This essay on From Russia With Love is the second in a 24-part series about the James Bond cinemas. I encourage everyone to comment and join in on an extended conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #2: The Argument for Tatiana Romanova (and From Russia With Love)
by James David Patrick
originally published on Sundog Lit
Departing briefly from the mythology and legend of the James Bond character, let’s adjust our focus to the Bond girls for a moment. I’m thinking specifically about Tatiana Romanova, played in the film From Russia With Love by Italian vixen Daniela Bianchi, and Tatiana’s place in the Bond girl lineup. She doesn’t have the legendary name like Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore or Moonraker’s Dr. Holly Goodhead or a killer swimsuit like Honey Rider in Dr. No, Miss Mary Goodnight in The Man With the Golden Gun or Domino in Thunderball. She also doesn’t cause Bond to change his ways or fall in love or seek revenge (see Teresa De Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale). As a result she’s never listed at the top of those Bond-girl ranking lists (that actually use more logical computation than the BCS rankings) or defended among friends in a best Bond-girl argument.
Except by me, of course
First some character background. Tatiana Romanova is a corporal in the Soviet Intelligence organization, assigned a job as cipher clerk. She is chosen for the role of seductress by her commanding officer (Rosa Klebb, who, in the film is also an agent for SPECTRE) in a plot to discredit British Intelligence by framing and murdering a culturally significant figure. In this case, the legendary British spy James Bond. Because SPECTRE is purely a cinematic invention, we will not consider the novelization treatments of Tatiana and Klebb for this chat because the SMERSH/SPECTRE differences are not inconsequential. Tatiana believes she is working for the Soviet government and therefore believes she is on the side of greater good, an agent of espionage sent to merely plant false information. She has no knowledge of the murder plot or SPECTRE’s design on her. Tatiana’s pretense for contacting Bond is that she has fallen in love with him through pictures and stories of heroism, wants to abandon the Soviets, and aims to deliver the Soviet code machine, LEKTOR, to British Intelligence as a show of good faith.
A complicated girl with uncomplicated designs
You might guess that in the course of her seduction plot, Tatiana does actually fall in love with the winsome James Bond.
On the surface, Tatiana comes off as merely another lovestruck little girl, putty in the hands of our favorite spy. And to a certain extent, that characterization is accurate. The reality of the matter is that her unwitting participation in a plot greater than what she understands creates a number of fascinating uncertainties within the film. She is at once an unwitting SPECTRE pawn, a Soviet spy and a girl falling in love. Bond sees her as a potential trap worth the risk; a silly, infatuated little girl; and a genuine object of his affection. He doesn’t trust her, but he wants to, he needs to.
Tatiana lays naked in Bond’s hotel bed, wearing only a black velvet choker
This is her first appearance in From Russia With Love – perfectly calculated seduction. She knows this. SPECTRE knows this. And Bond knows this, but he can’t resist her. They consummate their affair but are filmed through a two-way mirror (unbeknownst to Tatiana). The sex tape is meant to embarrass Bond, and thereby MI6, upon the completion of their plan.
Bond and Tatiana board the Orient Express in Istanbul with the LEKTOR machine, headed for the safety of the friendly Italian border. Bond fully believes the train to be a mobile trap, but goes along with the plan, knowing that the machine is worth the risk. The close confines of the train provide the perfect proximity for the interplay of identity (both known and unknown) and motivational doubt. Tatiana struggles with her affection for James, her Soviet allegiance and James’ intermittent cruelty as a result of his own uncertainty about her intentions. It’s a wildly erratic on-again/off-again love affair. The segment of From Russia With Love contained on the Orient Express has become the anti-James Bond film – a Hitchcockian thriller set in a single, mobile location. It is the end move in a chess game. A game in which the viewer also must participate. We know the identity of the assassin sent to kill Bond, but we still don’t know which side of the fence Tatiana resides or how Bond will escape. Dialogue becomes probing and cautious as James Bond’s and our confidence in this mission wanes. We know that James will win the day (as he tends to do), but his success in this mission appears uncertain because of the pin holding the plot together: Tatiana.
The three Tatianas in From Russia With Love
Tatiana is simultaneously the fragile bird that Bond must rescue, a confident but allegiance-challenged agent and a pawn of SPECTRE (unwittingly) intending to kill Bond. Thus she assumes the role of all three Bond-girl archetypes at once. The viewer suspects she has succumbed to her false persona’s obsession with Bond but we are no more certain than James Bond. We want to believe her, because, like Bond, we can’t resist her seduction and the black velvet choker (that thankfully makes a return appearance).
Instead of an outcome predicated on coincidence and suspension of disbelief (see the climax of Dr. No), Bond must use actual intelligence and observation to identity the assassin (Soviet agent “Red” Grant, who poses as a British agent to get close to the couple) and evade his and Tatiana’s certain demise. The conversations between Bond, Grant and Tatiana display a conservation of language that’s rarely employed in subsequent James Bond adventures. Without revealing Bond’s methods, let’s just skip ahead. He wins the day, saves the girl and escapes to Italy. But his victory is fleeting – waiting for him in his hotel room and posing as a maid is Rosa Klebb, still hoping to salvage SPECTRE’s plot. The scene becomes comical (a harbinger of things to come in Goldfinger) as Klebb’s shoe contains a poison-tipped dagger. The fight scene becomes Bond forcing her away while Klebb kicks at him with the dagger. But it isn’t Bond that finally overcomes Klebb; it is Tatiana that enters and shoots Klebb and saves Bond. Tatiana’s final scene offers her multi-faceted Bond girl a chance to both save Bond and execute her commanding officer, a puppet master that had sent her on a suicide mission. This measure of redemption dispels our notion of Tatiana as the fragile, lovestruck flower, reminding us that she can be both a capable intelligence agent, aggressor, and a woman swooning over James Bond. Compare her with the Bond girls that would immediately follow her in Goldfinger. It is in this third film that the Bond-girl archetype and cinematic formula begins in earnest.
From Russia With Love is an exercise in restraint compared to what would immediately follow in the James Bond series. And for this reason, many film critics believe it to be best film in the series. I have to agree with them, but it is an anomaly and not ultimately what Bond is best known for. While the movie gets more of the press, Tatiana Romanova has been unfairly left in the second-tier of Bond girls.
Previous James Bond #Bond_age_ Project Essays:
Dr. No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live and Let Die / The Man with the Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View to a Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence to Kill / GoldenEye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day / Casino Royale / Quantum of Solace / Skyfall / Spectre