A few readers seemed to enjoy my recent post on Diamonds Are Forever (1971), so I thought another in the same vein might not be unwelcome. Just to put these into context: now that some time has passed since I did my massive Blofeld/page-to-screen Bond analysis, I’ve been revisiting some of the films (yet again), considering them less on their own merits, or lack thereof, and more as they fit into the context of the series. Because the Blofeld-specific films were at that time set aside to be covered in my Cinema Retro article, they never got their own BOF posts, and another such entry is You Only Live Twice (1967).
Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964) had upped the ante considerably from Terence Young’s excellent Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963), becoming the first truly blockbuster Bond, so by the time Young returned for his series swan song, Thunderball (1965), he found the game had changed significantly in the interim. Although it has much to recommend it, and was in fact my childhood favorite Bond film (underwater photography!), one constantly gets the feeling that Thunderball is desperate to be—or, better still, outdo—Goldfinger. So it’s not too surprising, and perhaps fortunate, that as much as it continues some of the prevailing trends (e.g., the climactic battle scene, which in Thunderball had to be amped up by taking place underwater, and in YOLT changes it up by adding ninjas), YOLT is in many ways a departure. Let’s take a look:
- First film directed by Lewis Gilbert, who later helmed entries of wildly varying quality, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979).
- Although its immediate predecessors had augmented the Bond “writers’ room” with outsiders who specialized in crime/espionage scripts (the great Paul Dehn on Goldfinger and John Hopkins, later of Smiley’s People, on Thunderball), YOLT is the first film on which none of the regular writers is credited, with a screenplay by Roald Dahl (’nuff said) and “additional story material” by Harold Jack Bloom (who he?).
- Coincidentally or not, it’s also the first film that almost completely dispensed with Ian Fleming’s source material.
- On the first of two related notes, it’s the first entry to incorporate overtly SF elements, since SPECTRE’s space program is so conspicuously far ahead of anything even the U.S., with all of its resources, was capable of at that time.
- Second, although every Bond film has its far-fetched elements, this seems to me the first time they really rubbed the viewer’s face in its implausibility, again mostly to do with elements of the “Space Race” plot points.
- The first time cat-stroking SPECTRE chief Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s face is seen, courtesy (after hasty recasting) of the late, great Donald (Great Escape) Pleasence, although he actually gets very little screen time or much to do. This, of course, ties in heavily with the fact that because YOLT and the next film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), adapted their sourceworks in reverse order, the novel’s raison d’etre—Bond avenging his wife’s murder by Blofeld, or at least at his behest—is completely lost in the film version.
- Not a first, but an interesting tangent: YOLT plays with the ideas of Bond both marrying (a sham here, and for real in OHMSS) and dying. The latter, albeit naturally faked, seems to continue a theme found in the teasers of two previous entries, when “Bond” is killed by Grant in FRWL and when the French agent observes, in Thunderball, that the coffin of the SPECTRE agent (whose death is also faked) bears Bond’s initials.
- First time the title tune, at least as heard over the credits, is overtly romantic. (The Matt Monro vocal of Lionel Bart’s “From Russia with Love,” which is mercifully heard only in passing in the film, is as schmaltzy as they come, but the instrumental main-title version is galvanizing, and segues into a zippy version of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme.”) As he did with Bart’s tune, and later with his own title songs for Goldfinger and Thunderball, the legendary John Barry uses varied arrangements to make the melody sit up, beg, play dead, and roll over, but when it comes time for 007’s pulse-raising dogfight at the controls of mini-copter Little Nellie, he does something very interesting. Perhaps mindful of the fact that the engine noise, machine-gun fire and explosions might drown out the music, he simply scores the scene with the Bond theme—not even rescoring it, but using what sounds like a patchwork of passages from the original Dr. No recording, to which his own arrangement and performance, with the John Barry Seven, made such a huge contribution. Call it laziness if you will, but for an aging fanboy like me, or the little kid who saw this on the big screen with his father and brother when it was re-released on a double bill with Thunderball, there’s nothing to equal the excitement of that seminal recording as the backdrop for an action scene.
- Although scenic global locales had figured in the series right from Jamaica in Dr. No, and almost every Bond film has some sort of “travelogue” aspect to it, this is the first time the setting and especially its culture—a particularly exotic one for Western viewers—takes the forefront so prominently, and seems almost like a character in the movie. “Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond.”