Michael O’Connor exposes gypsy catfights, poison-tipped shoes, and the perfect From Russia With Love screening party as it gets declassified this month!
By Michael O’Connor // Welcome back to Bond Night! This month we’re exploring the second James Bond film, From Russia With Love (1963), starring Sean Connery in his sophomore appearance as James Bond, with Robert Shaw as the deadly Red Grant and Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana, the beautiful Russian defector. We’ll take a look at some behind-the-scenes tidbits, plan out the perfect meal to pair with the film, get our imbibe on with directions for mixing Bond’s famous vodka martini, and then pass final judgment on Bond #2 by ranking it against its predecessor Dr. No!
The producers were faced with a challenge: how do you make a sequel to Dr. No? I’m delighted to inform you they figured it out. From Russia With Love is the Empire Strikes Back of the James Bond series. The second film in a potential franchise can either cement its legacy for years to come or sink it like a stone. Fortunately, they made some smart choices.
The first and best of those choices was to go back to the source material that they had so faithfully adapted in Dr. No. Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, had written a bevy of great Bond books, and the decision to pick Russia was a conscious plan to not only go in a completely different direction from Dr. No with a very different kind of narrative, but also to follow that first film with a story that feels like a natural sequel.
Dr. No was chosen as the perfect novel to adapt largely because it was so divorced from the rest of the Bond canon; as a straightforward, done-in-one story, it was an ideal choice for introducing Bond to a filmgoing crowd. But From Russia With Love expects you to know who Bond is and what he’s done, and the entire story is about revenge against Bond for past deeds.
In the film version of this story, those past deeds involve the liquidation of Dr. No, and the terrorist organization SPECTRE responds by setting an elaborate trap that threatens to heat up the Cold War, destroy and scandalize Bond and bring about a lucrative payday.
While the film and the novel of From Russia With Love are very similar in most ways, they do differ in a few key instances–for instance, Bond doesn’t appear in the novel until the eleventh chapter and is seemingly killed off in the final moments of the story by a poison-tipped blade concealed in the villainess’ shoe! (Good thing Fleming resurrected him in the following novel!)
But the most important difference was the decision to use the nationless SPECTRE as the bad guys plotting Bond’s downfall rather than SMERSH, a branch of the Russian secret service, as in the novel. That switch adds an extra layer of complexity to the story and makes the villains’ plot all the more brilliant, but it also avoids depicting the Russians as bad guys, which was a conscious decision on the producers’ part so that movie tickets could be sold worldwide.
From Russia With Love also introduced a series of artistic flourishes to the Bond franchise that would further define and differentiate the cinematic Bond from his literary predecessor. Depicting Blofeld here for the first time in the series as the faceless, cat-stroking mastermind may be the most obvious accomplishment, but also consider that this film features our first cold open in the franchise, the first musical opening credits with a scantily clad dancing woman, and our first introduction to Q as played by Desmond Llewellyn, the actor who would portray Bond’s gadget guru in seventeen more Bond films until his death in 1999.
But perhaps what’s most remarkable about this slick, innovative, and highly regarded sequel is how quickly they managed to run it through production and release it to theaters. A comparable genre sequel in the modern age, even with all the innovations and conveniences we have, is usually a two-year endeavor, but the producers of the Bond franchise managed to release the Bond films at a brisk pace of once a year (and sometimes even faster than that!). For the first three films anyway, there’s no sense that any quality was sacrificed or any shortcuts taken; quite the opposite, in fact. From Russia With Love should really be spoken of in the same breath as other classic sequels like Aliens, Godfather II and the aforementioned The Empire Strikes Back.
So I know what you’re thinking: Russian food, right? Actually, the movie mostly takes place in Istanbul, and Bond never actually travels to Russia. See? This is why you read this column BEFORE you start making Bond Night plans!
Instead, we’ll be delving into Turkish cuisine for this Bond Night. Fortunately, it’s a relatively common cuisine in most areas, and if you have trouble tracking down a good option, Lebanese, Greek, Middle Eastern or Mediterranean restaurants offer similar plates.
Your best bet is to order different kinds of kebabs–veal, chicken and/or lamb are the most authentic choices–because you’ll find it’s easy to split them up. Pair the meat with a couple “mezze” plates, which offer a great variety of side dishes and appetizers. Most common are kofte meatballs, dolma (grape leaves stuffed with meats or veggies and spices), fava beans, hummus and baba ganoush. Finally, a hearty serving of rice will complete the meal and give you something to soak up all those delicious oils and fats.
Before you get around to preparing your cocktail, don’t forget to down a strong Turkish coffee, if for no other reason than it’ll keep you from passing out after one too many vodka martinis.
From Russia With Love provides an excellent excuse to offer Bond’s signature cocktail, the vodka martini. Despite the fact that Bond doesn’t visit Russia in the film and doesn’t drink a martini in the film either, the Russian connection is as good an opportunity to test out this cocktail as any we’re likely to have for quite some time. Bond drinks a lot of different kinds of spirits over the course of the films and especially in the novels, so we won’t be returning to vodka for quite awhile.
The Vodka Martini is actually a name Ian Fleming assigned to a pre-existing cocktail called the Kangaroo Kicker. Talk with any decent bartender and they’ll stick up their nose on two points: 1) a martini by definition is gin, vermouth, bitters and lemon peel and 2) you always stir a martini, not shake it, because you don’t want to dilute the flavor with too much water or cause the drink to be cloudy in appearance.
But hey, is this Bartending 101 or Bond Night? That’s what I thought. So let’s do it the way Bond prefers.
The Kangaroo Kicker substitutes the gin of a martini for vodka and ditches the bitters altogether. Keep in mind that the vodka of Bond’s era was also much stronger than most commercial examples today, so you’ll want to snag a bottle of 100-Proof Vodka to stay authentic.
Kangaroo Kicker (a.k.a. Bond’s Vodka Martini)
- 1.5 ounces of Stolichnaya 100-Proof Vodka
- 0.5 ounces of Dolin Vermouth de Chambery Dry (the green bottle)
- Lemon peel
Directions: combine the vodka and vermouth in a shaker filled with ice. Shake aggressively for about thirty seconds to really chill it down. Strain into a martini glass or a Coupe glass and consider using an additional fine mesh strainer to keep broken ice bits out. Finally, cut a thick lemon wedge using a vegetable peeler, wringing it out over the drink, rubbing it along the rim and then dropping it in for garnish.
Bond favored the drink at an absurd 6:1 ratio (six parts vodka, one part vermouth) which is pretty much just drinking straight vodka. Feel free to go that way, or try the more palatable option above. It’s still stronger than normal, the usual ratio being 2:1.
It should be noted that Bond’s Vesper Martini is a different drink and will be covered when we reach Casino Royale.
Pause the film at 51:32 or just after Bond says, “She should have kept her mouth shut.”
Then, go serve your guests another round of vodka martinis; just make sure you hide their car keys.
From Russia With Love is consistently at the top of my list of favorite Bond films. In fact, depending on the day of the week, I might tell you it’s #1. When you get right down to it, the film is not only great at embodying everything we love about the character of James Bond, but it also exudes ambiance and mood. At times, dark and grounded, it’s also frequently humorous, larger-than-life and operatic. It walks the razor’s edge between grim and campy gracefully when so many other Bond films lean too heavily one way or the other.
Connery is in top-form here as well. He’s a little cooler and more tongue-in-cheek than the seething killer he played in Dr. No, but when he unleashes that trademark animal intensity, whether it’s in the service of sex or violence, it’s something to behold. The brutal fight with Red Grant inside a cramped train compartment is rightfully hailed as one of the best fight scenes in any Bond film (perhaps film history -Ed.), but it’s also worth noting that the scenes immediately before it are also spectacular. Shaw’s character Red Grant is an ominous figure hanging over the film, speechless for the entire running time until he finally confronts Bond.
Introducing the film to my friends was a treat, and they reacted especially favorably to Red Grant. One of my friends lauded the sequence with the booby-trapped suitcase and Grant by noting the clever, subtle acting of Connery and Shaw.
Other favorite scenes were the gypsy camp with its feral catfight and the cold open in which James Bond is seemingly garroted to death. Also, the bedroom recording of Bond and Tatiana’s coupling was dubbed by my friends as “the world’s first celebrity sex tape.”
If there are any downsides to the film, it’s probably (once again) the pacing for a modern audience. Just as with Dr. No, the first half of the film meanders a bit and takes in the sights; personally though, I like it when films indulge in longer cuts and less rigorous pacing. The benefit is largely an ambient one, but it’s crucial to evoking the locations where Bond finds himself and in building the tension and suspense within the plot. Part of the appeal of the Bond films is projecting yourself into his world, and that’s much easier when the film chooses to indulge in scenes that may not be strictly vital for progressing the plot.
Trust me, if your friends can stick with it until the gypsy camp catfight, all will be forgiven.
From Russia With Love is the clear winner in any head-to-head contest with its predecessor. It has a far richer story, a more compelling group of antagonists, a larger and more epic scope, and a rollicking final showdown that delivers with a swagger. It’s a beautifully realized film in just about every category. Technically proficient and innovative, subtly and smartly acted, well-written and cleverly plotted, and featuring a rousing score and brutal fight choreography, it’s the perfect articulation of the idealized James Bond fantasy adventure.
- From Russia With Love
- Dr. No
Bond Night Will Return with Goldfinger…
About Bond Night
Bond Night is a tradition started between myself, a bonafide Bondian, and friends whose exposure to the James Bond film franchise was limited. One film a month is paired with a region-appropriate cuisine and cocktail and spirited discourse about each film’s merits and shortcomings. The goal of this column is to translate that experience here, walking newbies and Bond-experts alike through fifty years of the British super-spy’s cinematic history (from Dr. No through today) and declassifying all the secret intel necessary for you to host your own Bond Night with friends and family.