For the first time in the Bond series, the producers are confronted with a problem: what to do when you don't have an Ian Fleming story to rely on?
Oh, Ian Fleming wrote the You Only Live Twice novel, to be sure. But it was fairly unsuitable for filming, at least at this point in time in the Bond franchise. A brief synopsis of the book:
The book takes place after On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Despondent and falling apart after Tracy's death, Bond has botched several assignments. M decides to give Bond a last chance impossible mission to shake him out of his torpor. He promotes Bond (temporarily) to the diplomatic division--he's now agent 777!! His job is to make contact with the head of the Japanese secret service, Tiger Tanaka, and find a way to convince him to give MI-6 access to all the intelligence on the Russians that Japan is currently sharing exclusively with the CIA.
After learning Japaneses customs and impressing Tiger (in part by spending a whole chapter beating him at rock paper scissors--seriously), Tanaka proposes a deal. An odd foreigner, Doctor Guntram Shatterhand, has taken up residence in Japan, and filled his remote estate with virtually every poisonous and deadly species of flora and fauna known to man, supposedly for research. Yet many Japanese have taken to going to his estate as an exotic means of committing suicide--over 500 so far. Shatterhand (great name!) hasn't done anything criminal, although it's suspected he's secretly encouraging people to come use his gardens of death. So Tanaka tells Bond that if he'll go and kill Shatterhand for the Japanese government, he'll share all the intelligence with England.
So Bond goes to ninja camp, is made to look Japanese, and pretends to marry a girl in a Japanese fishing village. In full ninja garb, he infiltrates Shatterhand's estate, only to discover that he is really Blofeld!! Since Blofeld has taken to walking around in samurai armor, we're treated to a final spectacle of Bond-ninja vs. Blofeld-samurai, ending with Bond choking the life out of Blofeld. Bond is shot and falls in the escape, and loses his memory...and lives out his life as a Japanese fisherman with Kissy Suzuki, and she's pregnant with his child, until he sees a foreign word in a newspaper and starts to regain his memory...
So, anyway, you can see that this would have provided some difficulties for Eon. The mission was far too small for what Bond had become (a diplomatic mission--really??); they couldn't focus on the revenge motive, because in the movies Bond hadn't married yet, and hadn't met Blofeld yet; S.P.E.C.T.R.E. hadn't been destroyed, as it had in the books; and they sure couldn't have Bond live out his life as a Japanese fisherman at the end.
But the producers really wanted to use "Bond in Japan." They wanted a great international locale, and they wanted to take advantage of the enormous popularity of Bond in Japan. So for the first time in the series, they were faced with having to vary significantly from what Fleming had put on paper.
The other writer they did without was Richard Maibaum, who had scripted or co-scripted every Eon Bond film so far. Broccoli and Saltzman turned instead to author Roald Dahl, who wrote the script with "Additional Story Material by Harold Jack Bloom." The result: they kept the title, the Japanese setting, Tiger Tanaka, some of the ninja school and Bond turning Japanese, and of course Blofeld is there. But instead of Bond's quest for redemption and revenge, instead of examining the culture clash between England and Japan, we get a huge ginormous production, looking to top Goldfinger and Thunderball and every Bond-wannabe out there.
But, man, did they miss Maibaum. One thing you notice when you're watching these films back-to-back, is just how good his screenplays were. They always had that little extra twist in them, a way to keep the plot fresh even when groaning under the weight of burgeoning production. He knew how to take the Fleming plot and adjust it just so to make a compelling movie. And his dialogue was always so witty, so clever, you enjoyed listening to the characters talk.
The YOLT script? No oompa loompas here, I'm afraid. First of all, if you filter out all of the mission control chatter, I would wager that this film has the least dialogue of any Bond movie. There are long periods of no dialogue, and even longer periods where 96% of the dialogue is of the "T-minus 36 minutes and counting" variety.
But what dialogue we do get is dry and lifeless. There's little humor, little back and forth between the characters, except the bare minimum needed to establish the formula of the Bond movie. Take the scene where Q describes Little Nellie's functions to Bond. These are Bond's complete responses: "Synchronized to what?" "Fine." "Good." "What range?" "Yes." That's it. Really. No humorous jabs, no byplay, nothing. The normal Bond/Q scene is reduced to a terse instructional video, with Bond as quiet student, and about as exciting. They don't even give James a complete sentence!!
And this plagues the whole movie. The first face-to-face meeting of Bond and Blofeld should be something tense and exciting. But instead of excitement and wonder, we get blandness. Donald Pleasence tries to make something of it with his delivery (KILL! BOND! NOW!!), but what should be, in a sense, the climax of the first five films comes off as, well, boring.
Throughout the film, is there even one memorable line of dialogue, something that serves beyond the barely expositional? Even Bond's "the things I do for England" is out of character when it's used, because he's supposed to be pretending to be a private businessman, not a British secret agent. Frankly, after this, it's no wonder that Sean Connery wanted out. Bond was no longer a character of wit and charm, he was a cardboard cutout. Some have criticized Connery's performance here as bored and uninterested, but really, he isn't given anything good to do or say in this movie. Dahl's script had managed to do what no villain could--make James Bond boring!
There are other problems with the script, many of which I'll note below...but come on, how is it possible to make it all the way through a Bond movie without ONCE naming the Bond girl on screen?? If the audience leaves the theater without even knowing the name of the girl Bond is making out with at the end, someone's screwed up brilliantly, haven't they?
As for the plot, this might be S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s final proper appearance (Blofeld appears to be working solo in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever), but they raise the stakes just about as much as you can. They've gone from toppling missiles and stealing decoders to nuclear blackmail to actually attempting to cause nuclear war. Frankly, there are quite a few problems with this scheme. In a better written movie, good characters and dialogue and twists can distract you from such trivia, but when everything is as bland and non-interesting as this, you have plenty of time to focus on the weaknesses.
We start with a curious teaser. After a VERY slow kidnapping of an American space mission, we see the "death" of Bond. I've never been quite convinced about WHY Bond had to fake his death. Even though he was "dead," he was still shadowed around by women talking into their purses the moment he set foot in Japan (never explained--Henderson's people? Tanaka's? S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s??), and the villains try to kill him as soon as they meet him. So what good, exactly, came from the death ruse (aside from justifying the title??)? (BTW, in the book, the title stems from a haiku Bond himself wrote while in Japan: You only live twice/Once when you are born/And once when you look death in the face) Plus, you've got to wonder about the advisability of plastering the face of your top agent on the front pages of the papers. That can't be good for future undercover missions, when you bring Bond "back to life."
We also have an awful lot of running around pointlessly, padding out the time. There's interminable fooling around with passwords. "I love you" might be funny the first time...but the third? After Bond has stolen the documents from the safe in Osato's office, he goes back there undercover the next day. Why? He doesn't discover anything new, he only succeeds in revealing himself to Osato. Bond spends a lot of time experiencing Japanese culture--bathhouses and rural weddings and ninja school--when we have a deadline to global thermonuclear war. Since they essentially just swim up to the volcano, was the whole wedding ruse necessary? And since Bond does exactly 2 ninja tricks--climbing into the volcano with suction cups and using a throwing star--it's hard to justify him spending DAYS in ninja training.
See what this movie has reduced me too? I'm actually criticizing James Bond learning to be a ninja.
The fascinating thing is, it's been said that director Lewis Gilbert's first cut was over 3 hours long (!!) and tested remarkably poorly with test audiences. Longtime series editor Peter Hunt, who was working as a second unit director, was brought in as "supervising editor" to re-cut the film. Which beg the question--how much more was there, really? What ended up on the cutting room floor? And you mean to tell me there was even more meandering??
Then, after 1 1/4 hours of delaying it, we finally get to the greatest set in the history of mankind--THE HOLLOWED OUT VOLCANO:
I mean, this thing is sheer genius. But...really, how many shots do we need of the top opening? How many shots of bejumpsuited S.P.E.C.T.R.E. troops running around it so we know how vast it is? How many shots of helicopters landing or rockets moving, all accompanied by droning mission control orders, are necessary? I understand how cool the set was, and how expensive, and how it was so large they had to build a new sound stage AROUND it. But the never ending establishing shots, while undeniably cool, really kill the momentum in the second half of the movie. They should have trimmed some of them...but not this one:
Ninjas rappelling down a hollowed out S.P.E.C.T.R.E. volcano. Ahhhh....Anyway, much more about Ken Adam's work on this film later in the week.
We then get the long....long....loooooong battle of the volcano. It goes on approximately FOREVER. And, while well-filmed, it ultimately takes waay too much time away from our hero, and any confrontation time with Blofeld. And unlike Thunderball's climactic battle, this one is not as well directed, not as tense, not as unique. And so it seems interminable. Especially since most of it wasn't necessary. They keep going on about how the control room was impregnable...but Blofeld had just escorted Bond out of there via a secret passage in his office. Instead of trying to fight their way in through the front door, why in the world doesn't Bond just go back in the way he came out?!?!?
Bah, enough negativity. There are still plenty of things to like in this movie. First, and foremost, let me give a huge shout-out to Lois Maxwell. Maybe it's just because I love a woman in uniform, but I think this was her finest hour as Moneypenny. She seems sultrier than she ever has, her voice more playful and sexier. Getting out of London suits her!
Next we must sing the praises of Tetsuro Tamba, who plays the dynamic Tiger Tanaka. He gets much better lines than Bond, he has better toys than M or Q (a private subway train! A ninja training school! Helicopters to dispose of cars!! Videophones in every car! Trap doors and stainless steel offices!!). His presence dominates this movie (perhaps a tad too much, as all the tech and ninjas at his disposal make Bond seem almost superfluous at times). He's no Kerim Bay, but he is a good of example of the early Bond movies not being afraid to showcase foreign actors in prominent good guy roles without making them seem cliched or silly.
What to do with our Bond girls is a bit of a problem. Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) is the stronger character, and seems to have the much stronger romantic connection with Bond, but frankly, her much more heavily accented English makes it harder to make a connection with her. And her death is brushed off pretty quickly. Kissy (Mie Hama) is prettier (and looks quite fetching spending 75% of her screen time in that white bikini), and seems to be a better actress, maybe, and a more capable agent, but has much less to do, thanks to the script. So, do we count Aki as a Bond Girl, even though she dies before the movie is over? Does it go to Kissy by default, even though she's mostly "just there"? It's an early version of the Teri Hatcher dilemma, but even thornier. Ah, the dilemmas of the Bond fan.
The theme song, sung by Nancy Sinatra, is lush and romantic, and John Barry uses it particularly well throughout the score. I don't know if I'm 100% sold on Sinatra's vocals---I've never thought they mesh all that well with the dreamier music in the background--but it's a very good song.
As mentioned above, this is the first facial appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and boy, is he one ugly mo-fo. After 2 1/2 movies of just hand shots, his face looks like the cat attacked him...a lot. It's an interesting decision, because none of the later portrayals of Blofeld have him so creepy looking. Donald Pleasence really plays it up, too, his voice a bit shrill and demented sounding, not at all like the smooth master-villain we heard in earlier films (was he using a voice-disguiser?). Of course, his look is in line with the general Ian Fleming theme physical deformity=spiritual deformity. Is he the best Blofeld? No, but he is the best remembered.
I've always had trouble with this movie, and watching it in concert with the other Connery's makes it clear that it doesn't quite measure up. It's certainly not a bad movie. But in their first attempt to make do with little or no Fleming material, they clearly come up short. Too much spectacle for spectacle's sake, not enough fleshing out of characters or plot. It feels very much like a skeleton of an Eon Bond movie, a not-fully-formed tracing. It's the first of the Bonds to not measure up to the ones before, to not be a success on its own terms. It's shallow and unaffecting. It felt like going through the motions, which is something a Bond film should never do. And I think the producers knew it, because the next Bond film would be as close an adaptation of a Fleming novel as humanly possible, while upping the emotional stakes.
SNELL'S RANDOM THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS:
**Are Bond and Tanaka complete idiots? Bond and Kissy go to investigate the likely location of S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s headquarters...but they don't even take a radio, so they can't call back when they find it. So Kissy has to run and swim miles back for help. So what does Tanaka do? He brings his ninjas out...but does he call the Americans to let them know? Contact MI-6 or the CIA to let them know they've found the true culprit, and that WWIII isn't necessary? Nope. Instead, we artificially prolong the crisis by acting as if the only way to avert war is to physically blow up the Intruder capsule. Compare with Tomorrow Never Dies, where Bond and Wai Lin contact their countries first, and then go after Carver's ship. Because the fleets know to be on the look out for a stealth ship, war is averted. Lesson: tell somebody when you discover that everyone is being manipulated, schmucks.
**While the last minute explosion of the Intruder ship is sort of exciting, wouldn't a huge explosion 10 feet away from the American capsule cause it significant damage??
**I've mentioned this before, but why, exactly, is S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in this business? They have the resources to hollow out a freakin' volcano, they have space technology superior to either the Russians or Americans. They obviously already have gazillions of dollars already. So why the huge risks of ridiculous extortion schemes? As Number 2 said in Austin Powers, it sure seems like they could make far more money as a legitimate business company...
**Plus, there's the fact that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has an HQ in Europe, and doubtless has one in America. A lot of their holdings and agents would be destroyed in the coming conflict. Is starting a global nuclear war really in their interest?
**So neither U.S. nor Russian radar can detect a space capsule once it's left orbit? Really?? There's about zero plausibility that they couldn't track the Intruder to at least a general location. Either that, or all of our "early warning" systems for tracking Soviet missiles were non-functional, too...(or S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has developed stealth technology a couple of decades early, which again begs my question above...)
**We have the first appearance of one of M's mobile offices, where some unlikely location turns out to have an exact replica of M's London office inside. Does every British submarine have one of these, or did they somehow get it set up very quickly? How much notice did they need?? We'll see lots more of these as the films continue...
**Ah, the first nonsensical death trap. Helga Brandt, who really really wishes she were Fiona Volpe, tortures Bond to find out who he is, then suddenly seduces him when he gives her a story, pretends to betray Osata by setting Bond free and flying him to Tokyo, and then bailing out while leaving Bond's hands trapped. Really? You had him hog-tied, lady--if you're going to kill him, just kill him! Like much of the script, none of the elaborate charade makes sense. It does result, however, in the film's first...
**BLOFELD KILL!! Osato or Brandt, who will die? Surprise--Blofeld feeds #11 to the fishes. You know, you'd think that at some point, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. employees would get wise to this ploy. Osato could have used this experience to avoid his fate, as the next...
**BLOFELD KILL!! Oh, Osato, if only you'd paid attention earlier. Than you would have known that this:
inevitably leads to this:
So why, exactly, does Blofeld wait until 25 seconds later, after taking Bond into middle of a raging battle, to shoot Bond? So Tanaka can save Bond with a throwing star, of course...**James Bond, fashion diva.
It's gotta be the shoes...
**Remember how Bond and Kissy couldn't take the tunnel from the cave into the base, because of the phosgene gas?? Well, that didn't seem to stop anyone when they all escaped down that same tunnel to escape the exploding complex...
**Look--the first iPod!! A tad bit bulky than today, of course...
**Dikko Henderson isn't terribly helpful, is he? "Now look--I think London's theory about the missile being fired from this country is right. I don't know how, or where. And don't ask me who's doing it, either." So, apparently Henderson gains his certainty from the tarot or something...Charles Gray, we'll be seeing you again soon...
**Blofeld: "Only one person we know uses this sort of gun--James Bond." Really?? Isn't it standard issue for MI-6? How does Walther stay in business, producing models that only one person uses?
**Little Nellie is cool and all, but does Bond really have to send all the way to England for her? We are under time pressure, here. As Tanaka points out, he does have helicopters...
**Speaking of which, while it's really cool to drop cars full of bad guys into the ocean, shouldn't you try to capture at least one of them alive, to interrogate them? Just askin'...
**Uhhh....don't ninjas wear black, not grey??
**China, China, China. You try to blow up the U.S. gold reserves in Goldfinger, now you try to trick Russia and Americas into a war that will, maybe, leave you the top global superpower. Of course, both of these schemes fail, and your part is revealed. So why in the world is there still a China? Why haven't the U.S. and Russia counter-attacked? You mean two attempts to disrupt the world order go completely unpunished??
**Bond Score--4. Ling in the teaser, Aki, Helga Brandt, and Kissy. Cumulative Bond score: 20!!
**As we always love to note:
But not quite the James Bond we're used to...