Saturday, May 05, 2012

BOND-A-THON: You Only Live Twice

The first four films collectively established most of the tropes: the girls, guns, gadgets and globetrotting; the pre-credits sequences; the big ballad theme songs; and the evil genius villains in their fabulously appointed lairs. ‘You Only Live Twice’ slotted in place one more Bond benchmark. While ‘Dr No’, ‘From Russia with Love’, ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Thunderball’ are reasonably faithful adaptations of Fleming’s novels, the narrative of ‘You Only Live Twice’ deviates wildly from its source material. The franchise would only make one return to novel-based veracity with ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, after which things moved further and further away from the world of Fleming’s books until, for the most part, only the titles remained … and when the titles of the novels were exhausted, the short story collections were raided, and finally, for the first of the Brosnan Bonds, they resorted to using the name of Ian Fleming’s house in Jamaica.

In the chronology of the novels, ‘You Only Live Twice’ follows ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ and (SPOILER ALERT) opens with Bond still struggling to cope nine months after his wife Tracy’s death at the hands of a vengeful Blofeld (SPOILERS END). He’s messed up his last two missions, he’s becoming increasingly disenfranchised from his professional life, and M is at his wits’ end. M sends Bond on a seemingly impossible mission to Japan to wrest what amounts to state secrets from the head of the Japanese secret service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka. Tanaka, incensed at the presence on Japanese soil of an eccentric foreigner (dude turns out to be Blofeld) who has installed himself in an ancient castle surrounded by a garden of death (but unable to do anything through legitimate channels), offers Bond the information he requires in return for an act of assassination. Here, essentially, we have Bond as a broken man; Bond – more than in any of the other novels – as a state-sanctioned hitman. ‘You Only Live Twice’ arguably represents the most interesting thing Fleming did with his creation, even if long passages of the novel amount to little more than Fleming ranting about the Japanese being a cruel and uncivilized race. (Racism in an Ian Fleming novel?!? Say it ain’t so!)

In the film, the setting is Japan, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka features (albeit in a more collaborative role) and Blofeld is the villain. A sequence where Bond (Sean Connery) disguises himself as a native and joins a community of Ama divers in order to get close to the villain’s base is replicated, and a scattering of references or fragments of dialogue similarly recall the source material. But vast sections of the storyline – including a dockyard fight, a hair’s-breadth escape from a plummeting light aircraft, a helicopter battle, and a bunch of ninjas aiding Bond in his assault on a rocket base hidden in a dormant volcano – belong entirely to the imagination of Roald Dahl. Yes, that Roald Dahl. ‘You Only Live Twice’ was scripted by the guy who wrote ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘The Fantastic Mr Fox’. (Although, to be fair, anyone familiar with his barbed stories for adults – particularly in the slim but razor-sharp collection ‘Switch Bitch’ – will easily recognise Dahl’s wilful perversity.)

Director Lewis Gilbert – an established talent in the British film industry with naval classics ‘The Sea Shall Not Have Them’, ‘Carve Her Name with Pride’, ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ and ‘HMS Defiant’ under his belt, and fresh off ‘Alfie’ – joined the Saltzman/Broccoli camp for the first of three Bond productions. He would return for the Roger Moore extravaganzas (and I’m not necessarily using that word in a good sense) ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and ‘Moonraker’. Gilbert strikes exactly the right tone, balancing the patent absurdities of the story with an adrenaline rush of high adventure. If the Bond movies are, at base, a delivery system for kick-ass escapist action sequences and iconic posturing, then Gilbert did as much in ‘You Only Live Twice’ to streamline the aesthetic as Guy Hamilton did with ‘Goldfinger’.

Legendary cinematographer Freddie Young – who had already lensed over 100 films, including Powell and Pressburger’s ‘49th Parallel’ and David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – was assigned DoP duties; like Gilbert, it was his first Bond movie; unlike Gilbert, he wouldn’t return. Editor/second unit director Peter R Hunt followed up the work he’d done on the previous Bonds, and was on the verge of helming his very own movie … but that’s a story for the next review. Before-the-camera regulars Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewellyn reprise their roles, to dependable effect, as M, Moneypenny and Q respectively, the latter providing 007 with arguably the franchise’s most memorable gadget: the autogyro “Little Nellie”.

Man of the match award, however, goes to Ken Adam. And it’s appropriate that we take ‘You Only Live Twice’ as the point in this retrospective where we pause and raise a glass to the man and his indelible contribution to the Bond mythos.

Ken Adam was born Klaus Hugo Adam in Berlin in 1921. His family relocated to England in 1934 to escape the burgeoning influence of Nazism. At the outbreak of war, Adam joined the RAF and was assigned to 609 Squadron during the battle of Normandy. He was the only German fighter pilot in the RAF. Can I just repeat that sentence, purely to reinforce the historical and nationalist importance of it? Ken Adam was the only German fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force.

Oh yeah, and he built some fucking awesome sets for the Bond movies. Dr No’s fully-kitted out secret base? Ken Adam. Fort Knox in ‘Goldfinger’? Ken Adam. The submarine base and Stromberg’s undersea lair in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’? Ken Adam. The cost of the volcano set, which incorporated a helicopter landing pad and a functional monorail system, was a cool $1million – i.e. the entire budget of ‘Dr No’. (It was his work on ‘Dr No’, incidentally, that brought him to Kubrick’s attention; he created the War Room in ‘Dr Strangelove’.) His association with producer Saltzman continued with the Len Deighton adaptations ‘The Ipcress File’ and ‘Funeral in Berlin’. And you’ve gotta love someone who could go from production designer duties on Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ in 1975, to getting down and dirty with Tinto Brass’s ‘Salon Kitty’ the following year. His last big screen job, at the age of 80, was Istvan Szabo’s ‘Taking Sides’ (from Ronald Harwood’s play on the interrogation of conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler at the end of the war) in 2001. In 2003 he was awarded on OBE.

Think of Bond and you think of his nemeses. Think of the villains and you think of their futuristic bases. Those astounding sets; those explosive finales. Ken Adam’s work established the template as definitively as Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme”, Ursula Andress’s curvaceous emergence from the waves, or the image of a white cat on Blofeld’s lap. Peter Lamont’s production design on the later films owes to Ken Adam in spades; it’s telling that Lamont was an assistant art director on ‘You Only Live Twice’.

One other “first” for ‘You Only Live Twice’: Blofeld. A faceless √©minence grise in ‘From Russia with Love’ and ‘Thunderball’, his machinations and by extension his threat to Bond represented, respectively, by ‘Red’ Grant/Rosa Klebb and Emilio Largo, here he takes centre stage as antagonist. Here, we see his face. Played by Donald Pleasance – a diminutive figure against Connery, but a study in steely-eyed malevolence for all that – he’s bald, facially scarred and almost a parodic figure. Almost. Pleasance avoids the characterisation opted for by most of the actors, before and after him, who essayed Bond villains. He doesn’t play Blofeld as an egomaniac whose sociopathy is hidden behind a layer of civilised behaviour. He plays him as a ruthless bastard who’s getting paid a fuckton of money for doing a job and it doesn’t bother him in the slightest that said job basically involves provoking the USA and the USSR into a shooting war. A ruthless bastard who doesn’t tolerate fuck-ups. A ruthless bastard who permits himself a soupcon of superiority when Bond is in his clutches but still recognises him as a threat; a villain who is prepared to execute Bond himself rather than leaving the task to an underling.

Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld might not get to spout anything as glib as Auric Goldfinger’s “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die” or as calculating as Hugo Drax’s “Look after Mr Bond – see that some harm comes to him”, but his high-pitched “Kill Bond! Now!” has an urgency that makes most of 007’s other enemies seem a bit girly by comparison.

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