You Only Live Twice


You Only Live Twice

Did someone call for a sociopathic megalomaniac?

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Donald Pleasance, Karin Dor, Akiko Wakabayashi, Tetsuro Tanba, Mie Hama, Teru Shimada, Charles Gray, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Lewis Gilbert

In the Bond pantheon, this movie usually doesn’t stand out among the movies considered Bond classics; Goldfinger, Dr. No and Live and Let Die, and to be sure, all of these are classic James Bond. However, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this movie. It was the first one I saw in a movie theater – in a drive-in to be exact, where it was bloody hard to make out what was going on onscreen in the first scenes but my dad liked to smoke so we went to the drive-in where he could puff away to his hearts content.

I will be the first to admit that the plot is a bit on the ludicrous side, with SPECTRE intercepting American and Russian spacecraft with an automated unhinging missile that brings them to a rather impressive volcano lair in Japan (one which remains in many ways the quintessential villain’s lair and one which was spoofed nicely by Austin Powers). This of course brings the superpowers to the brink of mutual war and annihilation, which suited the Chinese just fine (they were funding much of the shenanigans) and more importantly, played perfectly into the megalomaniacal plans of none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Pleasance), the previously faceless Number One of the SPECTRE organization.

The British, having detected the rogue craft coming down in the area around Japan (something which the American and Russian radar were unable to do because they were just, like, tracking) send their best man, James Bond (Connery) in to investigate and he runs into Osato (Shimada), a wealthy industrialist and his deadly assistant Helga (Dor), both secret operatives of SPECTRE. Bond is saved by Aki (Wakabayashi), the beautiful agent of the Japanese Secret Service, headed up by Tiger Tanaka (Tanba), with whom Bond becomes fast friends. With the help of Little Nellie, a gyrocopter, they investigate a remote island in the Sea of Japan. There they find a nearly impregnable lair built into a dormant volcano. Can Bond, the marvelous Japanese agent Kissy Suzuki (Hama) and an army of Japanese ninjas stop Blofeld from plunging the world into nuclear war?

While Auric Goldfinger remains the greatest Bond villain to date, it is Blofeld who is Bond’s nemesis, the Moriarty to Bond’s Sherlock Holmes. Pleasance gives the previously faceless villain not only a face, but a personality to match; urbane like Dr. No and vicious like Goldfinger. Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers movies is based on Pleasance’s take on the part, from the Nehru jacket to the somewhat noticeable scar to the quietly menacing speaking tone. All Dr. Evil is missing is the eurotrash accent.

I also found the Japanese locations beautiful and the insights to the Japanese culture interesting. Previously, the only Japan American audiences had seen in the movies was the one Godzilla trampled over. I have had a fascination for Japan ever since seeing this movie.

The volcano lair of Blofeld is one of the most spectacular ever built. The monorail you see scooting around the perimeter actually worked and the helipad arm that extends out was also a working helipad. Of course, the rocket launches were done with miniatures but this was one of the most expensive sets ever built at the time. It still holds up, looking sleek and menacing and exactly the kind of thing you’d see from a would-be world dictator.

The Bond girls for this movie, Hama and Wakabayashi, were cast mostly for their looks and their willingness to be filmed in a bikini, something that the Japanese were only beginning to embrace at the time. Unfortunately, the two actresses spoke little English and their performances are unconvincing.

That said, even given the implausible nature of the plot and that already by this point the Bond movies were relying more on familiar repetitive plot points rather than stretching the limits (and over-relying on gadgets) of the creativity of the writers, this still remains a film that resonates with me. Interestingly enough, the next Bond movie to be made would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which had perhaps the best script of all the Bond movies but Connery had left the series after You Only Live Twice, tired of the media attention and anxious not to be typecast as Bond any longer. I’ve always thought had Connery made that movie, it might have turned out to be the best in the series, even better than Goldfinger. But, that’s another review for another day.

WHY RENT THIS: An underrated Bond movie, with exotic locales and a great deal of insight into the Japanese culture. The volcano set is one of the most magnificent of the series, with a working monorail and helipad.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The kitsch and implausibility factors were beginning to become noticeable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of sexuality and as usual with Bond films, plenty of violence and smoking. Still, it’s no worse than anything on network television these days so don’t feel that you need to restrict the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: You Only Live Twice was the last James Bond novel published during Ian Fleming’s lifetime (there were posthumous publications). There were also two Blofelds in the cast; Pleasance who played him here, and Charles Gray who played Henderson here and Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Ultimate DVD Edition has a nice featurette on Maurice Binder, the main title designer for the Bond films up through the Timothy Dalton era. Although the Blu-Ray edition hasn’t been released yet, the Bond films released so far in the format have included the Ultimate Edition features along with a beautifully restored print, so look forward to that.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Date Night

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Goldfinger


Goldfinger

Shirley Eaton is just golden.

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Frobe, Harold Sakata, Cec Linder, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewellyn, Shirley Eaton. Directed by Guy Hamilton

There are many who consider this to be the ultimate James Bond movie and quite frankly, I’d have to agree with them. All of the elements come together and make this the standard against which not only all other Bond movies are measured, but all other spy movies as well.

James Bond (Connery) is in Miami having a little R&R when he receives a call from his boss M (Lee) to assist the CIA in observing Auric Goldfinger (Frobe) who happens to be staying at the Fontainebleau as is Bond. Felix Leiter (Linder), the CIA liaison, gives Bond the low-down; Goldfinger comes to the pool area every day to cheat at canasta, having a young beautiful blonde by the name of Jill Masterson (Eaton) report what his opponent’s cards are via shortwave radio to his hearing aid. Bond, being Bond, decides to mess with Goldfinger. He seduces Masterson, causing Goldfinger to lose. However, Goldfinger doesn’t take kindly to losing and sends a flunky named Oddjob (Sakata) to knock out Bond and repay Masterson for her betrayal by painting her gold, suffocating her skin.

As it turns out, MI6 has a big interest in Goldfinger owing to his smuggling of gold in and out of the UK. They’re wondering how he’s doing it and put Bond on the job. He follows the portly villain to Switzerland, where he has a run-in with Tilly, Jill’s sister. Oddjob murders her as well, making the score Oddjob 2, Masterson girls 0. He also captures Bond, which gives Goldfinger the opportunity to set up an industrial laser aimed for the Bond family jewels. It also gives Goldfinger to deliver the all-time classic villain line when Bond asks “You expect me to talk?” (For the record, the response is “No, Mister Bond, I expect you to die”).

Bond, thinking quickly on his feet (or on his back as it were), implies that he knows a lot more than he actually does. This forces Goldfinger to send Bond back to his Kentucky horse ranch under the watchful eye of his personal pilot Pussy Galore (Blackman), the dirtiest character name in the history of movies. There, he uncovers Goldfinger’s real ambition; to set off a nuclear device at Fort Knox, irradiating the largest gold supply in the world and making his own supply ultimately far more valuable. Can Bond stop the nefarious plot and overcome the seemingly indestructible Oddjob?

This was the Bond that essentially became the template for all the Bond movies to follow. It set the bar and quite high as well. For better or worse, all other Bond movies are measured against this one, just as all Bond villain are measured against Goldfinger, all Bond flunkies are compared to Oddjob and all Bond girls are compared to Pussy Galore.

The ultimate Bond car is the Aston-Martin DB5 that makes an appearance here. With its changing license plate, rocket launchers, oil slick dispensers and ejection seat, it was the ultimate spy vehicle. The car became so popular that two working models were built (complete with ejection seat) and toured the world in support of the film.

Like most Bond films of the era, the attitude towards women is pretty dated. While Pussy is a strong, independent woman, she is no match for Bond’s machismo; in fact, all it takes is a single kiss for her to see the error of her ways, a kiss that is forced upon her, I might add. In our more enlightened times, we might call that sexual assault.

It is the action that makes Goldfinger what it is, and that action is breathtaking. The assault on Fort Knox is one of the most awe-inspiring action sequences in the history of the movies. While some of the special effects look a little clunky, it still stands up 45 years after the fact.

I’m not saying this is the perfect movie, mind you. It is pretty darn close, however. It’s a reflection of its times, and that certainly needs to be taken into account, but it is timeless in all the important aspects of the movie. If you haven’t seen Goldfinger yet, your film education is incomplete without it.                    

WHY RENT THIS: By far, the best of the Bond movies. Frobe is one of the best baddies of all time and Connery was never better than he was here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Well, maybe you just don’t like movies made in the 20th century. Your loss.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surprising amount of violence, much smoking (remember, that was common for the era) but still pretty tame by modern standards.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the hoodlums gathered at Goldfinger’s ranch is played by an uncredited Garry Marshall, future director of Pretty Woman and Valentine’s Day, among others.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The new Blu-Ray contains a digitally enhanced print and there are a number of contemporaneous features about the making of the film. There are also some screen tests of some other actors who tested for the Goldfinger part, as well as a featurette on the phenomenon of the movie and one on the Aston Martin DB5, possibly the most popular movie car of all time.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: You Only Live Twice

Dr. No


Dr. No

A debonair James Bond enters M's office for his next assignment.

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Anthony Dawson, Regina Dawson, John Kitzmuller, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell. Directed by Terence Young

There are few characters in the movies more iconic than James Bond. The suave, sophisticated British superspy can karate-chop a bad guy into submission, or kill him in a particularly gruesome fashion and save the day with an urbane quip. He can seduce just about any woman nearly at will. He is the man every guy wants to be and every woman wants to be with, and no actor embodied him as well as Connery, even to this day.

In his first big screen adventure (a television version of Casino Royale had been made some years earlier, but it had been Americanized and has been mercifully lost to the mists of time), Bond is summoned to Jamaica to investigate the murder of an MI6 field agent named Strangways who at the behest of the Americans had been investigating mysterious radio interference of rockets being launched from Cape Canaveral. Bond discovers that Strangways had been looking into a sinister place called Crab Key, an island off the coast of Jamaica that the locals are afraid of visiting because of rumors that a dragon patrols the beach. Bond also discovers that Strangways had submitted some rocks to his bridge partner Professor Dent (Dawson) to examine.

Bond is aided by CIA operative Felix Lieter (Lord) and Quarrel (Kitzmuller), a local boatman who has assisted the CIA in the past. Several attempts are made on 007’s life before he finally heads out to Crab Key along with Quarrel. They meet the fetching Honey Ryder (Andress), a comely but no-nonsense seashell collector who has been taking shells from Crab Key to sell in Jamaica. The three eventually discover that the island’s owner, Dr. No (Wiseman) has an evil plan up his sleeve and is the member of an organization called SPECTRE, bent on the destabilization of the world.

Coming up on its 50th anniversary, the movie holds up surprisingly well in some ways. Yes, it’s hopelessly dated in its attitudes towards women, minorities and politics, but if you can get past some of the special effects (which are admittedly primitive but keep in mind that this was a low-budget production even for its time) and the dialogue which can be laughable, you’re left with some wonderful action sequences, amazing set design and of course Bond.

Here is the first appearance of the James Bond theme, the first time “My name is Bond, James Bond” is uttered. It’s the first appearance of the Walther PPK, the first time we see M (Lee), the head of MI6 and his wonderfully efficient but oversexed secretary Moneypenny (Maxwell).

The Hollywood conceit of a megalomaniac on an island is essentially established here, one that would be followed in many a Bond movie to follow as well as in other spy and action movies over the next half century. The urbane Dr. No would be a model for Bond villains; suave, sophisticated, brilliant and egomaniacal but ultimately done in by his own hubris.

It seems hard to believe now but United Artists was not pleased with the choice of Sean Connery as James Bond (and Ian Fleming apparently wasn’t happy either, at least until he saw the movie for the first time). The rugged Connery was not the picture of a sophisticated upper class Englishman (Connery is a working class Scot) that the books had suggested.

When watching Dr. No, you can’t help but be aware of the times in which the movie existed. John Kennedy was president (and a big fan of the Bond series, which was one of the selling points for the movie) and the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full bloom, making nefarious doings in the Caribbean all the more believable for nervous American (and global) audiences. The Second World War was twenty years in the rear-view mirror and the Cold War was at its peak. The space race was just beginning and the New York Worlds Fair was only two years away (the architecture of the fair was foreshadowed by the ultra-sleek lair of Dr. No). It was a time of great optimism yet a time ruled by enormous fear.

James Bond played into both. Yes, there was much evil in the world, and evil geniuses plotting to take over but with Bond on the case, the Free World could rest easy knowing that 007 was laying the smackdown on wannabe world dictators (the memory of Hitler still fresh in the minds of many). He conformed to the ideals of manhood of the time; virile, decisive, rough, smart and sophisticated, able to wear an expensive Saville Row suit at the baccarat table with a stunning sex kitten on one arm, a (shaken, not stirred) martini in one hand, his trusty Walther PPK in his waistband and impeccably coiffed hair barely ruffled after beating the crap out of a thug (and uttering a bon mot over the inert body of his assailant).

Times have changed and feminists no doubt cringe at the attitudes of Bond, but all the same he still holds a fascination that has carried him through nearly five decades of nearly continuous missions that still continue to this day. Bond was, at the time, unlike any other hero that had ever appeared on the silver screen and is unlikely to be duplicated ever again (Indiana Jones comes close). Dr. No stands up today not just because it was first but because it’s actually a very good movie, despite its flaws.

WHY RENT THIS: This is where it all began. Connery is electric as Bond and the action almost never stops.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hopelessly dated, some of the dialogue and effects are laugh-inducing.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surprising amount of violence, much smoking (remember, that was common for the era) but still pretty tame by modern standards.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ah, where to begin? It’s the only Bond movie in which Bond sings and doesn’t feature a pre-title sequence. Also, Bond’s armorer is known as Major Boothroyd (not Q as in later films) and is named after a reader who wrote Ian Fleming asserting that a true British spy would never use a Beretta as Bond does in the early novels, but a Walther PPK. Fleming concurred and the incident was actually used in a kind of backhanded way in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The new Blu-Ray contains a digitally enhanced print that cleans up some of the graininess of the original and actually looks better than when it was released theatrically. There are a number of contemporaneous features about the premiere, and on-set featurettes. There’s a nice feature on the guns of James Bond and a piece on the restoration of the print.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Goldfinger