YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, the 5th shot fired from the James Bond arsenal of thrillers, succeeds as splashy, silly, eye-candy entertainment even as it marks the decided downturn of the series. Time and tide worked against it in a number of ways, so it’s not really surprising that 007 fans, while enjoying it, felt a bit of deflation after all the buildup.
The first four took the world by storm in progressively wowza fashion, bim-bam-badda boom, but by the time that quartet wrapped with a splash in Thunderball, our dauntless hero had a double-bind to unsnarl. First was a bleak ‘adult’ backlash of ‘serious’ spy films tut-tutting their way into everyone’s fun (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and dour cadre), and next, even more effectively damaging to the fantasy-wish of JB, was an attache-case full of spoofs from the likes of Our Man Flint and The Silencers , with numerous weekly TV upstarts (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, Honey West, I Spy, The Wild Wild West ). This delayed installment came out in 1967, two years elapsing since the fourth, with those competing attention stealers hacking away nonstop.
Plus, by-now-superstar Sean Connery, a serious actor, was more than ready to move on from the character dimension restrictions of Bond and was vocal about it to boot. What to do? Notch up the production costs ($10,300,000 was a lot of bread, twice the Thunderball payload), head to Japan for fresh exotica and try to top the wild climaxes (don’t we all?) from before with a king-sized battle—inside a dormant (for a while, anyway) volcano. Go for broke.
Throwing Ian Fleming’s boring 12th Bond novel out the window, the screenplay, by no less a tale-spinner Roald Dahl, was fairly amusing but so fanciful and silly, with its preposterous spaceship-capturing plot (SPECTRE pitting the US and USSR against each other by seizing their manned rockets right out of orbit) that it basically turned it all into a joke. Dahl, not familiar with or invested in the whole 007 craze, got lazy and just reworked formula. There are some good action scenes, naturally, though they’re over-the-top next to the acceptably believable bouts in the first four. Kick back and laugh.
Bondsan is less important than the lavish production design, and the movie (apart from mediocre outer-space effects–really goofy viewed today) is a knockout to look at, with expansive views of Japanese locations. The title sequence, with dazzling lava and volcanic fireworks is one of the best in the series, and John Barry’s main theme is beautiful, with a lush and enticing romantic title song by the then white-hot-sexy Nancy Sinatra (I don’t think she ever sounded better than on this number).
Donald Pleasence is malevolent as the redoubtable ‘Ernst Stavro Blofeld’, wicked German bombshell Karin Dor is a good ‘bad Bond girl’ (as in “just-tie-me-up,lady-and-do-whatever”), Charles Gray has a brief but quite funny bit using that deliciously velvet-sneer of a voice. Welcoming Bondmates Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama* are alluring, while legendary Japanese institution Tetsuro Tamba plays ‘Tiger Tanaka’.
The massive wipe-out battle royale in the volcano, with swarming ninjas and demolishion galore on Ken Adam’s impressive big-scale set is a hoot. With Teru Shimada, Tsai Chin, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewellyn, Burt Kwouk, Alexander Knox, Ronald Rich and a pondful of hungry piranha.
The 7th most popular film in the US in 1967, it swept $111,000,000 worldwide. Adjusted for inflation it ranks fifth most lucrative in the series. It’s been estimated that 93,000,000 people paid to see it back when LBJ was President. 117 minutes, directed by Lewis Gilbert.
- * Miss Hama, distraught when producers Broccoli & Saltzman threatened to fire her unless she hurried up with learning English, solemnly told them that her shame would be such that she would commit hara-kiri. She switched roles with Miss Wakabayashi, who had less dialogue, thus averting tragedy, and a national scandal, as both lovely actresses were extremely popular in their home country. They had each decorated kiddie favorite King Kong Vs. Godzilla, so a dishonored Mie’s demise would have rocked several worlds.