007 Cinema Dossier: You Only Live Twice (1967)

Posted in Blog, Movies, What's Streaming? by - April 27, 2020
007 Cinema Dossier: You Only Live Twice (1967)

“Oh, the things I do for England.”

Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert ‘Cubbu’ Broccoli were eager to bring another Bond to the big screen. And despite some production problems that prevented On Her Majesty’s Secret Service being the next film, the series moved ahead, with You Only Live Twice.

The eleventh novel by Ian Fleming bears little resemblance to its cinematic counterpart (and marks the greatest departure from the source material for the films at the time). As Fleming’s friend and fellow writer, Roald Dahl (Mathilda, James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, that Dahl!) came into pen a script. Dahl and the producers felt that Fleming’s novel was more of a travelogue, and definitely lacked the visual punch that had become a hallmark of the series.

The production, though fairly untroubled technically, had some public relations issues. Sean Connery, who had grown tired of the role, and was already fearing being typecast. He was ready to leave the series, and made the announcement during the production. He had signed a one and done contract for You Only Live Twice and was eager to leave the 007 character behind.

He also made a pr gaff in an interview when it was intimated that he didn’t find Japanese women unattractive because of the clothes they wore. The whole production in Japan put Connery off the country, even causing him to turn down the role of Blackthorne in the Shogun miniseries.

Dahl’s script is definitely the biggest of the Bond’s yet, embracing the series most fantastical elements and pushing them above and beyond anything that had come to the screen yet. The story opens with with an American space capsule being captured (while in space) and James Bond apparently meeting his end in bed (he would have wanted it that way). As Cold War tensions escalate between Russia and the United States, the English government turns its attention to Japan. They believe the captured capsule came down there. Soon, Bond finds himself enmeshed in another SPECTRE scheme that not only holds the world in the balance but is the most fantastical of the Bond films yet.

And unfortunately that doesn’t leave much for Connery to do but wander around set pieces as a a virtually indestructible hero. A character that wanders around with a quip on his lips, a woman, or two, on his arm. Never in any real danger whether from the plot or character development. And that’s unfortunate, and you can see it in his performance. He’s doing his job, but the spark seems to be gone.

Taking over the director’s seat was Lewis Gilbert who had risen to acclaim with the Micheal Caine film, Alfie. Gilbert delivers the most visually sumptuous film of the series, to date, with some beautiful location work (some wonderful aerial photography – that pull back at the Kobe docks remains a favourite) and some truly jaw dropping production design by Ken Adam. From offices to private train cars to the absolutely stunning volcano base interior – all made on Pinewood Studios (although for the first time in the series, Bond does not set foot in England), and delivering to stunning effect.

Location shooting took the production all over Japan. And it looks absolutely beautiful on screen, once again, giving Bond the exotic feel that has become so much a part of the film. That, the beautiful women, and of course, the gadgets, and there are oh so many in this film. Something I’m sure Connery was getting tired of as well, though Little Nellie gives us a wonderful sequence and sees a reuse of John Barry’s 007 Theme.

Speaking of John Barry, he returns for a fifth time, and delivers, arguably, his best score to date, making full use of his orchestra, and giving the entire thing an enjoyable Eastern flavor. The film’s theme song is performed by Nancy Sinatra after Frank passed on it. And honestly, I think it wouldn’t have worked with Frank belting it out. Nancy does it right, and the theme recurs throughout the film as a motif, as Bond takes on all comers.

The cast included two actresses for Bond’s love interest, though one of them isn’t even given a name on screen. There’s Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), who also serves as the film’s sacrificial lamb, something that doesn’t happen to lots of female characters in Bond films, but is known to occur on occasion. Once Aki is out of the picture, Bond goes undercover as a Japanese fisherman (not very politically correct in its execution) and is ‘married’ to Kissy Suzuki (Mie Harma) whose name isn’t spoken once on screen.

There is of course a villainess in the piece as well, taking the cue from Fiona Volpe in Thunderball. We are given another redhead, Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) who works as one of the assassins of SPECTRE. And also Dwayne Johnson’s grandfather, Maivia, played a villain that squared off against Bond in an office.

Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewelyn return in their supporting cast roles as Moneypenny, M, and Q, respectively, working from a Royal Navy vessel, which gives us a first, seeing Bond in his Commander’s uniform. Speaking of firsts, this is also the first film to reveal Blofeld’s face. He faces off against Bond in the form of Donald Pleasance, who’s characterization served as the basis of Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films.

With production wrapping, promotion got underway with the development of poster art. There were a trio of posters created for the US and the UK, the UK being a quad format. But all featured wonderful art by Robert McGinnis and Frank McCarthy, with McCarthy’s images having a sense of smug playfulness about them.

For the first time on both sides of the pond, the film was released in June of 1967, and came a few short weeks after the release of the non-canon comedy film, Casino Royale featuring David Niven, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and Bond alumni Ursula Andress. But you can’t mess with Bond at the box office. And You Only Live Twice proved to be exactly what the audiences wanted.

That being said, I do love all the Bond films, some a lot more than others. And some I wish I could occasionally pass over. You Only Live Twice isn’t my favourite of the Connery films simply because Connery himself seems so forgettable in the film. The sets, the gadgets, the locations all seem to overshadow him. And despite the playfulness conveyed in the poster art, Connery doesn’t quite get to that smug pleasure he conveyed in Goldfinger and Thunderball.

What did he care? He’d completed his contract, he was out. James Bond would be someone else’s problem, if they could find someone for the role. And he could go on to other things.

The hunt for a new Bond began for the first time. And while nowadays these discussions can be filled with passion and vitriol, with some wonderful (and not so wonderful) names being thrown around, I imagine at the time the producers weren’t necessarily panicking, but they were definitely in a bind. With the future of the franchise in question, the producers took a huge risk, and promised as the end credits rolled, that James Bond Will Return In… On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

This post was written by
TD Rideout has been a movie fan since the moment he first encountered Bruce the Shark in 1975. As passionate about cinema as he is popcorn movies, his film education is a continuing journey of classics new and old. He is at his most comfortable with a book, a drink, his partner and his dog.
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