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You Only Live Twice is the biggest of the Sean /Connery films, following the highly successful, if uneven, Thunderball. Bond is “killed” in the opening Hong Kong pre-credit sequence, betrayed by a woman he’s in bed with. Maybe because he asked her, “Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?” His body is recovered by divers, and then he’s shot out of a torpedo tube. All in a day’s work.

There’s an Asian-themed title sequence, set to Nancy Sinatra’s solid but not terribly memorable theme song. I’m trying to hum it, but I can’t remember how it goes. The majority of the film is set in Japan, and includes the stereotypical British cultural snobbery and condescending attitude towards foreigners, but there’s also a lot of cultural detail and a good use of the country and its people. Japan also allows Bond, who seems to have an effortless grasp of, if not respect for, every culture he enters, to say things like, “I enjoy sake, especially when it’s served at the correct temperature: 98.6 degrees.”

The plot is a classic Cold War one, revolving around Commies (though the bad guys, SPECTRE, are more mercenary than political), missiles and space. Twice, along with Goldfinger, may be the most representative of the Bond films, as it contains virtually all (title song excepted) the iconic elements associated with the series: hot women, cool gadgets, exotic locations, a sinister, evil mastermind, a hidden fortress, a world on the brink of nuclear war, a final shoot out in the villain’s lair, replete with hundred of anonymous, doomed minions, a villain punishing his subordinates for failure (piranhas in this case) and a down to the wire climax. You could show this to someone who’d never seen a Bond movie and they’d pretty much understand the whole series. There are also the seemingly endless botched killings and unlikely escapes. Bond is certainly the luckiest of spies.

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Twice’s most distinctive feature is its villain, SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who is the most iconic and influential of all the Bond baddies. He’s also the only villain to appear in multiple films, each time played by a different actor. He appeared briefly in Thunderball, as a kind of puppet master figure, and was then brought back for the next two movies before he was finally killed off in the prologue of For Your Eyes Only. With his calm, menacing voice, bland grey suit, bald head, vicious scar, mad genius brain and omnipresent cat, he is the prototype for the elegant, articulate Euro-baddie that would dominate thrillers and espionage films for the next few decades. Here is played by veteran English actor Donald Pleasence, the most famous and the best Blofeld, even though he doesn’t appear until late in Twice. He also has the best hideout, a massive base inside a volcano, designed by the great Ken Adam, who did many of Bond’s terrific sets. This remains the most spectacular set in the entire series. The whole movie has an elegant sheen to it and, as shot by Lawrence of Arabia cinematographer Freddie Young, it’s one of the best-looking of the series. It cries out for the big screen.

Coming out at the height of flower power, hippie love and psychedelic music, {Twice} almost belongs to a different world, one where everyone, even the bad guys, dresses impeccably and appreciates modern luxury. Connery glides through the movie with his usual charm and wit, recalling Cary Grant at times, but with a little more edge. The Japanese cast provides good support, and even if the women aren’t treated much better than the usual Bond girls (one drinks poison meant for him), they have a little more substance, which isn’t easy to do when your name is Kissy Suzuki.

Then there is Bond’s infamous, culturally clueless transformation into a Japanese fisherman. Some critics might see this as akin to what Kevin Costner did in Dances with Wolves and Johnny Avatar did in Avatar, i.e., the Westerner, superior in everything else, becomes a better native than the native. If a post-colonial critic hasn’t done an article on the depiction of Asians in the Bond series, now’s the time. Connery’s tinted skin and silly wig make him look more absurd than anything and, unlike in Fleming’s novel, it’s pretty much irrelevant to the plot. There’s also a brief, amusing scene at a ninja training school, which presages American’s love of certain aspects of Japanese culture (samurai, ninjas, sushi, anime).

The final blowout gets a little crowded (and the ninjas are pretty crappy), but it’s well-staged and dynamic, and a lot of shit explodes. Director Lewis Gilbert, who helmed Alfie and two later Bond films, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, keeps the whole machine humming along nicely and balances the action with the assured, tongue-in-cheek style that previous directors Young and Hamilton perfected. The screenplay is by Roald Dahl, who claimed he just followed the formula and never took it seriously. It also really doesn’t need to be said that, for better or worse, Dr. Evil wouldn’t exist without this movie. You Only Live Twice is one of the grandest, most effortlessly enjoyable of the series and was the most solid top to bottom entry for a long time.

Connery, tired of the role and all that surrounded it, hung it up after this film, and the series would struggle for the next few years to recover. Though the filmmakers had established a sophisticated, dependable and recognizable formula that was bigger than any one person, Connery was essential to the mix and his absence was deeply felt on the next film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Australian-born George Lazenby gave it a good shot as Bond but was clearly out of his league, and though the film is an underrated, more subtle entry, Lazenby wasn’t asked to return. After flailing about for a new Bond (Burt Reynolds was considered, John Gavin was actually cast), the producers lured Connery back with gobs of money for 1971’s Diamonds are Forever. It was good to have him back, and the movie is enjoyably silly, but something had been lost–a loss felt in almost all the subsequent films. Roger Moore would take over for seven increasingly frivolous and formulaic films, turning Bond into more of a jet-setting, international playboy than a spy. Connery would play Bond one more time in the lamentable, unofficial Never Say Never Again, a semi-remake of Thunderball, but it’s only with Daniel Craig, three decades later, that the seemingly moribund series has been revived.

by Lukas Sherman
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