From Russia With Love: The Master of Suspense and Calculated Visual Pleasure
by James David Patrick (@007hertzrumble)
Hitchcock’s sphere of influence over popular cinema cannot be overestimated. He perfected the psycho-drama, created the slasher and excelled at popcorn action thrillers in addition to technical innovations in camerawork and editing. In fact, his North by Northwest (1959) heavily influenced the direction of Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963). EON (Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli) not only tried to hire Cary Grant to play James Bond, but Ian Fleming sent a telegram with the intention of gauging Hitchcock’s interest in directing the first Bond movie (which, at the time of the telegram concerned the script that would eventually become Thunderball). Not that Hitch would have agreed, of course, because as far as I know, he dismissed the enterprise without so much as a conversation. After all, he was more interested in how extraordinary events affected the layman rather than the tales of the world’s most famous agent of espionage.
From our perspective, looking back on 50 years of Bond, the idea that James Bond could even be considered a project for the great and legendary Alfred Hitchcock appears farcical. We’ve seen Bond drive invisible cars, diffuse a bomb dressed as a circus clown, steamroll a henchman with a Zamboni and command a legion of screaming ninjas in a volcano assault (just to name a few isolated events). Despite our collective affection for the Bond franchise, it must be admitted that Bond is Hitchcock material in fanciful theory only. But it wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, Bond seemed like a logical receptacle for Hitchcock’s talents.
All that said, From Russia With Love is not my favorite Bond movie necessarily because it reminds me of Hitchcock. My love for FRwL predates my studies in the Hitchcock oeuvre and predates even first viewings of favorite Hitchcock offerings such as Vertigo, Notorious and The Lady Vanishes. The elements that make From Russia With Love brilliant cinema are not beholden to Hitchcock; they’re deemed Hitchcockian not because Sir Alfred did first present them, but because he most clearly recognized their potential to thrill movie audiences. Uncertainty. Duplicity. Suspicion. Claustrophobia. Wonder. Voyeurism. And Terence Young deploys them all in equal measure throughout From Russia With Love. They’re just elements that create the emotional foundation for great cinema.
Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love novel is one of the few Bond novels to have been rewarded with a faithful translation to the screen. (There are, however, some minor variances that I won’t discuss here. From now on, I’ll only speak of the film.) The premise of the From Russia With Love doesn’t concern nuclear domination or global terrorism or uncertain megalomania. SPECTRE’s goal is revenge for the death of their agent Dr. No. They aim to do this by killing James Bond and then assassinating his character with a sex tape (voyeurism!). This, they believe, will also undermine MI-6 on a global stage. To facilitate the shaming, SPECTRE uses the Lektor, the film’s MacGuffin (a term coined by Hitchcock to refer to a plot device that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important) as bait. They plan to deliver the device through their agent Tatiana Romanova under the pretense that she wants to defect. She’s become smitten with the famous British agent 007 through pictures and tales of his exploits and wants to prove her sincerity by offering something of tactical value. MI-6 sends Bond into what appears, at face value, to be a certain trap because they’re desperate to obtain the Lektor (a machine that recalls the German Enigma machines of WWII). Upon meeting Tatiana, Bond doesn’t trust her, but he wants to, he needs to for the sake of the mission. Thus begets the central drama of the film, the constant push and pull of trust and skepticism and mutual attraction between Bond and Tatiana (suspicion!). Not even the viewer knows for sure with whom Tatiana’s allegiances lie. And this is vital to the final thrilling confrontation between James Bond and Red Grant (the inimitable Robert Shaw) on the Orient Express.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I tend to do when talking about this movie. It’s easy to focus on the final third and leave the rest behind. But that would be a disservice. After a brief (and unfortunately final) appearance of Sylvia Trench (Eunice Grayson), Bond is whisked away to Turkey where he rendezvous with his contact Kerim Bey. Here we are treated to Istanbul’s local spectacle, a gypsy camp, underground canals and the Hagia Sophia. The scene at the gypsy camp, in particular, might seem out of place, but within the novels, James Bond frequently observes the oddities of foreign cultures. The scene contains a full cross section of the franchise like few others. He eats, drinks and ogles beautiful gypsy girls before those beautiful girls engage in a supposed fight to the death (spectacle!) over the affection of a man. A rival agent Krilencu interrupts the camp with a tactical invasion of uncertain intent. Bond fights side-by-side with the gypsies, repelling the advance. Due to the lives already lost in the battle, Bond requests that the lives of the fighting girls are spared. He is rewarded for his compassion and bravery with the overnight attentions of both women. When he returns to his hotel room he finds Tatiana Romanova waiting for him in his bed, wearing only a black ribbon choker (SPECTACLE!).
I’ve previously written about Tatiana in my original #Bond_age_ essay for From Russia With Love so I won’t rehash much of what I wrote there. I’ll be brief in saying that this moment, with Tatiana waiting in Bond’s bed and SPECTRE filming through the two-way mirror provides one of the most titillating scenes in any Bond movie. Although my word choice here might be crassly poetic, it’s intended to refer both to our visceral reaction to the scene, an Olympian Sean Connery encountering the pristinely perfect Daniela Bianchi, as well as how the encounter functions as a reflection of the cinematic theory of the voyeur’s gaze.
In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey (the essay for which she is best known) says:
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.
Tatiana has made herself “coded for strong and erotic impact” to manipulate James Bond in the same way that Daniela Bianchi’s character has been created to maximize the viewer’s response to her appearance. In this scene the viewer is not only paralleled to James Bond but also the SPECTRE agents who view the scene through their cameras. In the same way, Hitchcock’s Rear Window is also about “gendered looking” i.e. the male gaze in relation to female objects of visual appeal. Both Jimmy Stewart’s photographer ogling the activity (women and eventually an act of violence) in the apartment building across the courtyard and James Bond/SPECTRE cameras in From Russia With Love are examples of this fetishistic, fixed-gaze voyeurism of the movie watcher. Rear Window, of course, presents a far more quintessential and complicated reflection of the cinematic theories of the fixed, male gaze. But From Russia With Love, like Rear Window, also subverts some of the face-value gender politics. As Jimmy Stewart relies upon a woman (Grace Kelly) for increased knowledge of the outside world due to his incapacity (emasculation) in a wheelchair, Bond is also reliant upon Tatiana for knowledge in the form of the Lektor and information about whatever plan SPECTRE might have in store for him. Without risking further travels down the highway to the danger zone of gendered film theory, I’ll conclude by merely suggesting that From Russia With Love offers a far more interesting relationship between 007 and Tatiana Romanova than that of your average Bond film. To my knowledge, Laura Mulvey never wrote about From Russia With Love and maybe that’s a pity because I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface.
From one favorite Hitchcock element to another, let’s make the jump from voyeurism back to the Orient Express (the gap’s not nearly as wide as one might think). Trains have long been a favorite cinematic setting and for good reason. They’re mobile, yet they completely isolate the combatants (or potential combatants) on a course towards certain confrontation. The viewer knows that the latent drama must play out before the train reaches its terminus. Often, the protagonist doesn’t even know the identity of his opposition that hides in plain sight among the many passengers. In cinema, even the repetitive clamor of a train traveling over tracks, like the bell for Pavlov’s dog, not only conjures sweaty palms and feelings of paranoia but unconscious lust.
Hitchcock featured prominently features trains as narrative devices as symbols in 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes and the aforementioned Strangers On a Train and North by Northwest. And while the forced proximity of the passengers indeed allowed the fostering of tension, in Hitchcock’s world, that proximity also encouraged an informality of speech and behavior. Overheard personal conversation, relaxed inhibitions. That latter should be most notable in the realm of James Bond, who has made frequent use of overnight train travel and the sleeper car. I don’t need to explain the suggestive symbolism of a train entering a tunnel, as it does at the conclusion of North by Northwest and scores of other, lesser films that’ve all made the image commonplace.
Taking all these associations together, could there be a more perfect setting for the climax of a James Bond movie? And not a throwaway final scene such as it is in Live and Let Die when Roger Moore and Jane Seymour are interrupted by Tee Hee post- (and, well, pre-) climax. The train in From Russia With Love houses murder, sex and intrigue. Everything that happens in the movie until James Bond, Tatiana and Kerim Bey board the Orient Express has tied their fate to one final confrontation with SPECTRE’s assassin, Red Grant. Neither Bond nor Tatiana knows when or how it will happen. And when they do finally meet Red Grant (posing as a British agent), the audience knowledge of his duplicity and intent becomes essential.
These few scenes rely on a conservation of language. Bond studies Grant, looking for insight into his true identity. At the same time, Bond also cannot wholly trust Tatiana. He knows most certainly that she is an agent acting on behalf SPECTRE but with who do her allegiances lie? He might have feelings for her, it might only be strong physical attraction, but she like everyone else in this game of international espionage is a pawn in a much larger chess match. In the scene where the three of them sit, eating a meal in the dining car, Sean Connery is given the rare opportunity to be the cold, calculating agent as written by Ian Fleming. Bond recognizes that Grant has poisoned Tatiana’s drink but cannot stop her from drinking it without revealing his suspicion of Grant. In so he allows her to be poisoned, perhaps killed for the sake of the job. The action that follows the brutal fistfight – the best fistfight in the series – between Bond and Grant (the assault-by-plane – ripped right out of North by Northwest, the boat chase with explosive flares and the Rosa Klebb maid-service kick line) feels more like an encore, tacked on to bring the film to a rousing climax.
I don’t intend that to be a wholly backhanded compliment. The end is scattered and a little alien to the rest of the film. But even so, I never really want the brand of Bond created in From Russia With Love to end. Maybe that’s why after the film I stand there alone, clapping for the credits, hoping that maybe the conflicted James Bond that slaps a girl around for information and toys with her emotions for the sake of the game won’t really eventually give way to whatever it is that happens in You Only Live Twice. This is the notorious, dirty world of espionage where right and wrong cannot necessarily be divided. This is where 007 thrives, when the stakes and characters are grounded in real fears and enemies who act on personal vendetta rather than baseless greed or a desire for limitless power. While I obviously have great affection for the entire James Bond series (with a couple of exceptions!), only a few episodes really latch onto the brand of spy that Ian Fleming created in his fiction and even fewer episodes can be considered Hitchcockian. Before Bond had a formula, before Bond discovered gadgets, devices and gizmos and increasingly wilder histrionics, there was From Russia With Love.
James David Patrick has a B.A. in film studies from Emory University, an M.F.A in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine, and an honorary Ph.D. in bullshitting about most everything from the College of Two Pints. His writing has appeared in PANK, Monkeybicycle, Specter Literary Magazine and P.Q. Leer. While he does not like to brag (much), he has interviewed Tom Hanks and Daniel Craig and is pretty sure you haven’t. He bl-gs about other stuff at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com.
First Bond Movie: The Living Daylights
Favorite Bond Actor: Timothy Dalton. Sean Connery. Okay. No. Daniel Craig. He never made a Diamonds Are Forever. Wait. No. Dalton. Yes. Hold up. Shit. Connery? Lazenby deserves some love to counter the naysayers. But if not for Fluffy we wouldn’t be doing this #Bond_age_ thing probably. Ugh. Rain check.
Favorite Bond Girl: Tatiana Romanova
How I Discovered #Bond_age_: There was always #Bond_age_