Thursday, November 10, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 5: You Only Live Twice

We're approaching the end of the Connery era, but not quite yet. This next installment, You Only Live Twice, was the first Bond movie to basically abandon the books. While the others at least kept elements of the plot from the novels they were based on, You Only Live Twice only used some of the same names and locations and took a totally new take on the story.

First of all, a correction from the last installment: I misquoted Connery's spiteful remark about Bond. What he actually said was "I'd like to kill the bastard."

Synopsis: S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is at it again, with Blofeld himself at the reigns this time. The evil organization builds a spaceship that captures both American and Soviet craft, with the inevitable result that each blames the other. Nuclear war is threatened, which is exactly what S.P.E.C.T.R.E. wants - for the Cold War powers to annihilate each other so that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. can pick up the pieces. Bond has to travel to Blofeld's secret base in an extinct Japanese volcano and put a stop to it all.

The Villain: It's Ernst Stavro Blofeld, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s "Number One." The producers finally bowed down to repeated requests from filmgoers to see Blofeld's face - previously, only his cat-petting hands had been shown. Donald Pleasence plays Blofeld, though his voice sounds nothing like the deep, menacing voices previously used for Blofeld. Pleasence was brought in to replace another actor who wasn't "menacing" enough. They gave him a scar on one eye that no other Blofeld ever had afterward - presumably he had surgery or something. Pleasence's go-round as Blofeld isn't bad, but frankly, he doesn't seem quite evil enough to me. The most enduring aspect of Pleasence's performance here is as the basis for the parody character of Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies.

The Henchman: Helga Brandt, played by Karin Dor, is the secretary of Mr. Osato, a Japanese industrialist who is secretly in thrall to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. She's also a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. assassin who manages to capture Bond early on. But she fails to kill him (as they always do) so Blofeld has her fed to piranhas, making her possibly the only henchman to be killed by her boss on purpose. Mr. Osato is also technically a henchman, I guess, though he isn't the type to get his hands dirty. Blofeld also has a tall, blond bodyguard in the Red Grant mold named Hans, who is sort of a minor henchman.

The Bond Girl: This movie followed a "three girl formula," they say, and they counted Brandt as one of the girls. The other is Aki, who is an early contact of Bond's in Japan. She works for Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service, and saves Bond's bacon a few times by pulling up in her smart little convertible at the right moment when he's being chased. Later, she is poisoned by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. assassins while she is sleeping. Finally, Bond hooks up with ninja agent Kissy Suzuki (who ranks highly on the "cheesy Bond girl names" meter). Bond is disguised as Japanese (which he accomplishes by shaving his chest, combing his hair into bangs and squinting his eyes) and Kissy poses as his wife in order to get close to Blofeld's headquarters without arousing suspicion.

The Sidekick: I guess Kissy is a pretty good sidekick, because she follows Bond into battle in Blofeld's secret fortress. But she works for Tiger Tanaka, the Japanese version of M, who shows James around the country, teaches him how to be Japanese, and trains James Bond to be a ninja in just a few days. Helpfully, he provides an army of ninjas to help Bond take down Blofeld's men in the big climax of the movie.

Gadgets: Well, first of all, there is the ridiculous spaceship-eating rocket that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has, which is capable of flying into space, enveloping a Gemini-sized capsule, and returning to Earth. Blofeld's fortress is in an extinct volcano, and it has a roof disguised to look like the surface of a lake. It retracts when evil rockets need to exit or enter, so it can't be seen by American satellites. As for Bond's gear, the big star of this one is "Little Nellie," a tiny one-man helicopter equipped with rockets, machine guns, and a bunch of other lethal goodies. Q brings it to Japan in several small cases and assembles it in a few minutes. Bond uses it to search for S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s hidden base. The machine was real, and during filming, its rotor blades chopped off a cameraman's foot, interrupting the shoot.

Music: The vastly overrated Nancy Sinatra sang the title song for this one, which references Bond's fake death at the beginning of the movie. It's also a line in the film: Bond says, "This is my second life," to which Blofeld replies, "You only live twice." Sinatra was nervous about her voice, and said she sounded like Minnie Mouse. Another, less well-known singer had already recorded it, but apparently someone made someone else an offer they couldn't refuse, and the song was re-orchestrated to fit Nancy's limited range (did Frank's people have a severed horse head put in producer Albert Broccoli's bed, maybe?). Perhaps I shouldn't pick on her so much, I've just never really thought she was that great. She actually does sing the song well, and it got a lot of radio airplay at the time. It was distinctive at the time for having an Oriental feel to the horn parts in the beginning.

The Director: Lewis Gilbert was an odd choice - he was known for character dramas and had just scored a big surprise hit in 1966 with Alfie, starring Michael Caine. He'd end up doing two more Bond movies after this one. They say he was pretty reluctant at first, until the producers told him he'd be directing for "the biggest audience in the world." The writer, Roald Dahl (more on him below) praised Gilbert for not trying to change the script while filming, which apparently had plagued other productions.

Fun Facts: The original screenplay was written by Harold Bloom, but the producers didn't like where he was taking the story. They kept a few elements but went to a writer who had virtually no experience in the film world. He did, however, have the benefit of being Ian Fleming's close personal friend. That was the incredible Roald Dahl, who would write a host of charming and sometimes macabre children's novels such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, George's Marvelous Medicine, and James and the Giant Peach. My son grew up on Roald Dahl books, and I read many of them with him. It was a nice surprise when I watched the opening credits and saw Dahl's name. I'd never noticed or made the connection before.

Favorite Line: It's subtle, but my favorite line from this movie is when Helga Brandt captures James Bond. She says, "I've got you now," to which Bond replies, "Well, enjoy yourself." Later, Tanaka says to Bond, "In Japan, men come first, women come second." Bond replies: "I just might retire to here."

Other: This isn't really about the movie, but in the novel You Only Live Twice, Bond gets amnesia after the final attack on Blofeld's fortress, and he ends up believing his cover story of being a Japanese fisherman. He lives with Kissy Suzuki for a few months and fathers a child by her. The character resurfaces in a non-Fleming Bond novel as "James Suzuki." I guess the kid would be about 44 years old now. But if we're going chronologically, Bond would be about 86. So I don't think anyone's paying attention. :)

After this one, Connery told the producers he was definitely out, and the search began for a new Bond. They ended up with George Lazenby, who audiences didn't particularly take to. But I think that may have had more to do with the fact that the producers decided to change direction with the next film, not only with the cast, but with the tone. They wanted to do something that was more serious and realistic, and whether they succeeded is, of course, up to each individual. Next up, we'll look at Mr. Lazenby's single Bond outing: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

My feelings about this one surprised me very much. Stay tuned.

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