Right from the start, Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman knew that they had something special on their hands with super-spy James Bond 007. Before the character's first feature film 'Dr. No' had even hit cinema screens, the producers optioned the rights to almost all of Ian Fleming's popular novels and began work on a series of sequels, originally planned for release one per year until the books might run out. As expected, 'Dr. No' was a pretty big hit in 1962, and was quickly followed by 'From Russia with Love' the next year. The second film had about twice the budget of the first, a larger scope, and did even better business.
'Russia' finds Bond at the center of a plot by the evil S.P.E.C.T.R.E. organization to steal a Lektor code-breaking device from the Russians. By duping a pretty Russian consulate worker into faking an appeal for defection to Britain, criminal mastermind Kronsteen has set in motion a plan to lure Agent 007 to Istanbul. From there, he will rely on Bond's formidable skills to get the machine out of the country, all the while shadowed by assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw). When the moment is right, Grant will kill Bond and take the Lektor, thus securing a critical intelligence asset and avenging the death of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. operative Dr. No in one fell swoop. The plan is brilliant in its simplicity, if not for one flaw. Kronsteen has of course underestimated the cunning, fortitude, and brilliance of our man of action 007.
One of the few direct sequels in a movie series that would quickly become a mess for continuity, 'Russia' makes several overt references to the events of previous entry 'Dr. No'. Along with star Sean Connery, many critical elements that made the first film a success have returned, including director Terence Young, an exotic setting, a larger-than-life threat, and a fair amount of adventure and derring-do. However, at this point, the franchise has not yet made the transition to over-the-top action spectacle. In fact, 'Russia' is perhaps the only Bond picture that could honestly be described as an espionage movie, in which the hero does actual spying.
Introduced this time out are a number of developments that would quickly become staples of the Bond formula. We get the first pre-credits teaser sequence. The opening credits feature the first use of live, scantily-clad women behind the titles ('Dr. No' had only some multi-colored silhouette cut-outs). 'From Russia with Love' has the first James Bond theme song, though only an instrumental version plays at the film's beginning; the full song with vocals by Matt Munro is not heard until the end credits. John Barry had previously contributed to the famed "James Bond Theme" (which is used again in this picture, as it will be in every Bond film), but this is his first full score for a 007 movie, and he initiates many of the musical motifs that will recur repeatedly later on.
MI6 gadget-master Q (Desmond Llewelyn) makes his first appearance here as well, providing Bond with his very first spy gadget -- a boobytrapped briefcase. Also appearing, in a certain sense anyway, is Bond's mysterious arch-nemesis Blofeld, seen only from the neck down stroking his fluffy white cat. Editor Peter Hunt advances his experiments with jump cuts a little more aggressively. And, in what I have to regard with mixed feelings, Bond begins his reliance on delivering flippant puns after dispatching enemies. At this stage, the jokes are still pretty clever, but long-term fans will recognize the start of a trend that will really bog down the series in later years.
In terms of iconic 007 moments, 'From Russia with Love' offers up the gypsy girl catfight, the baddie trying to escape a building through the mouth of an Anita Ekberg poster, Bond's brutal battle with Red Grant on the Orient Express, the helicopter attacking Bond on foot (a sequence heavily influenced by Hitchcock's 'North by Northwest'), and Bond blowing up a string of fuel drums while escaping by boat. Most importantly, it has diminutive villainess Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and her deadly switchblade boot.
While clearly still in the early stages of the franchise's development, 'From Russia with Love' cemented Bond's status as a major cinematic icon for the 1960s, and laid the groundwork for the 007 phenomenon to truly explode in the third outing, 1964's 'Goldfinger'. Even if not the most representative example of what audiences would later expect from a James Bond movie, it's still a tremendous piece of entertainment.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'From Russia with Love' comes to Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment (distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) in a few packaging options. The movie is available singly in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with slipcover or in a Steelbook case exclusive to Best Buy stores. 'From Russia with Love' is also included as part of the 'James Bond Collection: Volume 2' box set with 'Thunderball' and 'For Your Eyes Only'.
Upon loading, the disc prompts a BD-Live network connection for no particular reason. There is no BD-Live content on the disc. The Blu-ray is Java-enabled and very slow to load in a standalone BD player. At the time of this writing, many standalone players are having problems loading the disc at all. Several manufacturers have released or announced impending firmware updates to resolve playback problems with this first wave of Bond titles. Fortunately, the Sony Playstation 3 and the Panasonic DMP-BD50 used for this review are unaffected; both play the disc without issue.
The disc's overly-elaborate and confusing animated menus are designed in the same obnoxious style as MGM's other 007 Blu-ray titles.
As with MGM's superb release of 'Dr. No', the 'From Russia with Love' Blu-ray is sourced from the restoration that Lowry Digital Images originally performed for the 2006 Ultimate Edition DVD set. The results are equally stunning. It's hard to believe that the movie is nearly half a century old.
The Blu-ray is presented in the film's proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio with small pillarbox bars on the sides of the frame. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is terrifically sharp and detailed. Subtle textures are brought to life like never before. You can lose yourself admiring the stitching work of Bond's impeccable wardrobe. Colors are clean and robust. The contrast range has solid black levels with plenty of shadow detail, creating a fine sense of depth. The tactile nature of the opening titles sequence is a revelation. You can actually see the three-dimensional curvature of the female forms standing in front of the black backdrop.
Problems are fleeting. There's a small bit of light edge ringing on a handful of shots. While the image has an appropriate level of visible film grain, the grain pattern freezes in place once or twice, as if affected by Digital Noise Reduction. These are very minor nits to pick. 'From Russia with Love' looks extraordinary.
The movie's soundtrack is available in two options: either the original monaural mix in lossy Dolby Digital 1.0, or the new 5.1 remix in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio surround. I'm of mixed feelings about the 5.1 track. Generally speaking, it's more tasteful and less gimmicky than the 5.1 track on 'Dr. No', for example. The main focus of the sound design remains in the front channels, with the surrounds primarily reserved for subtle ambient cues. The train noises from the rear speakers during scenes aboard the Orient Express are sometimes quite effective. And 'From Russia with Love' seems to have less of the problem with excessively rolled off high end that afflicted 'Dr. No'.
On the other hand, some scenes don't work well at all. The artificial directional pans during the helicopter attack are very fake and distracting. All things considered, I prefer that a monaural soundtrack remain in its original mono. Unfortunately, that mono track is once again bright and harsh, causing discomfort during the louder scenes. Nevertheless, of the two choices, it feels more appropriate to the material. I plan to default to the mono track in future viewings, and I'm glad that MGM provided it.
All of the bonus features from the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006 have been carried over to the Blu-ray. There's a lot of worthwhile content in here.
MGM has done another fantastic job with 'From Russia with Love'. The classic James Bond adventure looks amazing and has a strong selection of bonus features. Highly recommended.