From Russia with Love’s spy watch is movie history and a DIY obsession

For many, From Russia With Love is the ideal James Bond experience. It’s got the early-1960s vibes that the franchise thrived in, and it catches Sean Connery at perhaps his highest level of comfort with the character before he began a slow dip into aloof boredom. Its villains are a wonderful gaggle of terrorist weirdos and its globe-trotting antics feel pushed by a narrative instead of becoming a vaguely Imperialist travel ad. It wouldn’t take long for the Bond series to escalate its fantastical elements, but in From Russia with Love, they feel fairly reined in, with the most outlandish thing perhaps being henchman Red Grant’s ability to take a fistful of brass knuckles to the gut and not even flinch.

And it’s with Red Grant that Bond has the best fight scene of the series to date. In the close quarters of a room on a train car, Grant (played with creepy intensity by Robert Shaw) and Bond throw down. The battle apparently took three weeks to film with Connery and Shaw doing most of the stunt work themselves. It rides the line between being highly stylized (cinematographer Ted Moore makes brilliant use of the shadows of the train car contrasting with the lights passing by the window) and brutal, and in the end, Bond prevails by strangling Grant to death with his garrote wire watch — a gadget that has taken on a life of its own in the years since, leading to DIY creations and a lingering cultural status.

It’s a gadget that, like the movie, feels pretty grounded, especially in comparison to what’s to come in the franchise. According to Fangoria editor-in-chief and James Bond superfan Phil Nobile Jr., it’s that borderline tangible relationship with reality that makes it memorable. “A good Bond gadget is a bit of a moving target (since Bond’s world is generally set ‘five minutes from now,’ and real-life tech is frequently catching up to the movies), and a good gadget has to thread the needle of being both fantastical and theoretically possible,” he wrote to Polygon.

The garrote wire watch has gone beyond being just a memorable Bond gadget and into another realm of cultural consciousness. It’s also appeared in films like Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and was even wielded by former President George Bush in The Simpsons, but its greatest legacy has been perhaps that people don’t just wonder if it could be real, but if it has been real already. There are homemade ones with questionable efficacy and a cursory Google search will lead you to forum threads of people inquiring about them: “Was this ever really a thing?” “Where can I buy a piano wire watch?” “Is/was garrote wire actually used?” A few pose ethical concerns and perhaps legal ones that… won’t be shared here.

There are few weapons in the wide arsenal of 007 and his villains that attain this level of materiality. Especially when you consider where the series went from there, incorporating all manner of vehicles and secret weapons to dazzle audiences. It’s much more realistic to consider what would go into the existence of a garrote wire watch than, for example, the invisible car in Die Another Day.

Red Grant strangles James Bond with the cord from his garrote wristwatch while the two wrestle in a train car in From Russia With Love

Image: Eon Productions

So wondering if a James Bond gadget has existed isn’t totally unfounded. The series’ creator, Ian Fleming, worked for Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during World War II, and the real-life espionage knowledge that he obtained there made for gripping fiction when filtered through the hypermasculinity and anything-goes adventures of Bond. And in the early days of the 007 films, much of the crew had experienced life during World War II and the spy-ready atmosphere of the ensuing Cold War.

Director Terence Young had been a tank commander. Cinematographer Ted Moore and art director Syd Cain served in the Royal Air Force. Screenwriter Richard Maibaum had been a captain in the Signal Corps. From Russia With Love, on a very formative level, was associated with men who had a real-life connection to the World War II technology that Fleming drew his inspiration from. Even the character Bond himself is hinted to have served in World War II, an aspect that ages him a bit, and thus helps provide some generational conflict between Bond and Grant, with the latter constantly riling the spy with accusations of “old man.”

But how much factual basis did a garrote wire watch actually have? Alexis Albion, curator at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., recognizes that the garrote by itself is a mainstay of military combat. “Garrotes have been around for centuries,” Albion says. “But where we really see examples of this in relation to the movie is in World War II. There was a special group that was created by Winston Churchill called Special Operations Executive, as he wanted to ‘set Europe ablaze’ by sending operatives behind enemy lines. They would’ve done covert operations and sabotage and anybody who would’ve been trained there would’ve used a garrote.”

However, concealing a garrote within a watch seems to be a fictional step. “I have never seen anything where it was a garrote concealed within a watch,” Albion says. “I’ve never seen that personally.” That doesn’t mean that a watch hasn’t been used for espionage, though. “We’ve got a number of watches used for concealment purposes, but not as a weapon,” Albion says. “Mostly as surveillance of some kind, like we’ve got watch cameras and audio devices.”

That also doesn’t mean that a garrote hasn’t been used as a concealed weapon before. In fact, one notable example finds it to be a hidden part of a tool that contains a number of uses. “It was called a Peskett and it was a kind of multipurpose weapon used for close combat. It has three ways of using it as an offensive weapon,” Albion says. “There’s just a dagger. And then on one end, there’s a sort of a large, heavy ball that could be used to bludgeon someone. And the garrote wire was wound up inside the ball and could be pulled out of it.”

By combining the watch, a common but fairly technical device, with a garrote wire, which is about as low-tech as one can get and extremely deadly, we end up with a pop culture weapon that doesn’t just represent From Russia With Love but why we enjoy James Bond in the first place. As Albion says, we like him because we can identify with a human character rather than “something that’s too technology-based.” It’s attainable even if the reality of being a spy is far beyond the reach of most of us. “That’s sort of the appeal of the spy in general, which is the sense that we all have that ordinary exterior, but underneath we could be secretive,” she says.

In short, the garrote wire watch was the perfect finish to the brawl between Grant and Bond. “The train sequence is undeniably epic, and 60 years later feels almost punk rock in its execution,” Nobile says about the iconic fight at the end of From Russia With Love. “The ugly, dirty grappling that mainstream audiences had never seen before — it’s all brutal and unexpected. The series has been trying to top this scene for decades, and it never has.”

So perhaps the garrote wire watch owes its fascination not just to the fact that it seems almost too simple to not be real, but that the fistfight it followed has a lot of the touches of a real-life encounter. It begins the film as a cool new gadget, but its use in the climax of combat melds it with the very visceral ugliness and realistic scrambling that the scene captures. Unlike many Bond devices to follow, it becomes a part of the scene rather than a tool of escapism. It finds the human element, which, in a series that features jetpacks, explosive pens, and submarine cars, continues to stand out.

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