*This article originally appeared on the awesome, super hip, where it’s at! blog, Yabangee.Com. Visit them by clicking HERE*
People say that cities have a personality. I disagree. For me a city has a genre. A category of literature or movies that jumps to mind when you think of the city. For me, London is a gangster film, New York is a romantic comedy, Rome is a screwball comedy, Yorkshire is a horror movie and Paris is a car chase movie. Why? Not sure. But if I was told to write a movie set in any of those places, that would be the genre I would jump to.
And Istanbul? Istanbul is a spy movie. Full of labyrinthine streets, dark alleys, rooftops ripe for foot chases, Istanbul can’t help but give off the vibe that some secret stuff is happening behind closed doors and, any minute now, the person you least suspected is going to reveal himself to be a Russian assassin.
This theory was given some credence when I sought to compile a list of five English-language movies set in Istanbul. The five I chose were a movie about a retired CIA man trying to rescue his kidnapped family, a movie set in the 1970s about Cold War politics and espionage, and three James Bond movies. It doesn’t get more spy movie than that.
Skyfall is the most recent film on this list, and it was being filmed while I lived in Turkey. Being far behind on the news though, I only realised Bond was in town when he already had left for Fethiye, so no chance of my smiling face being in the back of any shots. The sequence set in Istanbul is only twelve minutes long and at least five of those minutes were filmed with Adana functioning as the outskirts of Istanbul. The scenes set in Eminönu feature an exhilarating motorcycle chase across the top of the Grand Bazaar before Bond and his prey smash their way into the Bazaar itself. More so than Taken 2, the movie manages to show a lively and exciting Eminönu, full of stalls and shoppers, all trying to stay out of the way of the action, while also standing around rubber-necking in true Turkish style. The brief time spent in Istanbul is action-packed but, as my wife pointed out to me when we were stuck in traffic trying to leave the cinema, the idea of any kind of a car chase in Istanbul traffic is laughable.
Taken 2 (2012)
Taken 2, for me, was a wasted opportunity. I don’t mean it was wasted in the sense of narrative because, realistically, other than repeating the formula this movie really had nowhere else to go. I felt it was wasted because it went for a stereotypical view of Istanbul (and this part of the world) rather than trying to show Istanbul as a modern, vibrant city. It was like they looked at a map and saw that Turkey is middle-east adjacent, then they thought, right, make every female extra dress in the most traditional wardrobe we can find, have the call to prayer ring out every two minutes and make sure that a mosque is visible in every shot. The action confines itself to Sultanahmet and Eminonu and, though it is all photographed beautifully, the film misses the opportunity for a car chase down Istiklal or some kind of crazy metro-based fist fight. Guess I’ll have to wait forTaken 3.
The World is Not Enough (1999)
The World is Not Enough is one of my favourite Bond movies and one that I have seen a great number of times. In the lead up toSkyfall’s release I read an article about all the Bond films set in Istanbul and was really surprised to read that the climax to this movie is set here and that I hadn’t recognised it. The finale of the movie is all about Bond trying to stop the launching of a submarine from the Maiden’s tower. You don’t really see any more of Istanbul than the skyline and the Bosphorus but I did get a big goofy smile on my face when Bond escapes from the exploding submarine and has to flag down a Bosphorus ferry for a lift. Earlier in the movie there are scenes that are meant to be set at a palace in Azerbaijan but the establishing shot clearly shows the gorgeous Küçüksu Palace instead. Being able to smugly smirk when I saw the palace made me very happy as I got to indulge in two of my favourite activities: watching movies and being smug.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
This incredible spy film has a brief flashback set in 1970s Taksim. The scenes set in Istanbul are mostly interiors, but when the action goes outside the filmmakers have done an incredible job of 70s-ising the city. The cars, technology and fashion all combine to further cement the illusion of seeing into Istanbul’s past. As with all the films on this list (save for Skyfall) a Bosphorus ferry plays a part. In this film there is a gorgeous scene of Tom Hardy standing on the deck of a ferry as it cruises along the water, the city flashing by in the background, full of secrets and the promise of adventure.
From Russia With Love (1963)
I think this is my favourite of this list and the one with the best depiction of Istanbul. Made in the 1960s, this film offers Istanbullus a chance to look back on the city as it was fifty years ago. For example, the scenes set around the Hagia Sophia are incredible in that there are barely any people or buildings around the site when today that area is one of the more bustling parts of this city. Like Tinker Tailor, this movie shows Istanbul to be a square on a greater Cold War chess board with people moving in and out of the game while trying to outthink and out fight their opponents. As exciting as it was to see James Bond motorcycle his way through the Grand Bazaar, there is something much cooler and more satisfying about watching an impeccably dressed Sean Connery saunter through the bazaar to meet a shady contact named Kerim Bey. Of the five I have listed, this is the must-watch for two reasons. One: because it’s a great film and two: because it’s almost a historical document of this great city during the Cold War and the 1960s.
A dishonourable mention goes to Argo (another espionage movie) which does feature a brief scene in Istanbul, however, that scene has Ben Affleck entering the Blue Mosque but, when we follow him inside, the interior shots are of the Hagia Sophia. For that, and the fact I didn’t want to watch it again, I kept it from the list.