Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice (1967, Lewis Gilbert)

With the Cold War tensions rising between global powers U.S.A. and the Soviet Union, SPECTRE decided the time was ripe to play both off one another in the hopes that such a strategy would lead to mutual annihilation, leaving the terrorist organization as the sole power capable of leading (and dominating) the world into the late stages of the 20th century. It was through a mesmerizing plan which involved hijacking both American and Soviet space shuttles one after another that SPECTRE envisioned leaders of both countries putting the blame on one another, thus falling pretty to escalating wartime ambitions.

In order to go through with this, the organization had hidden its primary control station in a dormant volcano somewhere in the Japanese countryside. The concern for the British was that, while correct in assuming that neither the Americans nor the Soviets were behind the attacks, it was unclear as to whom was perpetrating this scheme nor from where. Classified leads pointed towards Japan, which is where Her Majesty’s Secret Service dispatched agent 007 to make contact with a mysterious but influence member of the Japanese secret service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka. It was once 007 had discovered SPECTRE’s hidden laid within a volcano that he finally came face to face with the mastermind behind all of the organization’s plots: SPECTRE’s number 1, Ernst Stavro Blofeld...

I’ve always been on the fence towards You Only Live Twice, directed by Lewis Gilbert (who would return later to yet again direct some of the more crazy Bond entries in the franchise). There are some ingredients that impressive me to no end and even a few that, while not demonstrating any remarkable filmmaking, still retain my attention and put a smile on my face. The film is however plagued by some greatly disappointing elements as well, things that either bore me or leave me frustrated in general.

The brains behind You Only Live Twice should be awarded some credit for taking Bond in a new direction, thematically and geographically. Up until now, 007 had not been to a place as...I guess one would say as ‘exotic’ as Japan. It does indeed add a vastly different flavour to some scenes, what with Bond really diving into a little bit of Japanese traditions and culture. This is just a small part of what I love about Bond: his willingness to explore cultures and appreciate them. As British as he can be at times (he is doing all of this for ‘Queen and country’ after all), Bond is unquestionably a man of the world, something I enjoy a lot and even try to put into practice myself...when I have the sufficient funds that is. Regardless, seeing Bond in a place as interesting as Tokyo and rural Japan held my interest for the most part. Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurô Tanba) is, in my opinion, the best Bond ally since Kerim Bey. He’s a great mixture between serious and committed, but also quite fun loving. I’ve always found that those ingredients made for the best allies in the series. Credit production designer Ken Adam for organizing the construction of the secret SPECTRE lair we see in the film. They literally built that mammoth-like structure, and it looks amazing.

The filmmakers also try to up the ante in terms of scope and grandeur with this entry. SPECTRE’s operation is incredibly vast, involving the theft of space shuttle, a massive home base in a hollow volcano and some rather lofty intentions, that is, starting a nuclear war between two global powers. If the Thunderball scheme was big, this is gargantuan. It puts Bond in the midst of a mission that can determine both the immediate and long-term future of the entire world, which is also different from what we’ve seen thus far.

I also want to shine some praise on the dialogue in the film (not the script in general, just the dialogue). There are some hysterical lines delivered through the film, with almost all of them landing perfectly. Here is but a brief sample:

-Helga Brandt: [Bond is captured by Helga Brandt] I've got you now.
James Bond: Well, enjoy yourself.
[Brandt slaps him]

-Russian Diplomat: The world knows we are a peace-loving people.

-Tiger Tanaka: It can save your life, this cigarette.
James Bond: You sound like a commercial.

-[Being bathed by Tanaka's women]
Tiger Tanaka: You know what it is about you that fascinates them, don't you? It's the hair on your chest. Japanese men all have beautiful bare skin.
James Bond: Japanese proverb say, "Bird never make nest in bare tree."

-[James is in bed with a Ling, a Chinese woman]
James Bond: Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?
Ling: You think we better, huh?
James Bond: No, just different. Like Peking Duck is different from Russian Caviar. But I love them both.
Ling: Darling, I give you very best duck.

-[Choosing a masseuse]
James Bond: Well, I'll just settle for this little old lady here.
Tiger Tanaka: Good choice, she's very sexyful.

And that’s nothing. You Only Live Twice is littered with funny lines from start to finish. As many of you know, this wasn’t the first time I watched the movie (far from it, in fact), but I still laughed when dialogue like the snippets provided above were uttered by the characters.

Alas, all is not well with Lewis Gilbert’s first crack at the Bond franchise. For the first time in the marathon, it seemed very obvious to me that the franchise was running into some poor script decisions, this even despite how silly Bond films can be at times. As a serious fan, the one thing you should notice is that Richard Maibaum did not take part in the adaptation process. Roald Dahl is who we have to thank this time around, and I think Maibaum’s absence if felt in terms of story and pacing. How is it that neither the Americans, nor the Soviets can figure who in blazes in stealing their space crafts time and time again? Yeah, I know, previous Bond plots weren’t intellectual fair, but I find the basis of what transpires in You Only Live Twice rests on pretty thin ice. If I want to watch a film that pokes fun at the Americans and Soviets for their ridiculous Cold War conflicts (which the film does try a little bit), I’ll just spin my Dr. Strangelove DVD again, thank you very much.

Overall plot aside, the film makes some head-scratching moves with the smaller details as well. The one that truly stands out is the death of Aki (Akkiko Wakabayashi), one of Tiger’s top agents who helps Bond more than once during the first 60 minutes or so. She’s intelligent, cute as hell, and has some real spunk about her. The filmmakers then inexplicably kill her off half way through and replace her with some sort of android names Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). Well, Kissy isn’t really an android, but she nowhere near as interesting as Aki was and the Mei Hama, while cute, doesn’t hold a candle next to Akiko Wakabayashi’s charisma. Related to the introduction of Kissy is Bond’s physical alteration into a person with more Japanese features. The purpose of this is to facilitate his cover when he’ll be snooping around the area where the British believe SPECTRE’s base to be located. The very next scene after Bond goes through the process, there’s an assassination attempt on his life. The very next scene! The introduction of Little Nellie is alright, but it leads to an especially boring and uninspired ‘Bond presses a bunch of buttons on a gadget to escape’ sequence.  I’d argue that it is with You Only Live Twice that we begin to see signs that the franchise is going through the usual motions. I won’t bog you all down with the 4 or 5 mother examples I spotted in the film, but suffice to say that there were more than enough moments that frustrated me.

Yet another problem I have with the movie is with the principle enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. I don’t think the filmmakers ever got the right cinematic translation of the Ian Fleming character (we’ll be seeing Blofeld a few more times before this marathon is over), but I’d argue that this is the worst incarnation. Donald Pleasance is a fine enough actor, but his Blofeld is weird, almost comical and not the least bit threatening.

And am I hallucinating, or does Connery look to be in slightly worse shape than he was 2 years ago in Thunderball? Talk about uninspired...



Dan said...

I really enjoyed this movie as a kid, but it didn't hold up well at all recently. The sets are still impressive, especially the final set-up in the volcano. But the pace is inconsistent, and I agree that Pleasance's role is misused. It's not the worst Bond film, but it's uneven at best.

edgarchaput said...

@Dan: Uneven is the probably the most apt way to describe that movie. I also thought it rocked when I was a kid. It has a lot of the stuff kids crave, but when you wise up a bit, you can see that it's all pretty silly, if still kind of fun.