I remembered You Only Live Twice as a pretty good action movie. It isn’t. In fact, my first viewing of the film in twenty years was a far worse experience than I expected.
Bond, James. But not for long.
We begin as we always do, with the portrayal of James Bond by the always-reliable Sean Connery. In fact, one of the very few reasons the film is even watchable is because of Mr. Connery. As if there was any doubt at this point, Mr. Connery just has a fabulous screen presence, and his inhabitation of Bond is simply compelling, no matter what he does. This time around, there is such emphasis on Mr. Connery’s charm with the women that it almost seems like his only mission in any given scene is to end up in bed. While his sexual prowess is very much part of his iconic persona, by this point he feels very far removed from the cold and steely killer of Dr. No.
Mr. Connery’s physicality is on display to a greater degree in the film. There’s a great fight scene – the best since From Russia With Love – in Osato’s office, again made more effective by the lack of musical score. After this, there is a good deal of running around the Kobe docks, punctuated by an acrobatic set of falls to make good his near-escape. He later manages to land a crashing plane, shoot down four enemy helicopters in an autogyro, trains with ninjas, hikes up a volcano, ninja-climbs his way into Blofeld’s lair, and the big shoot-’em-up climax. Whew!
Of course, this is what Bond had now evolved into, much to my dismay. I vastly preferred the masculine portrayal delivered via character and performance by Mr. Connery in the first three films, rather than the more generic masculinity demanded by set-piece encounters. This is all due, of course, to the same problem that reared its head in Thunderball – a crap script. This time, however, the storytelling is ten times worse.
Roald Dahl Should Stick to Chocolate
Had Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming not been friends, one wonders if Mr. Dahl would have been permitted to write the screenplay to a James Bond film. He’s a gifted author, as we all know, but a Bond film? The problems go way beyond Bond’s character. There are literally so many sloppy plot holes and illogical story maneuvers that I was pulling out my hair as they started to pile up, one after another. It’s so painful, I don’t even want to recount them. And it starts out so promising, with an apparently successful pre-credits assassination of Bond. But then it all goes to pot. Can anyone out there explain why Bond, after being captured at the docks, and turned over to Helga Brandt is then released by same…only to be placed in a plane that she is flying….and then bails out of, leaving him to die in a crash?
Why wasn’t he just killed when he was tied up in her cabin on the boat? When Blofeld shoots Osato at the conclusion of the film, why doesn’t he just shoot Bond also, right then and there? Why sneak through a secret tunnel to an escape route, point the gun to kill him, only to have the gun shot out of his hand by one of Tanaka’s men?
Because the writer, as we say, wrote himself into a corner? That’s being kind.
What a mess. The script is a total disaster. Let’s leave it at that and see if we can find some other things to praise.
Let’s be fair, Japan is a very cool setting, and not only are the exteriors broad and sweeping, but production designer Ken Adam delivers fabulous sets once again. The setting is a refreshing change of pace for the series at this point, and we get some great landscapes and urban locations, thanks to scenes on the volcanic island and in the streets of Japan and docks of Kobe. “Tiger” Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) also makes for a great counterpoint to Bond. The projection of Japanese masculinity, organically ensconced within the trappings of the culture itself, adds a fine layer to the film.
Ken Adam’s sets continue to amaze. There are plenty of his long, angular interiors complete with ceilings.
Blofeld’s volcanic rocket base is another terrific use of space and shape. As we’ve learned from previous outings, Mr. Adam’s designs always enhance these films. As it is, traditional Japanese design, filled as it is with lines and rectangles, provided him with a great base from which to expand. As before, the contrast of shape within the frame can create a visual tension that correlates with a dramatic tension – such as this initial encounter with Henderson, before we are certain he is who he says he is.
In addition, the association of circles and ovals with villainy continues in this film. You can bet that a circular shape in a ceiling means bad news. Need I mention Blofeld’s base in inside a round volcano?
His little escape vehicle is spherical. He is sometimes framed inside circles and curves.
And of course, he is a little round-headed buffoon, isn’t he?
The costuming has some nice contrasts. The Japanese women and their colorful, skimpy clothing provides the necessary change in tone when Bond is among them. It’s a nice contrast to the heavy use of black and white that dominates the picture.
Blofeld’s drab, monotone uniform recalls Dr. No’s unisex – or should I say sexless – outfit of the original film.
The climactic fight in the rocket base is also pretty great. The imagery of dozens of ninjas zipping down ropes is a strong one, and the mixture of samurai swords and guns gives the battle a unique edge.
It’s a drag that the script is so illogical because it reduces Blofeld as a believable villain. We’re to believe that he spent years and gazillions of dollars to blast out the center of a dormant volcano (without anyone knowing), just so he could launch a re-usable rocket to capture American and Soviet spacecraft to trigger a war? Surely there must’ve been an easier way.
This brings me to the late Donald Pleasance as Blofeld, in the series’ first full-blown appearance of Mr. Bond’s nemesis. His cold, calculated, meticulous demeanor – right down to an economy of movement – plays as a perfect contrast to the active physicality and sexuality of Bond. I’ve always like Mr. Pleasance as an actor. His locution and disquieting gaze always gave him an edge, regardless of the character he played. Trivai enthusiasts may be interested to know that his plane was shot down in WWII and he spent time in a German POW camp, even portraying a POW in The Great Escape. There’s no question that his life experience carried over into his performances, and it gave him an edge that few actors could ever have.
I’d like to mention Charles Gray’s momentary supporting role as Dikko Henderson, MI6’s “man” in Tokyo, who comes to a sudden end with a knife in the back while briefing Bond. In the book, he is portrayed as a lush, a brawler, and frequent brothel visitor. Yet Mr. Gray’s brief charismatic appearance has a fey undercurrent that makes him a very intriguing figure. A shame he didn’t have a larger role. The producers must’ve loved him, though, because he was brought in to play Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever.
I guess Aki is the Bond Girl in this movie, but I found her totally forgettable. It’s not the actress’ fault, of course, it’s the script. If anything, the film had an intriguing character in Helga Brandt, whose red hair recalls Fiona Volpe from Thunderball. Kind of a bummer that she gets eaten by the piranhas for failing to kill Bond. Then again, she shouldn’t be the dead one. It should be Mr. Dahl.
Quick trivia: George Baker plays the NASA engineer in this film. He returns as Capt. Benson, the commander of the US submarine kidnapped in The Spy Who Loved Me.
I Can’t Take It Anymore
I have to end this review. I can’t stand trashing a Bond film. I don’t need to point out all the awful things about this entry. You can find them for yourselves.
However, I will close with this compliment: John Barry’s score is excellent. Readers have been browbeating me over my neglect of Mr. Barry. His work in all the movies is strong, but I waited until now because I think You Only Live Twice is where his work in the series really starts to take off. The score is sweeping, with plenty of the Bond theme, and nice Japanese influences inserted at all the right moments. His stuff only gets better from here.
James Bond will return in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service