1967, USA/UK, Lewis Gilbert
The huge financial success of Thunderball meant that the James Bond franchise had to go some if it was to keep the initiative. Several imitation series were now appearing, such as the Matt Helm and Flint films, and Bond was no longer the novelty that he was back in the first half of the decade. You Only Live Twice is obviously a conscious effort to outdo the imitators in terms of sheer scale. The trend of the settings and gadgets becoming more important than the plot was also continued, with the storyline being little more than a peg upon which to hang some great set-pieces. Sean Connery returns for his fifth appearance as Bond, and seems to be merely going through the motions without showing much commitment to the character. It is well known that he disliked having to do the films by this point in his career, and after finishing this one he decided to drop out of the follow-up, only returning in 1971 in return for a sizeable fee.
You Only Live Twice shares little with the Ian Fleming novel apart from the basic setting and the ultimate confrontation with Blofeld. Instead of the rather downbeat travelogue of the original novel, we have a classic pseudo-SF setup of the arch villain and chief of SPECTRE, Blofeld, stealing space craft from the major powers in order to provoke a third world war. Why he’s doing this remains a little vague, something about his organisation’s desire for chaos, although it’s fair to assume that his Japanese backers have some interest in dominating what’s left of the world once the US and USSR have blown each other to pieces. Why they would decide to co-operate with Blofeld, who has hardly proved himself to be a model of loyalty, is another matter entirely.
Bond is apparently killed in Japan in the opening pre-credits scene, following a splendid bit of totally unconvincing model work in outer space, so that he can discover the truth behind the disappearance of superpower space vehicles. He doesn’t go out of his way to be discreet, but eventually teams up with “Tiger” Tanaka (Tamba), head of the Japanese secret service and his loyal woman agent, Aki (Wakabayashi). They discover that the huge Osata company is involved in the mystery, and that a large extinct volcano is somehow connected to the disappearances.
There are some great moments in You Only Live Twice, enough to divert attention from the fact that not a great deal of consequence happens for the first hour. There’s lots of sound and fury, but precious little significance, with set-pieces wildly extended until its time for Bond to go somewhere else, get attacked and see off his opponents while discovering a vital bit of information that tells him where to go next. Luckily, the set-pieces are often very exciting, and well handled - the Little Nelly gyrocopter chase is a classic of the action genre, and the shipyard fight is pretty good as well. I can’t help thinking, though, that the fight between Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love was just as exciting and had a gritty authenticity that is miles away from the elegant choreography on view here.
What really does take the breath away, however, is the awesome finale set in the extinct volcano. It’s not so much the action, good as that is, but the scale and ambition of Ken Adam’s set. At the time, it was claimed that it was the largest set ever built, and even by the high standards of Adam’s work on the Bond series, it really does look marvellous; a great work of art in itself. Admittedly, nothing very surprising happens within the set, apart from some fairly conventional confinement/escape set-ups and a rather good Ninja raid at the end, but it’s still makes the film far more interesting than it might be otherwise. Freddie Young’s lighting is also brilliant, here and throughout the movie.
As I said earlier, Connery looks rather bored and plays the whole “Bond goes Japanese” scene for unsuitably broad comedy. But the Japanese cast is splendid - Tetsuro Tamba is one of the best sidekicks that Bond has ever had, and Akiko Wakabayashi looks irresistable throughout - and once Donald Pleasance arrives he lifts the whole film. First seen stroking the inevitable cat, we finally get to see Blofeld’s face, complete with scar and mad, staring eyes. Pleasance is brilliant, playing the role for all he’s worth, and the image of Blofeld created here has become iconic - and also served as the inspiration for the wonderful Dr Evil in the Austin Powers films.
The script by Roald Dahl is generally fine and sometimes inspired. He writes great, offbeat dialogue, and manages to keep the film going from one event to the next without making the lack of structure too obvious. Lewis Gilbert, making his first Bond movie, seems a little uncertain in places, and obviously relies very heavily on the second unit work of Peter Hunt. His work on 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me is obviously more confident and relaxed, possibly because that film simply repeats most of the plot of YOLT. Technically, the film is impeccable, and John Barry provides another of his excellent music scores. This is one of his best scores for the Bond series, in my opinion, and is only flawed by the theme song, which I don’t like very much.
You Only Live Twice is not the best in the Bond series, although some fans have claimed otherwise, and it pales in comparison to From Russia With Love or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But it is well mounted and enjoyable, and has plenty to recommend it.