Sunday, 14 June 2009

From Russia with Love

I dipped into the James Bond season currently running at the Phoenix in Oxford today, and joined a thronged screen 2 for the remastered From Russia with Love. I'd not actually seen this one, though discussion a few nights ago had revealed the secret of the opening tag scene, which asserts and promotes Sean Connery's Bond as a cinematic icon as well as demonstrating how well Connery can act.

The Bondian world of From Russia with Love is less self-consciously fantastical than it would become in later films, but there's already a joy in the expression of dialogue such as the assessment of Grant as a "homicidal paranoid" and thus perfect agent material for SPECTRE. The regular cast are at ease with one another, and Desmond Llewelyn delivers his reactions to Connery's blithely cocksure Bond with such imperceptible effort that it's no surprise that his brief walk-on and off here as the officer from 'Q division' becomes a regular role.

The film is also a lesson in 1960s attitudes to sexuality. It's implied that the training establishment at SPECTRE Island caters to all of Grant's physical needs, underlining the argument that compared to Bond (himself deeply flawed as a role model in the eyes of his deskbound colleagues in London and his girlfriend in what is presumably Cambridge, but in Istanbul able to negotiate peace between the two fighting Gypsy women by charming them into states of submission) he's emotionally stunted, dependent as he is on institutions for sex. Rosa Klebb is presented as dually deviant, both as an older woman with a sexual appetite, and also demonstrating attraction both to Grant and to Tatiana (Tania) Romanova; but this again is presented as guaranteeing her position in SPECTRE, at least making her less expendable than the coldly boastful chess grand master Kronsteen. Tania's seemingly relaxed attitude to the impermanence of her liaison with Bond at the end of the film is an obvious male fantasy; when we first encounter him Bond, in a punt with his girlfriend Eunice who makes her disapproval of his lifestyle plain, is as close to the henpecked husband stereotype as we see him. There is perhaps not that great a distance between Connery's Bond and Sidney James's Carry On characters as might first be assumed.

From Russia with Love is at times an exuberant travelogue and recalls the days of credit controls and limited foreign travel well; Hagia Sophia is rarely out of shot in Istanbul, and when the camera actually enters its walls it lingers over its architecture as much as it does on other occasions on the contours of leading lady Daniela Bianchi. The scenes in the Byzantine underwater reservoir (not Pinewood as I'd told myself and readers when I first published this review, but a location in Istanbul) are just as exotic; the audience in Britain or America is taken from one layer of an unfamiliar but familiar world, to another, stranger one. We are offered juxtapositions of confinement with open spaces throughout, whether on location in Turkey, Switzerland or Argyll (the latter doubling as the Istrian peninsula), within railway carriages or sheltering within rock chambers or the back of a florist's wagon. This language is starkly derived from Buchan via Hitchcock and eloquent in itself about the multiple worlds inhabited by the many personae of the Bondian secret agent.

An enjoyable game was spotting the Doctor Who actors in the cast. The porter on the Orient Express whose wages are regularly subsidized by Bond's Turkish ally Ali Kerim Bey is played by George Pastell, The Tomb of the Cybermen's master logician Klieg; it was only when watching the credits, after struggling to place him, that I learned that Kerim Bey's chauffeur son was Neville Jason, much later Prince Reynart and his android double in The Androids of Tara. Francis de Wolff from The Myth Makers is the Gypsy leader.

The soundtrack is memorable too, and I'd heard much of it in other contexts. One piece which has been a favourite at the National Film Theatre before screenings is, I now know thanks to the presence of the soundtrack on Spotify, '007 Takes the Lektor', by John Barry.