You Only Live Twice (1967)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 June (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

…and ‘Twice’ is the only way to live!

You Only Live Twice is one of my favourite Bond movies, and for the life of me I’m not sure why. It’s a crazy film, utterly preposterous in many, many places, with the central character by now so far from the human spy of the early entries and attaining superhero status that it lacks all credibility. Some bits make no sense, such as the scene where a chopper wielding a giant magnet lifts a car that’s pursuing Bond into the air, then dumps it into the sea. Bond watches the ‘drop’ from a video feed, but who’s filming it? There’s the infamous surgical procedure that disguises 007 as a Japanese man, not to mention the jaw-dropping pronouncement that in Japan, men come first, women second. Sean Connery’s clearly disinterested performance should send the entire affair crashing over the edge, whilst the final unveiling of Ernst Stavro Blofeld dishes up Donald Pleasance, more slightly creepy than the globe-striding megalomaniac who’s been lurking in the shadows for four movies. All told, it’s sheer hogwash.

But good hogwash. Several elements really ramp up the quality, beginning with John Barry’s score. An obvious choice he may be, but Barry’s a composer whose  music I’ll always listen to, and this is one of his finest pieces of work. Inspired by the Far East, his score for You Only Live Twice is as luxurious as thick chocolate, in love with the film’s Japanese setting and its sense of both wonder and action. Ken Adams was once again in charge of production design, and for this served up one of his finest creations, a hollowed out volcano that doubled as SPECTRE’s lair. It’s incredible to think that the cavernous set really looked that big. It had to, people running along the floor like insects, ninjas dropping in from quite a height. Visually, it just beats everything that came before out of sight. Bond spends quite a sizeable portion of the film searching for Blofeld’s base, and the message when he stumbles across it appears to be that whatever you could imagine, no matter the scale, what’s filmed will always be bigger and more spectacular.

After the aquatic (lack of) fun dished up in Thunderball, the volcano must have been an amazing feast for 1960s eyes and chimes perfectly with the film’s determination to pile up the visual treats. It’s all helped along by Freddie Young’s cinematography. The award winning Director of Photography (Young came to You Only Live Twice with Oscars for his contribution to Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, two epics shot on an enormous canvas) is behind all those gorgeous shots of volcanic landscapes, the expansive Japanese vistas at sunset, orange rays spilling over Bond as he arrives on the shore.

Roald Dahl’s screenplay job involved just two demands – the Japanese location and hollowed out volcano base. The rest was up to him, and Dahl just went for it, stuffing his script with spectacle and thrills. As daft as the magnet-wielding helicopter is, it’s certainly off the scale of what people might imagine. Little Nellie, Bond’s flatpack chopper, looks like great fun to pilot. SPECTRE’s plan to play the superpowers off against each other by sending a rocket into space that ‘eats’ their own vessels is just mental. There must come a point, even for an evil organisation, when they start wondering why they bother with all this – surely the cost of building the base and developing ships into orbit is so prohibitive that there’s just no point. Why not  spend a fraction of the cash on a limitless supply of assassins to do away with Bond? Or just invest the money wisely and live off the profits?

But so what, right? Where would the fun be in such a prissy evil plan, not when there are dead volcanoes in a rural part of Japan just waiting to be developed into domains of black-hearted deeds? There are better Bond films than You Only Live Twice, but few come with such high production values, such an aim to please and similar levels of guilty wit. It’s nothing more or less than splendid nonsense.

You Only Live Twice: ****

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10 Replies to “You Only Live Twice (1967)”

  1. Good review, one of my favourite bond movies as well. I especially love the score and the title song by Nancy Sinatra. Whenever I hear it I’m transported into the Bond universe.

    1. Thanks vinnieh. It may be my favourite of all the Bond themes, with On her Majesty’s Secret Service and Moonraker also up there. The latter has a terrible reputation, but there’s much to enjoy and Barry’s score – especially the music building up to the ‘space’ bits – is breathtaking.

  2. “Splendid nonsense” just about sums up the movie perfectly Mike. I guess it is the point at which the series began to parody itself but it’s such great fun that I sit back and let it all wash over me, blocking out the fact that the story is indeed utter tripe. Great fun and great entertainment.

    1. Thanks Colin. That one turned into a bit of a gush towards the end, didn’t it? I kind of like the way its self-parody hasn’t stopped certain comedians from basing entire film franchises on its silliness, I mean how can anyone take a film that ends in a giant, hollowed out volcano all that seriously to begin with? Incidentally, the frickin’ volcano is pretty much my favourite of all the ‘evil lairs’ – nothing has matched it for outright spectacle and grand design.

      1. They tried to replicate the feel of Blofeld’s lair in The Spy Who Loved Me, which is a kind of remake anyway, but didn’t quite achieve it.

  3. Spot on Mike – this is the most ‘epic’ the series ever got, which is probably why they got Young to photograph it after his collaborations with David Lean. This may actually have been the first Bond film I ever saw and I remember thinking that it just felt incredible – not least because, and presumably this is Young contribution, the guns when they fire seem to have red flames. I know, is this a good reason for loving a movie? it is when you’re 9 years old! John Barry’s score is wonderful and I agree, ranks with OHMSS as his finest in the series, even outclassing GOLDFINGER. Of his later entries I would also single out his last, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS

    1. Thanks Sergio. I have to confess I didn’t notice the ‘red flames’ but I certainly agree about the attention to detail and all the technical departments outdoing themselves to such an extent they entirely mask the disembodied performance Connery puts in. My favourite scene is the fight on the rooftop, pretty much the only memorable bit of direction as Gilbert’s camera takes a bird’s eye view and covers everything happening on the screen from a distance. Lovely John Barry music underscoring this scene also.

      Talking of Freddie Young, I watched War Horse the other night. Liked it a lot, but Spielberg shamelessly nicked a famous shot from Lawrence of Arabia when he gets the lad and his horse walking across that horizon. A very ‘John Ford’ film otherwise.

      1. Have yet to watch WAR HORSE, but thatis very interesting, thanks. The ‘red flames’ thing is obviously real pre-teen nonsense though I do think that Young was using some sort of filter throughout the film as it does have a very unusual ‘look’ compared with any of the other Bonds. Yes, that helicopter shot is glorious – Halliwell called it the most ‘expansive’ of the series, and I always think that this was what he had in mind. It is a truly emblematic shot and just sums up the film and its approach as a whole – it is then capped by those rooftop dives by Bob Simmons and then ends with Bond getting captured anyway, which is just typical of how the films constantly stop and start and rarely seem to get very far really – not that I’m complaining – it does tend to make the more narratively coherent approach of the more recent CASINO ROYALE stand out a mile though, but you can’t have Bond lose the love of his life in every film …

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