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With its dramatic setting on the Bosporus, Istanbul has been used as a striking backdrop for many films. From the sleek productions of the 1960s to the more modern documentaries showcasing the city from a truly local angle, Culture Trip highlights some of the best films set in Istanbul.
The second instalment of the James Bond film series is probably one of the most famous movies set in Istanbul. The Istanbul scenes begin with the handsome Sean Connery arriving at the city’s Atatürk airport. The film continues with a love scene in a lavish hotel with Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), who works at the Soviet Consulate, and then a stroll through the Grand Bazaar. The film’s most memorable scene takes place in the mysterious Basilica Cistern, which, in the movie, is located right under the Russian Consulate and is the perfect place for Bond to bring down an evil empire.
Often compared to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), Mustang tells the story of orphaned sisters who face the challenges of growing up in a conservative society. Even though the film takes place in a small Black Sea village, cosmopolitan Istanbul represents salvation from the abuse that the sisters suffer at the hands of their uncle. In the last section of the film, the sisters manage to escape and wake up on a bus as it drives across the Bosporus Bridge, which is illuminated by the sunrise, representing hope and new beginnings.
This fantastic documentary by German-Turkish director Fatih Akin features Istanbul at a local level by exploring its music scene, from street bands all the way to legendary artists. The film follows German musician Alexander Hacke as he travels around the city to document its many sounds. The film’s most memorable moments include a breathtaking rendition of a Kurdish song by Aynur Doğan, rapper Ceza spitting out his best rhymes and Orhan Gencebay (the king of arabesque) performing unplugged in his home. Crossing the Bridge is an intimate look at Istanbul as a source of endless inspiration and creativity.
As expected of the French New Wave, L’Immortelle is a confusing yet sumptuous representation of Istanbul. The film, which does not run in chronological order, features a conspiracy ring that kidnaps women and uses them as prostitutes, a car crash, a man and a mysterious woman, and a lot of parties at gorgeous Ottoman-era waterfront mansions where beautiful people stare at each other, French New Wave-style.
In this classic, American ballistic expert Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten) is targeted by Nazi agents in Istanbul and must find safe passage home. In one of the film’s strangest scenes, Graham is dragged into a smoke-filled nightclub where he meets a dancer and a magician, one of whom is later murdered by a Nazi spy (we won’t say who). The film also stars a young Orson Welles as a Turkish secret police chief.
This big-screen adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel turned Istanbul’s Karaköy neighbourhood into a stage where Soviet and British spies battle it out during the Cold War of the 1970s. The film’s representation of period Istanbul is uncanny and stretches from Istiklal Street to Taksim’s smoky nightclubs and dark hotel rooms. As George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman, struggles to find the secret Soviet informant within MI5, events descend into violence.
Cassam Looch contributed additional reporting to this article.