Light Bondage: “From Russia With Love”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypical that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

From Russia With Love (1963)

I realized about fifteen minutes into From Russia With Love that despite having thought I had watched every Bond movie through various TBS marathons in my youth I had never seen the second outing for our hero. I know this because I’m pretty sure I’d remember a movie that took much of what I love about Dr. No and made it even better. Let me just open with this: From Russia With Love is pretty good. Maybe even great.

Months after the events of Dr. No, the evil bad guys at SPECTRE are hatching evil plans to both further their plot for world domination and get revenge on James Bond for mucking up things for poor Dr. No. Their plan? Play the Russians and the British against each other over an attempt to steal the Russian’s cryptographic cipher through a Russian agent convinced by a SPECTRE plant to secretly attempt to defect. At the same time, they send a hyper-competent assassin to tail Bond and make sure he doesn’t survive the wrath of SPECTRE.

What makes From Russia With Love so interesting is the apathetic, almost amused way most of the spies in it go about the business of the Cold War. This movie came out just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but better depicts the weary non-war mentality of the late 80s, where people had been locked in conflict so long they had formed something akin to a sense of camaraderie. By setting the film in the beautiful but not-central city of Istanbul, you get a Cold War that’s a little colder here than anywhere else. As Bond’s driver casually says when Bond notices they have a tail: “They follow us, we follow them. It’s a sort of understanding we have.”

Tangental, but I love the set design in this movie, rich with colors and textures. It reminds me firmly of how much color correction has ruined the look of movies.

But as usual, Bond being somewhere destabilizes the entire region, especially when SPECTRE kills a Russian agent and leaves him on the curb of the Russian consulate, made to look like a British hit. Soon Bond is in a position where he knows he’s being played, but not by whom, and dances around the delicate, similar position of his Russian defector counterpart with a sense of paranoia that gives it all a terse edge that I simply wasn’t expecting. For all the big scope spy stuff, Bond movies are light on the tension of never quite knowing where people’s loyalties lie, but From Russia With Love successfully grabs those threads and makes them work even in the slightly arch framework of a Bond movie.

It’s not until Bond and the Russian defector Tatiana board the Orient Express to get the hell out of a growing danger in Istanbul with the cipher that the film reaches its peak, with the assassin finally making himself known after subtly pulling the strings through most of the film. It leads to one of the more brutal small action scenes in the film, with Bond and the assassin fighting in a train compartment, a space too small for to hide many stuntmen and with a sense of close-quarters brutality that seems much more in keeping with 70s action films than the stylized, more lightweight 60s stuff I would expect. And it continues even after they escape the train, through a boat chase and a helecopter fight that would set the stage for countless others in future Bond movies.

What’s so amazing about all of this stuff is that here it’s done with such an obviously limited budget that lends the whole thing a mean, tight, dirty air. This is a movie that obviously spent so much of its money on the amazing location shooting (and wisely, too, Istanbul really gives the movie an old-world, exotic intrigue feel that Dr. No lacked) leaving the final action scenes to be terse to the point of implying action through editing more than showing it. It’s a visual shorthand that is surprising for such a mainstream film, but refreshing to see. (It reminds me in many ways of a less-insane Tokyo Drifter, which I also wrote about in terms of action editing shorthand.)

Also, mostly tangentally, I feel it’s worth mentioning, that having not seen this it is utterly shocking how many of the beats of this movie were lifted wholesale for the first Austin Powers movie. I don’t think it robbed the movie of much of its impact, but it did cast the parody in a different light now that I had context. If you are a particularly great Austin Powers fan (then what the hell are you doing reading a blog about good movies?) and haven’t seen this then you probably should.

Dr. Claw, Dr. Evil, or SPECTRE Mastermind Blofeld? WHO CAN TELL!?

And for the rest of you, you should too. I know I said you should absolutely see Dr. No, but From Russia With Love is just as good if not better, with more spy stuff and more action stuff and a plot that moves a bit better without losing that sense of rising danger that made Dr. No a movie I could continue to appreciate without most of the genre trappings. The Bond machine is spinning up to the formula it would eventually start coasting on, but here everything is still very shiny and new and the movie is benefited from it.

The Theme Song/Opening Titles:
This is the first Bond movie with an actual theme song, composed by Lionel Bart and sung by Matt Monro, though it only appears in an instrumental version over the opening credits. This movie also establishes the long-running tradition of opening titles that involve a whole mess of nearly-naked ladies presented in various forms of abstraction. It’s a shame that they didn’t marry that with the actual theme, because the song is pretty great and endlessly hum-able, but I’m happy to provide both. I will say, though, as far as undressed women in opening titles go, the boob shaking is a bit much. I mean, jesus guys, at least the rest of it feels a little tasteful. 

Notable Ridiculous Gadget:
Q finally shows up in this movie (though I believe he’s only addressed as the equipment man from Q Branch) and with him comes a pretty neat, actually believable gadget. It’s a multi-purpose briefcase, with hidden ammo cylinders and a knife accessible from the outside, and a trick latch that improperly opened releases a gas grenade inside.  Also inside is concealed gold coins and a sniper rifle that breaks down to be easily stored in the stock of the gun for ease of transport. It’s lean, deadly, and creative, each piece of it having a use in the plot but never feeling like a cheap out. As far as gadgets go, it’s pretty high on the ‘yeah, that seems genuinely useful’ scale.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
The main Bond Girl here is Russian not-quite double agent Tatiana Romanova, played by former Miss Universe runner-up Daniela Bianchi who was obviously hired more for looks than her ability to speak English, as she was dubbed over by Barbara Jefford. She has what might be the hardest role in the movie to play, as she chooses to defect due to orders provided to her by a SPECTRE agent posing as her superior, in a ruse to trap James Bond, but quickly succumbs to his charms.

I am genuinely sad I can't find better pictures of this amazing scene of Bond and Tatiana on the boat. It's maybe the best part of the movie.

It’s a shitty thing to do, to think that this agent who is otherwise portrayed as smart and capable just bends over backwards and defects after spending some time playing as if she was in love with Bond and then finally ending up there. Especially given that she spends much of the movie dragged along like a sack of potatoes that Bond only barely seems to tolerate in service of his goal. But she manages to be charming through all of it, with a sense of grace that makes her seem better than the role she’s been dealt in the movie. Towards the end, when she makes her choice on which side her loyalties truly lie, I can’t deny I kind of wish she had ended up betraying Bond. She’s better than his smarmy womanizing, but sadly that kind of female complexity seems decidedly beyond this series at this point in time.

Best Psychopath Moment:
This one isn’t for murdering people but for maybe the most ridiculous racist, misogynist bit of the movie, an unfortunate detour in an otherwise solid film when Bond is taken to a gypsy camp that will hopefully provide some protection. Here they witness a dispute where two women both wish to marry the chief’s son, and settle their difference through ritual combat. The problem with this is, despite the actual fight being fairly well choreographed and believably violent, is that the movie delights in two not-quite fully dressed women wrestling with each other with a glee that speaks to the future of exploitation cinema a decade down the line. It feels really tasteless and out of place here, in an otherwise fairly respectable movie, but I guess that’s what people wanted to see in a world before internet porn?

What’s worse is that after their fight (presumably) to the death is interrupted by some Russians showing up and shooting things, Bond asks as his prize for saving the village to spare them having to do this fight. So the chief puts him in charge of deciding who will marry his son and leaves both women in his room. By the next morning, the animosity has suddenly gone away, probably through the power of heavily implied threesomes. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but man, is it a gross little tangent in a movie I otherwise like. The fucking 60s, man. I mean, this stuff rarely gets better (we’ll get to Roger Moore’s women-slapping eventually) but god damn is it uncomfortable to watch these days.

JAMES BOND will return in GOLDFINGER

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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