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Five years after Sean Connery's debut in Dr. No, there were problems in the House of 007. Sean Connery was more than ready to quit the role that had made him a household word in practically every corner of the world. After Goldfinger the Bond producers became lazy in the storytelling department, and maintained the franchise with bigger sets and more lavish production trappings. They decided to film Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice out of order, before On Her Majesty's Secret Service. That choice forced the abandonment of the original novel's rather interesting plot, in which a disillusioned James Bond retreats to a corner of Japan after the murder of his bride by his arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Author Roald Dahl was enlisted to come up with a new storyline.
Alas, James Bond's fifth film adventure is a science fiction yarn fit for a comic book, packed with special effects and what was at the time the biggest set ever built for an English film. Although it has plenty of action on a grandiose scale and a superb music score by John Barry, You Only Live Twice has always been considered the least of the films starring Sean Connery. Part of that is the climate into which it was released: in 1967 the "superspy" craze was collapsing under the weight of 1001 imitators and spoofs. By continuing to exaggerate the gadgets and the silly humor the official 007 series essentially undercut its uniqueness. Yet, despite being a big disappointment when new, You Only Live Twice has always been one of Savant's favorites - grandiosity can be an appealing quality.
Roald Dahl's script wastes no time putting 007 through some ludicrous plot developments. A mystery spaceship is kidnapping capsules from orbit, raising tensions between the U.S. and Russia. James Bond's death is faked in Hong Kong so that he can better help spymaster Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) find out whether or not the rogue spaceship is based somewhere in the Japanese islands. Agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) helps 007 infiltrate the Osato Corporation, which turns out to be a front for Spectre. Osato operative number 11 Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) tries to first seduce and then assassinate Bond. 007's next conquest is the delicate Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). She poses as Bond's bride in a marriage ceremony to ferret him onto an island hiding the suspected rocket base. Bond sneaks into a secret launch pad hidden within a volcano, but is captured by the megalomaniac in charge, SPECTRE's Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence). Fortunately, Tiger attacks with his invincible ninja army of great magnitude, and a battle ensues to prevent Blofeld from igniting World War 3.
You Only Live Twice was the first movie Savant felt had been overexposed by saturation promotions, in the way that almost every new film is spoiled in today's entertainment culture. Besides the usual ad blitz the ABC network aired a highly-promoted television special that gave away practically every set piece in the film: The car dropped into Tokyo bay, the fights, the trap doors and the piranha pool.
By this film the gadgets and gimmicks had taken over. Goldfinger successfully stretched credibility in the interest of style and defined the cinematic appeal of 007. Thunderball continued to keep things outrageous, yet not too far from reality. In fact, one of the drawbacks of Thunderball was its literal-mindedness; how the bomb is stolen and transported underwater received far more attention than did the characters. Twice was the first Bond to be utterly fantastic at its root, a Science Fiction movie where Bond became an unlikely Buck Rogers.
By sneaking a look at an issue of Playboy Savant read writer Roald Dahl's claim that he never took any of it seriously. Dahl said he honored the 'Bond Women' formula from the two previous adventures and created a trio of heroines for Bond to bed: a 'knowing' good girl to be killed, a villainous bad girl to be killed and a second good girl to survive for a kiss at the fadeout. All are basically disposable. The bigger-than-life, extravagant Bond craze had outgrown the intimate characterizations of something like From Russia With Love. There Bond's survival had actually been at risk, and his feelings for his leading lady had at least an element of human concern.
But this fifth movie was carried away by the fantastic designs of Ken Adam, so to speak. Since the Bond franchise at this point represented England's pride and cultural prominence, the only way to go was bigger. More than one critic felt that they were expected to review the gigantic sets. For grandeur and spectacle, Twice gets an A+.
Now to address the strange awkwardness that runs through the whole show.
You Only Live Twice continues the narrative erosion of Thunderball by making James Bond fairly irrelevant to the workings of the plot. Bond's function in Twice is to tour through a travelogue format and get into a couple of scrapes on the way to a tidy finish. The producers went for spectacle and humor but the idea of involving us in a suspense story was no longer a necessity. The major military battle at the end of Goldfinger had retained Bond at its center, but the underwater conclusion of Thunderball demoted Bond to just another wet-suited scuba diver in a screen full of bubbles. Where's Waldo?
Bond always seems like an odd man out in the Japanese setting. The credibility of Twice is on the level of an episode of TV's Thunderbirds. The filmmakers would say that the irrationalities on view don't matter, but at least Emilio Largo's atomic extortion scheme made sense. Detecting and dealing with orbital missiles being fired into and returning from space, even from a 'remote' area of Japan, would be a job for the Air Force, not James Bond. After Auric Goldfinger's brilliant idea of irradiating Fort Knox to enhance the value of his own bullion, this cartoonish space story isn't very impressive. And sub-par special effects don't help either. The space scenes in Twice are doubly embarrassing when one realizes that 2001was in production at the same time in the same country. Finally, all sanity goes out the window when Bond is disguised as a Japanese. There are definitely large Japanese but burly Scot Connery looks ridiculous in his bridegroom get-up. As James Thurber would point out, even Goldilocks would not be fooled for a moment.
You Only Live Twice feels obligated to uphold a formula rather than surprise us. Many episodes have a been-there, done-that feeling. Two confrontations with the Osato baddies end identically, with Aki lamely rescuing Bond out of the blue in her convertible sports car. The producer's wife seems to have suggested the visually arresting gag of using an electromagnet to pick up an automobile... what's powering that magnet, anyway? The monotonous aerial battle between SPECTRE helicopters and Connery's 'Little Nellie' gyrocopter adds 'air ace' to Bond's various skills. Connery just looks silly flying the thing - he's just a burly guy slapped into a flying tricycle. Helga Brandt could simply kill Bond but naturally takes him up in an airplane, from which he will obviously escape. Anyone familiar with Austin Powers will see the laziness here, the anything-will-do attitude.
The gigantic crater set may seem a bit foolish on video, even on a large monitor, but it was a jaw-dropper on a big screen. The elaborate battle inside is noisy and exciting, with its ninja swordsmen and trampoline-assisted bodies flying every which way. Yet the static direction stresses sets and scenery over action continuity -- the battle isn't half as thrilling as it could be. At one juncture Bond tells Tanaka that they must find a way into the control booth, and directs the ninja army to a heavily defended stairway on the other side of the crater. 007 has apparently forgotten the broad pathway that he walked just a few moments before. It leads from the control room, to Blofeld's private quarters, to the monorail car. It's only a few paces behind them, and undefended. 1
Aided by some creepy makeup, Donald Pleasence makes an impressive Blofeld, snarling and barking orders: "Kill Bond!" Pleasence proves himself a real trooper by hanging onto that panicky cat no matter what happens. Watch the bit where Pleasence reacts to a grenade hit on his shutters and you'll see him holding the cat in a vise-grip, trying to keep a nonchalant look on his face. The cat is so freaked out, it's tearing itself in two trying to escape!
Sean Connery's one-on-fights in Twice are excellent knee-bashers, especially the battle royale with the big thug near the beginning. Not so the rest of the action. Director Lewis Gilbert's earlier Alfie is a masterpiece of satiric drama but he seems unsuited to 007 pacing. Assuming he had anything to so with the action scenes, his aerial blocking of the Kobe rooftop fight makes John Barry's music do all the work. Most of Bond's gunplay action is thrown away in awkwardly edited, indifferent coverage.
Savant has always been a sucker for the spectacular mass Ninja drop in the volcano, in the heat of battle - it's the one truly awesome moment when all the production expense pays off. The sight of dozens of fighters zipping down ribbons from the crater roof is simple, basic Coolness. A triumph of style over reality, this is genuine serial fantasy gold, like Batman and Robin leaping out of an elephant statue in their first television episode, or Boba Fett lugging around a rocket pack for two movies, just to be Cool when he finally lights it up and flies into action. Audiences always laugh at the final explosions in the set that make all the bodies and wreckage leap into the air, but Savant thinks it still looks great.
By Bad Movie Law, secret hideouts always blow up as everyone runs to escape. Here the surviving heroes swim to the safety of rubber rafts dropped by the 007 Rubber Raft Delivery Company, through caves previously filled with poison gas. Triggered by Blofeld's TNT, the volcano erupts, thus putting You Only Live Twice at the level of kiddie adventures in which volcanoes always erupt when disturbed. Bond's in there somewhere, swimming with the rest, SuperSpy in name only.
MGM/Fox's Blu-ray of You Only Live Twice has finally arrived, in a massive all-Bond Blu-ray collector's set specially produced for Hedge Fund capitalists. For the rest of us lower forms of consumer life, it is presently being offered individually as a department store exclusive.
The disc has a truly beautiful transfer. Lawrence of Arabia's Freddie Young filmed the movie, or at least its first unit, so the travelogue aspects come out strongly. The fact that Sean Connery is inserted into many location scenes via traveling matte means that much of the film is either second unit filming or high-quality green screen work done from so-so storyboards. Colors are much richer and detail a big improvement from earlier DVDs, and scratches and other flaws in the special effects have been cleaned up where possible. And John Barry's score has always appealed, with its romantic main theme and staccato action cues.
The extras all hail from MGM's much-lauded DVD special editions of twelve years ago. Featurettes include pieces on Maurice Binder's silhouetted title sequences and the enormous set designed by Ken Adam. The long-form documentary Inside You Only Live Twice suffers from an absence of interviews with the Japanese cast. The lack of any Japanese input for this very Japanese movie doesn't put the docu in the best light. There is also no explanation for why the entire production is so condescending to the Japanese culture. After telling us that accents and English-language proficiency were so crucial to the casting that a cast member considered suicide, the docu doesn't acknowledge that the Japanese nationals were all crudely dubbed into English anyway. Heck, sloppy wild lines are edited in everywhere. Veddy British actor Alexander Knox is dubbed to sound like an American! Beautiful Mie Hama and playful Akiko Wakabayashi are familiar from Kaiju movies like King Kong versus Godzilla and Uchudai Dogora and are at least as important as German looker Karin Dor.
You Only Live Twice is an entertaining, spectacular but misshapen Bond extravaganza that confirms its producers' wrong turn toward self-mockery. Connery quit over the dullness of the role, typecasting issues and the impossibility of carrying on a private life amid the onslaught of publicity-fed fan hysteria -- which almost made it impossible for him to move about in public while filming Twice. Deprived of Connery, the producers' next effort On Her Majesty's Secret Service brought Bond back in an engaging Galahad-type tale. Unfortunately, as we all know, the franchise eventually became comedies starring Roger Moore, leaving Ian Fleming's intriguing Bond concept far, far behind.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
You Only Live Twice rates:
Another discrepancy to note, between You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, is the device Bond uses to open Osato's safe. In Twice it conveniently fit in his pocket. In Majesty's it became contained in a large Valise which had to be delivered by a crane.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.