30 June 2012

IN FOR A PENNY, IN FOR A BOND

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Written by Roald Dahl
Premiered 12 June, 1967

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
You Only Live Twice boasts one of the few openers that directly ties in to the movie about to follow, but that's not what stands out, not to me. For me, the main importance of the fifth Eon Productions Bond movie is that it's the one where the franchise became out-and-out ridiculous, after two largely real-ish adventures and two somewhat more flamboyant and fantastic but still essentially plausible movies. And that gets started pretty much right from the the start, as we see a U.S. two-man space vessel in the fictitious Jupiter Program get captured by a bigger space capsule that opens up like a giant metal space whale to snap it up, before vanishing off NASA's radar. This is immaculately dumb, with visual effects that are obviously every bit as costly as they are unconvincing, and the overall tone is unmistakably, "Do you believe this just happened? No, of course not. But do you care? Damn right, you don't care."

And as one who much prefers the Bond films when they are at their most ridiculous - a conversation that we'll be sure to have many times throughout the Roger Moore years, when we get to them - I find all of this utterly entrancing.

So entrancing, indeed, that when we switch gears to the next scene - yes, still before the credits - it lets some of the steam out: the U.S. thinks the Soviet Union is responsible, the Soviet Union claims to have no idea, and the U.K. happens to agree that, whatever is going on, the Russians aren't to blame (one of the tiny little moments you find scattered around the franchise where some attempt at demonstrating British independence of American leadership in the Cold War; by and large Bond eschews these touches, though, it's not like Cubby Broccoli wanted to adapt John Le Carré novels, or he'd have done so). And it's all very talky, but the British representative at whatever summit we're watching has some good news for all of us: MI6's man in Hong Kong is on the case. And of course that man is James Bond, in Sean Connery's fifth and last consecutive spin with the character, before taking a one-film vacation. No surprise, Bond is rubbing up against a pretty girl (Tsai Chin); the surprise is that as soon as he turns his back, she calls in goons who shoot him dead with machine guns. The local British authorities arrive just in time to pronounce him dead, as he bleeds out all over the bed. Okay, so none of us actually believe Bond is dead - check the title - but it's still a pretty gread "duh-duh-duh!" moment, and I will confess to all of you that this whole sequence, absent its necessary but annoying exposition belch, appeals to me far, far more, for wholly superficial reasons, than it has any reason to. My favorite among the Connery films.

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Rating: 4.5 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
So far we've had two jazzy instrumental pieces with plenty of sex and sass, and two pop/jazz hybrids sung by people who give the impression that they only expect to get paid if they manage to burst a lung on the final note. For number five, then, we get... a ballad. And not even a sultry, raunchy ballad like some of the ones to follow - just a moony, simpering ballad with music by John Barry and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, performed by Nancy Sinatra (never a favorite of mine), who can't do much but give in to sudsy romantic tosh like "Love is a stranger who beckons you on / Don't think of the danger when the stranger is gone". I don't mind saying, I always get pretty damned antsy before this endlessly short little tunelet wraps up. A real pity: Barry's work scoring the movie is extraordinary, a strong candidate for best overall Bond soundtrack ever, up to and including his reprises of this very song. But gad, it is dull and limp.

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Rating: 2 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
A distressing mixed bag. Maurice Binder's very first gesture is enough to convince you that he's about to whip out the best title sequence yet: Bond's blood all over the sheets dissolves into a bright red graphic element that is vaguely Asian in no particular way, suggesting spreading blood and a fan in equal measure. It slowly zooms towards the viewer, and then- that's just it. There's no "then". As will shortly become quite obvious, Binder has one idea that he is desperately in love with here, which is to zoom in and out with various compositional elements: that fan-thing, in different colors, or still images of Japanese women looking askance at us, or half-silhouttes of naked girls. Zoom in, zoom out, zoom in. It's the best and worst possible accompaniment to that song: just as rote and boring, and it's kind of hypnotising in an irritating, sleep-inducing way. And yet, interspersed with all of the one-note shuffling of still images, there are background shots of lava flows that are nothing short of gorgeous, and which attain a still different kind of abstract beauty from the things in front of them zooming in and out. Not enough to keep the thing from being on the wrong side of average, but certainly, it gives it a certain flair.

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Rating: 2.5 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
1964's You Only Live Twice is the first Bond movie adapted from a novel written by Ian Fleming during the film franchise's existence; that novel was in turn the last one published during the author's lifetime, and I am tempted to say that it is my favorite - actually, that's probably not true at all, there's far too much bland racist disparagement of the Japanese for that to be the case (even by the racially nightmarish standards of the Bond franchise, YOLT stands out); but what it does with Bond himself is certainly rather fascinating stuff, that couldn't be duplicated in the movie on account of it having a great deal to do with the situation at the end of the previous novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which would turn out to be the next movie, as promised in the end credits here (a promise also made in Thunderball during its initial run, but events dictated otherwise). It would have been better for both films if the order had been switched, but there's no helping it 45 years later.

In the event, You Only Live Twice would strike a bold new direction for the franchise, on account of being the first Bond movie that leaves very, very little of its source novel intact. Author Roald Dahl - aye, the noted children's author, a friend of Fleming's - was obliged to invent most of the plot out of whole cloth simply in order to have a plot, out of the fogginess of the mood- and location-driven book. And thus it is chiefly thanks to Dahl that the franchise ended up going to those absurd, ridiculous extremes I was talking about before, for after all, Dahl was no stranger to the absurd and ridiculous in his prose, though the form that his unique style took when filtered through the Bond universe isn't necessarily recognisable.

Anyway, here's what we've got: Bond faked his own death in order to throw SPECTRE of his track - for MI6 believes that the international terror group is behind all of this space mayhem - and freeing him up to explore Tokyo unmolested. When his first contact, British agent Henderson (Charles Gray), ends up dead minutes after they meet up, Agent 007 is forced into a series of desperation moves that lead him to Japanese secret agent "Tiger" Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), and his lovely aide Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi). Together, the three quickly track things back to Japanese industrial concern Osato Chemicals, and back from there to an isolated island that is, for unknown but fairly obvious reasons, receiving shipments of rocket fuel. In order to get Bond closer to this island, Takata arranges to have the British spy disguised as a Japanese fisherman, newly married to local girl - and Takata spy - Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). Bond and Kissy are able to infiltrate the SPECTRE lair hidden inside a dormant volcano, there to learn that SPECTRE's leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance), has been orchestrating the whole scheme in order to trick the U.S. into declaring war on the Soviet Union, a job he performs at the request of a third party (China, presumably; it's not made clear) for a staggering sum of money. Bond naturally foils this plot at the last instant, but not before Blofeld makes a dramatic escape.

It lacks elegance, certainly. And the story slows down greatly right after it hits the one-hour mark (this movie comes in a few minutes under two hours, the shortest Bond movie for decades into the future), and doesn't pick up again for a solid quarter of an hour. But still, I admire the crazy bigness of it, truly the most ambitious scheme we ever see SPECTRE attempt. Later Bond films would get loopier and even more over the top in their excessive villainy, but frequently lapse into outright caricature: You Only Live Twice strikes a careful balance between the insane and the credible that only occasionally tops towards the former.

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Rating: 4 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
Here he is, the grand leader of all evil in the world of the Connery-era Bond films, Ernst Stavro Blofeld revealed as more than just a hand petting a white cat. And out of the several actors who have played him - all of them good - Donald Pleasance's interpretation is my favorite in a walk; he may even be my single favorite Bond villain, though revisiting some of the ones I haven't seen in a while could change that. Regardless, Pleasance's approach to the character is a fascinating and compelling one: his Blofeld is irritable and amoral, he speaks in an accent that cannot be placed on a map, but suggests a Chris Nolanesque, darker & edgier take on Elmer Fudd; he is half psychopath and half ruthless bureaucrat; and he has an ecstatically weird way of petting his cat's head.

The overall impression is of a true, merciless bastard, colorful without being a cartoon, crackling with high-strung energy that causes rather nasty damage to whomever he touches. Other Bond villains are more credible threatening to the viewer; none is more of a frightening, palpably deranged menace. If nothing else, his delivery of the line "Kill Bond! Now!" in a strangled, shrill shriek, is one of the most disturbingly vicious things that has ever been done by any bad guy in this whole franchise.

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Rating: 5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
From the sublime to the... well, to the simply flat and bland, honestly. Convention holds that the "actual" Bond Girl in this picture is Kissy Suzuki, who has almost no screentime and barely any lines; she is a considerably smaller presence than Aki, for certain. That said, I do like her better as a character, for reasons that will become clear when I discuss Aki's place in the story; Hama doesn't get enough exposure for me to feel comfortable describing her performance, but she wears a bikini well, and holds the distinction of being the first Asian to pose in Playboy, as a direct result of her role here. She's got a bit of sauciness to her, but she is, on the whole, the very definition of a non-entity.

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Rating: 2 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMAN
There are two candidates, but one of these, Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada) of Osato Chemicals, makes only a small blip before his boss offs him. Leaving us with SPECTRE's No. 11, Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), another in the line of ice maidens who sleep with Bond on their way to trying to murder him. She is, all things considered, a pretty average representative of the form: Dor's performance doesn't really help matters. She does, however, get a rather good "now I shall leave you to die alone, Mr. Bond" moment, and she's the first character in the franchise to die in a tank of piranhas. And for this, we must pay her our respects.

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Rating: 3 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
"In Japan, men come first, women come second", goes a line from this movie so outrageously sexist (and fully endorsed by the movie's POV, by the way), that all Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery had to do to was repeat it to get a laugh. And boy, oh boy, does Aki embody that philosophy: depicted as being capable in every way, smart, physically strong (but not, it must be said, well-acted; in her brief screentime, Hama manages to seem far more robust in the personality department than Wakabayashi can demonstrate with a half of a movie to play with), and she still not only willingly but enthusiastically submits to Bond's whims in what is probably the most casually sexist movie in the Bond canon: bathhouses, giggling Japanese women around every corner, and all the perfunctory sex a superspy could want. And then she dies in bed, because Bond rolls around in his sleep. It's a flimsy death for a character who is defined at every turn by being a cheerleader for a sexist Brit's idea of the sexual paradise that is Japan.

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Rating: 1.5 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
Now we're talking. You Only Live Twice is the most action-heavy of all the Connery Bond films, and while it's still not up to the modern expectations of action cinema, it's the first Bond film that cannot be reasonably called "dated" by anyone interested in being honest. I suspect it's not an accident that the film's second unit director - AKA, the director in charge of most of the stunts - was none other than Peter Hunt, editing his fifth Bond movie in a row, and the last; there is a very clear eye to how to best frame the action and then piece it together for maximum impact. This is best displayed in one of the film's two biggest setpieces, a dogfight between four helicopters and a dinky little gyrocopter, a terrific combination of aerial cinematography, savvy editing, score (a fantastically-timed statement of Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme" in full), and some really dodgy models. Oh well, you can't have everything.

Even better is the film's massive climax, in which the massive SPECTRE lair (see below) is flooded with ninjas - ninjas, mind you - as things explode and people run around, and we see huge spaces absolutely filled to the brim with incident. It is the best of the several "small armies fighting each other while Bond tries to stop a doomsday device" sequences in the whole movie, thrillingly cross-cut and staged with an eye towards creating the most garish, exciting spectacle that could be managed. And in one absolutely terrific accidental moment, you can see the cat on Donald Pleasance's arms freaking right the fuck out - those explosions were real, my friends.

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Rating: 4.5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
There's not much, but it's pretty terrific stuff. For starters, we have in that selfsame gyrocopter, "Little Nellie", one of the absolute coolest toys Bond ever got to play with, tricked out with everything you could cram onto its wee frame, delivered by a petulant Q to Japan. And in case you miss the Q Labs sequence that is thus cut out, Tanaka gives Bond a tour of his ninja school, and it plays out mostly the same way, particularly when Tanaka shows off his exploding cigarettes that, naturally, end up playing a huge role in the third act. It's wish-fulfillment stuff at its most sensible and useful, and the only problem I have is that, frankly, the most fun of the gadget scenes is watching Desmond Llewelyn bitch at the actor playing Bond in that film. And it simply doesn't happen here.

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Rating: 4 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Do you want to know the moment that the James Bond franchise switched from being, ultimately, spy thrillers, to being, ultimately, lifestyle fantasies? Because I can tell you when it happened: it's when we get our first great big lingering wide shot of the inside of SPECTRE's rocket base inside a dormant volcano, complete with retracting roof in the crater: not my favorite of Ken Adam's stupidly massive sets that the franchise would bring us, but it's undeniably the game-changer. An impressionistic Fort Knox in Goldfinger; a sexy yacht in Thunderball; that's sandbox stuff next to the places Adam wold go in the future, and it all comes down to that volcano lair, so big your mind simply shuts down trying to imagine what kind of soundstage could accommodate it; so big you convince yourself that it's a model, and those are model monorails and model workers and model cranes. But oh, no, those people are moving like people, like actual human beings in a giant motherfucking volcano lair set, and you're right back to being mind-boggled. And then you start to notice the touches: the sleek, menacing stairs, and the viciously shiny monorail, and the rough edges of the volcano wall, and it starts to become obvious that this isn't just a big set, it's a detailed set too. It was designed and built, and it physically existed And that, boys and girls, is why I will never love CGI.

The volcano isn't the only great set in the movie, just the most awe-inspiring. We have, by my count, at least two other triumphs of design: Tanaka's industrial-chic bunker, and the offices of Osato Chemicals, a hybrid of traditional Japanese lines and impersonal bureaucracy that ends up looking sinister, even before we know just what's going on. Oh, and Blofeld's office with a steaming piranha pool. I certainly don't want to give any of these sets short shrift; I love them all. They just have the misfortune of being in the same movie with the ohmigod VOLCANO.

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Rating: 5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
There's quite a lot of ways we can call Bond's life pornographic; the one that You Only Live Twice is most concerned with is alcohol. Jesus, but does Bond ever show off how much nice stuff he drinks in this movie: practically cumming in his pants when he has just a slight taste of actual Russian vodka, and later pronouncing the phrase "Siamese vodka" like he just discovered a cache of kiddie porn in the villain's safe; complimenting Tanaka on the exact decimal point at which the Japanese spy is serving his sake; and accepting a glass of '59 Dom Perignon with a little twinkle that communicates as clear as clear can be, "I would have sex with you, young woman, but not nearly as much sex as I intend to have with the bottle you're holding." And in a hilarious, unscripted moment, Henderson offers him a martini stirred, not shaken; Charles Gray simply fluffed the line, but Connery's reaction is a priceless study in off-the-cuff acting, effortlessly communicating "I shall be a polite guest, but oh how unhappy it makes me" pain.

Oh, and he wears nice clothes and fucks no fewer than four beautiful women. Still: booze.

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Rating: 4.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
There is none, a dismaying fact that I had forgotten.


BEST QUIP
HELGA BRANDT: "Mr. Osato believes in a healthy chest."
BOND: "Really."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Whenever I spend a long time away from the Bond franchise, as I did before starting this marathon, it's always You Only Live Twice that suffers most in my memory, largely because the things I tend to remember Bond films by (the title song and credit sequence, the Q scene, the girl) are all really lousy in this one. But that's no reflection on the film itself, which is a very special entry in the franchise: the film where all the experimentation of the first four movies coalesced into the ecstatic slurry of chauvinism, fantasy, expensive action sequences, and ludicrous design that would define the James Bond series into the 21st Century.

For this, I think we owe three people most of all: Dahl, for writing such a warped conflict in the first place; Adam, for straight-up not giving a shit about propriety or even feasibility when he designed that volcano set, and Lewis Gilbert, whose direction emphasises, at all times, the spectacle and scale of the movie at the expense of characters or even spy action. If Terence Young made Bond films that were classy and brutal, and Guy Hamilton was largely responsible for the lighthearted japing, Gilbert is the one who made Bond films epics, for good or ill - for every one of me who enjoys the splashier Bond films precisely because of how openly they are dumb escapism, there is someone who lacks the darker, more violent Bonds because they have more realistic stakes and emotions. Regardless, it was Gilbert's hand that set the series in this direction, and we must acknowledge his influence at least.

That all being said, and as much as I love individual pieces of the movie very, very much, You Only Live Twice is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Much of this has to do with Connery, who, two years after peaking with his version of 007 in Thunderball, was palpably losing interest in the character, and the humiliatingly ineffective yellowface he has to sport for a short while couldn't possibly have made things any pleasanter (they certainly don't make it easy on the audience); his imminent retirement, such as it was, is certainly not very surprising, nor even obviously for the worst, if the trend from Thunderball to YOLT was to continue for a third movie.

With Connery half-way checking out, that leaves only Pleasance able to make all that much of an impact amongst the film's humans; as I said, Gilbert is too intoxicated with the size of his production to worry much about the people in it. And that, maybe, is why we get such perfunctory moments with series regulars Q, and M (Bernard Lee), and Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), all three of whom could just as easily not have shown up at all, for the value they add to the proceedings. For that matter, the business of moving M's office to a submarine, the first time he'd be compelled to relocate, serves rather to underscore how arbitrary his presence is, rather than stress his indispensability, as would be the case in latter films with similar gags.

So it is, then, a shallow Bond film; redeemed primarily by how magnificently energetic it all is. And it is massively energetic; this is its saving grace, that and the fact that Connery has enough gravity to him that even in the midst of over-the-top spectacle, the film never floats away. Indeed, despite showcasing arguably his worst performance in the franchise to that point, You Only Live Twice perhaps serves as the best argument for why Connery is the definitive James Bond: he is what keeps it real even in its fantastic modes. There will be plenty of time to discuss the issue of wacky Bond vs. serious Bond as we move forward, but this actor, in this movie, manages to unite those two threads tightly and give us a movie that is silly and thrilling in turn: not as balanced as Thunderball, maybe, in that regard, but still much more satisfying across the board than a lot of Bond films would tend to be in the future. And since his subsequent returns to the character were largely degraded and ineffective for reasons both within and outside of his control, I think this is the best place to pay tribute to that terrific thing Connery did for five movies, giving us a gentleman spy at his most entertainingly synthetic, and his most grubbily believable. Let that be the legacy of You Only Live Twice: from here on, that precise alchemy would never be exactly recreated, and ever future Bond film - the greatest and the worst - would suffer for it.


OVERALL SCORE
42.5/60

9 comments:

james1511 said...

"It was designed and built, and it physically existed And that, boys and girls, is why I will never love CGI."

Word.

Neil Fulwood said...

I'm with you on every word of this review. Loving your Bond retrospective, Tim, and intrigued as to how you're going to keep those punning pullquotes going for another 17 movies.

Daniel Silberberg said...

What do you think of this Bond Ballad? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6CoNUE5Zho

Tim said...

Neil- Oh, I have my list of puns good to go. Most of them are not as completely dumb as this one, sad to say.

Incidentally, now that I've hit the first break in the road for Connery, I'm planning to start catching up with your own retro. Very excited for it!

Daniel- Well, it's a hell of a lot better than the Jack White/Alicia Keys duet they used, joke or not.

Samuel Wilson said...

One thing I love about this film is how Tanaka's, "Now you'll see our modern ninjas" makes an entire genre of 1980s action movies look even more profoundly stupid than it is on its own terms.

Mysterious F. said...

Tim, this has nothing to do with your admittedly excellent retrospective of the Bond series, but, after watching Bela Tarr's Damnation earlier tonight, I remembered that you said you were going to have a Bela Tarr retrospective. Please, please get around to this eventually, I am begging you.

Curtiss Mooney said...

How about adding another scoring category for the "Villain's/Henchman's Demise", with 1-5 Paranas as the rating indicator for degree of creativity and awfulness?

I always liked Helga Brandt's demise at the jaws of Blofeld's pet piranas in "You Only Live Twice", as an object lesson and an incentive for Mr. Osato to "Kill Bond, NOW!" - or else!

redwood said...

The one line here that stuck in my head was included in the very first comment. I just thought, "Yes, that is the solid truth, when it comes to CGI." I just wanted to add here that I like Bond, as well, but in also liking film, I could never bring myself to invest in the full collection of dvds/blu rays. At this time, I only have the first four Connery films and OHMSS. I've considered YOLT, based on the same fact you mention here of how it's, in some ways, the culmination of the real Connery flicks. I've wondered if my collection is lacking for not having it. I never considered it a s good of a film - and for good reason, of course. However, you've finally made me think "Need to pick this one up, too". Thank you for that.

redwood said...

In taking another look @ this one, I would definitely say this one falls in the middle somewhere (personally, I would say above "Thunderball", as far as action goes). I would agree on the fact of there being a recycling of a number of aspects from previous films (and, yes, they worked better in those other films), but for the most part, this is a pretty good Bond, keeping one's attention throughout and feeling more a Bond film than many.