Among Bond aficionados the second entry in the series, "From Russia With Love," 1963, is generally considered the best of them all. I'm not sure I entirely agree with this consensus, but it's as good as any. "From Russia With Love" finds Bond without much in the way of gadgets, gimmickry, or guffaws in a serious and suspenseful yet still tongue-in-cheek escapade. It helps, I suppose, that the incomparable Sean Connery stars. If you don't already own MGM's previous DVD release of the film, this new Special 007 Edition is a must-buy.
The filmmakers had several things going for them with "From Russia With Love." They had Connery back, who had scored a big hit in "Dr. No." They had director Terence Young back, who had steered "Dr. No" to popularity. They had twice the budget they had had for the first venture. And they had the implicit endorsement of President John F. Kennedy, who had the year before listed Ian Fleming's novel "From Russia With Love" as one of his ten favorite books. But rather than go with overt thrills to carry the new film over the top--like outrageous villains and things blowing up every two minutes--the producers, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and director Young chose to go for atmosphere and mood. The settings themselves, for instance, are redolent of adventure--London, Istanbul, Venice, SPECTRE Island, and the Orient Express--and the heavies are evil in a sneaky, crafty way--a chess Grand Master, a female Russian defector, a quiet hit man, and a never-seen Number One. It clearly worked, with Bond using as much of his mind as his muscle.
The plot involves an attempt by the international crime organization SPECTRE to get the British Secret Service to steal a secret Russian decoder and then steal it from the British and sell it back to the Russians! The plan is ingeniously devised by a chess champion who claims the idea is foolproof because he has anticipated every move. What he hasn't anticipated is Bond. The chief scoundrel this time around is SPECTRE's head man, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, whose voice is heard but whose face remains unseen, giving him a more menacing appeal for our never knowing what he looks like. I always thought Blofeld lost a lot of his cachet when he was first played straight up by Donald Pleasence in "You Only Live Twice." Blofeld enlists the aid of Rosa Klebb, a former Russian army officer, to direct his scheme.
Klebb is played by Lotte Lenya, famed cabaret singer and wife of composer Kurt Weill; she is splendid as the tough, wily, scary, unscrupulous little martinet. Her accomplice is a trained assassin named Donald "Red" Grant, played by Robert Shaw. Shaw, an actor, novelist, and playwright, is all the more effective for saying not a word of dialogue until his final encounter with Bond on a speeding train. Bond's love interest is Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a beautiful Russian spy.
Bond's major ally is Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz), a Turkish agent working with Bond to get the decoder. Also along for the ride is the first appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as the man in charge of gizmos for MI6's "Q" branch, a man unnamed in the film but identified in the closing credits as "Boothroyd." He would, of course, be forever identified simply as "Q." Bernard Lee plays the head of the Secret Service, "M," and Lois Maxwell plays his secretary, Miss Moneypenny.
Look for the first appearance in a Bond film of a pre-title teaser, the little episode that gets the ball rolling and sets the tone for the rest of the story. Here, it involves Bond getting killed! Look, too, for a wonderfully disgusted sidelong glance from Bond when Grant orders a glass of wine, "the red kind," with his fish; also, a fight between two women at a Gypsy camp; a periscope into the Russian Consulate in Istanbul; a fairly exciting motorboat chase; and the best fight scene in any Bond film before or since, fought between Bond and Grant in a small compartment aboard the Orient Express. This is what the Bond mythology is all about.
Colors are bright and sharp, as expected, in this 1.74:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD transfer. But there is also some grain present and some occasional age flecks noticeable, especially in the first few minutes of the film. In fact, the video reproduction in "From Russia With Love" isn't much different from "Dr. No" or "Goldfinger," the films that came before and after it, respectively. The picture quality isn't perfect, but it's quite good given the age of the film.
The sound, though, is unremarkable, an average monaural, with little deep bass and few strong dynamic contrasts. It does its job in a workmanlike way, never calling attention to itself except in quieter passages where its soft background hiss can be heard.
As far as bonus materials are concerned, MGM does its usual Special 007 Bond routine. There is the expected audio commentary, this one with director Terence Young and members of the cast and crew. Then, there are two excellent documentaries. The first, "Inside From Russia With Love," is narrated as always by Patrick Macnee and lasts thirty-four minutes. It gives us some good behind-the-scenes information about what was apparently the most accident-plagued of any of the Bond productions. The second documentary, narrated by Marie Clairu, is called "Harry Saltzman: Showman," a twenty-nine-minute biography of the producer of the first nine James Bond movies. Next, there is an animated storyboard sequence featuring the speedboat scene at the end of the film, comparing the drawings to the finished product. A still gallery is quite extensive, so much so that it has to be indexed. Oddly, MGM leave off mention of the still gallery on their box. Finally, there is MGM's usual, eight-page informational booklet insert, plus thirty-two scene selections, and three each of theatrical trailers, TV ads, and radio spots. English and Spanish are the spoken language choices, French and Spanish the subtitles.
I daresay anyone who had seen only the latest high-tech, slam-bang Bond outings with Pierce Brosnan would scarcely recognize "From Russia With Love" as a Bond picture. "From Russia With Love" is positively subtle by comparison. Nevertheless, the older movie provides probably more outright suspense and excitement than any of the newer concoctions. But rather than splitting hairs, maybe we could all agree that new or old, Bond is Bond, and the differences only point up the need for owning as many of the flicks as we can afford. "From Russia With Love" may be purchased separately or in a boxed set that also includes "You Only Live Twice," "Diamonds Are Forever," "Moonraker," "For Your Eyes Only," "The Living Daylights," and "The World Is Not Enough."