It’s a pretty easy call to say that FRWL is one of the best Bond movies ever made; if not THE best, then certainly within the top three. Like one of Bond’s martinis, every ingredient here is mixed perfectly. The villains are first-rate. The plot gives us a terrific Bond adventure. And (for the time, at least) the movie is very risque, with sex being sort of the engine that drives the plot.
This is one of the few Bond movies that actually involves genuine espionage (portrayed realistically). Indeed, the movie does take its time to get going, which means that today’s movie audiences would probably find it to be agonizingly slow-paced. There is a lot of building suspense in the first hour, but little outright action. Nevertheless, the movie is never boring or dull.
Probably the two best performances in the film come from Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya as the villains, Grant and Rosa Klebb. Together with Goldfinger and Oddjob, these are likely the best villains in the entire series. What makes Grant frightening is that he appears to be an ordinary man on the surface, yet we see from the opening scene how ruthless he is.
This is a cold-blooded killer with a body of steel, and his final fight with Bond on the train is rightly called one of the greatest in cinema history. It’s a testament to the talent of Robert Shaw that he immersed himself so convincingly in the characters he played. Put Grant and the old salt Quint from “Jaws” side by side and you’d be hard-pressed to tell it is the same actor. Shaw was a great performer who we lost too soon.
But Lotte Lenya is no slouch, either. Creepy, ugly and relentlessly cruel, she is one of the most bizarre and memorable villains in any movie, not just Bond. Who could forget her deadly tastes in footwear? Lenya and Shaw have very few scenes together, yet as a pair they utterly dominate the film and put Bond through an ordeal that he needs all of his wits and strength to survive.
The movie has some flaws, of course. One sequence that was often cut out of the network TV broadcasts years ago involved Bond and his ally Kerim Bey visiting a gypsy camp where two young women engage in, for want of a better word, a catfight. This was a sequence that was in Fleming’s novel; indeed, the movie overall is incredibly faithful to its source material. But the gypsy sequence kind of slows things down and probably was not totally necessary to the plot. Not to mention that it plays as more than a bit sexist and does not exactly cast real gypsies in a flattering light.
I’ve never cared for the leading lady in this film. I’ve always been underwhelmed by the performance of Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova. The character seems at times not very bright and more than a little naive. Maybe that is supposed to be part of the reason why she is chosen to be involved in the whole scheme, but the character just doesn’t work for me.
Again, the early days of special effects are painfully obvious in some instances. One flaw common to the Connery films is that you can always tell when rear projection is being used. In “Dr. No,” during the car chase scene, it is obvious that Connery is just sitting in a car and footage is being projected onto the rear window behind him to make it seem like the car is moving fast. You can see that kind of thing here also, in a few spots.
Finally, this film does not have one of the better title tunes in the series. It’s hardly the worst, but Matt Munro’s vocals are forgettable and he seems too much like a Tom Jones-wannabe. (Jones would do the song for “Thunderball” only a couple of years after this film was made.)