Terence Young’s From Russia With Love (1963), the second entry in the James Bond franchise, is not as good as the first and certainly not as good as the third, so it becomes a sort of a placeholder. Dr. No (1962) is the one that introduced all the elements, Goldfinger (1964) will be the one that will formalize and perfect them, and I’m afraid that means From Russia With Love is just the one in the middle. There are some bright spots, but it doesn’t hold its own sandwiched between those two.
British Agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) willfully walks into a trap; he’s been sent to Istanbul at the behest of a beautiful Russian agent who wishes to defect with Bond and give the Queen’s government a coveted code-breaking machine as part of the deal. Bond’s superiors figure it’s too good to believe, but they send him to Turkey anyway because the code breaker is too valuable not to at least investigate. From there Bond finds the girl, Tania (Daniela Bianchi), collects the machine and tries to bring it to the West with the agents of SPECTRE, the world’s most dangerous criminal organization and the one that has sprung the trap, in hot pursuit.
From Russia With Love gives us the first appearance of Q (Desmond Llewelyn), the gadget master who gives Bond his trinkets. Here he sends 007 on his way with a trick suitcase complete with knives and tear gas. British Intelligence is pretty sophisticated; no matter the different and varying toys they give Bond, they always end up being the handiest possible gadgets for the job. We also get our first glimpse of SPECTRE’s shadowy leader, comically referred to as Number One, who is only heard and not seen, except in close-ups petting his ubiquitous white cat. There’s also a villain with gadget 0f her own (a poisoned blade that emerges from her shoe) and an iron-strong henchman played with shark-like resolve by Robert Shaw. All these elements are fine, but they’re presented with little energy so the movie drags.
Coming off the relatively unexpected success of Dr. No, From Russia With Love was rushed into production to capitalize on its success and it feels like it. Young, who was able to subtly suggest danger in the earlier picture, seems under the gun here (though he effectively draws our attention to touching; glances of hands take on special significance early on so at the end simple human contact feels like viper strikes). His usual attention to detail during action sequences is undermined and the set pieces lose their zip. Further, the crux of the plot involving a Russian agent trained to seduce Bond who then ends up falling in love with him instead doesn’t feel credible. Variations on this theme will be quite durable later on in the Bond series, but here it doesn’t put in the work to make us believe it, leaving Tania piteously underwritten. If more time had been spent on their relationship and less on following Bond around Istanbul (particularly, a pointless diversion to a gypsy camp), the movie might not fall as flat.
The movie simply isn’t as fun. Near the end, there’s a hillside chase with a helicopter, which should be an exciting highlight, but it plays like a congressional hearing. And if a Bond picture isn’t fun, it makes the audience aware of the more unseemly side of the character. James Bond is a fantasy, but if we aren’t wrapped up in it, he quickly becomes a pathetic, self-absorbed bully who hates women. It’s the balancing act that every one of these movies tries to pull off, some better than others, and From Russia With Love worse than most.