FRWL's plot is classic Bond, and completely basic: the international criminal organization known as SPECTRE want to get their hands on a decoding machine used by the Russians in their trans-consulate communications system. Their plan to do so involves using a lovely young secretary at the Russian embassy in Istanbul setting a trap that involves British super-spy James Bond. SPECTRE hope to not only get their hands on the machine, but also to kill Bond - who is a constant thorn in their side - and embarrass British intelligence to boot. It's obviously a trap from the start, but the English, as SPECTRE's master planner notes, would prefer to spring a trap rather than to avoid one. The secretary is recruited by a female ex-SMERSH (Russian counterintelligence) operative, and the assassin of choice is a blonde, bronzed giant of a fellow who relishes his deadly work.
FRWL has all the elements a classic Bond film should have: a beautiful leading lady, exotic locations, weird and sinister villains, a bit of secret-agent gadgetry (a tricked-out briefcase which was turned into a popular toy, see here), and plenty of action and derring-do. In fact, this film - much more so than its predecessor Dr. No - that really set up the template that the series would follow forever more, a formula from which the films have rarely, if ever, strayed. The story careens from set-piece to set-piece with no wasted screen time, and it's also captured lovingly by cinematographer Ted Moore. Istanbul isn't quite a romantic getaway, but its authentic locations (not quite including a mock gypsy camp filmed back at Pinewood outside London) are just exotic enough, just faraway and crumbling enough, to lend the story an extra bit of fantasy.
Oh, not all of the Bond lore is quite there yet: nowhere in the picture does he introduce himself as "Bond... James Bond;" he doesn't get to play baccarat in a casino or order a vodka martini "shaken, not stirred." This film does have the first pre-title opening sequence, which here was part of the overall story but in future would often just have Bond finishing up one adventure before embarking on the present one. This was also the film to introduce both SPECTRE and Blofeld. He does manage to be shown driving a vintage green Bentley - which matches his car in the original Ian Fleming novels. Q, Moneypenny, and M all make their appearances, thank goodness. And at the end of the film, we get our first Bond teaser, i.e., 'James Bond will be back in... ' In this case, it would be Goldfinger.
For hardcore Bond fans, From Russia With Love is often seen as the definitive James Bond film. Indeed, the first five or so Connery films are collectively seen as 'the good Bond era,' with many viewers rejecting everything that came after. And who can blame them, really - this was when the series was stretching its muscles, testing its powers and establishing the character and the fictional world of one of the great iconic fictional characters of all time. Nearly all the films that followed would be merely coloring by numbers, checking off items from a list of spy-movie cliches: beautiful girls falling all over the hero? Check. Wacky villains who are members of a secret acronym-named organization? Check. Deadly gadgets disguised as everyday items? Got it. Chase scenes, faraway locations, lots of expolosions and choreographed fights? Yup, got 'em, let's roll, people.
Anyway, back to FRWL. The original Fleming novel was one of John F. Kennedy's favorite reads. SPECTRE wasn't originally in the novel - in fact, the stolen code-breaking machine was called Spektor in the novel; in the film it is changed to Lektor (with most characters being careful to pronounce the second syllable, so that viewers wouldn't get the organization and the machine mixed up). The book's original title contained a comma - i.e., From Russia, With Love, but this was dropped from the film title.
It's easy to see why this is considered the best of the Bonds. Even Goldfinger, which is very highly regarded, doesn't quite approach this one in terms of mood, setting, or outright action. (Of course, it probably wasn't a good idea to have the third Bond film's climax take place in Kentucky. I'm just sayin'.) Daniela Bianchi was absolutely gorgeous; Robert Shaw looked exactly as powerful and menacing as his character; Lotte Lenya was what everybody expected a female Russian agent to look like, at least in those days; and Sean Connery was at his smooth and cool best. John Barry's score here was one of his best. So, when looked at as a sum of its elements, the film nearly cannot fail.
And it doesn't - From Russia With Love doesn't just entertain; it satisfies.
From Trivia With Love
- Beautiful Daniela Bianchi, who played Russian agent Tatiana Romanova, was an Italian actress, the youngest to have played a Bond girl. Due to her accent, she was dubbed in this film.
- Daniela Bianchi was the runner-up in the 1960 Miss Universe pageant.
- Bianchi later played in another spy film, an Italian production probably best known under the title Agent Double 007. Its star was Neil Connery... Sean's brother.
- Robert Shaw, who played the strongman badguy Red Grant, wasn't just an actor; during his lifetime (he died in 1978) he was the author of novel, plays, and screenplays.
- Robert Shaw is also well-known as the crusty sailor Quint from the movie Jaws.
- Lotte Lenya, who played ex-SMERSH colonel Rose Klebb, was an Austrian actress and singer who was married to German composer Kurt Weill.
- Vladek Sheybal, who played SPECTRE's Number Five the chess champion, was a Polish-born actor who was a friend of Sean Connery's. A veteran of several movies and television shows, Sheybal also appeared briefly in the Bond spoof Casino Royale.
- Vladek Sheybal was also a regular on the British sci-fi show UFO, in which he played Dr. Jackson, SHADO's chief psychologist.
- Pedro Armandariz, who played Ali Kerim Bey, was a well-known Mexican actor. During the filming of FRWL, he was in constant pain from cancer, but struggled to finish the film so that his family could have his salary. He committed suicide shortly thereafter.
- Martine Beswick, who played the fighting gypsy girl Zora, would appear again soon in another Bond film, Thunderball. She would continue to act for a couple of decades, eventually appearing in such films as the spaghetti Western A Bullet For The General, Hammer productions One Million Years BC (where she fought onscreen with Raquel Welch) and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (she played the genderly transformed scientist), and The Happy Hooker Goes To Hollywood.
- Aliza Gur, who played Vida, the more grr (in my opinion) of the two gypsy girls, had been Miss Israel of 1960. She would later appear in the cheap spy film Agent From H.A.R.M.
- Aliza Gur and Daniela Bianchi were roommates during the 1960 Miss Universe competition, coincidentally enough, but they did not appear together in From Russia With Love.