Tuesday, March 27, 2012

You Only Live Twice [1967]

About two months after the release of the spoof Casino Royale -- and about a year and a half after the titanic success of the previous film in the series, Thunderball -- the fifth 007 adventure starring Sean Connery hit movie screens around the world.

In some ways, the Bond phenomenon had peaked with Thunderball; that film's sheer size and scope were so large, and its reception so massive, that to do anything other than try to top it must have seemed like lunacy.

As a result, the Bond producers did virtually everything they could think of to make sure that topping Thunderball was exactly what happened.


Did it work?

In my opinion, it definitely did NOT work.  A lot of Bond fans hold this film near and dear, but I am not one of them; for me, this is the point at which the series began its slide into mediocrity.

That's not to say there isn't plenty here to enjoy, though, so let's take a trip to the Far East and see how the Double-0 Rating System stands the journey.

(1)  Bond ... James Bond

It was fairly public knowledge that Connery didn't much want to return to the series for the fifth installment.  The incredible Beatles-like reception that both Goldfinger and Thunderball had prompted brought Connery a great deal of unwanted attention from his adoring fans (some of them decidedly TOO-adoring).  He was finally tempted back for the role, but it was somewhat against his better instincts.
 


Sadly, that antipathy toward the role shows.  Connery frequently seems bored and distracted during You Only Live Twice, and shows all too little of the wit, charm, and toughness that made him so dynamic in the role during his first four films as 007.  There are several reasons this could be the case: perhaps Connery simply wanted to get the project over with; or perhaps director Lewis Gilbert was simply not as adept at coaching him as were Terence Young and Guy Hamilton; or it might even have been that Connery knew the screenplay was ridiculous, and reacted accordingly.

Whatever the case, Connery is simply not as good here as he was in the previous Bond films.  Case in point: his near-complete non-reaction to the tripping of the alarms in Osato's office.  Previously, Connery might have shown some alarm of his own, and helped to give the scene some tension and human interest as a result; instead, he plays it without any concern at all, and the scene seems lesser for it.

Still, this IS Sean Connery, and he can exude cool seemingly without even trying ... and just because that seems to have been exactly what happened in this film, that doesn't mean he isn't still fun to watch.  Points awarded: 004/007

(2)  SPECTRE

Main Villain:  I'm about to commit what many Bond fans may see as being heretical.  Here goes: Donald Pleasence as Blofeld is awful.  Awful.  He is completely free of menace, of charisma, of charm, of anything interesting.  Blofeld, you may recall, orchestrated the events of both From Russia With Love and Thunderball (and, by implication, Dr. No), and it simply doesn't seem credible that such a bland, puny figure as Pleasence strikes in this movie could have built an organization capable of mounting those operations.  I don't buy it.


A lot of this is the fault of the screenplay, which gives Blofeld nothing interesting to do.  He has no real characteristics, apart from having a cat, a scar, and a Mao suit.  Would the vast numbers of henchmen required to operate SPECTRE actually follow this man?  I don't see it.  Sure, he's got a pool full of piranha that he can dunk them in if they get out of hand, but wouldn't that just make his office incredibly smelly?

Pleasence is on shaky ground right off the bat.  Armed with the deep, resonant voice of Eric Pohlmann, Blofeld had been a highly memorable -- if sparingly used -- part of the previous films in the series.  Pleasence tries to match Pohlmann's speech patterns, but his voice has none of the basso profundo that we've heard before, and as a result, it feels a bit as if one of Blofeld's kids is sitting in his chair while he's away, pretending to be Daddy for a while.

Pleasence's Blofeld is sometimes held up as one of the series' better villains.  I disagree vehemently; I think he's perhaps one of the worst.  The look of the character is somewhat iconic, true, but I don't think that counts for much in the long run.  Points awarded (Main Villain): 002/007

Henchmen:  I'm not impressed by Pleasence as Blofeld, nor am I particularly impressed by his henchmen.
 


The main one, I suppose, is Helga Brandt, played by Karin Dor.  Brandt is -- right down to the long, luscious red hair -- a complete ripoff of Fiona from Thunderball.  Sadly, Dor is not as interesting a screen presence as was Luciana Paluzzi, and on top of that, Brandt is poorly-written compared to Fiona Volpe.  For example: she decides to kill Bond, so she tries to do so by ... taking him up in an airplane, trapping his arms beneath a piece of wood, and then parachuting out of it, leaving him to die in the crash.  That's just stupid.  Instead of wasting one bullet, you waste an entire airplane?!?  Plus, doesn't your boss have access to piranha?  Shoot Bond, dump the body in with the piranha; problem solved.

 

Teru Shimada plays Mr. Osato.  He's not bad; he exudes at least a modicum of the type of power, affability, and menace that make for good Bond villains.  But the screenplay gives him, too, nothing to do, and so he ends up being a moderately well-portrayed nonentity.

My favorite henchman in the movie is Peter Fanene Maivia, playing Osato's unnamed driver.  He's a big, burly Asian man, which to my gaijin eyes means he reminds me of Oddjob.  Maivia gives it his all, but he's a glorified stuntman in this movie, and he doesn't have the character quirks of an Oddjob to make him stand out.


Points awarded (Henchmen): 003/007

Total points awarded (SPECTRE): 002.5/007

(3)  The Bond Girls

Main Bond Girl:  Since she's the one Bond ends up "marrying," I suppose you have to say that Kissy Suzuki, played by the lovely Mie Hama, is the film's primary Bond girl.

She's one of the least-interesting ones, too: a complete non-entity of a character.  She seems to exist for virtually no reason other than to run around in a bikini, and while my dingus is okay with that, my brain isn't.  Points awarded (Main Bond Girl): 002/007

Secondary Bond Girls:  Previous films in the series are frequently labelled as being highly sexist in nature (there are scenes in all of them except for From Russia With Love that have been referred to as rape scenes, or rape fantasies at best).  I take issue with those arguments, but there is simply no denying that You Only Live Twice is practically drowning in misogyny.  The scene at Tanaka's bathhouse is one of the most tasteless in the entire series, and the statements that Japanese culture is one in which women exist to serve men are not only sexist, but also possibly racist.

 

Leaving that aside, the secondary Bond girls are scarcely more interesting than Kissy Suzuki is.  Akiko Wakabayashi plays Aki, a secret agent who dupes Bond for no good reason, and then fucks him for no good reason, and then dies for no good reason.  Wakabayashi is pretty, but -- at least in English -- she isn't a very good actress.


We've already talked about Karin Dor as Helga Brandt; there's nothing much more to say about her here.




The only other Bond girl of note is Tsai Chin, playing Ling, a duplicitous (?) Chinese girl who plays a part in Bond's pre-credits "death."  She doesn't make much of an impression, apart from uttering one of the worst lines of dialogue in the entire series ("Darling ... I give you very best duck!").


Points awarded (Secondary Bond Girls): 001/007

Total points awarded (Bond Girls): 001.5/007

(4)  "Oh, James..."

Action/StuntsYou Only Live Twice is a bit of a mixed-bag in the action department.  There is some good stuff, and some bad (he said, apparently feeling his readers would have no idea how to decode the meaning of the phrase "mixed bag" -- sheesh...).  The fight fight between Bond and Osato's driver is fine: high-energy, not overly silly, with plenty of little bits of business (and big ones, such as the couch gag) to keep it interesting.  The scene in which Bond slides down a trapdoor into Tanaka's office is deeply stupid, but it's executed pretty well, and ends up being fun because of that.  There's a car chase that is poorly executed ... until a helicopter shows up and uses a big magnet to drop the enemy car into the ocean.  That's dumb as hell, but groovy on a comic-book level.

A big fight scene at a loading dock doesn't work at all; it's poorly directed, and poorly choreographed, and has virtually none of the energy that a big setpiece like that ought to have.



On the other hand, all of the ninja training scenes are cool, as is the big, iconic ninja assault at the end of the movie ... although the fact that they are ninjas ends up being 100% irrelevant to the story.

I also like the Little Nellie scene quite a lot.  As a whole, this movie isn't particularly distinguished in terms of its action, but more of it works than doesn't.

Points awarded (Action/Stunts): 004/007

Editing:  Peter Hunt's final editing job for the Bond series is a competent affair, one that keeps the film movie at an admirable pace.  I suspect that without Hunt at the splicer, the movie would have been even more tedious than it already is, which probably makes him -- along with John Barry -- one of the film's VIPs.  There's no inspiration here, though; perhaps Hunt, like Connery, was nonplussed by the unexceptional material.  There is a decent amount of stock footage, most of which is blended in pretty well with the production footage; I guess that counts for something.  Points awarded (Editing): 004/007

Costumes/Makeup:  Helga's black dress is lovely, as are virtually all of the Japanese costumes (especially Kissy's skimpy bikini), so let's give the costuming department some credit.


However ... is Sean Connery actually supposed to look Japanese?  In terms of the story, he obviously is.  In actuality, though, he looks about as Japanese as Barack Obama does, which is to say not very.  I was well into my twenties before I even figured out that that was what was going on in the movie; a friend had to point it out.

does this man look Japanese?


It's one of the worst makeup jobs in the history of Hollywood, and while making Sean Connery look Asian was a tall, tall order, it would have been better not to try than to fail this utterly.  Four points for the costumes, zero for the makeup; points awarded (Costumes/Makeup): 002/007
 


Locations:  As you may have noticed, I've been pretty hard on this movie so far, and for what I feel are good reasons.  I don't like the movie much, compared to many of the other films in the series.  However, you'll not catch me failing to give credit where I feel credit is due, and I've got virtually nothing bad to say about the locations we see in this movie.  


The production made excellent use of Japan, and may even have helped to rehabilitate its image in American eyes (if '60s-centric Mad Men is to be believed, a lot of older Americans still despised the country at this point in history).  


The sumo-wrestling scene doesn't make a ton of sense plotwise, but it makes for outstanding production value.  The ninja academy looks great; the fishing village looks great; the countryside during the Little Nellie scene looks great.  Location-wise, this one is a success.  Points awarded (Locations): 006/007

Total points awarded ("Oh, James..."): 004/007

(5)  Q Branch

Bond's Allies:  You get your standard scenes with M and Moneypenny, and the change in venue -- from MI6 headquarters in London to a submarine -- is kinda cool.  Also, Q shows up in Japan wearing short pants, much to Bond's chagrin.  These are all fun scenes, and it's valuable to have them as a part of the series, but by this point it is clear that they are contributing nothing vital.


Bond's most important allies in the film are the ones within the Japanese secret service, tops among them being Tiger Tanaka, played by Tetsuro Tamba.  Tamba is great, despite being saddled with having to inculcate Bond into the misogynist ways of the Land of the Rising Sun. I would have liked to see Tanaka show up again in the series at some point.  Perhaps the new producers could hire Ken Watanabe for the role...?

Also bearing mention, I suppose, is the character of Henderson, a British agent who has been living in Japan for years.  He's not much of a character, but he's played by Charles Gray, a smarmy actor who is best known for his role as the narrator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I don't much care for Gray here, and I care for him even less when he turns up -- playing a different character -- in Diamonds Are Forever a couple of films down the line.

Points awarded (Bond's Allies): 004/007

Direction:  This is a bad movie, but should Lewis Gilbert get all of the blame for that?  Certainly not.  I don't think he's particularly good with actors -- his work on Alfie notwithstanding -- but he shoots things competently, and occasionally does something memorable: Aki leading Bond down the corridor toward the trapdoor comes off quite well, and I love the use of shadows on the ground during the Little Nellie sequence as a way of alerting us to the fact that Bond is being pursued.  Points awarded (Direction): 003/007

CinematographyYou Only Live Twice was filmed by Freddie Young, who had won an Oscar for his work two years previously on Doctor Zhivago.  He'd won another before that for filming a little movie called Lawrence of Arabia, and would win yet another several years hence for his work on Ryan's Daughter.  No slouch, that Freddie Young.  His three Oscar wins were for movies directed by the legendary David Lean, and while Lewis Gilbert was clearly no David Lean, that didn't prevent Young from doing top-notch work on You Only Live Twice.  Some of the studio-bound scenes feel a wee bit flat, but for the most part, this is a lovely film, one that takes beautifully-photographed advantage of the Japanese setting.
 


Points awarded (Cinematography): 006/007

Art Direction:  Say what you want about how ridiculous this movie may be, but one thing in undeniable: production designer Ken Adam did gloriously good work on You Only Live Twice.  Blofeld's lair, housed as it is inside an inactive volcano, may be silly in logical terms, but it also looks like a dream brought to life.  It's one of the grandest sets ever achieved on film, as far as I'm concerned; the fact that I wish it was in service of a better film is irrelevant.  The thing has a functional mini-monorail, fer Chrissakes!
 


Apart from that, the rest of the film looks pretty great, too: from M's submarine stateroom to Tiger Tanaka's office to the Japanese bathhouse to the Osato Chemicals sets, Adam did what may well have been career-best work here.  


Points awarded (Art Direction): 007/007

Special Effects:  Effects guru John Stears had won an Oscar for his work on Thunderball, and he comes close to topping it here.  The outer-space effects are quite good, as is virtually everything that takes place in Blofeld's volcano lair (especially the landing sequences within them).  Some of the lava effects are dodgy, as are a few exploding-helicopter shots; and there is a board Connery has to break in order to escape an airplane that is visibly pre-broken, as well.  However, those carps shouldn't detract much from the fact that these were, for their day, cutting-edge effects.  Inexplicably, Stears was not even nominated for the Oscar, which he ought to have won for the second time.  (The Oscars also failed to nominated Ken Adam's glorious sets, opting instead to reward Camelot.)  Points awarded (Special Effects): 006/007

Gadgets:  The most notable gadget in You Only Live Twice is probably Little Nellie, the autogyro that Q brings to Bond.  The damned thing actually worked, and was piloted by Ken Wallis, its creator!  As far as gadgets go, that one is awfully memorable.
 


You've also got to love -- despite its goofiness -- the helicopter with the giant magnet, which the Japanese secret service apparently uses to drop enemy cars into the ocean.  It's dumb as a sack of catnip, but lovably so.

 

Another notable gadget is the exploding cigarette that Bond employs at a crucial moment while a captive of Blofeld.  It isn't one of Blofeld's better moments, permitting Bond that final smoke. 

Points awarded (Gadgets): 006/007

Opening Credits:  Maurice Binder returned for his third go-round as main titles designer, and this is one of his better efforts for the series.  The serenity of Japanese culture is juxtaposed with the chaos of the lava imagery, and that juxtaposition is way more complex and compelling than just about anything in the actual movie itself.  





Speaking of compelling, you can quite clearly see the nipples of some of the models; in silhouette, granted, but there they are.  How did that get past the censors of the day?  Points awarded (Opening Titles): 006/007

Total points awarded (Q Branch):  005.43/007

(6)  Mission Briefing

I've got nineteen things to say about this movie's screenplay, which was written by one of my all-time favorite authors, Roald Dahl:

  • Bond's "death" during the pre-credits sequence is pointless, given that everyone for the rest of the film immediately recognizes him.
  • Henderson making Bond's drink "stirred, not shaken" is funny in a meta kind of way, but this, too, is fundamentally silly.  If a low-level agent like Henderson is familiar enough with Bond's drinking habits that he get could even that close to knowing how to prepare a martini for him, then Bond must be the world's all-time least-secret secret agent.  I get that this is just a joke, one designed to get a chuckle out of people who have seen the other films.  However, this may mark the very moment in which the Bond films turned into comedies -- which, with the exceptions of On Her Majesty's Secret Service and (arguably) For Your Eyes Only, they would remain for the next twenty years.
  • If Osato is knowledgeable enough to know that he needs to have Henderson killed before he can tell Bond some crucial info, why not also have Bond killed during that scene?
  • Why doesn't Aki simply tell Bond that she's taking him to see Tiger Tanaka?  It seems a lot more efficient to simply say, "Hi there, I work for the Japanese version of M, to whom I am currently transporting you" than to kidnap the guy.  That's just dumb.
  • Why don't the Japanese agents speak more Japanese?
  • What, exactly, is so important about the photo of the Ning Po that Osato keeps the photo in a safe?  I don't understand, and continue to not understand once the photo is obtained.
  • Why does Osato not have Bond killed before he gets outside, where he is more easily rescuable?
  • When Bond is watching the footage of the car being dropped in the ocean, where is that footage coming from?  Do the Japanese have a fleet of skyborne security cameras we aren't privy to?  Stupid.
  • Nobody at the Kobe docks has a gun that they can use to shoot Bond?  Not a single one of them?  The henchman orientation program -- pardon the pun -- really needs some serious revamping.  Blofeld is perhaps pouring too much energy into piranhas, and too little into training.
  • Why does Helga fuck Bond?  Why not just kill him then and there?  Why go to the bother of playing along with him and then wasting an entire airplane?  Will she at least get a write-up for being that careless with SPECTRE property?  Stupid.
  • Bond turning Japanese is retarded beyond belief.  They don't even actually shave his chest!  WORST ... PLAN ... EVER!
  • Aki's poisoning is also pretty lame.  You're telling me that SPECTRE is capable of sending an assassin INTO A NINJA TRAINING ACADEMY?!?  If this is the case, the assassin should have just shot him in the head.  That makes a lot more sense than dribbling some poison down a string.  Idiots.
  • Bond's ninja training doesn't amount to much, since he puts exactly 0% of it to use.  He does, of course, receive another assassination attempt.  I find it hard to put any credence in the idea that SPECTRE can continually infiltrate ninja schools -- which, one must assume, are difficult to get accepted into -- and yet can't seem to do much of anything else right.
  • Why is it Bond who has to get married and become a fisherman?  Wouldn't it make more sense for Tanaka or one of his underlings to take on that part of the mission? Maybe they just all wanted to humiliate him by telling him they were were totally going to make him look Japanese, chucklechucklechuckle...
  • Does SPECTRE just lose track of Bond?  Why don't they just have him killed while he's in the village.  Surely they didn't fall for that disguise...
  • Does it seems like Blofeld is spending a shitload of money based on a faulty assumption: that nobody will be able to figure out where these mysterious spacecrafts are landing?  That idea seems like it ought not to have gotten out of the committee stage...
  • Where, exactly, was Bond hiding those suction cups?
  • Do all of those Japanese SPECTRE employees live on-site?  If so, what must the overhead on an operation like that be?  Where is all this operating capital coming from?  Or, if they all commute in to work each day, does it seem likely that all of them would have successfully kept quiet about the operation all this time?  This is the problem with super-secret villainous organizations; they beg too many questions, and it's just hard to believe that a chump with a cat obsession and a gimpy eye could keep it all running.
  • Why doesn't Blofeld put a bullet in Bond's brain the second he sees him?  And for that matter, wait a second ... how does Blofeld even know it's Bond?!?  This is supposedly some Japanese dude!
This movie's screenplay is just a piece of shit.  Points awarded (Mission Briefing): 001/007

(7)  The Music

Title Song:  Nancy Sinatra wasn't a particularly gifted singer, but apart from that, it's hard to find much of anything bad to say about her version of "You Only Live Twice."  It remains a pretty fine song to this day, and with those lovely Maurice Binder opening titles playing, it's really quite lovely.  Points awarded (Title Song): 006/007


The Score:  This isn't one of my favorite Bond scores by John Barry, but it's certainly a good one.  The melody that forms the basis of the title song is lovely, and gets puts to good use throughout the movie.  The menacing outer-space music is one of Barry's better Bondian contributions, and his score during the fight-at-the-Kobe-docks sequence helps make an otherwise boring setpiece seem more exciting than it actually is.  Then, of course, the music during Bond's "wedding" to Kissy Suzuki is just gorgeous; possibly to a detrimental degree, even, considering that it lends an air of genuine romance to a scene that might be better-served with none.  Still, gorgeous music.  Points awarded (The Score): 005/007
 


 
Total points awarded (The Music): 005.5/007

 

Double-0 Rating for You Only Live Twice:  03.49/007

That's officially the worst score yet for a movie in the main series of films, which seems justified, considering that it's easily the worst film in the series as of 1967.  Many Bond fans will disagree with me on that score, and that's fine.  There are certainly things about You Only Live Twice that I love; I think it's a bad movie overall, but that doesn't mean I don't hold it close to my heart despite its perceived deficiencies.

The tally so far:

006.37 -- Thunderball
006.21 -- From Russia With Love
005.94 -- Goldfinger
004.69 -- Dr. No
003.49 -- You Only Live Twice
002.55 -- Climax!: Casino Royale
002.38 -- Casino Royale [1967]  
 
Speaking of holding movies close to my heart, You Only Blog Twice will return in ... On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

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