Friday, 12 February 2016

From Russia With Love (1963)

"The Cold War in Istanbul will not remain cold very much longer."

Last year at least two major films about the Cold War were released, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Guy Ritchie 2015) and Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg 2015). Since the Cold War ended some 25 years ago they were of course set in the past, whereas once cold war stories were very much part of the present. One fine example is the second James Bond film, From Russia With Love (Terence Young 1963).

It is often said, regarding the new-found strength of the four recent Bond films with Daniel Craig, that they are a symptom of England's wish to imagine herself as a global power and proof that she still misses the days of the empire. I do not think it is a particularly convincing argument. For one thing, that empire was lost even before the first Bond film, Dr. No (Terence Young 1962), so it would be more plausible to argue that the Bond series began is a reflection on that loss, rather than it being a factor today, especially since Dr. No takes place in Jamaica the year it gained its independence from Britain. Also, Bond has never been a defender of the Empire, his business has been to protect the homeland and its allies against contemporary foes. There is still a Britain and a MI6 so there is no reason why there should not be an agent working for them, even if the Empire is gone and the Cold War over. And neither have the makers of the Bond films pretended that things have not changed, quite the opposite. The films usually rather aptly follow with the times and deals with what the British consider their biggest threat of the day. (In the last films the threat has been a combination of global terrorism and enemies within MI6 and the government, but it is interesting to note that Islamic jihadists have not yet appeared.)

Films about the Cold War often invoke the game of chess, and From Russia With Love is no exception. The master plan to outwit the British and the Russians is concocted by the world's greatest chess master, Kronsteen, working for SPECTRE. His idea is to trick Bond into stealing a Lektor decoding machine at the Russian consulate in Istanbul, and then steal it from him in turn whilst killing him under humiliating circumstances as a revenge for Bond having killed Dr No in the previous film. A hitman, Grant, is assigned by SPECTRE to watch over Bond, keep him out of harm's way until he has stolen the Lektor, and then strike against him. Two other participants in the game are Tatiana Romanova, called Tania, a Russian woman who works at the consulate with the Lektor, and Rosa Klebb, another operative for SPECTRE.

Klebb and Grant

It is a game on several levels. First there is Kronsteen's game, who handles everyone as just a pawn, and all moves and counter-moves have been anticipated by him. Another layer is the game between the British and the Russians. "The game with the Russians is played differently here." Kerim Bey, MI6's man in Turkey, says to Bond at one point. "For day-to-day routine matters, we make it easy to keep a tab on each other." But when Bond arrives in Istanbul that relaxed atmosphere is soon gone and people begin to die. One game, where the participants knew that they were playing, have been replaced by another in which the participants are unaware of them being played, and played out against each other. There is also another allegory for the Cold War; an aquarium with Siamese fighting fish who are always at each other's throats, fighting with each other for no apparent reason, ("Brave, but on the whole stupid. Yes, they're stupid." as Blofeld says.) Touches like these add to the richness of the film.

Ian Fleming's novel on which the film is based is at times rather racist in its depiction of Turks and Turkey but that is not the case with the film. Turkey is not exoticised, nor is it treated in a racist way, and neither are the Turks that appear in the film, Kerim Bey is clearly Bond's equal, unlike, say, Quarrel in Dr. No. It is different with a sequence in which Bond and Kerim Bey pay a visit to a camp where a group of Roma are living. The Roma are friends and allies but their life in the camp is treated as an exotic fantasy, albeit not mean-spirited and they are neither criticised nor made fun of. Compared to the depiction of Africa, or "Africa", in plenty of contemporary films it is surprisingly benign.

Terence Young once said that he made the first Bond film (Dr. No), the best (From Russia With Love), and the most successful (Thunderball 1965), and this is still true. He was unusually inspired during the making of this one, taking inspiration from both Alain Resnais and Alfred Hitchcock. Young is generally seen as the one who created the cinematic James Bond (as opposed to Fleming's literary version). When making Dr. No he taught Sean Connery how to talk, move and dress, and insisted on putting the style and the look, and a slightly mischievous touch, at the centre of things. The clothes that Bond was wearing had to be just right, even the sleeves had to be approved by Young. (The first two films were written by Johanna Harwood and Richard Maibaum, but Harwood quit after From Russia With Love because of Young's interferences and the changes he made to their scripts.) But although style and fashion were important to him, Young also wanted to keep the films grounded in real life, and one reason From Russia With Love is so good is because it is rather serious, an actual spy thriller which can stand alone as such, and not just as another instalment in the Bond series. The Cold War was not just a backdrop here but is at the core of the film. The location footage also helps. A sequence when three different agents are spying on each other and Tania Romanova, and which is set in Hagia Sophia, is a particular highlight, partly for the location and partly for the confusion as to what exactly is going on. Another highlight is the long sequence on board the Orient Express from Istanbul to Trieste, where so many people, agents and double agents appear as to be enough for two more films. This is also where Grant and Bond have their fight in a compartment while the train is moving, a scene which is a rather spectacular accomplishment, both for the editing and framing and for the tension. (Here, besides Young, the editor Peter Hunt must be praised.)

"The first one won't kill you. Not the second, not even the third. Not until you crawl over here and you kiss my foot." Grant says, and Robert Shaw's steely delivery of his lines is superb, with the right combination of madness, ruthlessness and contempt.

The film is not all serious, there are plenty of jokes, some obvious and some subtle, in keeping with the Bond tradition. One particular favourite is when Tania asks about Western girls and Bond says "Well, once when I was with M in Tokyo..." As it is being recorded, M and Miss Moneypenny is listening in and M, highly embarrassed, turns of the recording. (The relationship between Bond and M has usually been interesting. Perhaps not when Robert Brown played the part, in four films, but when played by Bernard Lee in the first 11 films and later by Judi Dench in 8 films. These two have been like Bond's parents, fiercely protective when speaking about him with others and partly amused, partly exasperated when having to deal with him in person, and they are among the very few that Bond have always respected, and never mocked.)

The chemistry between Connery and Pedro Armendariz who plays Kerim Bey is another strength of the film. He and Bond become friends; a genuine bond is formed between them, which is also unusual in Bond films. Tania Romanova is also unusually humane; shy, hesitant and sweet, and these are strengths, not weaknesses. She is unusually real for a woman in a Bond film, a believable human being. There is real affection between her and Bond, and the chemistry between Daniela Bianchi and Connery works well too. (Despite the fact that Bianchi's English was not good enough so she was dubbed by Barbara Jefford.) And in the end, it is not Bond who saves her but she who saves Bond. She has to make a choice, to step out of the game and choose between her duty to her country (as she is led to believe) and her duty to her love. She chooses love, and Rosa Klebb dies instead of Bond.


For an interesting analysis of the differences between the original version of the novel From Russia, With Love and two different Turkish translations, see "Lost in Translation: James Bond's Istanbul"
by Sean R. Singer in The American Interest 8.3 (Jan/Feb 2013): 90-96.

Pedro Armendariz had previously worked with Luis Buñuel and John Ford, among others, and it was apparently Ford's suggestion that Armendariz play the part of Kerim Bey. He was dying of cancer during the making of the film and he killed himself shortly after.

Thunderball has made more money than any other Bond film, with Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton 1964) in second place. Skyfall (Sam Mendes 2012) comes third, bringing in only half as much as Thunderball. (Adjusted for inflation of course.)

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