is a man for whom the fight with Grant may have been more memorable than his making love with Romanova.
That may not be what one expects from a Bond but then neither is From Russia With Love. As much as one might enjoy the familiar sight of a more explosive Bond in the Bank Holiday schedules, the labyrinthine plotting of From Russia With Love is a rare treat in the series, one whose qualities become all the more pronounced as the years have passed.
As with Dr No, From Russia With Love has benefited from being presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and looks to be a great improvement over its release as an MGM Special Edition. The print looks much cleaner than it did previously and it's obvious that the restoration team have done a very impressive job with this film, which should be obvious on looking at the screen shots below.
MGM Special Edition (Above) / Sony Ultimate Edition (Below)
MGM Special Edition (Above) / Sony Ultimate Edition (Below)
The Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks, as with Dr No, really aren't bad but, equally, aren't necessarily what a casual buyer might be expecting. There's so very little happening in the rear channels that one wonders why Sony Home Entertainment bothered going to the extent of having these remixes produced when the original mono track, had it been cleaned up to the extent that the image has, would have been just as impressive.
As with Dr No, DVD Times were only sent the first disc out of this two-disc set, leaving me with no option but to offer my thoughts on the commentary. Like that first film, the commentary that has been included here is also that of the MGM Special Edition, in which John Cork of the Iam Fleming Foundation holds contributions from various members of the cast and crew together in scene-specific interviews. Cork himself offers a good deal of background to the production but wisely steps aside when, for example, director Terence Young or composer John Barry have more knowledge of a particular moment in the film. With Cork ensuring that each contribution concerns only the matter in hand, this is an informative track but feels too formal to be really enjoyable, with each of the participants having been recorded separately.
Other than the commentary, there are two features brought over from the old release - Inside From Russia With Love and Harry Saltzman: Showman - as well as various Trailers, TV Spots and Radio Communications. New to this Ultimate Edition are three features on Ian Fleming - a CBC Interview, one co-starring the writer with Raymond Chandler and a recording of his appearance on Desert Island Discs. This Ultimate Edition also includes an Animated Storyboard Sequence and an Interactive Guide to the film.