Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Carmody Wilson reviews her ten favourite films, part 3

From Russia With Love
UK 1963
Director: Terence Young
Screenwriter: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Ian Flemming (novel)
Runtime: 110 min
Certificate: PG
DVD Distrubutor: MGM DVD

No political climate provided better fodder for espionage films than the Cold War. When last was our “enemy” so shrouded in sinister mystery, so distant and unknown to us as was the case with the Soviet Union? These days of cell phones, GPS and Google Earth lack the glamour and mystery of such antiquated information-gathering items as the manual periscope, paper maps and the most mysterious tool of them all, the decoder machine. Add to this a psychopathic henchman, a chess genius, the whole of Istanbul, and the Orient Express, and you have one of my favorite films of all time, From Russia with Love. I am extremely aware of the lack of “seriousness” that loving a Bond film implies about my notions of our political past, but I love this movie so much that I’m willing to cast my lot with the rest of those ignoble Bond fans.

In context, this is the most believable of the Bond films. The Russians are seen as the tricksters behind the ploy to get Bond the Lektor decoding machine, a real item of value to those fighting behind closed doors, and the plot is simple enough. Bond goes to Istanbul to hook up with the head of intelligence there, woo a girl with access to the decoder, and head home with it and her in tow via one of the most luxurious trains in the world. The exciting bits are the extras. I love the feel of the film. I love when Bond does things like expertly check his room for bugs and then equally expertly orders his breakfast of local delicacies. I love how Karim Bey’s workforce is comprised entirely of his sons because he says he can’t trust anyone else. I love that Bond bothered to spend what appears to have been a lot of money on negligees for his pretend wife, Tatiana Romanova. The over-the-top bits omnipresent in a Bond film exist, however, but are minimal. The outlandish villain, Blofeld, or at least his hands, are seen for the first time in the franchise, and Rosa Klebb, wonderfully played by music hall legend Lottie Lenya, is only a bit stupid- looking as she stabs at Bond with her poisonous shoe-knife. There are some superb comic bits, such as when Bond returns with his taped interview of Tatiana only to embarrass M and his minions with the pillow talk also captured. Ultimately, this feels like the most likely of the Bond films to have happened, in the loosest sense, albeit with a few unlikely extras.

The thrills, mystery, misogyny, sex, violence and intrigue are all there, and this was the first movie to make it on to my top ten. I never tire of it, and the tiny frisson that I inevitably experience at the start of the film only builds and builds by the climax. To me, this was what the Cold War should have been like. Sure there are gypsy fights and outmoded stereotypes, all kinds, but this is one rip-roaring adventure of a film that chugs along as steadily as the train across the Balkans.

One Day in September
Germany/Switzerland/UK 1999
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Producer: John Battsek, Arthur Cohn
Runtime: 94 min
Certificate: 15
DVD Distributor: Lions Gate Home Entertainment

I know a documentary is not exactly a “film” in the same sense that the others in my list are, but I feel I need to include this particular documentary in my list as it has affected me so profoundly. One Day in September is paced and formatted like the most heart-rending of suspense thrillers. When I watched it for the first time a few months ago, it ripped me apart. I was sitting in front of my computer, watching it in the full light of a September afternoon but I felt chilled, startled, and alone. I had nightmares for a few days afterward. This is a powerful movie.

The opening credits are always a key sign of the “watchability” of any film, and ODIS credits begin with a hopeful pulling of strings and documentary footage of a sunny day in Munich. These opening notes are echoed later in the film when a montage of Olympic athletes tumbling, sprinting and swimming their way to greatness is shown to the joyful exultations of Bach’s “Jesu, The Joy of Man’s Desire.” These scenes played at my expectations of hope and left me tingling with positive expectation just as effectively as they set the scene for the world party that was to be the 1972 Olympic Games. Every inch of archival photos, documentary footage, news archives and interview footage was packed with information and emotion. But what really got me was the music. Not only were the strains of classical music used to great effect, but the climactic scene in which the charred and bloodied bodies of the Israeli team are revealed is done so to the high-pitched keening of some cataclysmic sounding rock music. It sends shivers down my spine even now. These images alone would have been jarring and unsettling, but the blow to the senses they provided when accompanied by that music stayed and stayed with me.

One day in September belongs in my top ten because, though it is a documentary, it feels like the best of scripted, psychologically riveting, horrifying and tightly plotted thrillers. And it’s all the worse for being true. Its excellence has definitely made a mark on me that I will never forget.
Read part 4 tomorrow

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