Wednesday, 9 February 2011

BlogalongaBond #2 - From Russia With Love (1963)

(This is a link to a revised version of my original review, May 2003)

As Simon Kinnear reminds us in his Dr. No post for BlogalongaBond ('TM'? Please see The Incredible Suit), Philip Larkin reckoned that "sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three... between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP".
[Kerim] looked right at Bond. 'There is only one way of checking if a woman really loves you, and even that way can only be read by an expert.'

'Yes,' said Bond dubiously. 'I know what you mean. In bed.'
(from From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming, Penguin 1957)

Apparently it started a little earlier for Ian Fleming. From Russia With Love - the book - is a cornucopia of titillation, an almost pornographic last attempt at success for a literary series he feared had failed. In the film the sex has to be downplayed. There is no mention of the assassin Red Grant's asexuality, given in some detail in the book. The coy, if seedy dom-lesbianism of Lotte Lenya's Colonel Klebb is but a stylised suggestion of the grotesque seduction she attempts on Tatiana Romanova in print. However the film does keep the voyeurism attending Bond's conquest of Tatiana,
Above them, and unknown to both of them, behind the gold-framed mirror on the wall over the bed... the view finders gazed coldly down on the passionate arabesques the two bodies formed and broke and formed again, and the clockwork mechanism of the cine-cameras whirred softly on and on as the breath rasped out of the open mouths of the two men and the sweat of excitement trickled down their bulging faces in their cheap collars.

... albeit in a highly pruned edition demanded by the censors.

Since the first film, Bond's relationship with women has shifted. Unlikely though it may seem, he has a girlfriend. Eunice Gayson reprises her Sylvia Trench from Dr. No in the pleasant pastoral vignette prior to Bond's mission call-up (in a technically slick cross-fade as the full score continues diegetically on a radio). The intimacy between Bond and Lois Maxwell's Moneypenny might even suggest that they have enjoyed an escalation of their relationship since his return from Jamaica, although the bittersweetness between them is their mutual recognition that the affair is necessarily office-bound. Even the awkward episode with the two Gypsies is seen as Bond bringing civility to bear on their feral scrap without taking advantage. All in all his actions bear out the hope Tatiana has for a kulturny man (a word Johanna Harwood and Richard Maibaum retain from Fleming in their screeplay, approximately meaning 'gentleman') as her mark, rather than the predatory cad a negative reading of Dr. No might have us think.

Ah, Tatiana. It may interesting to consider Daniela Bianchi's performance in the context of contemporaneous, trailblazing Italian cinema. For example, she is a striking alternative to her cooler, urbane compatriot, Monica Vitti. Though a throwback from Vitti's modernism, Bianchi is equally beautiful, bringing a breezy, uncomplicated charm to her character which has Bond puzzled right up until the threat reveals itself.

The sequence immediately following Kerim's murder is the apotheosis of this (apparently) obfuscating romance. Bond struggles for answers, more with himself than with Tania (great, complex acting from Connery). The girl, similarly confused, can only resort to a touching panic cry of 'I love you!', the only truth she can really cling to at that moment. Just as Vitti and Antonioni essay a hard cynicism in modern people's inability to form relationships in L'Avventura and L'Eclisse, so Terence Young, Bianchi and Connery contrive to show the no less authentic inevitability of a romantic love, an irresistible coming together, and that it can be just as painful.

The difference in emphasis can be best seen in the closing sequence of this film and that of its predecessor. Both involve Bond and 'the girl' leaving the fallout of his victory on a boat. Where the camera stays with the love-berth in Dr. No

so, as From Russia With Love concludes, the camera pans up and away from the trysting couple to take in the rather more decorous view of St Mark's Square...

... and, of course, the salacious cine-film record of the characters' actual sexual encounter is symbolically discarded by Bond himself.

Clearly, Saltzman and Broccoli still meet their own agenda, having found Bianchi and Aliza Gur (one of the Gypsy girls) via the Miss Universe circuit rather than RADA. All the fetishising is there, in its way (snuff-movie-solipsistic fighting and killing, the introduction of the 'gadget', Kerim's womanising). But as the late John Barry said, the essence of film is romance. For all that From Russia With Love is a spy film, creating suspense and thrills out of the treachery of war, it is the treachery of the heart that creates the greatest drama. Terence Young's coup is to have done much more with the honey trap than to titillate or serve the plot.

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