Young: From Russia with Love (1963)
Bond was never quite so dissociated from the Bond brand as he was in From Russia with Love, the second film in the Bond franchise. Dr. No established the Bond film, and Goldfinger cemented it, but in the interim the franchise could have gone in any number of directions. As a result, From Russia with Love often feels like a blank canvas, a space of possibility, that dissociates Bond from some of his most familiar traits, even or especially those established in Dr. No (he doesn’t even have a martini). The narrative is partly driven by a sex tape of Bond, which he dumps in the Grand Canal in Venice in the final scene – a gesture that speaks to the film’s wider willingness to treat Bond in a more emergent and provisional way than Dr. No.
This more mercurial Bond works really well with the broader texture of the film, which is basically a Cold War espionage drama. In a world where all identity depends on a degree of subterfuge, Bond, whose main tasks here are recovering a code and transporting an object across the Russian border, can’t hope to achieve the charismatic certainty of the novels. In place of the Caribbean vistas of Dr. No, we’re presented with a series of increasingly nested and contiguous spaces, culminating with Q’s main contribution – a weapon-wielding suitcase.
Since every setting feels somewhat concealed, From Russia with Love is considerably more spatially exotic and erotic than Dr. No, even though it takes place closer to home. These early Bond films are fascinated with the waning fringes of the British Empire – the Caribbean in Dr. No, New England in Goldfinger, and the nexus between capitalism and communism here. The film opens with a grandmaster chess contest, and a huge chess board in a room decked out in frescoes, and from there moves to one incredible set piece to another. We see a Russian consulate boat from the perspective of a periscope at one point, while Bond climbs out of an escape hatch in the mouth of a giant poster of Anita Ekberg in another. Terence Young supplements this with a wonderful taste for small textural details – fighting fish, a purring cat.
Despite this exoticism (or perhaps because of it), From Russia with Love is also far more quieter than Dr. No – the most subdued film in the Bond universe until the Daniel Craig era. There are many long scenes without dialogue, while Bond seems significantly more introspective too, as even his sleaziest or wittiest aphorisms are swallowed up in the tactile hush of Cold War cinema. There’s a perpetual sense he might be overheard, which is intensified by the dubbing of foreign actors, as well as an accompanying sense that any piece of technology could be a malicious recording device. As a result, Bond stays further away from tech gadgets here than any Bond outing before or since, relying mainly on his own instincts.
Whereas Dr. No had a conspiracy at its core, From Russia with Love evokes a much more inchoate and unseen network of power. This network tends to revolve around trains, the main conduit between Europe and Russia at this time, turning rail travel into a space of porous thresholds and unexpected contiguities. Bond meets a contact at a rail crossing, and spends most of the third act of the film on board the Orient Express. All the peripatetic movement that normally typifies the end of a Bond film is deflected into the steady movement of his carriage, which strips mobility from Bond, who normally choreographs these final set pieces.
Dr. No had quite a literal answer to the problem of how to represent these underground networks – it took us underground, beneath the sea and land, to the title villain’s lair. This time, by contrast, there is no lair or climactic space – just the ongoing movement of the train. We move from a metaphorical to a metonymic narrative structure, in which Bond can’t hope to arrive at a single destination that summarises the Cold War, but can only experience the Cold War in transit. Even the climactic showdown takes place in a humble sleeper car carriage.
By the end, the film has almost anonymised Bond – or deconstructed the brand that Dr. No started to build. Yet that creates a new sense of plasticity and play that paves the way for the flamboyance of Goldfinger too. Simulations abound in From Russia with Love, from chess replicas, to fake buildings, to a “fake Bond,” to the sex tape of Bond that Bond himself throws in the Grand Canal in the final scene. Similarly, Young starts to experiment with situations in which women, especially foreign women, turn Bond’s exoticising gaze back on himself, most memorably in a sequence where a group of Russian women openly ogle and scrutinise him.
This balance between anonymity and play gives Goldfinger, and the franchise, license to treat Bond as a character who is always somewhat emergent – a form of play more than a character. In retrospect, it’s quite astonishing how much Bond has endured over such a range of actors – and perhaps we wouldn’t have that endurance with the flexibility that From Russia with Love brings to the franchise. As a character in Dr. No, and a space of possibility here, Bond finally has license to become a riff on himself in Goldfinger, and in all the years to come.
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