BOND: Revisiting YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal is not sure twice is the only way to live...

Following on the success of Goldfinger and Thunderball, there came a not so little movie called You Only Live Twice. Bigger in both budget and scope then those two films, it also proved to be Sean Connery's last outing for four years as 007 and the so-called end of the "classic" Bond films in the eyes of the general public. Yet, Twice was not to be in the same category as the three that preceded it. Indeed, it might even be the first signs of trouble for the series.

Sean Connery, rather infamously, was so besieged by press and photographers while making You Only Live Twice that he finally left the role that had made him famous just a few years earlier. That disillusionment is evident in his performance all the way through. Connery seems disinterested and disengaged for the most part, a far cry from the rough and tumble Bond of previous films. Dare one say it, it’s the first time Bond as a character seems to be going through the motions of the role, rather than inhabiting the part.

That said, the two female leads give Connery his best moments in the film. The beautiful Akiko Wakabayashi is the one with the most screen time and her exit towards the start of the third act is the one good shock moment of the entire film. The other, Mie Hama’s Kissy, if afforded less screen-time and we really never get any feeling of character depth in her part. Which is a shame since she occupies the entire third act without hardly an interruption, yet not making much impact.

At last, after two films (From Russia With Love and Thunderball) without a face, we finally get the meet SPECTRE’s mysterious leader. Donald Pleasence created an icon in the first full on-screen incarnation of the Blofeld character, inspiring imitators and spoofs for decades to come. Yet, all told, Pleasence is a dull villain. He spends the majority of the film handing out seemingly random tasks, stroking his white cat all the time. True, he does get one moment of physical threat against Bond, one which is quickly thrown away, at the expense of believably and menace. Perhaps the Pleasence Blofeld is an example of style winning over substance, especially given how iconic he’s become.

From there, the rest of the cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Tetsuro Tamba is virtually flawless as Tiger, head of Japan’s equivalent of MI6 and a genuine pleasure to watch. Blofeld's two henchpeople Osato and Helga Brandt, played by Teru Shimada and Karin Dor, feature quite a bit in the film and their death scenes are classics for two very different reasons. Charles Gray, a future Blofeld himself, gets a nice moment as the MI6 contact in Japan, and it's a shame we don't get to see more of him since he is a lot better here then in his later Bond outing. Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewelyn all give good performances in their roles but this certainly is not their best work, if more down to the script than themselves.

The action sequences in the film are a really mixed bag. The vast majority of them serve little or no purpose plot wise and seem to be used just to string the film along a little bit further. This is especially true of the Little Neelie sequence roughly halfway through the film. While this is visually stunning, backed by John Barry’s score and the return of the original Bond theme recording, there isn't a lot going on besides Bond pushing a few buttons. This is also true of the massive battle in the volcano lair, which is exciting to watch but also feels stretched out, particularly on return viewings of the film. Once again, an example of style over substance, and not necessarily a victory either.

A lot of these issues can be laid at the feet of the script. As someone who enjoys the literary Bond as much as the films, one can’t help but wonder how in the world one of Ian Fleming's best novels became this part sci-fi film, part action wannabe epic. The plot, involving American and Russian spacecraft snatched out of orbit to try and start World War III, utterly lacks credibility from the word go. For a series that made setting a dirty bomb off in Fort Knox compelling, it’s definitely a step down. Perhaps the larger issue is that, much like Connery’s performance, the script seems to be sticking to a formula; from the number of female characters to close escapes Bond has to go through. It’s like the writing is there, but halfhearted and without much effort behind it.

Beyond that, it’s the visuals that really carry You Only Live Twice. Ken Adam's production design hits another homerun here, especially with the mesmerizing volcano lair set which is so gorgeous to look upon that you don’t once question how believable it is until well after the film is over. The production design sits well alongside the Japanese film locations, which is where the cinematography of Freddie Young shines brightest. The special effects work, especially the space borne model work, is strong stuff, even if not quite up to modern standards of photo realistic CGI. All told, when combined with Lewis Gilbert’s direction, Twice is a film that is carried by its visuals and it’s a real shame that no one involved got so much as an Oscar nod for some truly spectacular work.

Finally, there’s the music of John Barry. For this film, the man who by now had won his first Oscars created one of his best scores, Bond or otherwise. His intriguing blend of Oriental themes into the traditional Bond music is a delight to listen to onscreen and off. Barry also creates some much needed suspenseful atmosphere with the now iconic Space March theme, heard as various spacecraft find themselves being hijacked in mid-orbit. There’s even a vibrant rendition of the by now familiar 007 Theme during the early part of the Little Nellie sequence, which gives some much needed spice. Add on to this a top notch main title song by Nancy Sinatra with a dazzling credit sequence from Maurice Binder, and the result is a score that carries the film as much as the visuals do.

At the end of the day, You Only Live Twice is a film that has become iconic despite its problems. Namely, that of a leading man who has suddenly tired of the part, a villain who effectively only issues orders while stroking a cat, and a script that is phoning it in as much as its lead actor. Yet, it is the sheer power of the visuals and music that make this watchable, proving that these two elements alone can just about save a film. At the end of the day, You Only live Twice proved one thing for the franchise: that twice isn't the only way to live.

Revisiting Dr. No
Revisiting From Russia With Love
Revisiting Goldfinger
Revisiting Thunderball

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places. 

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