Thursday, August 16, 2012

50th Anniversary Bond Rewatch "From Russia with Love" (1963)

As a fan of the popcorn, guilty pleasure, mindless entertainment aspect of the Bond series of films, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the films with the company of my brain. Maybe there is more to be found than escapism. Maybe some of the culture and thinking of the past 50 years has left its imprint…

After they threw together the ultimate escapist mix of exotic locals, sex and adventure without much thought to story and struck a chord with audiences in 1962, the producers of “Dr. No” wasted no time in churning out the next entry in the series. For some reason, however, they decided to put some thought into the plot this time around. The result is one of the best films in the franchise, but one that a lot of modern audiences don’t have the patience to endure. Does that say that our modern idea of action doesn’t mix well with logic? Do we simply want thrills without story? Or does “From Russia with Love” suffer from outdated film technique?

In any case, the plot this time around takes the shock to a new level. It is not exactly a new plot. The idea of a country asking a woman to trade her body for national security had been told nearly two decades before in Hitchcock’s “Notorious.” This time around, however, that idea is not told to cause the audience to contemplate the extremes and even excesses that “national security” can demand, but as another excuse for hedonistic fun. The film again presents the idea that espionage and the “Cold War” is more of a game than a war, and the name of the game is sex. That scene in “Dr. No” where an enemy driver would rather commit suicide than tell Bond any of his secrets is even more out of place now than it was back then.

In fact, the real enemy of the entire world here is not one superpower or the other but a “third fish” waiting for the other two to incapacitate themselves, even pushing the war along. It is a telling insight that the film stumbles upon. All of this violence in the name of defense really opens the door for truly dangerous evil.

But in the end the side that it is hard to root for when one thinks about it is the side that the world embraced and has continued to do so for the past 50 years. With all the good intentions, exotic adventure and power there to distract us, we overlook how unappealing our heroes have become. Bond continues to kill first and never ask whether he really has a need, and he takes his treatment of women to a new low. It is only when he hits the woman (that he has been using all along) that he realizes she might not be the calculating double agent he has thought her to be. He tries to do the right thing after that but the fact is that he simply does not see women as being people.

This is attitude that really attracted huge audiences in the early sixties on the eve of the “sexual revolution” and it has also been its greatest embarrassment. The fact is that seeing women as objects or seeing sex as a casual activity are ideas that are closely related. The series will try repeatedly to shake the one and embrace the other. We will repeatedly see that you can’t have it both ways.

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