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Revisiting 1963’s ‘From Russia With Love’

50 Years of James Bond

By 007’s second outing, things were really starting to click. From its pre-credits action sequence, in which Aryan henchman Robert Shaw kills a man in a Sean Connery mask, to its classic Bond-gets-girl ending set among the Venice canals, “From Russia With Love” established the model for all the installments that followed. But here’s something I hadn’t realized when I first saw the film years ago: It actually spins quite an elegant yarn, to the extent that “From Russia With Love” holds up alongside the best spy movies.

That’s a list that contains last year’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a film that, in many respects, reverses impressions sown decades earlier by the likes of “FRWL.” “Tinker Tailor” takes the sex appeal out of spy work, presenting its heroes as glorified office drones and Cold-War England as a country so dour, you can half-understand why someone might choose to defect to the other side. But those revelations are only relevant contra the fantasy cemented by “FRWL,” in which a Russian cipher clerk with only one objective — to seduce Bond — instead succumbs to his charms.

Thanks to the appearance of Q, Bond now boasts a clever attache case, complete with hidden rifle, knife and tear-gas canister. The villains carry concealed weapons as well: Shaw’s character wears a watch with built-in garrote, while Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) keeps a poison-tipped blade stashed in her shoe. I vaguely remember a discussion from film school in which it was significant that the lesbian-like Klebb lashes out with a phallic instrument, and yet, on recent viewing, it’s more fun simply to note that all these hidden weapons reflect the fact that nothing is quite what it seems in this film — including cat-loving baddie Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

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Fun fact about Blofeld’s first appearance: Director Terence Young never reveals the SPECTRE chief’s face in “FRWL,” continuing the joke into the credits, where a question mark appears in place of the actor’s name (Anthony Dawson, recycled from another role in “Dr. No”). Going back, it’s clear to me that Young’s irreverent attitude was one of the key ingredients in defining Bond, and though I’m already wincing in anticipation of some of the cornball gags ahead (particularly in the Roger Moore era), the fact that the films never fully took themselves seriously could be their saving grace.

At the time, humor helped to sneak bits of violence and licentiousness past the censors; today, it excuses how stiff and unrealistic some of those same elements now appear. And yet, most of “FRWL” holds up just fine, especially the fight between Connery and Shaw aboard the Orient Express and the “North by Northwest”-inspired scene in which a helicopter chases Bond out in the open — sorta makes you wonder what Hitchcock might have done had he tried his hand at a Bond film.

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Revisiting 1963's 'From Russia With Love'

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