And here we start to drift…
Sure…we finally see the face of the man petting the cat (Donald Pleasence as the archetype for what would become Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series), but I can’t say I was overly impressed with the directing of Lewis Gilbert. In a series thus far dominated by the underrated Terence Young, even Guy Hamilton had turned in an admirable film with Goldfinger (1964), but You Only Live Twice might better have been allowed to only live once (or not at all).
When I saw Roald Dahl’s name in the opening credits, I was reassured. And I am always glad to see production designer Ken Adam’s name. But something is awry with this film. It is a bit of a limp fish (and not, sadly, fine sushi).
From the beginning (Bond’s burial at sea) the modern viewer might be thinking of another figure supposedly buried at sea: Osama bin Laden. Perhaps the two deaths are equally credible.
Karin Dor might have saved this movie, but sadly she is eaten a bit prematurely by piranhas. And while the piranhas fit with the methods of past Bond movies (sharks in Thunderball, for instance), there are some troubling details which make it clear the creators of this film might have been well-served to stick closer to Fleming’s novel than they did.
Bond flies a miniature helicopter to an island between Kobe and Shanghai: somewhere along an 829-mile-long route. Little Nellie (the chopper) could hardly have made it much outside of the bay before running out of fuel, but with all the gadgetry on board we might just suspend our disbelief. Perhaps it is even Tokyo from whence Little Nellie departs: an even greater haul. It really isn’t made very clear (or else I missed it). Maybe “Tiger” Tanaka had a base close to Blofeld’s island that I failed to register.
Karin Dor’s (Helga Brandt–#11 in S.P.E.C.T.R.E.) abrupt reversal from sleeping with Bond to disposing of him by parachuting from a plane in which she traps him really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why didn’t she just go ahead and use the plastic surgery tool in the first place? Her interrogation is weak. For what it’s worth, her threat of torture only got half the truth: Bond admitting to being a spy (but an industrial spy after a measly $300,000).
At least the scene in the autogyro is somewhat entertaining, but nothing compared to the underwater battle in Thunderball. Seems the Eon franchise was running a bit thin on ideas by this point. Mercifully, the scenery of Japan is nice (the wedding, the passing funeral, etc.).
The overall premise of the movie is good. It is believable. It is only the execution and the details which mar what could have otherwise been another classic in this series. The ninjas are a bit funny, but when in Tokyo (as they say)… Perhaps the funniest part is Connery as a Japanese man (by way of Lon Chaney methods).
Kissy Suzuki takes the prize as the best name. Score another for the Bond girls in the “memorable name” category. But part of the confusion is that there are three possible Bond girls: one who dies by poison, one who is promising (and pleasing to the eye) until stripped to the bone by omnivorous fish, and Kissy. It’s typical of a movie which doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be. It is formulaic, but that didn’t stop the first four Eon-produced Bond movies from being generally fantastic. The error comes in tentative experimentation, not enough experimentation, and the setting-in of creative lethargy as regards the Bond series’ “tricks.”
No doubt, for 1967 this was some ambitious filmmaking. Ken Adam did a reasonably good job of trying to take the series to the next level with his set design, but the overall product is just not convincing. Truth be told, Adam and the main persons responsible for this film could have all died aboard BOAC Flight 911 had they not been convinced to stay in Japan on the scouting trip a bit longer and watch some ninjas. Perhaps having the ninjas in the film was a bit of thanks for the disaster they narrowly escaped. All on board the flight they were scheduled to take died when it crashed 25 minutes after takeoff.
Roald Dahl (whose name I mentioned earlier) wrote the screenplay. He had been a close friend of Ian Fleming. Despite their friendship, Dahl considered the novel upon which the movie was based to be Fleming’s worst. Indeed, Dahl resorted (due to apparent lack of plot in the novel) to aping Dr. No to a significant extent. Dahl was, however, quite complimentary of director Lewis Gilbert. Perhaps the deck was just really stacked against the auteur in question.
There’s no doubt that great effort went into making this film. A cameraman (John Jordan) lost his foot, for God’s sake! No, the dearth wasn’t in physical “energy,” but in mental excitement.
Editor Peter Hunt went on to direct the next Bond film (due to his successful sorting and sifting of the footage from this gargantuan blob).
At least the title song is great (thanks to Nancy Sinatra).