Posted by: dougery | January 28, 2011

Better Late Than Never: You Only Live Twice (1967)

It seems the arms race does not solely apply to the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war but to the Bond franchise as well. In You Only Live Twice it becomes readily apparent that the producers have painted themselves into a corner. The need for a bigger and more epic spectacle in each successive film of the series combined with staying true to the “Bond formula” is taking it’s toll. However, what could have been an outright disaster is ameliorated by screenwriter Roald Dahl who knows a thing or two about BFGs. In the end though the film remains cartoonishly over-the-top and rife with outrageously moments begging to be parodied.

The problems begin with the film’s setting. Whereas previous Bond films were inclined to globetrot, YOLT rapidly devolves into an almost fetishistic “Bond goes Japanese,” and it is a decidedly a superficial Japanese at that. Dr. No spends much of it’s time in Jamaica but the country starts to feel like a character in the story, as does, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Bahamas in Thunderball. Maybe this is simply an issue of cinematography with those films delighting in their surroundings while here we are stuck focusing on a fake volcano fortress that undoubtedly cost a lot to make and thus demands as much screen time as possible.

I never get the impression that this is really Japan or, and this is probably more damning, that it is important this story take place in Japan instead of somewhere else. One need only to look at the following still from the film to see the kind of superficial gloss I mean:

In one of the narrative’s most ridiculous twists, 007 is forced to go undercover and marry a Japanese girl by the name of Kissy Suzuki (even the name innuendos are totally not trying anymore). The plot point itself is ludicrous with or without the rather large Connery being asked to transform himself into a Japanese man. A lot of squinting ensues. Yet this kind of superficiality is emblematic of the film itself as well as the franchise at this point. Obsessed with overt details it doesn’t bother with getting the underlying feeling right. Whatever that entails exactly (and I know I am being vague) is what good Bond films like From Russia With Love have and what YOLT is sadly lacking.

Perhaps it all boils down to character interaction. For a few films now Bond has yet to really commit himself to one of his many romantic attachments. As such we never really need to worry about their welfare and correspondingly whether Bond himself will save the day. Less is at stake when we don’t care about the players at hand, and a looming global nuclear war isn’t going to make things any better. Part of the problem lay in the “Bond formula.” The need to pack films full of Bond girls has resulted in a few films now where the ladies drop like flies. After all it just wouldn’t be right, even for a lothario such as 007 to sleep with multiple ‘good’ girls on the same quest, unless of course his previous conquests have been ruthlessly bumped off and the new attachments are simply necessary to get the job done.

The decision to reveal the character of Blofeld is another misstep in my opinion. Having a shadowy, omnipotent head of SPECTRE always looming just off camera is more threatening than allowing us to see his scarred human face. And just like Myers’ Dr. Evil, Blofeld is comedically non-threatening on screen. He is short and kind of dumpy, his outfit is weird and the whole cat petting thing seems tacked on. He is totally the kind of villain who employs leagues of henchmen in color coordinated jumpsuits, a ginger femme fatale and a hulking Aryan looking body guard who we’ve seen before and will see again and again. As with the shark in Jaws, an unseen menace is infinitely more spooky and unnerving than a large clearly mechanical beast or in the case of YOLT, a man who has eccentricity after eccentricity piled upon him in an effort to make him creepy or at the very least interesting. Unfortunately Blofeld is neither.

This is also the end of Sean Connery’s first tour of duty as Bond (But I’m told not to worry about this as, just as the title suggests, Connery Bond will get a second life) and it is more than apparent that the actor is tired of this and simply going through the motions. As such, this will be the last Better Late Than Never Bond edition for a little while as I catch up on viewing all of the movies that have been getting awards buzz this year. But fear not, I am very excited to see just how crazy the Bond world becomes as the franchise moves on without it’s central attraction.

Bond Grade: 003 (out of 007)

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