With this second installment in the franchise, From Russia with Love, James Bond (Sean Connery) receives his first gadget: a black, rectangular attaché case filled with all sorts of neat stuff, none of which seems to be especially fantastic, as would often be the case in some of the later films. Where the movie does diverge radically from reality is in the fact that the Soviet Union knows what he looks like, and yet Bond is still being sent out into the field as a secret agent. In fact, when the movie starts, we see some guy running around in a James Bond mask at a training camp where they practice killing James Bond. Whereas in Dr. No. (1962), Bond was at pains to keep from being photographed, in this movie, MI6 gets information that a female Soviet agent, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), having seen his photograph, has fallen in love with him and wants to defect, bringing with her a Lektor cryptographic device. In real life, once a spy’s identity and face is known, he is reduced to having a desk job from then on, but not so in the Bond franchise.
And this was just the beginning. As future Bond movies were made, he began to acquire superstar fame, so that all the world had heard of him and his ability to turn female enemy agents by having sex with them. In Thunderball (1965), a female spy speaks derisively of Bond’s talents in this regard, having just sampled them herself: “James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents and immediately returns to the side of right and virtue. But not this one. What a blow it must have been, you having a failure.” Apparently, the producers of the movies figured that since everyone in the audience would already know who James Bond is, then the same would have to be true for the characters in the movies, especially the women. Of course, just because the whole world knows who James Bond is, that doesn’t mean his name can be used back at the office, where he is still referred to as agent 007.
Bond’s lovemaking does appear to be transformative. At one point in this movie, he ends up at a gypsy camp where two beautiful women want to kill each other on account of their both being in love with the same man. They are in the middle of a vicious fight, possibly to the death, when the camp is invaded by some Bulgars with whom the gypsies have a blood feud. In the ensuing battle, Bond saves the gypsy leader’s life. As a return for the favor, Bond asks that the fight between the women be stopped. Well, there is only one way to do that. The two women are brought to his tent where Bond makes love to them both, curing them of their passion for what’s-his-name.
In the novel, it was the Russian agency SMERSH that Bond had to contend with, but here it is actually SPECTRE, a terrorist organization first introduced in the movie Dr. No. Ian Fleming said he recommended this change from SMERSH to SPECTRE in making Dr. No, because he was afraid that by the time the movie was released, the Cold War would be over, and the movie would seem dated. Who does he think he’s kidding? Nobody had any sense that peace was about to break out. In fact, the Cuban Missile Crisis took place in the very month that Dr. No was released. On the contrary, these films were made while the Cold War was still going strong, when Russians were still thought to be utterly evil, and so it seems strange that the movie would pull its punches in this way and make a terrorist organization be Bond’s nemesis instead.
I suspect capitalism is the answer. By not offending the Soviets, the movies could be shown in Russia and in any other country under their influence, thereby increasing the profitability of the franchise. If I am right in my surmise, then it might be asked why Fleming did not just go ahead and say this was his reason for suggesting the change. Well, how would it look for the author of James Bond novels to admit that he was willing to knuckle under to the Soviets for mere money?
The head of SPECTRE is referred to as “Number 1,” whom we see petting a cat. As we know from later movies, a cat is the attribute of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. His chief strategist is chess champion Kronsteen, who comes up with the plan to get possession of the Lektor after Bond steals it from Russia with the help of Tatiana. The plan has already been alluded to above, except that Tatiana has not really fallen in love with Bond’s photograph. She only pretends to do so, believing she has been so ordered by a Soviet Colonel, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), who actually has defected to SPECTRE.
During the interview in which Tatiana receives her instructions, Klebb starts caressing her, telling Tatiana that she must do as she is told or face death. The scene is meant to be disturbing, but not because Klebb is going to make Tatiana have sex with her. Forcing a woman to have sex in these early Bond films was represented as being perfectly acceptable. In Goldfinger (1964), Bond gives Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) the rape she needs, causing her to abandon her villainous partnership with the title character. In Thunderball, Bond threatens a physical therapist with the loss of her job if she does not have sex with him, and we are supposed to approve of his doing so.
Nor is it the fact that Klebb is a lesbian that is supposed to make us uncomfortable. Although audiences in the 1960s were not as accepting of homosexuality as they are today, even back then the scene would not have bothered people had Klebb been a beautiful woman like Tatiana. Instead, it would have been titillating. Heterosexual men have always enjoyed having at least one lesbian sex scene in their pornographic movies, because then they get to look at two beautiful naked women at the same time. Rather, it is the fact that Klebb is ugly that makes us squirm. Fortunately, the movie fades out at this point, so we don’t have to look at Klebb getting her ugly all over Tatiana.
The plan works pretty well, up to a point, but Bond ultimately foils it. Klebb had enlisted Grant (Robert Shaw), one of those guys on SPECTRE Island that had been killing men wearing James Bond masks, figuring he was the man for the job. Bond had not spent any time practicing on men who wear masks looking like Grant, so he was at a disadvantage, but he managed to kill him anyway and bring the Lektor from Istanbul to Venice, along with Tatiana, who by this time has genuinely fallen in love with Bond and wants to defect to the West.
Now, it should not be surprising that a spy of Bond’s caliber might triumph. After all, even a world chess champion will lose a game occasionally. The thing for Blofeld to do would be to get Kronsteen started on plan B. But no, we find out that SPECTRE does not tolerate failure, the penalty for which is death. And so, Kronsteen is put to death by one of Blofeld’s henchmen, who sticks him with a poison-tipped stiletto that flips out from the toe of his shoe. This raises the question, who would work for these people? A Russian chess champion would be able to live pretty well by simply playing chess, even if he did make a mistake once in a while. What would he have to gain by joining up with an organization in which mistakes warrant the death penalty? Of course, the point is to convey to the audience just how ruthless SPECTRE is. But there is a difference between being ruthless and being ridiculous.
Anyway, after Kronsteen’s execution, Klebb follows Bond and Tatiana to Venice, where she almost kills Bond with her own pair of poison-tipped stiletto shoes. Tatiana saves Bond by shooting Klebb, but one might ask if that was necessary. All Bond had to do was have sex with Klebb, and that would have made her want to start working for MI6, and it would have cured her of being a lesbian as well, as it did with Pussy Galore in the novel Goldfinger. It would not have cured her of being ugly, however, and in a Bond movie, the penalty for that is death.
Despite the flaws, this is still one of the best Bond movies ever made.