00 Saturdays Week #9 – You Only Live Twice Movie Review

“Little Nellie got a hot reception.  Four big shots made improper advances toward her, but she defended her honor with great success.” – James Bond

Welcome back to 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure.  This is our weekly walk through the Bond films.  We continue in this ninth week with 1967’s You Only Live Twice.

You Only Live Twice is a lot of things to a lot of people.  To me, it is one of my very favorite films.  Not necessarily for the traditional reasons.  Is this movie truly better than, say, Thunderball or From Russia with Love?  No.  I can’t really say it is.  Where the former had a thrilling, large scale threat and the first sense of how large and dangerous SPECTRE is, the latter had a considerable amount of character growth for Bond himself.

Instead, I would tend to watch this movie more often than any of the other Connery films of the series because there’s an exotic beauty to the Japanese setting and the influence on the John Barry score (naturally, I have more to say about that next week) that keeps drawing me back.  Another thing about this movie that I love is that this film drops all pretense seen previously that this is realistic.  By god, the movie opens with a scene in space in which SPECTRE steals an orbiting American craft followed by James Bond faking his death.  It closes with a $1 Million set that is simulates SPECTRE’s secret volcano base where they plan to launch another spacecraft.

Say what you will about irradiating Ft. Knox or stealing a nuclear weapon and extorting the western powers for large sums of cash, but neither of the previous two movies dealt with space travel or volcano bases being invaded by a shitload of ninjas.

There’s a combination of garish western ideology of might-makes-right with quaint Japanese traditionalism that feels charming.  However, it is the larger, grander scale beats of SPECTRE’s largest attempt at terror that deals with all that dropped realism that the Bond films would not really come back from for about 20 years.

I know I seem to be focusing a great deal on spaceships and volcano bases, but that’s the tip of the iceberg of what this movie brings to the table.  The rest of the iceberg is made up of little things that add up to things that are uniquely Bond.  Again, Ken Adam’s design work is top notch.  We’ll talk more about that volcano, but not only is Bond in a world he has yet to go in his reality, but one we haven’t seen him in – Japan.  I love the spectacle of  how things work in Japan – at least in how it is often portrayed in media.  In this film, there’s a scene in which Japanese agent and Bond Girl du Jour, Aki, picks him up to save him from a shootout.  He doesn’t quite yet trust her, but she leads him on a chase that sends him down a booby trap into a slippery slide down to the office of Tiger Tanaka, the head of Japan’s Secret Service.  It’s a very quick sequence, but it feels so modern, so exciting.

Even though the first real espionage moment then takes place not in Tanaka’s modern office, but on his modern railway underground.   While Tanaka expects that M has the same thing in London, Bond confirms, but his reaction feels more like he hadn’t seen anything quite like this before.  This train leads Bond and Tanaka to a traditional bath house and massage parlor.  If the previous scenes felt new and exciting, the bath house feels slower, more comfortable, cozy, but most importantly, traditional.  It’s that blend we see in so many Godzilla movies in which the monsters are being drawn by nuclear power and fought against with hyper-realistic and modern weaponry, but there’s still that old-fashioned pagoda over there that Godzilla will crash into eventually.

Generally speaking, You Only Live Twice continues the Bond vs. SPECTRE story.  But this time, we get to see how much Bond gets under the organization’s skin.  They seem almost desperate and more willing to take a much bigger swing.  This time, they just plan to pit the USSR and United States against one another.  Britain is positive it is not the USSR who have been pulling shenanigans in space because all the evidence seems to point to the enemy space vessel coming from somewhere near or inside Japan.  Now, what is actually happening is that SPECTRE has been hired by a third major power (never actually stated, but it seems to heavily imply China) to start the war between Russia and America and that third power will basically rule what is left.

Of course Bond’s consistent meddling in the affairs of the organization leads to SPECTRE’s chief of mayhem, Ernst Stavro Blofeld to finally show himself to order Bond’s death directly.  Blofeld is played by Donald Pleasence.  He’s menacing and looks fantastic with a completely bald head and a messed up eye that just adds to his overall mystique and scary presence.  He does spend most of his time in this movie either speaking in harsh shouts to kill Bond now, or in more hushed, low key villainous dialog that drips with danger and threats.  It’s a great villain performance and it’s a shame that Pleasence wouldn’t return in any of the future appearances of Blofeld.  It’s a little bit of a detriment to those future movies that they couldn’t bring him back.

When it comes to the plan to get Bond closer to where SPECTRE’s volcano hideout is, one of the more insane ideas comes into play.  In order to make sure Bond is not immediately identified by SPECTRE, he’s taken to a small village where he is given prosthesis to disguise him as a Japanese fisherman.  And yes, you do see Sean Connery playing an Asian man in this movie.  While there is an actual in-story purpose for that, I cannot imagine anyone suggesting this idea today, but I digress.  Why I wanted to make sure that was mentioned is not for the potential cries of racism that some may apply to this film, but to illustrate one of the smaller ideas that doesn’t involve a volcano or a spaceship that illustrates the decisions from this point forward to try more and more strange ideas.

What is not a strange idea, but every bit of a Bond tradition through and through, are the girls.  You Only Live Twice features three girls.  Two on the good side and one redheaded, femme fatale SPECTRE assassin that is directly influenced by Thunderball.

Aki, Kissy Suzuki, and Helga Brandt

The previously mentioned Aki, played by Akiko Wakabayashi is the agent Bond first makes contact with when he arrives in Japan.  He finds her quite talented at the whole spy game and actually seems to be rather smitten by her to the point that they consistently sleep together and when he’s told to better fit in as that Japanese fisherman, he’ll be married to a Japanese woman, he wants that to be Aki.  Sadly, she’s an ill-fated Bond girl as she’s poisoned by an assassin at the ninja training school Tiger runs.  She’s replaced in the film by Kissy Suzuki, played by Mie Hama.  She is another agent of Tiger’s.  Bond, as you might suspect, Bond takes to her too.  When Kissy takes Bond to her home, she hilariously shuts him down for sleeping together when she points out where she will sleep and where he will sleep.

Finally, there is Karin Dor as Helga Brandt.  She is a SPECTRE assassin that is told to kill Bond, but decides to have her fun with him first, allowing him to escape.  This also leads to Blofeld killing her for her failure by dunking her into his pond full of piranha fish.  Her death by way of evil boss would be something seen time again in not just Bond films to come, but in lots of action movies trying to ape Bond’s style.

There are two main action sequences with several good chase scenes and fist fights sprinkled in between.  The first big action scene is with Bond and “Little Nellie” – one of the smallest functional helicopters ever built.  This scene features Little Nellie, delivered by Q of course, battling four SPECTRE helicopters and coming out victorious in really rather death defying stunt flying.  It was so dangerous that it did gravely injure a cameraman shooting it.  The cameraman lost a leg while filming the scene when a massive downdraft would cause the cameraman’s leg to be severed by another helicopter’s rotor.  However, what little could be filmed due to the dangers and the restrictions in shooting battles in Japan, Little Nellie is a huge star.  It’s such a memorable gadget, and really the only one in the film, it is on the film’s poster.

The other scene comes in the third act climax between Tanaka’s ninjas and SPECTRE.  It’s a full of dozens of stuntmen within a massive set simulating that volcano interior.  It was no less dangerous than the Little Nellie sequences to shoot as the action sequence begins with the commandos scaling down quickly from the opening of the crater.  In order to do the descent so quickly, they couldn’t use ropes, but fire hoses instead.  One of the first stuntmen to descend landed so fast and hard that he shattered both of his ankles.

To lead this production, producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman brought in Lewis Gilbert.  Gilbert was the director of the popular Michael Caine film Alfie.  He didn’t want to do it at first, but was eventually coaxed to take on the job.  One of the things that did help in Gilbert taking the job was Broccoli agreeing to his proviso that Academy Award winning cinematographer Freddie Young be hired to shoot the film.  It’s obvious this was a wonderful choice as Gilbert would bring some new and exciting shots of Bond eluding and fighting through goons shot from above a building in a helicopter and Young would succeed in properly lighting and using that marvelous Ken Adam volcano set.  Add to that, an interesting choice to bring short story writer Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) to write the screenplay when he was hardly tested as a screenwriter worked out.  It starts with a marvelous opening scene with the space stuff and then Bond getting “killed” but then settles into an exciting and really pretty film despite some of the trials and tribulations it took to bring the film to screen.

There would be one casualty of the experience, though.  Sean Connery’s desire to continue being Bond faded after making Thunderball.  His contract was set to expire in 1967 and the parties involved couldn’t come to a reasonable solution.  Connery would express his desire to leave while on his way to Japan for filming to begin.  While he would later come back, it’s clear he is a little tired of the role even in this film.  He was the biggest star in the world at the time of filming You Only Live Twice.  That meant he couldn’t really go anywhere and maintain privacy.  Some thought he was nuts to leave because he would still be able to do whatever he wanted while Bond, and it did prove to be the case that after Bond, Connery would struggle to find meaningful and appreciated work for many years.

It’s unfortunate that his relationship with the producers deteriorated so quickly too as it led to a sour taste in everyone’s mouths for decades.  As a fan, and a fan of this movie in particular, it’s especially sad because this movie is so lovely and I believe not quite as appreciated for how well made it is as it really should be.

Join me next week for a look at the music of You Only Live Twice.  In two weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the sixth Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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