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CommentaryRating: 5 of 5 yaps

You Only Live Twenty-Thrice: “From Russia with Love”

“You Only Live Twenty-Thrice” is Nick Rogers’ look back at the James Bond films.

Each Friday until the release of the 23rd official Bond film, “Skyfall,” Nick will revisit its 22 official predecessors from start to finish, with a bonus post for the unofficial films in which James Bond also appears.

When John F. Kennedy dubbed “From Russia with Love” an all-time favorite read, it was easy to see what James Bond adventure would follow “Dr. No” into cinemas. And that this 1963 film was also the last one JFK screened in the White House before his assassination is just one of many fascinating on- and off-screen anecdotes in this sophomore effort.

Its influence has been felt in everything from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (also starring Sean Connery) to even the fantasy realm in “Game of Thrones.”

A bedroom scene between Connery and Bond girl Daniela Bianchi still serves as a standard of screen tests for new Bonds and Bond girls. And given that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred just a year earlier, its geopolitical Cold War timing must have felt somewhat unnervingly urgent.

Not bad for a film that, quite frankly, is lucky to have even been finished.

The production was fraught with problems that today would certainly spell disaster. Its $2 million budget became bloated, and production deadlines were only just barely met. Bianchi suffered facial injuries in a car accident, halting filming for two weeks. Cameras and boats sank to the bottom of the sea.

A helicopter crashed while location scouting for the climactic boat chase with director Terence Young onboard. While filming said boat chase, a fire accident burned an actor’s eyelids and injured several stunt performers. And worst of all, an actor with a major supporting role died before his scenes in the film were completed, with Young standing in for the remainder of his unfilmed scenes.

“Love” also represents the oddest dichotomy of any Bond film: Although it feels like no Bond film that followed, it established a number of franchise templates that persist even today.

It’s the only Bond adventure that dares you to keep up with a racing narrative of disloyalty and deception — doggedly cerebral, mostly bereft of action for 90 minutes (save a Wild West-esque shootout at a gypsy camp) and centered on a villainous plot that’s essentially small-time extortion and personal revenge. To be fair, those aims are in the global terrorist network’s name. SPECTRE, after all, stands for SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.

But look at everything “Love” introduced to the Bond universe that is immediately recognizable today: the pre-title action sequence; sexualized opening credits; pussy-stroking nemesis emeritus Ernst Blofeld, even if he’s not referred to here by that name; a pop theme song with lyrics; action sequences involving a helicopter, omitted in only a handful of Bond films; Bond’s gadget weaponry; Desmond Llewelyn as Q, starting a run that continued through his 1999 death; a postscript action scene; and the promise at the end of each film that Bond will return.

What became formula later, no matter how thrilling and topical, feels more formidable and fierce here because it’s so low-key. Excepting the grim end to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and the realistic grit of Daniel Craig’s 007 endeavors, it’s easily the least cartoonish Bond film. That’s because while it pulls the Cold War politics out of Ian Fleming’s source novel, it doesn’t extract the era’s essence that only mutually assured mistrust would prevent mutually assured destruction.

And don’t think for a second that because the bad guys have small-stakes goals that they somehow suffer in the canon. Donald “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw) is one of the most imposing, insidious Bond villains ever concocted — and that’s evident from the first sequence.

Did Connery’s face look a little off at the start of that? If so, you’ve got the soft eyes necessary to catch the blink-and-miss-it nuances in a story with few superfluous moments.

There is, of course, nothing subtle about Robert Brownjohn’s opening-credits sequence. Brownjohn replaced “Dr. No’s” Maurice Binder to design these credits and lasted only one more film in the series. But tell me Brownjohn’s vibe doesn’t live on today in these undulating breasts, supple thighs and shapely glutes.

Potential for greatly evil shenanigans died with SPECTRE operative Dr. No, and his employers are none too happy with Mr. Bond. But they have a good psychological file on him; they know pride and sexual dominance are his weaknesses.

They bait these qualities with a carrot called the Lektor — a Soviet cryptographic device long coveted by both Bond’s MI6 and the American CIA. Once SPECTRE gets its hands on it, they have a “particularly unpleasant and humiliating” death planned for Bond at the hands of Grant, a homicidal albino brute. Oh, and in the meantime, they’ll embarrass Russia, America and Great Britain.

SPECTRE has lured top Soviet operative Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenye) over from her government. So it’s to her that SPECTRE mastermind Blofeld (referred to here only as “Number One”) turns for heading up the plot to kill 007. Under threat of death and the guise that she’s serving mother Russia, comely cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi, then just 21 years old) agrees to Klebb that she’ll deliberately misinform Bond.

From her station post in Istanbul, Turkey, Tatiana agrees to defect to Great Britain with the Lektor — but only into Bond’s custody. He at first suspects a stalker, then a trap and almost certainly a dowdy, frumpy lady if she works in a clerk’s office. But as Klebb knows, once Bond gets a look at Tatiana, he’s all in. (“When she meets me in the flesh, suppose that I don’t come up to expectations,” he quips, in just a hint at the series’ mounting naughtiness of double entendres.)

Klebb, too, can appreciate a woman like Tatiana — filmed with a luminous glow equivalent to a Hitchcock Blonde. That’s because as sure as Klebb was the basis for Frau Farbissina of the Austin Powers series, she’s also certainly a lesbian.

Klebb caresses Tatiana’s shoulders when she recruits her, places a hand on her knee, gazes at her longingly during a twirl-around and, most tellingly of all, Klebb’s the one enjoying a smoke as SPECTRE films Bond and Tatiana making love later. Though it matters little in the film’s scheme, it’s an interesting inference for 1963.

Tatiana is beautiful enough to get everyone in a twist. But Ali Kerim Bay (Pedro Armendáriz) offers Bond wise, and eventually tragic, counsel to stay sharp.

“You’re not using this,” he tells Bond before tapping his temple. “It all sounds too easy.”

Kerim Bay is the Turkish station chief for MI6 — a sharp-talking man with many sons and, eventually, a target of Russian rebels once they get wind of Tatiana’s defection. Not unlike Giancarlo Giannini’s René Mathis in the Craig 007 films, Kerim Bay is a trusted confidant but also Bond’s rook in a chess game with the bad guys — one sacrificed in order to save the king.

In a scene when Kerim Bay expresses certainty of a successful attempt on his life, it’s hard not to feel real-world weariness in Armendáriz’s voice. The Mexican character actor — a favorite of director John Ford — had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and signed on to “Love” to provide his family with financial security.

After intense discomfort while filming in Istanbul, Armendáriz essentially left the production and entered UCLA Medical Hospital. On June 18, 1963, using a gun he smuggled inside, he shot himself in the heart.

What an honor, then, that the script honors Armendáriz’s memory and his impeccable work by hinging the success of Bond’s mission on Kerim Bay’s advice. Increased vigilance is the only thing that saves Bond once boards the Orient Express with Tatiana and the Lektor in tow.

It’s here that Grant reveals his formidable presence to Bond. Until now, he has stayed in the shadows, even saving Bond from a Bulgarian’s bullet to push him further into a corner where only he can get at him.

Grant might have been put through his paces on SPECTRE Island — a free-for-all training ground for firearms, fists and flamethrowers that’s one of “Love’s” few silly scenes. But he’s a smart, violent psychopath, not a servile lackey. The thrill of killing on his terms, not the money or the loyalty, is all that defines him.

The 15 minutes where Grant and Bond mentally and physically match wits comprise the greatest sustained sequence of any 007 film — an expert handling of tension, suspense, surprise, violence and crucial exposition between two predators. Requiring no musical score, as it’s hypnotic on its own, here is the boiling point.

The final 20 minutes of “Love” are pure adventure. Wearing a suit, Bond singlehandedly takes on a helicopter in an obvious homage to “North by Northwest.” A speedboat chase ends in an impressive eruption of fire on the water. And Klebb, tasked to clean the big mess she’s made for SPECTRE, takes one final swipe at Bond.

Spiritually, though, “Love” has more in common with the writing of John Le Carre than Ian Fleming. Bond pieces none of SPECTRE’s plot together until the third act, purely because his peccadilloes have become such pliable putty in their hands. Only after his vulnerabilities have been further exploited than they were in “Dr. No” does he succeed. And when the punches finally land, they land hard — on Bond, on Grant, even on Tatiana.

“Russia” is about as far as it gets from the biggest Bond. But it is, without question, atop that list of the best.

Next week: Goldfinger”

BULLET POINTS

Although Anthony Dawson (the late Professor Dent of “Dr. No”) portrays the unseen Blofeld, his voice sounds an awful lot like the Sean Connery of today. In fact, Blofeld is voiced by Eric Pohlmann, then uncredited for what is arguably his biggest work.

Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig have called “From Russia with Love” their favorite Bond movie, as has current Bond producer Michael G. Wilson, who has said: “We always start out trying to make another ‘From Russia with Love’ and we always end up with another ‘Thunderball.’ ”

Although Connery has not returned to an official Bond film since 1971’s “Diamonds are Forever,” he did record vocals for a video-game version of “Love” in 2005.

The chess-tournament set in the beginning of the movie reportedly cost $150,000 to build … and is onscreen for not much more than two minutes.

Bulgarian assassin Krilencu climbs out the window of a building that’s been painted with a poster for the film “Call Me Bwana.” Starring Bob Hope, it was the only Eon Productions film that wasn’t a Bond movie, and it also was released in 1963.

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