Previously I covered the first Bond outing Dr. No, and was blown away by the restoration work done with that. Would From Russia with Love live up to those incredibly high standards?
I’ll talk about the transfer later, but first I want to explore the second Bond outing and some of the changes they made. This film was made just a year after Dr. No, and with much the same creative and production team including direction by Terence Young.
But in overall feeling this is a much darker film than the first, exploring the more visceral sides to espionage and how people are positioned by their side like chess pieces. The chess theme is underlined by Kronsteen played by Vladek Sheybal, who’s both a criminal mastermind and a chess grand master.
For curious reasons they decided to not show the face of Ernst Stavro Blofeld yet, although his affection for Persian cats, and terminating unsuccessful agents are both quite evident, even if he’s not identifiable. The story is actually much more of a travelogue, jetting us to Istanbul before an Orient Express-style train journey across central Europe, a power boat chase in the Balkans, and finally a romantic Gondola ride in Venice. The advent of commercial flying was something of a dream for many working class British people in 1963, and as such these locations must have seemed quite exotic to most people then. These days the excitement of international travel is somewhat quaint, though I did marvel at the location shoots on the bustling Bosferous.
As a development, this film is also quite a bit more violent than before, with people dying in many quite graphic and unpleasant ways. But most noticeable is the train fight between Bond and Red Grant (Robert Shaw), which even by modern standards is exceptionally brutal. Sex is also treated in a much less coy way than you might expect for the era, which was hardly the swinging sixties at that point. There’s a blunt reality underpinning the action which must have been a blast of fresh air to the tight mainstream regimentation Hollywood was offering then.
In terms of the franchise, the tweaks made in From Russia With Love are the inclusion of theme music, created by Lionel Bart and sung by Matt Monro. It’s not the greatest theme, and might be far too light and lilting for the subject matter, but it serves well enough. It’s also got the traditional titles, using a belly dancer with the credits projected onto her, but it wasn’t created by Maurice Binder who didn’t return until Thunderball. It’s not as slick as his later renditions, but it’s better than the weird mess that accompanies Dr. No.
The continuity of M and Moneypenny is now joined briefly by Desmond Llewelyn as Q, which also heralds the first true gadgets. The briefcase Bond’s issued doesn’t look anything special these days, and actually the gadgets that the bad guys have seem much more imaginative, but it gets him out of a scrape and solidifies the idea that spies use gadgets. It’s also the first film in the series that announces at the end that James Bond will be back, in Goldfinger to be precise.
Ok, unless you’ve lived down a coal mine for the past fifty years then you’ve seen the movie, but what is the Blu-ray like?
I’ll curb those expectations by saying it’s not quite as amazing as the Dr. No restoration, but then I think the material they had to deal with here wasn’t as technically good. Many of the scenes are shot at night or in low light conditions, which – because of the film stock chosen – are exceptionally grainy in places. That’s not to say it’s bad, because the daylight and set shoots are stunning, maybe even better than Dr. No in places. The problem is that a major chunk of the movie takes place on the train in darkness, where the grain is at its worst. The scenes which stand out as exceptionally nice are those location shots in Istanbul, and scene where number ‘2’ kills Kronsteen. I’d recalled that Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) looks totally convinced she’s for the chop, but in this restored presentation you can see every bead of sweat on her brow. For all the production faults, like Dr. No this film hasn’t looked this good before and Lowery Digital should get some sort of award for the work they’ve done on these movies. MGM have also re-mixed the soundtrack from its mono origins to DTS-HD for good measure.
The extras are numerous, mostly culled from the MGM special edition and not in HD. I could complain more about them, but that isn’t what would attract me to this disc. It’s the twisted characters, impressive action sequences and memorable moments that make this one of the best Bonds. If Dr. No was the formulation of Bond, then From Russia with Love is the synthesis before the concept entirely crystallises in Goldfinger.
For anyone that loves Bond, there isn’t actually any point is discussing this further – having this disc is a complete no-brainer.
Movie:Extras: From Russia With Love is released on the 20th of October