*. There’s some variation in where people rank You Only Live Twice in the Bond film canon, but I think most people agree with the idea that the formula was starting to feel tired. It did great box office, but less than Thunderball, marking the first falling off in what had been the franchise’s previously inexorable rise. There were just too many spy movies being released in the ’60s, including countless Bond clones and parodies.
*. On top of this staleness (as Roger Ebert’s contemporary review called it) there was the fact that Connery didn’t want to be here and had only been coaxed back by a bigger payday. Lewis Gilbert, in his first turn as a Bond director (he’d be back for a couple more, ten years later), also had to be talked into doing the movie. Then Ian Fleming’s novel had to be completely reworked, basically only keeping the title and the Japanese setting. There’s nothing in the book about stealing spaceships, for example, or a secret base in a volcano.
*. Roald Dahl, a friend of Fleming’s, was given the job of making a screenplay out of what he thought was a plotless travelogue. He hadn’t written a screenplay before (at least for anything that had ben produced) and his instructions included following what had become the Bond formula, one of the chief elements being the disposable Bond girls. Perhaps as a result the triumvirate here of Aki (the friend who gets killed), Helga Brandt (the villainess who gets killed) and Kissy Suzuki (Aki’s replacement, who Bond “marries”) constitute perhaps the least memorable line-up of women in any Bond film. This puts them on the same level as the dour Hans, who is among the least memorable bodyguards. Like the girls, he’s just a prop.
*. The story Dahl came up with is beyond silly. Could Blofeld have possibly come up with a less complicated and expensive way to start a Third World War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union than stealing their spaceships? Not to mention how he manages to keep such an operation under the radar. I don’t think that covering over the volcano would fool many people. All of which may sound like pointless carping at a Bond movie, but Auric Goldfinger’s plot to nuke Fort Knox at least made a kind of sense.
*. The effects were impressive for the time, but today the space stuff doesn’t play very well. This was the year before Kubrick’s 2001, and a decade before Star Wars reset the game entirely. So the spaceships still have a 1950s look to them and seem kind of silly to me. But then, Moonraker (also directed by Gilbert) was silly too, what with all the lasers.
*. Some people like the title track, sung by Nancy Sinatra (her dad had passed on the honours). I don’t. I don’t care for the credit sequence either, or how long it takes for us to get to it. Nor do any of the plot mechanics that are introduced make sense. What is achieved, really, by faking Bond’s death? Or by disguising him as Japanese? It’s not like everyone isn’t on to him anyway. Note how easily the Ninja Academy is infiltrated (twice!). Doesn’t this make it clear that SPECTRE know about him?
*. More than in any of the previous films there’s a sense that we’re just here to watch the big signature scenes. A car being picked off the highway by a giant magnet hanging from a helicopter. A spectacular aerial duel with Bond in a gyrocopter. And of course a climactic battle where the giant volcano set gets blown up. These are the things people remember.
*. They might also remember the car. A Toyota 2000GT. I guess when in Japan one drives local. Apparently one poll has this as the seventh best Bond car, but Daniel Craig voted it his favourite. I like it, and might rank it as high as third, behind the Aston Martin from Goldfinger and the Lotus Esprit that turns into a submersible in The Spy Who Loved Me. I had a toy one of those when I was a kid.
*. In much if not all of this the sense I get is of a movie that is trying hard to impress more than to be enjoyed. The best of the Connery Bond films — From Russia With Love and Goldfinger — were a kind of dance. They just had a flow to them, like the shot of Red Grant tracking Bond from within the train as Bond walks on the station platform, or the diving board-to-below-the-pool shot that introduces us to Miami. Here that just seems to be missing, the exposition is clunky, and the musical notes don’t help.
*. A good example of the kind of thing I mean is the rooftop chase and fight at the docks. This is done as an aerial shot, and it is impressive. But it doesn’t have the kind of flow to it that those other scenes I mentioned have. The sheer logistics of it actually detract from its impact. It’s spectacular, but kind of dull.
*. Much the same could be said of the volcano base. Yes, it’s impressive. But its sheer size is alienating, the long shots used to show us all of its magnificence at once keep us at a distance from the action, like the rooftop chase. I just found myself sitting back and admiring Ken Adam’s handiwork and all the controlled explosions.
*. We finally get to see Blofeld’s face and it’s . . . Donald Pleasence. Not a great choice, in my opinion. And I wonder if it would have been better to have kept him off screen. Perhaps. But then the shots of him just stroking his cat were getting ridiculous.
*. You’ll probably have guessed from the tone of these comments that I don’t think that much of You Only Live Twice. I think it better than a lot of what was to come, but not as good as the earlier Bonds, including Thunderball. Danny Peary calls it “the first disappointing Bond film.” Pauline Kael, interestingly, was of another opinion, calling it “the most consistently entertaining of the Bond packages up to the time.” In my judgment it starts to drag about half way through, despite the giant bellows being used to keep air in it. Box office was still great, though it also fell for the first time in the franchise’s history. Commentators blamed the oversaturation of the market with spy movies, and they certainly had a point. But also, as Connery felt, it was time for a change.