You Only Live Twice


A middle-aged James Bond caught between the visions of two evil geniuses — Ernst Stavros Blofeld and Sir Ken Adam.

WHO IS JAMES BOND? If this was the first James Bond movie you ever saw, you would be correct in assuming that Bond is a middle-aged fantasy, a balding, vain, stocky, aging Englishman (although his Scottish accent begins to assert itself here) who, in spite of falling apart physically, can still pilot a toy helicopter, jump onto a pile of empty cardboard boxes and, occasionally, bed beautiful women, although it’s never as much of a done deal as it has been in the past. It’s only been two years since Thunderball, but Bond has gained at least twenty pounds — not enough to shudder in horror, but enough that he needs a double for his wetsuit-scene. His toupee starts out bad and turns dramatically worse before the movie’s over.

In spite of carrying the burden of an entire generation’s fantasies of manhood, Bond is sprightly here again after moping his way through Thunderball. He’s clearly middle-aged now, but he’s not raging against the dying of the light — there’s something like acceptance and grace in his behavior. Women pass him by as often as they give in to him in You Only Live Twice, and that seems perfectly okay with him — as though he’d just as soon get some sleep.

With Bond’s arc of “middle-aged guy getting used to Japanese culture,” You Only Live Twice resembles nothing less than Lost in Translation, but with car chases and helicopter fights.  With his two bad wigs, his expanding belly and his slowly collapsing face, the middle-aged Bond is starting to feel less like a sex symbol and more like a dirty old man. It makes perfect sense that Connery would want to stop doing these movies at this point. However, it’s also worth noting that, for a moment in Act II, the narrative slows down, Bond gets married, and just for a bit, You Only Live Twice starts to take on a different dimension, something a little more character-driven, subtle and, well, something more like a “real movie.”

WHAT DOES THE BAD GUY WANT? We finally meet SPECTRE #1, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (he uses all three names, as apparently Ernst Blofeld is a common name throughout the world and he doesn’t want anyone to mix him up with Ernst Blofeld the conceptual artist, Ernst Blofeld the Prime Minister of Turkey, Ernst Blofeld the champion racecar driver or Ernst Blofeld the comedian). Blofeld’s ambition has returned — he wants nothing less than to spark a nuclear war between the US and the USSR. He’s going to accomplish this by — I’m sorry, what now?

Let me get this straight. Blofeld wants to spark a nuclear war between the US and the USSR. He’s going to do this by sending a series of rockets up into space and “kidnapping” both American and Soviet spacecraft, returning them to his secret underground lair, where the American and Soviet astronauts will be held in a detention cell, until — um — until the world is destroyed. And then SPECTRE can take over.

Um, okay. Ernst? May I call you Ernst? No? Sorry. Mr. Blofeld.

Mr. Blofeld, this plan — I — I — why? You’ve got a secret underground rocket base, and that’s a good thing. You want to take over the world, and that’s a good thing. I, I just, I have to ask you — please, take your hand away from that button please, for a moment — I have to ask you, is this the best plan? If you don’t mind, I have some suggestions.

1. Your space technology is far in advance of anything the US or the USSR currently has. Why not take up a career in aeronautics? McDonnell-Dougles and Hughes Aircraft rule the world in ways you cannot possibly imagine. You, your lesser numbers, and your cat could all be very happy in such a world, and you could get that awful scar fixed.

2. Why are you “kidnapping” the American and Soviet spacecraft? What does that do? You’re trying to start a nuclear war — start a fucking nuclear war! Are you telling me you can design, finance and build a private space program, complete with spacecraft-eating technology, but you can’t just drop a bomb on Washington? Why are you “kidnapping” spacecraft? Blow them out of the fucking sky! What, do you have a soft spot for astronauts?!

3. The “Monday Morning” question: do you know for sure that kidnapping spacecraft will lead to nuclear war? What if it does not? What happens then? Have you thought about that?

4. “Nuclear War” is a little risky — it tends to spread. Have you though about that? Let’s say you kill, oh, ten percent of the world’s population — three hundred million people or so. How do you know that you won’t be one of them? And let’s say you survive the nuclear war — how do you know that people will turn to SPECTRE to lead the post-nuclear world? What if they put two and two together and figure out that you’re actually the one who killed everybody? Do you think they’ll let you rule the world then?

Remember Auric Goldfinger? He had a plan. He’d thought it through. You, you’re a, you know what you are? You’re a movie villain. You know what a Movie Villain is? A Movie Villain is the guy who thinks the story’s over when he gets what he wants. And there’s a freeze-frame and a fade-out and it says “The End.” But in real life, Mr. Blofeld, the story goes on. You know who a Movie Villian is? George W. Bush is a Movie Villain. His “Mission Accomplished” speech on the aircraft carrier was his “The End” moment. But you know what, Mr. Blofeld? The story kept going on, and now look where he is.

Don’t be a George W. Bush, Mr. Blofeld. Don’t be a Movie Villain. Think, Mr. Blofeld. You’re a super genius, you should be perfectly comfortable doing so. Please, for your own good, for the good of SPECTRE and for the world.

WHAT DOES JAMES BOND ACTUALLY DO TO SAVE THE WORLD? A good balance is struck here between detective work, heroic acts, defending himself and screwing women. The movie starts out as a real nuts-and-bolts detective story and gradually, even gracefully, builds into a surreal, gonzo, sci-fi/action spectacular.

HELPFUL ANIMALS: This Bond has a longer view of life, it seems, than his earlier selves — he knows when he needs to act alone and he knows when he needs help. Helpful animals are numerous in You Only Live Twice, and for the first time they are compelling in their own right. First there’s Tiger Tanaka, who is the head of some kind of Japanese good-guy spy team, then there are not one but two capable, comely Japanese spy-girls who Bond gets to know better, then there is a whole army of ninjas — and as soon as someone says “ninjas,” the pulse of the whole movie picks up. Ninjas! They explode out of the screen, a whole new (to Bond) cool world of flying bodies, wild stunts and anarchic possibilities. There’s a scene in Act II where Bond is shown around the Ninja Academy, and you can actually watch as Bond becomes obsolete before your eyes, standing there haplessly watching the future of action films unfold before him, looking suddenly pathetically square, in a pink shirt no less.

A NOTE ON Q: for the first (and I’m afraid, only) time, imho, the relationship between Bond and Q is exactly right. Q’s not showing up and foisting his toys on Bond as Bond stands there looking bored; Bond needs something specific (a gadget-laden helicopter), demands it from Q, and is professional and even bossy with him when Q delivers. I can’t tell you how much more I enjoy this version of Bond’s relationship with Q. Q is always, for some reason, this stern father figure (or perhaps uncle-figure), this stick-up-his-arse fuddy-duddy who’s always giving Bond toys but forbidding him to play with them, and it makes no sense. As I discussed earlier regarding From Russia With Love, spy toys aren’t created in a vacuum, they are invented because agents need them. When Q shows up and piles a bunch of crap on Bond, Bond is then obligated to use that crap, whether he wants to or not, and the narrative always shows the burden of that expectation — oh, we can’t go home yet, we haven’t used the exploding talcum powder. It’s so much more logical and satisfying that Bond would encounter a situation, requisition the items he needs to navigate the situation, then deal with Q as an equal instead of as a whining, wrist-slapping authority figure.

HOW COOL IS THE BAD GUY? For the first two acts of You Only Live Twice, Blofeld is still “that guy with the cat in his lap.” There are so many shots of the cat while Blofeld is talking that I began to suspect that the cat is actually SPECTRE #1, a feline criminal genius and a ventriloquist to boot. Come to think of it, when I consider the flaws in Blofeld’s plan, perhaps I’m not giving him enough credit. It’s an awe-inspiring plan, for a cat.

Once he shows up, Donald Pleasance does not disappoint as Blofeld. His scar is icky, he pulls off the SPECTRE uniform, he’s clearly insane: 1 point for appearance. 1 point for the piranha tank. 10 points for the jaw-dropping, Ken Adam-designed volcano stronghold. Even with his childishly retarded plan, Blofeld is a bad guy second only at this point to Goldfinger.

QUESTION: Bond is sent to Japan to find this volcano stronghold. He is put in touch with Tiger Tanaka, who is a great deal of help. There is some kind of bullshit ticking clock installed in Act II that requires Bond to be fully trained as a ninja, and married, and convincing as a Japanese man (yeah, right) before he can go blow shit up. Here’s the question: why does James Bond have to do this? Any one of the ninjas we see training looks already qualified enough to handle the task, why wait for Bond to become Japanese?

DON’T BOTHER ME WITH YOUR TECHNICAL MUMBO-JUMBO: During the stupefying climax of You Only Live Twice, Bond is required to blow up the spacecraft-gobbling rocketship before it gobbles up another spacecraft. How will he do it? Well, as it happens, Blofeld has thoughtfully devised a remote-control self-destruct mechanism for just that purpose. What is the name of this mechanism? “The Exploder Button.” With tech-heavy jargon like that, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Blofeld also owns a laser called a “Bright-Light Thing.”

FAVORITE MOMENT: There’s another moment in the climax, before Bond gets to the Exploder Button, he and Blofeld and a million bad guys are standing around in Blofeld’s control center when an explosion goes off. All the humans are fine, but Blofeld’s normally cool-as-a-cucumber cat, quite naturally, freaks out like you wouldn’t believe. Blofeld must forcefully restrain the cat, its eyes bulging in abject fear, to keep it from leaping, terrified, from his arms. This little bit of business is notable to me because, if the actor playing Blofeld is holding onto the cat that hard in this take, that means there was at least one take earlier where the actor was not able to restrain the cat from leaping, terrified, from his arms. That means that the production staff knew that the cat was in dire straits during this shot, and did nothing about it, except for advising the actor to hold on tighter. Now, You Only Live Twice is a gargantuan production, and even the most brilliant production manager can’t think of everything, but Sweet Hopping Jesus, the actor’s back is already turned to the camera, give him a fucking prop cat.

NOTES: It’s hard not to think about the career of Ken Adam during this movie, because he clearly owns the picture. In fact, a darker plan than even Blofeld’s starts to form in my mind — all this is happening because of Ken Adam. I mean, face it, he’s the one element that all these different people share. He designs enormous volcano strongholds for SPECTRE, and he designs the offices of the Japanese industrialist working for Blofeld, and he designs the private train of Tiger Tanaka, and he designs the opera-house-sized makeup room for Bond’s Japanese transformation, and he designs the Russian space center! He’s everywhere, every room has the same tilted ceilings, the same hard, bold lines, the same creamy, mid-sixties palette, the same invisible, recessed lighting — what kind of security clearance does this guy have? Didn’t anyone notice — hey! SPECTRE’S volcano stronghold looks just like the Russian space center! (and Dr. No’s underground lair, and Goldfinger’s house in Kentucky, and SPECTRE’s boardroom) All of this unpleasantness could have been easily avoided if they had just sent Bond after Ken Adam! When you consider that Adam also designed the War Room in Dr. Strangelove, it’s a wonder the world ever made it out of the 60s alive — the man was obviously a dangerous double-agent, contracting for both sides! Blofeld’s plan even starts to take on a cold kind of logic when you remove Blofeld and insert Ken Adam: Ha ha! The Americans and Russians will blow each other up, and then they will hire ME to rebuild everything — I’M THE ONLY CONTRACTOR THEY KNOW! HA HA HA HA HA!


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Comments

62 Responses to “You Only Live Twice”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    Prop cat be damned, bring in the kitty quaaludes!

    You know, I’m convinced there’s at least one Blofeld-like parody out there the cat actually is revealed to be in charge, but I can’t for the life of my think of what it is.

    Regarding villains and commercial power — I read a book last year, Jennifer Government about a world gone amuck where the corporations were actually running things. Trouble was, apart from everyone taking their last names from their corporation (which seemed absurdly impractical – just how many John Nikes would be out there?) it seemed so easily plausible in this modern era that it just failed as satire.

  2. eronanke says:

    W/e, this is one of my favorite Bonds. The theme song alone is gold. Plus, Himeji-jo Castle, (where the ninjas are training), is a real place and is actually totally cool to tour.

    • Todd says:

      Best of all, it’s escaped the clutches of that double-crossing, octopus-like designer Ken Adam.

      • eronanke says:

        What is your favorite Bond theme song anyway?

        • Todd says:

          Well, it’s hard to top “Goldfinger,” but I also enjoy “Thunderball,” “Live and Let Die” (by my hero Paul McCartney) and Garbage’s “The World is Not Enough.”

          I like the dreamy, romantic “You Only Live Twice,” especially as delivered by enthusiastic amateur Nancy Sinatra.

          • eronanke says:

            “Goldfinger” is GREAT, “You Only Live Twice”, “A View to a Kill”, and “Thunderball”…
            But the best: GOLDENEYE. Tina ftw.

          • black13 says:

            When I actually listened to “World,” I was amazed how much of a spoiler the lyrics contained — obvious if you know the story.

            For me, the best songs are Goldfinger, Thunderball, Live and Let Die and YOLT. (The title works well in the acronymisation :).)

            I even like the new one, You Know My Name, but I can’t help thinking it would have been better if Robbie Williams had performed it.

            (Worst Bond song ever, IMO, is Die Another Day. But that movie is Worst Bond Ever on so many levels…)

      • Anonymous says:

        How about writing only on Ken Adams? He is lingering all through after all.

    • jeffrock says:

      No shit; that was Himeji? To think I once spent an entire day there and didn’t even realize…

  3. curt_holman says:

    This is a great piece.

    Something that might account for the plot weirdness in some of the Bond films is that they cherry-pick items from the Ian Fleming books in weirdly inconsistent ways. I remember you rightly pointed out that Bond got out of his cell fairly easily in Dr. No, but if I remember the book correctly, Dr. No placed Bond in a Skinner-like maze full of painful traps and pitfalls, from which Bond eventually escaped. The cell-escape in the movie is sort of like that, only makes (even) less sense.

    Similarly, I think there was a justification for Bond turning Japanese in the book, but the plot is otherwise completely different.

  4. Y’know, I see parts of this movie on television frequently, and I never really noticed most of the things you pointed out.

    Re: his age, well, I’m used to Bond being a robust man in his mid forties. I hadn’t noticed his weight gain, but I didn’t feel he was too old for the role until Diamonds Are Forever.

    • Todd says:

      Well, Bond’s age and weight probably were not that apparent to theater audiences in 1967. It’s only watching them in order over successive nights that forces these observations.

      I’m used to Bond being a robust man in his mid forties.

      Funny, that. Because I was thinking the same thing. Bond seems relentlessly middle-aged now; the casting of Daniel Craig makes Bond seem positively giddy.

      I’m older than my father was when these movies came out, and Bond still seems like my father’s hero. My question is, why? Is Fleming’s character that old? How could he be? Wouldn’t he be removed from the field by 40? Why does the balding, fat, slightly embarrassing Bond seem natural to us?

      • I’ve watched many of the movies, but I have yet to read the books.

        So I don’t really have an answer.

        I think movie Bond taps into some sort of archetypal power fantasy, but I’m not sure how to go about articulating it better than that.

        And, of course, the movie industry likes having a proven work horse of a franchise.

        • Todd says:

          I’ve watched many of the movies, but I have yet to read the books.

          Reading the books provides a much more internal view of the character; it explains a lot of his psychology, but it also makes him a lot less sexy and fun.

          • greyaenigma says:

            Books’ll do that to you.

          • From conversations and from a bit o’ reading online, I’m under the impression that book Bond and movie Bond are two very distinct creatures.

            • There have been attempts to fuse the two in the course of the film series, but it hasn’t worked out so well.

              Dalton could have had a chance at being something like the “book Bond,” but with screenplays that were oddly uneven, as if both trying to do something different and trying to act as if Roger Moore was still playing the character, he didn’t have a chance.

              I haven’t seen the new Casino Royale yet, but I hear it has something closer to the tone of the books. Not sure if I believe this (I’m thinking of doing the same as Mr. Alcott and going through the whole series before watching it).

              The conceptions have wound up so far apart, I’m not sure if it’s even wise to try at this point.

      • black13 says:

        “Why does the balding, fat, slightly embarrassing Bond seem natural to us?”

        Two words: Roger Moore. He didn’t quit until they tossed him out, and that was only after some magazines ran beach vacation pictures of him with all of his gut in all of its glory. (bleh)

        Sadly, Dalton using the Connery template failed at the box office, and when Brosnan became Bond they lost no time in Moore-ifying him.

        All during Casino Royale, I kept thinking that no other Bond (except maybe very early Connery) would have survived Craig’s case.

        • Todd says:

          Two words: Roger Moore.

          I have a sneaking suspicion you’re correct. He’s three years older than Connery, who was too old to do it when he did his last one in 1971. Connery was 41 when he was too old, Moore was 46 when he began.

        • jeffrock says:

          All during Casino Royale, I kept thinking that no other Bond (except maybe very early Connery) would have survived Craig’s case.

          Or Lazenby– the man was young, fit and an unarmed combat instructor for the Australian special forces no less.

      • senordildo says:

        In Moonraker Fleming says that Bond expects to be killed before he’s 45, which is the mandatory retirement age from the 00 section. Bond started out in his mid-to-late 30s and he was still that old by the time Fleming died, even though over a decade had passed in between the first and last Bond novels.

  5. I once read an essay online about this film that put forth the theory that Roald Dahl’s approach to writing it was as the story of an actually dead James Bond’s journey through the mythical underworld and out again. It cited many elements of the Bond mythos that were intentionally “backward” in the film, but the only one I can remember offhand is the fact that this is the only film in which he screws up his famous martini order by requesting it “stirred, not shaken.” There is of course his death which opens the film, his transformation into a humble Japanese man, the various underground environments and the volcano god Blofeld as well…anyway, it’s kind of interesting. Especially since it does a lot of blowing up all the Bond conventions to their logical point of excess, damn near visually calling “bullshit!” on many of them (love the almost dismissive helicopter shot of Bond taking on twenty guys atop a cargo ship).

    This is my favorite Bond film, actually (come on–how hot is that couch fight in the Japanese office?) . And second favorite Bond theme song, after Goldfinger, of course. Favorite never-used-as-a-Bond-theme-but-should-have-been: Pulp’s This Is Hardcore.

    • teamwak says:

      Something possibly too leftfield. This is hardcore? This is penguins.

    • Todd says:

      I forgot to mention the couch fight — I almost cheered when he threw the entire couch at the guy.

      It’s hard to beat Goldfinger, but this is, I think, the apotheosis of Bond movies. This is the high-water mark; Bond had too many imitators and competitors chasing after him (some of them even named James Bond!); after this he goes from setting trends to following them, from breaking new ground to shoring up his reputation — he becomes an institution to tend, not a character to explore.

      As happens to men sometimes.

    • gdh says:

      Roald Dahl wrote it? That’s blowing my mind. I had no idea he ever wrote any screenplays.

      • Todd says:

        He is credited with You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang — both high-profile Harry Saltzman productions of Ian Fleming properties. I am also told he worked on Willy Wonka.

  6. teamwak says:

    Ha ha! The Americans and Russians will blow each other up, and then they will hire ME to rebuild everything — I’M THE ONLY CONTRACTOR THEY KNOW! HA HA HA HA HA!

    Classic. Best. Base. Ever!

    Although a prop cat may have diminished the effect somewhat.

    • Todd says:

      Just for the one shot! I’m not talking about Prop Cat: The Motion Picture.

      I’m positive that the production would have cheerfully provided a prop cat if they had thought the shot out before they got to the set — it looks like they got there, did a test, the cat freaked, and the assistant director said “oh shit, now what? Should Blofeld let his cat freak? What if he puts it down?” And someone else said “No, he’s holding the cat in the shot we did two weeks ago, it’s not going to cut together if he puts down the cat,” and the actor said “It’s okay, I can hold onto the cat, if I could just get some cotton batting or something to wrap around my arm when it digs its claws into it.”

      Interestingly, in a later shot the cat jumps out of Blofeld’s arms when he shoots somebody or something, and this time he lets it go, and it skitters, terrified, along the set wall before dashing off screen. I’m guessing this is before the days of the ASPCA monitoring film production.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Prop Cat: The Motion Picture

        I, for one, think it’s high time we start discussing Prop Cat: The Motion Picture.

        “It’s like Monorail Cat plus That Darn Cat!”
        “Can we get Frank Gorshin again?”
        “Uh. No. How about Billy West? Fine. But it needs more juice. Can the cat be from outer space?”
        “Sure! It’ll be a quantum leap! You mean like the cat from Alien?”
        “No. Not really.”
        “Like Cat in Red Dwarf?”
        “No, think more… feline.”
        “Maybe we can get Nastassja Kinski!” “Yeah… now you’re thinking!”

        • Todd says:

          Re: Prop Cat: The Motion Picture

          Considering the fact that this was made, not to mention this, the idea of a movie about the adventures of Blofeld’s cat sounds like a natural to me, or would have been in 1967.

          • greyaenigma says:

            Re: Prop Cat: The Motion Picture

            together with new found allies, Ace The Bathound and Streaky the Supercat, Krypto fights the forces of evil

            Justice Litter Unlimited.

            I love how they only fight the pets of supervillains. It’s like how celebrities only date other celebrities.

            • teamwak says:

              Re: Prop Cat: The Motion Picture

              Fantastic idea. I’d buy that for a dollar!

              We are into the realms of Pinky and the Brain here. Justice Litter Unlimited is about the greatest concept yet.

              Count me in 🙂

              • greyaenigma says:

                Re: Prop Cat: The Motion Picture

                I was thinking of Pinky and the Brain, too, but they’re not really superpowered (except in brain capacity).

                It would be entertaining to see what the pets of all the B and C level heroes and villains would be. Does Red Tornado have a pet? Does it get killed off every once in a while?

        • Todd says:

          Re: Prop Cat: The Motion Picture

          “It’s like Monorail Cat plus That Darn Cat!”

          In total seriousness, I may not be able to sell Blofeld’s Cat, but I could probably sell Pictures of Cats With Funny Captions: The Motion Picture.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “With his two bad wigs, his expanding belly and his slowly collapsing face, the middle-aged Bond is starting to feel less like a sex symbol and more like a dirty old man.”

    You actually seem to revel writing that description. Ok, older sure, but “slowly collapsing face?”… he was hardly Harrison Ford circa NOW taking on Indiana J again.

    • Todd says:

      I don’t know what Connery was eating, drinking or spending his time doing, but there’s only five years separating Dr. No and You Only Live Twice and he seems to have aged at least ten. Check out the wedding scene in Act II, he looks so deeply unattractive as he “checks out” the women coming up the stairs.

  8. randymonki says:

    I literally did a spit-take while reading the Favorite Moment. I’m still cleaning the Apfelschorle off my workspace. >.>