It is at times like this, pumpkins, when I doubt my ability to effectively serve you as a film critic.
Consider my little dilemma. On the one hand I fully recognize the fact that Lewis Gilbert’s 1967 film “You Only Live Twice” . . . the fifth film in the United Artists James Bond franchise . . . is not devastatingly immortal cinema.
On the other hand, however, I geek out whenever I see this film. I so totally geek out. This film makes me drown in geekosity. The little Bond franchise opening thingy with the gun barrel starts up and I’ve moved into an exclusive gated condo in downtown Geekville. That’s how bad I am about this film.
So . . . in case you’ve got Viennese potatoes in the oven and need to go check on them, we can just cut this short right now and conclude that Uncle Mikey Loves This Film (with a Few Perhaps Technical and Minor Reservations). Now you can go rush to the kitchen and check on the potatoes and perhaps pour yourself a Courvoisier. Otherwise, if you remain here, you’ll be exposed to the usual sort of ravings I tend to get into. We’ve been down this road before, pumpkins. You know the drill. Make the call.
(Cue “Final Jeopardy” theme music.)
Okay. Some of you are staying. Slow night on cable television, I guess.
Anyway, right off the bat I have to say that, on purely storytelling points alone, I personally prefer Ian Fleming’s original 1964 novel to the plot which we got in the movie, and I think it would’ve made an excellent movie on its own merits. Most of the story takes place in Japan, which gave Fleming a chance to demonstrate his definite strength as a describer of places.
Now of course you know (or should know) that the film adaptations of Fleming’s Bond novels took radically different paths from the original stories, and this was especially so in regards to the order of stories. “You Only Live Twice” the novel was the twelfth book in the series, and came right after “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (by comparison, the film made “You Only Live Twice” the fifth story, with “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” following). In the book Bond is trying to recover from the loss of his wife Tracy, and is sent on a special mission to Japan. While there he stumbles upon the location of Ernst Stavro Blofeld: the head of SPECTRE and the murderer of his wife. He is hiding under an assumed identity in a remote Japanese castle which has been surrounded by a literal “garden of death” (e.g. poisonous snakes, spiders and plants . . . not to mention pools filled with piranhas and volcanic mudholes scattered here and there). Bond spends the novel trying to assume a Japanese identity and make an attempt to penetrate the “garden of death” and kill Blofeld. Given his gift for description, Fleming makes the story into a rather spooky read.
Of course, by the time it was decided to turn the story into a film, the audience had already been through an armed raid on Fort Knox, stolen atom bombs, underwater battles, laser death traps and little old ladies with submachine guns. A lone mission against a castle guarded by deadly snakes, no matter how atmospherically it was written, just wasn’t going to cut it as far as producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were concerned. Bond needed to keep up with the times (and the franchise needed to keep up with the box office, rather than the tastes of the purists).
(Besides, how could Bond start out as a grieving widower when the story in which he’d been married was being made out of sequence?)
So . . . exit most of Fleming’s original premise and enter a screenplay by Roald Dahl. Here I really can’t fault Broccoli and Saltzman too much, and I credit them for at least not pulling some shmoe out of the Shmoe Pool. With the possible exception of Brian Clemens I really can’t think of anyone else at the time who possessed enough of a quirk to handle the near-madness of the Bond franchise. Dahl, after all, authored “The Witches”, “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, “James and the Giant Peach”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” as well as several rather eerie stories (“Royal Jelly” and “Lamb to the Slaughter” come immediately to mind) and episodes for groundbreaking television series such as “Way Out”.
Therefore we end up with a pre-credits sequence showing an American Gemini spacecraft being snatched out of orbit by an unknown ship which literally swallows the capsule, then vanishes out of sight. Accusations fly back and forth between the Americans and the Russians as to what has happened, and a British diplomat calmly goes “All right, all right, steady on. Don’t make a fuss. I love it. I’m having spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam and spam!”
So while the waitress goes “baked beans are off”, allow me to explain what’s really going on is that SPECTRE (with Red Chinese backing) is essentially prodding both the Americans and the Russians into nuclear war. Stealing this spaceship, stealing that spaceship . . .
(And here we have one of my Technical and Minor Reservations. If SPECTRE could develop a spaceship which could avoid detection, then wouldn’t it have been far easier to simply shoot down the American and Russian spaceships with ground to orbit missiles?)
(Of course, by this time in the Bond film franchise, Logic has pretty much flown out the window. In “Thunderball” for instance, Blofeld orders SPECTRE’s chief assassin to make a hit on a member that did a naughty. SPECTRE’s idea of a stealthy hit? Firing on the member with rockets launched from a motorcycle in broad daylight on a public road! What the . . . ?)
(But let’s be fair. The Bond films have never enjoyed a monopoly on this sort of thing. Putting it another way: someone please explain to me why it was easier to try and kill Cary Grant with a cropdusting biplane in “North by Northwest” when, logically, a person could’ve simply walked up Grant . . . “Mr. Kaplan?” “Yeah?” Bang!)
(Of course, if Hitchcock had done it that way, we all would’ve lost out on a really shmoozy movie poster, so I guess it balances out.)
Where was I?
Yeah. The British, in order to placate the Americans and the Russians, send James Bond to Japan to look into a clue that suggests the phantom rocket might have originated from somewhere in the area. Sean Connery was 37 when he strapped on the ol’ Walther for this performance and, by now, he had firmly grown into the role. The bad news, of course, was that Dahl’s screenplay didn’t give Connery much room for the sort of dry wit which he had peppered throughout the previous Bond films, playing more to the box office by depending on effects shots to carry the production. And while Lewis Gilbert is certainly a competent director (responsible for treats such as “Sink the Bismarck” and “Educating Rita”), his track record with the Bond franchise would make some people wonder if he actually had a grasp on the concept (along with “You Only Live Twice” he would go on to direct two of the worst films of the Roger Moore arc: “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker”). In “You Only Live Twice” Connery is trying his best, but he ends up reduced to essentially pushing buttons and ducking. Small wonder he initially said adios to the franchise after this film.
Bond had to work hand in hand (and occasionally some other body parts) with the Japanese Secret Service in this story. One of Fleming’s more interesting characters . . . Tiger Tanaka: head of the Japanese service . . . is played by Tetsuro Tamba. Tamba tries hard, but a lot of the back story which made him come alive in Fleming’s novel was tossed out the window. But here I’ll give Gilbert and Dahl some credit, the setup with the Japanese Secret Service is interesting enough (Bond wanders through Tokyo while kimono-clad female agents shadow his steps, quietly murmuring into hidden microphones. A nice touch worthy of a Fritz Lang thriller).
One of the female agents is Akiko Wakabayashi who plays Tanaka’s assistent Aki. Her acting career was short but certainly memorable for genre fans (she was the “Martian Princess” in “Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster”, and is the leading lady in Woody Allen’s over-the-top “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?”). I single her out because she manages to inject a rather noticeable (and much needed) personality into the film. Not that the lines she delivers would be worthy of Shakespeare-In-The-Park, but she becomes one of the few “Bond girls” who manages to portray a sense of genuine affection for Our Hero. The fact that she becomes the film’s obligatory “sacrificial lamb” makes her role worth all the attention the audience can give. In fact, on Bond Girl points alone, I give Wakabayashi far more than I do the “main heroine”: Mie Hama who plays Kissy Suzuki. Hama’s certainly pretty enough (matching Fleming’s description of the character), and manages a nice enough serenity in the neo-climactic “wedding scene”. But if the acting in “You Only Live Twice” was a breakfast menu, Hama would be the flatbread.
But wait! If you call now you can also have Karin Dor as a SPECTRE agent who Bond must seduce (must! Pity the working stiff!) in order to get the job done (nice work if you can get it, kids). Dor still enjoys a rather healthy film career (she presented a particularly tragic turn in Hitchcock’s otherwise generally unwatchable “Topaz” . . . and yeah, I’m really scoring points with the Hitchcock fans tonight), but compared to the liveliness of Wakabayashi, and the infrequent serenity of Hama, Dor comes off with all the excitement of Tupperware.
(Maybe Gilbert should’ve held out for Brian Clemens.)
Bur let’s go ahead and scoot to the meat and potatoes of the film. Ground Zero of the Geek-a-Thon. I’m talking about the face-to-face meeting between James Bond and Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Ever since “From Russia with Love” (with “Goldfinger” providing a time out), audiences had caught rather tantalizing glimpses of Blofeld. This time . . . this time Bond meets his arch nemesis in the flesh. And we get . . . we get . . .
Okay, give me a chance here for a moment. I love Donald Pleasance. I actually would’ve put him on my list of people to play Blofeld if we could’ve had him making the appearances in “From Russia with Love” and “Thunderball”. But it’s obvious Pleasance wasn’t Eric Pohlmann (whose voice brought a necessary sinister firmness to the role), and I feel a rather large ball was dropped here.
Give Pleasance his due, though, his entrance was low-key but effective. As Bond is brought under guard to Blofeld’s control room Pleasance peeks out from behind a protective bodyguard. And talk about first impressions! Pleasance’s face is anything but: carrying a weird scar which almost makes him look as if a bizarre monocle had been surgically implanted. This, accompanied by Pleasance’s trademark sense of menace, almost manages to make up for any shortcomings resulted from him having to take up the Chief Villain role.
Besides . . . WHAT A HIDEOUT!
If “You Only Live Twice” becomes memorable for anything else, then it does so for permanently raising the bar as far as super-villain lairs is concerned. No dusty cave in Bronson Canyon . . . no cheesy warehouse. No, pumpkins! Production designer Ken Adam was given four hundred thousand pounds to go wild, and the man delivered! Blofeld’s headquarters is a hollow volcano complete with cool accessories. Rocket launch pad . . . moving helipad . . . working monorail . . . hidden machine guns . . . armored control room . . . and (naturally) the obligatory self-destruct switch in case things go tits up.
In fact, for fans of Ken Adam’s work, “You Only Live Twice” is an orgasm. Besides the volcano base, Teru Shimada (playing a SPECTRE officer) has a power office any Forbes 500 CEO would sell junk bonds for. And Blofeld’s office is hardly a nondescript cubicle. More of Adam’s trademark low ceilings and sloping walls . . . not to mention a decorative pond chock-full of piranhas (perhaps a slight nod to Fleming’s original “garden of death” concept). Seriously, if I thought Heaven was designed by Ken Adam, I’d go to church more often. His work has earned him immortal placement in the Geek Pantheon of Beloved Figures.
Of course, if production work alone could carry a film, then “Cleopatra” would be more of a classic today (gee, are there any toes I haven’t stepped on here?). “You Only Live Twice” certainly doesn’t lack for excitement, but neither did the average episode of “Wide World of Sports”. With this film we were reaching the saturation point in the Bond franchise. Rockets, trap doors, hidden bases . . . small wonder one reviewer said watching the film was rather like watching an episode of “Thunderbirds” (an attitude perhaps unconsciously assisted by the inclusion of Cyril Shaps, one of Gerry Anderson’s voice actors, within the cast).
For instance: a key scene involves Bond having to patrol about in search of a possible launch site for the phantom rocket. For this scene he employs Little Nellie: an autogyro which is a sort of flying version of his Aston Martin. The scene starts up nicely enough (with Desmond Llewelyn delivering another delightful borderline fluster as Q). But once Bond is in the air, and becomes threatened by a squadron of enemy helicopters, what should have been a thrilling aerial combat sequence comes off as rather dull. For a James Bond film, dullness is an unforgiveable crime, and Gilbert (or Dahl) should’ve known that you can’t just throw gimmicks on the screen and expect them to carry the day. Even geeks have their limits.
Much more interesting (and exciting) is a scene where Bond is introduced to Tanaka’s ninja training school. All sorts of expertly demonstrated Japanese swordplay and related martial arts (in fact, some of Gilbert’s best direction in the film occurs during this sequence). The sequence is nicely (if tragically) balanced with the death scene of Wakabayashi’s character (who suffers one of the more poignant ends given to a Bond Girl . . . which admittedly is no small trick). A lot more pacing and scenic balance like this would’ve made the entire film far more memorable.
Am I forgetting anything?
Hmm hmm hmmmmm . . .
Music! I knew it. As usual John Barry provides yeoman work for the franchise (the Bond franchise owes quite a debt to Barry and Ken Adam), and it’s interesting to hear Bond soundtrack music with a definite Oriental air (and considerably better than the same motif Barry would later deliver for “The Man with the Golden Gun”). The theme song is delivered by Nancy Sinatra, and I nominate it as having the easiest lyrics to remember of any Bond movie theme, as well as being the easiest to sing overall.
(Okay, maybe I’m alone in this. But, as hard as I try, I can’t do Tom Jones or Paul McCartney.)
(Okay, I’ll admit to almost managing Tom Jones. But I have to keep more than a weather eye on the water temperature in the shower, and that’s all the information you’re getting out of me.)
(Takes a deep breath. Releases it.)
There we are. This hardly covers all the nit-picky faults I have with the film, but I think that, by now, I’ve managed to give all of you a general idea of my thoughts. As I said before, “You Only Live Twice” isn’t great cinema. And at times it doesn’t even qualify as great Bond. But it’s rather like the elephant in the living room: rather difficult to ignore. And, when it manages it, the movie is enormous fun. And, for a Bond geek, that’s considered a battle won.