You Only Live Twice or, Bond’s first true step into fantasy, not least of which through its opening sequence, which sees 007 seemingly killed by machine gun fire, followed up by a stunning title sequence that sees silhouetted women twirling in front of erupting volcanoes and flames. Has James Bond gone to hell, or at least purgatory? It isn’t too far of a stretch – the screenplay was penned by Roald Dahl, and features some of his absurd, fantastical wit. Despite foregoing the usual globetrotting and settling on a single location (Japan), You Only Live Twice is gigantic in scope, a predecessor to its epic younger brothers, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, all three directed by Lewis Gilbert, and all three have almost the exact same plot – a third party organization, in this case SPECTRE, plays two world powers against one another in order to rise from the shadows as the supreme force. This is Bond at its biggest. For some the absence of Ian Fleming’s influence will surely be problematic, although Connery does bring a bit of the literary Bond to the screen. I find that Gilbert and company pull of Twice with aplomb by matching its grandiosity with grandiose filmmaking.
Unfortunately, Twice is a clear step down from the four films that preceded it, due in large part to the fact that Connery is now in full I-don’t-care-about-this-movie mode. It’s obvious his heart has gone, and with it the constant sense of danger that he brought with him to the films of the early 60’s. However, even with half the charisma, half the magnetism, and half the energy he’s still a force to be reckoned with when on screen. Luckily, he’s not the real star here – production designer Ken Adam, composer John Barry, and legendary cinematographer Freddie Young are. It’s a trifecta that results in pure cinematic bliss. You Only Live Twice is less about James Bond as a fish-out-of-water, and more about Young’s establishing shot accompanied by Barry’s ethereal music. Adam makes connective tissue sequences, such as Bond snooping around in an office, exciting and thrilling simply due to the grandeur of it all. This is, after all, the Bond film in which SPECTRE’s lair is situated inside a hollowed out volcano, and Adam’s set is as over-the-top and brilliant as the concept itself.
Another set back is an overlong sequence of scenes in which Bond trains to be a ninja in order to blend in while snooping around for SPECTRE’s lair. The filmmakers even had the audacity to give Bond a makeover, and Connery walks out of the procedure looking like Burt Reynolds on drugs. Not only does it grind the film to a halt (a cardinal sin for a picture hinging so much on sheer thrill) but it’s completely useless (one moment of unintentional hilarity arises when Bond speaks a bit of Japanese in Connery’s usual Scottish tone). There’s even a fake marriage to solidify his cover that is never utilized in any way aside from giving Bond a chance to make love to the film’s second “Bond girl,” Kissy Suzuki, a far cry from Aki, the leading lady of the first two acts (perhaps the only woman in the franchise to save Bond’s life three times).
Silly, overblown, but exotic and stunning, You Only Live Twice is pure formula. It is gleefully camp (Blofeld has a collapsing bridge that drops into a piranha tank) but it looks so good doing it, it earns it. Gilbert’s Bond films are all spectacular in the most literal sense, with this the prototype, Connery’s darkness an interesting juxtaposition with the fantasy around him. Gilbert’s efforts with Roger Moore in the lead role may be purer, but You Only Live Twice is pure iconography – it is bloated, dramatically slack, cinematic grandeur.