Movies We Like
You Only Live Twice
It’s hard to pick a favorite of those first five James Bond films starring Sean Connery. Goldfinger and Thunderball have their fans. Dr. No is also a blast and the locations and Robert Shaw as the bad guy in From Russia With Love make it pretty special, but I would go with You Only Live Twice. It‘s the last of the 1960s Connery Bonds before he came back for the series' official jumping-of-the-shark four years later in the disappointing Diamonds Are Forever (in between being replaced by George Lazenby for one film, ironically, maybe the best Bond flick, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). All of the Bond flicks of the period work as fascinating international travelogues (wow look at Istanbul in ’63!), butYou Only Live Twice’s Asian setting (mostly Japan), is particularly compelling. Besides Japan’s sexism matching and even topping Bond’s usual misogyny -- I point this out as an anthropologist, not a critic, and as a fan of Japanese cinema, especially Seijun Suzuki’s Yakuza flicks -- it’s fun seeing Connery walk (or run) through similarly blocky industrial locations, that look so familiar from other films. Though Twice’s fantastical centerpiece is its most dated aspect (a stolen rocketship from outer space), what works best is the pure procedural detective work Bond is forced to do and some of the best action set pieces of the franchise. Though Connery donning a bad haircut and slight eye makeup to go undercover as a Japanese man is less shocking then, say Marlon Brando actually playing Japanese in Teahouse of the August Moon and not as completely offensive as Mickey Rooney’s hateful caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany's, it still is a little off-putting, saved only because his eye makeup is less Japanese and more Vulcan.
In one of the more comprehensible Bond plots, the secret agent is forced to go poke around Tokyo, after an American and then a Soviet spaceship are hijacked. Only the British don’t get caught up in the Cold War politics, believing neither super power is responsible since they have reason to believe the ships touched down off the sea of Japan. Bond infiltrates corporate Japan aided by the very beautiful Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) -- who more than once saves him in her bitchin’ convertible Toyota -- and a Japanese Secret Service man, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurō Tamba), one of the rare second fiddles who seems to be an equal with Bond in both brains and chauvinism. With a script by the great Roald Dahl (most famous for his children’s books including Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, although he also had a background in Britain’s intelligence offices), this was apparently the first Bond script that veered strongly from Ian Fleming’s original source material, which may be why it plays so well. Eventually Bond's snooping leads him to a secret volcano base where the nasty head of SPECTRE, Ernst Blofeld, is stealing the rockets in an effort to start a world war. Along the way there are some classic moments, including a brutal fight between Bond and a sumo wrestler, a dog fight in Bond’s gyrocopter “Little Nellie” and a great attack on the volcano base by ninjas. The lair is as spectacular a set as ever was constructed at that point, complete with Blofeld’s escape monorail and a man-eating piranha pond. Along the way Aki is killed but Bond quickly replaces her with the equally cute Kissy Suzuki (in the book she gives birth to Bond's child); she seems uptight at first but loosens under Bond’s charm, even wearing a bikini while volcano climbing. Bond also has a great run-in with an evil businessman’s killer secretary, Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), who though assigned to kill Bond, first turns him into her boy-toy before leaving him to die in a plummeting airplane.
Even with little screen time, Blofeld proves to be one of the most memorable Bond bad guys, since he’s usually seen stroking a white kitten. The casting of Donald Pleasence was not just clever but outside the box, as in films like The Great Escape he was anything but intimidating. Blofeld had been heard in previous Bond films but this was the first time his face was seen, with beautiful, realistic makeup giving him ugly scars from some kind of monocle accident. Of course Blofeld would return four more time to the Bond universe, all the way through the most recent film Spectre, played by a wide range of actors of different nationalities, including Telly Savalas, Max von Sydow, Christopher Waltz and even Charles Gray (most famous as the narrator of cult film musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show). But Pleasence, the least on-the-nose of the bunch is still the best.
Connery was probably at his physical best in his previous Bond outing Thunderball; though still ultra-manly, here you can see his hair is receding (or is he already using a hairpiece?) and he seems to have put on a little pudge (only relevant because he spends so much time shirtless). There are hints to his performance that Connery was done, bored and tired of the role. That’s not to say he was sleepwalking -- and as a matter of fact, that weariness gives Bond a new dimension. The Connery-less On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would be the first attempt at giving Bond more of an emotional spectrum. (He falls in love and is devastated when his new wife is killed by Blofeld.) However it’s not really until the Daniel Craig cycle, almost forty years later, that the full range of Bond’s inner life and potential humanity are explored. But even after all these years Connery is still the standard-bearer for the macho action star and the Bond series. The films from the '60s still hold up incredibly well as pure escapism; you can’t go wrong with any of the them. Ironically, in its day,You Only Live Twice was called the weakest of the Bond films critically but by today’s standards it may be the most impressive.