On September 25th, 2012, MGM Home Entertainment released the 'Bond 50' collection, a box set that contains no less than 22 films from the James Bond franchise's first 50 years. In order to provide the most comprehensive coverage, High-Def Digest will review each of the discs in this package separately. For the index of all reviews in this series, as well as details regarding bonus content exclusive to the box set, see our 'Bond 50' hub review.
'From Russia with Love' was previously released on Blu-ray in 2008. Portions of this article first appeared in our original review of that disc. However, the audio and video technical sections have been freshly updated.
"From this angle, things are shaping up nicely."
Right from the start, Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman knew that they had something special on their hands with super-spy James Bond, Agent 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 being 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, to provide 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. 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-time 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 a gypsy girl catfight, a 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, a helicopter that attacks 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.
Aside from the physical labeling and artwork, the copy of 'From Russia with Love' in the 'Bond 50' box set is identical to the Blu-ray released in 2008. It has the same menus, the same audio and subtitle options, the same everything. For fans who don't care to (or aren't able to) purchase the whole box set, MGM Home Entertainment has also released a standalone reissue of this movie in its own separate keepcase.
Revisiting the disc four years later, I had to approach this reissued copy of 'From Russia with Love' with some trepidation. I gave the movie's high-def transfer a rave review back in 2008. Would it still hold up to my memories of it, in light of four years of higher standards and expectations?
I was relieved to find myself still impressed with the 'Dr. No' Blu-ray. Thankfully, 'From Russia with Love' also still looks stunning. As with the previous movie, this one was sourced from a 4k scan and frame-by-frame restoration originally performed by Lowry Digital for the 2006 Ultimate Edition DVD set. The image is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with small pillarbox bars on the sides of the frame. It looks great.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is terrifically sharp and detailed. Subtle textures are brought to extraordinary life. 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, which lend 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. The picture is so clear and strongly resolved that actress Daniela Bianchi's naked figure is plainly visible through the curtain at time code 53:12. I doubt that even the original 35mm theatrical prints could have looked this good.
Problems are fleeting. A small bit of light edge ringing is present on a handful of shots. While the image has an appropriate level of visible film grain, the grain pattern unnaturally freezes in place once or twice. These are very minor nits to pick. 'From Russia with Love' looks outstanding.
The movie's soundtrack is available in two options: a 5.1 remix in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or the original mono mix in lossy Dolby Digital. I'm of mixed feelings about the 5.1 track. Generally speaking, it's more tasteful and less gimmicky than the remix on 'Dr. No', for example. The main focus of the sound design remains in the front channels, and the surrounds are primarily reserved for subtle ambient cues. The train noises from the rear speakers during scenes aboard the Orient Express are sometimes quite effective.
'From Russia with Love' also 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. In comparison, I find the mono mix more appropriate to the material.
As far as that goes, I've re-read my original review and think that I was perhaps too hard on the disc's mono track. I watched the majority of the movie in that format this time and found it pretty listenable. Yes, it's a little bright and harsh, which causes some discomfort during the louder scenes. However, it's much less strident than the similar option on 'Dr. No', and also suffers much less analog tape hiss. Despite the limitations of the lossy Dolby Digital format, the mono track offers some good, clean audio for a movie of this age. I plan to default to this track during future viewings.
The bonus features on the Blu-ray first appeared on the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006. There's a lot of worthwhile content in here.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The disc has no Blu-ray exclusive features.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
Back in 1991, the Criterion Collection released 'From Russia with Love' on Laserdisc with an exclusive audio commentary by director Terence Young, writer Richard Maibaum and editor Peter Hunt. Due to some controversial comments, the movie's producers objected to the track and demanded that Criterion recall the disc. Criterion later reissued the title without the commentary, which has never appeared on disc again. Copies of that first pressing remain a collector's item.
The staggering 22-film 'Bond 50' box set is an outstanding collection of one of cinema's most enduringly popular franchises. Even though the 'From Russia with Love' Blu-ray is a simple reissue of a disc first released in 2008, it still looks amazing and has a strong selection of supplemental features.
Whether on its own or as part of the 'Bond 50' package, 'From Russia with Love' comes highly recommended.
James Bond will return.