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Book Reviews, British Cinema

Studying From Russia With Love: Study Guide

Studying From Russia With Love, Will Rimmer, Auteur Publications, Leighton Buzzard 2008, ISBN 978-1-903663-78-3

I approached this Study Guide with some trepidation – I’m not a big James Bond fan and I’ve long thought the character an anachronistic fascist misogynist. I’ve tried to watch some of the more recent films, but apart from the impressive action sequences I can’t really see the point. But then, this guide is about the second Bond film – the one that most critics feel is the best of the series. And I remember seeing it on release as a young teenager in 1963, sitting in the first few rows of the ‘front stalls’ at Blackpool’s cavernous Odeon, then one of the largest cinemas in the UK. It was exciting then – I can still remember the credits and the theme music and quite a lot of the film’s action too. Since then, I’ve probably watched some sequences several times and recently I watched the whole film in what looked like a new print on ITV.

Because of these childhood memories, I was interested to see how Will Rimmer would handle the film. It isn’t clear exactly how he approaches it since there is no indication of which exam specifications are being addressed. Presumably A Level Film Studies is the main target as the guide provides ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ analyses (in terms of narrative, ‘film language’ and representation issues) and it attempts to set the film in the context of 1950s and 1960s British Cinema. (There are problems using the film for more than one purpose for A Level assessment – so check carefully.) It was indeed an optional ‘set film’ for the FS3 Exam in Summer 2008, but by Summer 2009 the spec will have changed and study of this film would have to be fitted in to ‘Swinging Britain 1963-73’. This is touched on in the guide, but seems to me a tough call.

Will Rimmer has clearly taught the film (or other James Bond films such as Goldfinger) in the context of A Level Film Studies and I found it interesting to read comments by his students after a screening. The guide offers the analyses mentioned above and comes with eight classroom worksheets. All of these look fairly straightforward, although I’ve always doubted the usefulness of worksheets that you don’t devise yourself with a specific group of students in mind (but I know that this isn’t the modern way and that worksheets are sometimes a popular feature of guides). Slightly more problematic are the attempts to contextualise the film, both in production terms and in cultural terms.

I think the guide suffers from two factors beyond the author’s control. One is the constraint of space – a few pages only to discuss one of the major periods of British filmmaking – and the other is the tendency for contextual/conjunctural work of any kind at this level to be constrained by what teachers and students might have already seen or might have potential access to. It’s very easy to fall back on references to what are seen as historically important film movements, generally ignoring the mainstream commercial filmmaking of the period. Rimmer compounds the problem by relying exclusively on recent material on the Bond franchise and the social history of the period. I haven’t read Dominic Sandbrook’s history (Never Had It So Good, 2005) but it has generally had rave reviews. I’m also not familiar with Rimmer’s main source, Martinis, Girls and Guns: 50 Years of 007 by Martin Sterling and Gary Morecambe. I’m just surprised that he didn’t make use of the scholarly work of the 1980s on James Bond, first for the OU’s Popular Culture course (see Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott, Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero. New York: Methuen, 1987) and later Licence To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films by James Chapman (1999). (He does quote Chapman, but the reference is not listed.)

Rimmer does make good use of Christopher Frayling’s comments about the ‘consumerist’ appeal of Fleming’s character with his exclusive brand of cigarettes and his instructions about making a martini. He is also surely right to note that in 1963 From Russia With Love was still very much about an older generation and though the film was exciting, it wasn’t actually part of any kind of ‘youth culture’. Where he falls down is in the production background and the discussion of British Cinema generally in the period. Presumably as part of a ploy to attach the film to the beginnings of ‘permissiveness’ etc., Rimmer describes the British New Wave film movement of the late 1950s/early 1960s and conveniently slides it into the earlier non-commercial Free Cinema programmes of the earlier 1950s (I think this kind of shorthand is very misleading). These connections are justified by Bond producer Harry Saltzman’s background as producer for Woodfall Pictures on three of the more celebrated new wave films. Yet the real production context of the James Bond films derives from the ending of the Warwick Films partnership between Cubby Broccoli and Irving Allen – which had turned out various action genre films for Columbia in the 1950s – and Broccoli’s subsequent interest in the Fleming books which led him into a new partnership with Saltzman. Nobody pretended that Eon, as the new company was named, had anything other than a strict commercial interest in James Bond and the approach was significantly different from the ‘artistic’ ambitions of the new wave filmmakers.

From Russia With Love was in some ways ‘new’, but in most respects it drew on a long tradition of spy thrillers/romance thrillers, especially from Hitchcock. Connery was jolted into stardom by Dr No, but he wasn’t new (or ‘young’). Like Michael Caine in Zulu, Ipcress File and Alfie, Connery was a jobbing actor whose time seemed to have come. This was true of others in the cast as well. Rimmer recalls how he first came across Robert Shaw (the Bond villain/assassin in From Russia With Love) in Jaws. In 1963 he was well known to small boys as the dashing hero of The Buccaneers action series on ITV. The other two casting decisions that stand out are Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb and Pedro Armendariz as the Turkish agent. Lotte Lenya was best known as a singer, especially in relation to Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Pedro Armendiraz was a star of the popular Mexican film industry of the 1940s and 1950s who also appeared in Hollywood films. The strange casting of a Mexican as a Turk was of course standard for Hollywood (as was that of an Italian beauty queen as the Russian ‘honey trap’ agent and a Jamaican woman as a ‘Gypsy’ dancer) and it points to the production context in which this ostensibly British film was in effect an international production, set mostly outside the UK and bankrolled by United Artists. Rimmer picks up this facet of the production context in his discussion of the modern action picture genre but Alexander Walker’s account in Hollywood England (1975) is perhaps the best source here.

More worrying is the discussion of representation in this study guide, which seems to mirror the strange casting decisions. I have a problem here in that because I’m antipathetic towards the ideology of the film overall, I find it difficult to take Rimmer’s exploration of class, gender, age etc. seriously. He gamely goes through these issues but it is difficult to pin down how representations in the film are constructed and what they might mean. There is also the problem of sliding between the film and the book and between this single Bond film and the others that followed and the spy thriller genre films of the 1960s. I can’t really accept that the film is any kind of ‘serious commentary’ on the Cold War, though it may be what some commentators have termed ‘symptomatic’ of certain Cold War ideas. My only substantial quibble is with Rimmer’s analysis of the ‘Gypsy’ characters: “The girls dress in clothing appropriate for their culture, with an almost native, Girl Friday look about them, barefooted and bikini clad.” (p. 38) I would have thought it was more useful to question here the 1960s attitudes towards people who in Europe now are generally called Roma. As for the ‘native’ look and the standard Hollywood exploitation costume – how is this “appropriate for their culture”? Elsewhere, Rimmer does refer to the location of Bond films and the producers’ wish not to offend potential audiences. In this sense, choosing a transitory minority group to play a significant role makes some kind of sense.

In summary, I still find From Russia With Love to be an entertaining film, but I’m not really convinced by Will Rimmer’s analysis in terms of 1960s British Cinema or the political and social context of the period. In terms of ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ analyses of key concepts, I think he does a pretty detailed job and on that basis the guide may be useful for students and teachers.

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