More noise than signal

You Only Live Twice

So, You Only Live Twice. Or, so they say. But what do they know? Who are you going to trust, me or Nancy Sinatra?

Having saved the world from nuclear based extortion in Thunderball, there must have been some head-scratching going into how the sequel could raise the stakes. It appears that they went for a rather literal approach, raising the opening action literally into orbit as the forces of SPECTRE plot to start a new World War, raising Cold War tensions by space-napping both astro and cosmonauts, leaving the Yanks and the Sovs blaming each other. A very Hot War looms. Oh noes!

The only people not fooled by this, apparently, are the jolly old stiff upper lipped British, who are convinced the craft are landing near Japan. Not believing the Japanese government to be behind the scheme, it’s left to James Bond to poke around, see what’s going on and put a stop to it. As mentioned, the track leads, through a Japanese manufacturing concern, to those naughty chaps at SPECTRE, the plot this time being headed by the previously incognito Number One, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence).

This pretty much rounds out the Bond trope checklist. Of course, Blofeld’s been knocking around for the past few films, partially glimpsed in his oft-parodied pussy-stroking, but this is the first time he’s front and centre. Special mention must be made of Pleasence’s performance, as despite it being the most imitated villainous performance from anything outside of the Star Wars franchise it remains creepily effective and chilling.

If you want to look at how much the Bond franchise has changed in a relatively short space of time, you don’t need to look much further than the use of Monty Norman’s Bond theme. In From Russia With Love, unless my memory has failed me entirely, it’s heard as Jimmy checks into his hotel room and turns the place over for surveillance devices. In You Only Live Twice, he’s buzzing around in a flat-pack helicopter over a secret volcano lair, destroying enemy choppers with flamethrowers, somehow.

This has very firmly crossed over to balls-out action territory, with only the very vaguest hint of actual spycraft to be seen. Well, I say actual spycraft. Actual spycraft going by the movie definitions of it, I mean. I expect actual spying these days involves a lot of sitting at computer terminals and spreadsheets.

Regardless, You Only Live Twice does action as well as anything of the era, and better than most films now. The pacing is exemplary, the screenplay from Roald Dahl (now, there’s a tale from the unexpected) rarely lingering and always having the distinct feeling of forward motion. There’s a new director to the franchise, with Guy Hamilton making way for Alfie director Lewis Gilbert. There’s certainly a very different feel and energy to the piece in comparison with its direct precursor, although a good chunk of that may well come from this being the first of the series to essentially lift only the title from Fleming’s novel, and inventing the rest. First, but by no means the last.

If there’s a bone to pick with You Only Live Twice it’s going to be mainly location based. Yes, everything’s completely over the top, from the action to SPECTRE’s plan, but the movie does at times appear to be jumping up and down saying “I AM BASED IN JAPAN! LOOK AT ALL THIS JAPANESE STUFF THAT I AM SHOWING TO YOU! HAVE I MENTIONED I AM IN JAPAN!”. Understandable, and suitably exotic and intriguing to Western audiences, however by the time Tiger Tanaka has revealed his secret ninja training ground it can feel a little strange and over-egged.

There’s further oddness, and admittedly it’s perhaps not quite as strange as Doc. No’s make-up job, but You Only Live Twice does seem to imply that it’s easy to take a Caucasian and turn them into a perfectly disguised Japanese fella by applying a Tommy Sheridan-esque level of fake tan and dodgy haircut. I’m not altogether sure if this is racist, or merely very stupid. At least we’ve restrained ourselves from having Bond run around talking about making a delicious runch of flied rice at tooth hurty.

These are niggling points. You Only Live Twice stands up to time’s challenges far more robustly than Thunderball does, and makes for a far more thrilling watch. It represents the finalisation of the Bond movie formula that it will rely on for decades to come, with a few notable exceptions. In particular, the next in the series, but we’ll deal with that when we come to it.