Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Photograph of Someone You Know...Years Before You Knew Them (From Russia with Love)

fig. 1: Chess is a metaphor, you guys!
Dr No introduced many of the Bond canon's tics that would be refined to perfection in Goldfinger. This leaves the middle of Sean Connery's three pictures, From Russia with Love, in a bit of an odd position. Though it deals with SPECTRE, introduced already in Dr No and curiously absent from Goldfinger, it is structured less like those other two movies, or Connery's other entries, which would all follow a similar formula. Bond never confronts Kronsteen, the architect of the plot against him, and only catches Rosa Klebb at the very end of the film. Blofeld, though depicted--this is his first appearance on film--isn't even named yet, and remains an enigma to the film's protagonist. There's less of what the later entries of the franchise would excel in: that preoccupation with hidden spaces.

Some of that is down to production designer Ken Adam--almost single-handedly repsponsible for the "look" of James Bond through the Sixties and Seventies--doing Dr Strangelove instead of this film, but also it's down to director Terrence Young, who was keen to make a more grounded, realistic film than the one that preceded it. There is one bit, a periscope in the catacombs of Istanbul (not Constantinople) that looks into the Russian embassy, but otherwise, the world is presented pretty straightforwardly.

There is, however, a first for the series, and that's Desmond Llewelyn's Q and the gadget briefing. The previous entry had a Major Boothroyd, but he came along just to switch out Bond's Baretta from the books for a Walther. The gadgetry is a bit tame by the standards the series would later rise to: it's a brief case with some hidden pockets for a flip knife, gold sovereigns, and a bit of exploding talcum powder for the unwary thief.

Bond gets the brief case in advance of his latest assignment: meet up with a Russian defector in order to secure a Lektor decoder. He's walking in to a trap and he's pretty sure he knows it, though not a trap organized by the Russians. Again, this is the work of SPECTRE, and it's a targeted bit of business in retaliation for his killing of Doctor No in the previous installment. They're out to humiliate Bond, and then murder him. The conceit advanced to the British is that a Russian cryptographer has fallen in love with Bond over a file photo of him. The British don't believe it, but figure what the hey, any chance to get a Lektor, right?


The odd thing about it is, this clearly telegraphs that Bond has been made. He's a secret agent of whom the Soviets have a good enough photograph of that someone could semi-plausibly fall in love with him from it. It would seem to me at least that his value as an asset in the field is effectively zero. This becomes the first in a running gag that proliferates throughout the series: Bond as a well-known commodity. He's well enough known that SPECTRE can create a false mask of the guy to use in training exercises, because apparently you need someone who looks just like Sean Connery to teach you how to murder Sean Connery, and because it didn't occur to renowned chess master and also supercriminal Kronsteen that a fully convincing mask of James Bond could do some of this humiliate-and-discredit footwork all on its own.

That opening scene is of a piece with many of the other entries in Connery's tenure, in it's funerary bait-and-switch. It's only until the mask is pulled that the audience understands it's not James Bond, but some other schmuck. Likewise, Thunderball opens with a coffin clearly marked "JB;" You Only Live Twice begins with an elaborate fake out to both the audience, and the world of the film, that James Bond has been murdered; and Diamonds Are Forever has that bit where Connery is nearly cremated alive in his funeral suit. More than any other Bond, Connery's is the one threatened with death, even from outside the narrative.

From Russia With Love follows a form that the series more or less abandoned: that of the travelogue. Part of what made these movies so popular back in the Sixties was their ability to transport audiences to exotic locales when air travel was still a thing many Americans couldn't easily afford. Bond spends a not-at-all-germane-to-the-plot amount of time faffing about Istanbul (not Constantinople), befriending the local branch manager and getting into scrapes at a gypsy camp. It never feels overly long, but the film is clearly taking its time, luxuriating in the sense of place that would be out of character for a film today, which structures its location-switching more like video game levels: Find the thing in Port-au-Prince, move on to the Bolivia level.

If you've got a date in Constantinople...
It's fitting here as it gives the romance between Bond and Russian agent Tatiana Romanov time to breathe, even though both of them are conning the other. This makes the film structurally different than Dr. No, and than every subsequent Bond film. Indeed, the series hasn't quite yet found out what it wants to be, and From Russia presents an interesting alternate take on what the series might have become. Rather than this film climaxing at, say, a secret island base, or a volcano fortress, or a stealth boat, there is a long denouement after Bond faces the main heavy Red Grant. He and Tatiana square off against Klebb in Trieste, and a gaggle of SPECTRE goons off the Italian coast later on.

The fight with Grant, a series highlight, is interesting too in the regard that Red Grant is essentially Bond's opposite number, which is to say he's a functionary. He's not a gold-irradiating criminal or a power-mad despot. He's just a guy who's pretty good at his job. This, too, would be something the film series would largely eschew going forward. Much more dramatically satisfying for Bond to be deposing the heavy-hitters. Not only that, but the megalomaniacs Bond eventually routinely pits himself against are allowed to have some personality, some different flavor of world-conquering, which Red Grant can't. In its deliberate low-stakes, meandering storytelling, From Russia with Love represents a path not taken, a series of possibilities before the franchise became set in its ways.

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