How Good Is It?
From Russia With Love is among the best Bond movies and pretty high up among spy movies, period. It’s unusually grounded for a Bond film, featuring a sensible Cold War espionage goal (obtaining a decoding device), a conventional means of getting it (turning a member of the embassy staff), and a reasonable complication (it’s a trap). Almost to the end of the film Bond thinks he’s facing a Russian op, and if that were true (rather than SPECTRE being behind it) the film would be an almost plausible tale of Cold War chicanery. Even the gadgets (this is the first film with Desmond Llewelyn as Q) all seem like something spies might actually have.
The concept also plays out quite well on the screen, with the exception of a fairly bad interlude in a Roma camp. Connery had a handle on Bond in this film and had figured out how to play him as an actual human being. Robert Shaw does the film a huge favor with his portrayal of SPECTRE assassin Don Grant, playing equally well as a silent threat and a huckster barely keeping his grift going. The fighting and gunplay are suitably inelegant although the action scenes start to go a little over the top towards the end.
An improved budget (double what Dr. No had) results in a better overall product with only a few moments of obvious fakery. As a result of all this From Russia With Love feels at once plausible and dreamlike, an early example of the “heightened reality” that would eventually animate superhero films.
One can imagine an interesting trajectory for the Bond films following on from this story, one where the focus is on small espionage coups of one kind or another that he facilitates or prevents. In this world he performs almost-plausible spy work in almost-plausible ways. It was not to be, however, as the runaway success of Goldfinger would shape the narrative of almost all Bond films for the next 50 years.
How Gross Is It?
From the moment the credits start showing up on the bare skin of belly-dancing ladies, you know Bond is about to get pretty gross. For all that it’s more grounded than its predecessor, From Russia With Love also treats its ladies worse. Sylvia Trench gets barely more than a moment, and Tatiana barely plays any role in the espionage op that’s centered on her. Her change of loyalty from the USSR to Bond receives no play, and she spends a good deal of the film absent or unconscious. Notably the film makes an early effort to elicit sympathy for her by portraying Rosa Klebb as a threatening lesbian, and letting Tatiana kill Klebb is the only agency the film really allows her.
At one point two women have a vicious catfight that is presented as the “traditional gypsy way” of settling disputes, which should tell you a lot about the movie’s implicit politics.
How’s The Song?
Although Goldfinger gets the credit as being first, From Russia With Love does have a theme song, but only an instrumental version plays over those cheesecake credits. The song eventually plays diegetically (in the scene with Trench) and over the closing credits. It’s a competent romance tune, performed by the guy who did Born Free, and does a competent job of evoking a feeling of nostalgic fondness. If the romance were really the centerpiece of the story, as opposed to just a plot strand, I might think more highly of it, but the song doesn’t really capture the essence of the film.