Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review — From Russia with Love (1963)
When a movie that costs a mere one million dollars grosses nearly sixty million dollars worldwide, a sequel is pretty much guaranteed — this definitely still rings true today. But when the low-budget Dr. No became a box office smash, producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman weren’t just looking to make a sequel — they wanted to make a long-running franchise.
One of the most popular and critically acclaimed James Bond novels Ian Fleming wrote was From Russia With Love, written in 1956, and picked in 1961 by President John Kennedy as one of his ten favorite books. There were plenty of novels for the producers to choose from for the second installment, but they picked From Russia With Love mostly because they knew they couldn’t lose with an entry in the book series so beloved. Just a few short months after the release of Dr. No, From Russia With Love went into production on April 1, 1963. Broccoli and Saltzman, naturally, wanted to make one Bond movie a year for as long as possible (they would succeed in this regard for the first four installments).
From Russia With Love featured a budget twice the size of the first installment, and the money can be seen on the screen. This is a bigger spectacle of an action movie than the first one, especially in the second half, where there are three memorable action sequences back to back. Sean Connery is even more comfortable and relaxed as Bond, firmly established in the role of his career. While the first half of the film has its slow stretches, it properly sets up a second half where the suspense is literally non-stop. The acting is uniformly excellent, and Terence Young, who returned to direct this second installment, ups his game in every way. The famous train fistfight, which works so well because it’s actually the actors in almost every shot, marks one of the great scenes of the series.
No matter how important the first installment Dr. No is deemed to be, it only features a few iconic moments. From Russia With Love suffers from similar slow pacing problems for the first hour or so, despite an ominous opening teaser, and the occasional juicy moment with Rosa Klebb. When the characters make their way on the train, however, the power of that set-up brings forth a genuinely awesome final fifty minutes that marks some of the most viscerally exciting moments in Bond films, so the wait is worth it.
MGM has supplied Bond fans with terrific DVD releases of the Bond films over the years, with terrific special editions released in the early 2000s, and ultimate editions released around the release of 2008’s Quantum of Solace. The special edition of From Russia With Love features a ton of bonus features, including a thirty-four minute making-of that details every aspect to the film’s history, production, and release.
One of the most notable missing From Russia With Love supplements is the 1991 commentary track recorded for the Criterion Collection laserdisc. Displeased with some controversial statements on the track, the studio demanded a recall of all the laserdiscs. The commentary tracks on all the Bond special editions DVDs are pretty dry, with edited together interviews and little screen-specific content, and it would be welcome to have better content in that regard. If you can find the banned commentary, it’s definitely worth a listen. There is a lot of informative, frank tales told about the film.
From Russia With Love is a definite improvement on the slower, less intense Dr. No, and paves the way for what is almost universally regarded as the greatest Bond film of all, Goldfinger. While the first half takes a while to get moving, the last fifty minutes, particularly all the material in the train, are pure Bond magic. It’s the third best Connery Bond, and the first real must-see film of the series.
Watching Like a Writer
My favorite scene in From Russia With Love is the extended fight on the train, and I’d love to attempt a suspense action scene in a piece of my fiction that takes place for many pages at a time all in one closed, claustrophobic setting. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be on a train; it could be an attic, someone’s bedroom, a janitorial closet. The possibilities are endless!
Think of a tight space that could serve an exciting action sequence well. What would it be?