If Goldfinger can be said to have truly begun the James Bond phenomenon, then Thunderball must be said to be the James Bond phenomenon in full bloom. Some critics and fans have taken it to task over the years for being bloated and overly languid, but You Only Blog Twice takes a much different stance.
How does Thunderball measure up to the previous two classics in the series? Read on, and let's find out.
Connery is maybe a hairsbreadth less awesome here than he is in Goldfinger, so if I had to rank the performances that's how I'd rank them. But the difference is really only academic: Connery is dynamite as Bond here, whether he is shooting clay pigeons from the hip , giving a nude woman a pair of shoes when she asks for something to wear, impaling henchmen with spearguns, fighting what seems to be an entire ship's crew all at once, biting womens' feet, or wearing thick mink gloves, Connery is magnificent in this film. He even gets to use a jetpack!
Best of all, perhaps, Connery gets a few occasions to show Bond's vulnerable side. When he is strapped into the Spine-Stretcher 2000, or whatever that device is called at Shrublands, he goes into near-panic after Count Lippe ratchets up the tension in an attempt to kill him. Later, at the end of the big fight onboard the Disco Volante, he looks absolutely terrified when it appears that Largo is about to kill him with a speargun.
Sadly, this was the last great Connery performance as Bond. It appears to be the case that in the real world, Connery was simply overwhelmed by his experiences with Beatle-like fame, and began to yearn to be free of having to live that way. It shows in his performances, too.
Main Villain: We got perhaps THE greatest Bond villain of them all in the previous film in the series, so it's hardly a surprise that Thunderball represents a bit of a letdown in that regard.
This is not to say that Emilio Largo is a poor villain, however; nor to suggest that Adolfo Celi did a poor job of portraying him. Neither of these things is the case. In fact, Celi is excellent, showing a cold determination throughout that is laced with hints of incredible cruelty. One of the better scenes of the film is the meeting with Blofeld, and Celi is terrific in his reactions -- non-reactions, really -- to the electrocution of the duplicitous agent by Blofeld.
I also like the fact that Largo kills the airman, Derval, himself. Not quickly, either: he cuts the man's airhose and causes him to drown. This is not a nice man, but he's definitely a take-charge kind of guy, and that's a bit of a rarity in Bond baddies.
This begs the question: should Largo be considered the film's main villain? After all, in From Russia With Love I made the case for considering SPECTRE itself to be the main villain; everyone else there filled out henchman roles. I think you could make the same argument here, but Largo gets enough screen time and is in so much direct confrontation with Bond, that I think you've got to call him the movie's main villain.
Points awarded (Main Villain): 006/007
Henchmen: Decisions, decisions. Here is the point in this entry in my blog series where I have to decide whether the above lady gets classified as a henchman or as a Bond girl. So, naturally, I'm not going to decide: I'm going to classify her as both. We'll see if I remember this precedent-setting maneuver for future Bond films
Fiona Volpe was -- with the exception of Miss Taro in Dr. No -- the first full-fledged femme-fatale in the Bond films, and she gets my vote for the best ever. I've occasionally wondered why I have such a personal love for women with red hair, and it occurs to me now that Luciana Paluzzi may have a great deal to do with that predilection. She's awfully good-looking in this movie, but she's got other great qualities to go along with them: she's ruthless, playful, calculating, strong-willed (witness the scene in which she is shooting skeet with Largo -- she doesn't back down from him for even a second), and highly effective. Fiona is a great villain.
The rest of the film's henchmen are a bit unremarkable. One of them, Vargas (on the left above), is colorful in his colorlessness: he has no vices, except perhaps torture. The movie fails to take any real advantage of those qualities, however, and his fellow thugs are bland as bland can be.
Points awarded (Henchmen): 006/007 (For those keeping score at home, that's a 007 for Fiona herself and a one-point deduction for the others.)
Total points awarded (SPECTRE): 006/007
(3) The Bond Girls
Main Bond Girl: The character of Domino is a bit of a mixed bag in the sense that she comes off as being incredibly weak in some ways and incredibly strong in other ways. Weak because you have to wonder how she ended up playing kept woman to a brigand like Emilio Largo in the first place; strong because once she sees him for who he really is, she becomes determined to free herself from her cage.
However, as played by Claudine Auger, she is also beautiful to an almost ridiculous degree. Don't think I didn't notice. I noticed.
Points awarded (Main Bond Girl): 007/007. Does that seem a little high? Not to me, brother.
Secondary Bond Girls: Well, we already discussed Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona, so you know where I stand on that subject.
There is probably something interesting to be said in the fact that Fiona, as a Bond girl, is both hypersexual and scornful of Bond's own hypersexuality. There's something meta going on there.
On a less meta level, we have the question of how we feel about Bond's treatment of Pat Fearing (played by Molly Peters) at the Shrublands facility toward the beginning of the film. The scene in which Bond blackmails her into having sex with him by threatening to report her for incompetence (this due to the near-death incident on the spine-stretcher) is one of the most frequently cited examples of Bond's sexism.
My take on that is: there are plenty of examples of genuine sexism in the later Bond films to provide ammunition for the anti-007 attack, so there's no need to impugn a relatively innocent scene like this one. Take a look at what actually happens. In the scenes beforehand, we've seen Bond shamelessly flirting with Fearing, even trapping her in a kiss. She's not actively responsive, but she's also clearly not revolted by the idea. The implication is that she is sexually interested in Bond, but is maintaining a professional distance. Bond, obviously, senses this, and once he sees an opportunity to break down the wall, he breaks it down. For the record, he does not threaten Fearing; he says that "someone" will have the devil to pay (or something along those lines), but he is referring to Count Lippe. When he notices that Fearing assumes he is referring to her, you can clearly see surprise on his face just before he straightens and suggests a course of action to avoid getting anybody's boss involved in things.
I get that this can seem like a distasteful action, and on paper I can see how someone would even view it as rape. However, I think there is a major difference between rape and coaxing a woman into an activity she obviously has interest in engaging in. And in Thunderball, Fearing seems (here's an understatement) to rather enjoy the experience; she even sticks around for more later. So, in the specifics of this movie, I don't think there's anything to feel particularly queasy about. Then again, maybe that's just me.
The only other substantial secondary Bond Girl is Paula, Bond's plucky girl assistant (yes, I know I'm borrowing Doctor Who terminology). She's played by Martine Beswick, who was formerly one of the fighting gypsy girls in From Russia With Love. She looks nice in a bikini. And really, that's about all there is to say about Paula.
Points awarded (Secondary Bond Girls): 006/007
Total points awarded (Bond Girls): 006.50/007
(4) "Oh, James..."
Action/Stunts: One of the highlights of the Bond series in terms of action and stunts, as far as I'm concerned. The opening fight between Bond and a supposedly-dead enemy operative -- played by stunt double Bob Simmons -- is a bone-crunching good time, and as if that weren't enough hand-to-hand combat, later in the movie we get an extended fight sequence onboard the Disco Volante which involves Bond taking on numerous assailants all at once. That one might even be better than the fight in From Russia With Love, which is saying something.
Elsewhere, there is the beautifully-filmed sequence in which Bond is driving along and suddenly finds himself pursued by Count Lippe ... who is then dispatched by an assassin on a rocket-launching motorbike. Excellent.
There's also numerous instances of real-life shark action which makes me think the movie must have been filmed by a madman. Some of these come during the many underwater sequences, which remain amongst the finest underwater scenes ever filmed for a movie. I'd challenge someone to film an underwater battle with shark, frogmen, explosions, knife fights, spearguns, and mini-subs today in 2011 without the use of CGI and have it end up anywhere near as exciting. Sure, I know some people find these scenes to be boring. Those people have lost their minds. This is great stuff.
Points awarded (Action/Stunts): 007/007
Editing: Editor Peter Hunt was back in action, and he did a customarily fine job. I don't care for the edit from the water jets of the Aston Martin to the main title sequence, but that's one of the very few instances in the movie where I feel the editing is anything less than exemplary. One of the minor miracles here is that Hunt was able to take footage from multiple units, including the extensive underwater sequences, and craft it into something that feels simply like a single piece of work. Points awarded (Editing): 007/007
Costumes/Makeup: Connery manages to look dapper even while wearing swim shorts in this movie, so you know something was done right from a costuming standpoint. Truth is, everyone looks impeccable here, including the villains. Best costuming decision: Domino's many black-and-white swimsuits, which are not as iconic as the one Ursula Andress wore in Dr. No, but should be. Points awarded (Costumes/Makeup): 007/007
Locations: In terms of making the movies travelogues, Thunderball followed the lead of From Russia With Love and Dr. No and upped the ante, resulting in truly gorgeous locations in and around Nassau. Some of it is even underwater!
I also enjoy the Junkanoo sequence, which was replicated for the filmmakers by eager locals. There is an amusing shot in which you can see a dog -- perhaps overloaded by sensation -- just pissing away right in the middle of the street. Points awarded (Locations): 007/007
In virtually all of these areas, Thunderball raised the Bond series to new heights which have arguably only been reattained rarely in all the years since. Total points awarded ("Oh, James..."): 007/007
(5) Q Branch
Bond's Allies: The only ally of note -- apart from return appearances by the regulars (M, Q, Moneypenny) -- is Felix Leiter, who shows up in his third film, played by the third actor to take on the role.
This time, Leiter is played by Rik Van Nutter, and he makes for a much more acceptable version of the character than did Cec Linder in Goldfinger. For one thing, he looks more than a bit like Jack Lord. Does this matter? Not really.
Points awarded (Bond's Allies): 005/007
|Connery, Auger, and director Terence Young|
Direction: Returning for what proved to be his last film for the series, Terence Young once again strikes precisely the right balance of wit, glamour, sexiness, danger, excitement, and intrigue. With only a few isolated exceptions, the Bond movies would not be this good again for a long, long time.
Points awarded (Direction): 007/007
Cinematography: Ted Moore was behind the camera again, and the movie is just smashing to look at. There are occasional rearscreen sequences which haven't aged well, but these don't hurt the movie much. The underwater scenes were filmed by Lamar Boren, and he matched Moore's style admirably; if he hadn't, the shift to the underwater sequences would have jarred, and the movie would have suffered. Points awarded (Cinematography): 007/007
Art Direction: Ken Adam didn't have quite as many spectacular sets to build for this movie as he had on Goldfinger, but he did well with what he had.
The SPECTRE boardroom and its counterpart at MI6 are appropriately epic, but I'm most impressed -- again -- by the underwater sequences. They are utterly convincing, and the decoration of those "sets" was a big part of the reason why. The Bond movies have often featured technical artists working at the top of their fields; Thunderball was no exception. Points awarded (Art Direction): 007/007
Special Effects: There are, as previously mentioned, some wonky rearscreen shots (such as the shots of Connery operating the jetpack), but there is also at least one -- the airman meeting his surgically altered double -- that works extremely well. Also, the crash-landing of the Vulcan bomber is impeccable miniature work; knowing it can't be CGI because there was no such thing at the time, I'd bet modern audiences would simply assume it was a real plane landing on the sea. Additionally, there are numerous fine explosions (especially the destruction of the Disco Volante). Points awarded (Special Effects): 007/007
Gadgets: At first, I couldn't think of many gadgets in this movie, but there are plenty: they are just so finely integrated into the story that they don't stand out, which is precisely as it should be. First of all, Bond is driving a new Aston Martin in the pre-credits sequence, and, to the delight of millions, it's got some new optional features. Plus, this movie has a jetpack, a miniature rebreather, miniature personal submarines, an underwater jetpack (!), and a sailing ship which can separate into two sections for quick getaways. Seriously, how fun is that? Points awarded (Gadgets): 007/007
Opening-Title Sequence: Here's why the title sequence to this movie is great: it's got naked women swimming around while Tom Jones is singing, plus men with weapons menacing them. Maurice Binder did a fine job of working the underwater element into the titles, and he also made them look gorgeous for the first film in the series to be shot in the widescreen format. Apart from that, though, the titles work thematically because the movie is so focused on the battle between Bond and Largo over Domino. In a sense, the entire movie is really about exactly what the title sequence is about: one man trying to save a woman from another man who is a serious danger to her. The Bond credits are eminently lampoonable, but the best of them are working at somewhat deeper levels than it might appear at first glance. Points awarded (Opening-Title Sequence): 006/007
Total points awarded (Q Branch): 006.57/007
(6) Mission Briefing
In one way, this movie's screenplay is clunky as hell: the entire plot depends upon Bond being in precisely the right place at the right time at Shrublands, so that he is involved with the villains' plot even before they have stolen the bombs and made their public blackmail demands. Then, Bond just happens to be around to observe Derval's body being brought into Shrublands; this is too much. However, it all manages to work for one simple reason: in Thunderball, as in From Russia With Love, the spy stuff is really just a Macguffin that allows us to get to the plot involving Bond's attempts to bring Domino to a state of self-awareness. If you can relax and accept that that is what the movie is really about, you will see that the screenplay is really quite efficient. It's also got wit to spare, although a few of the quips -- "I think he got the point" -- teeter dangerously close to going over the edge into camp.
|poster art by Robert McGinnis|
|poster art by Robert McGinnis|
Points awarded: 006/007. I might be a point too generous here, but I think I'll stick with it.
(7) The Music
Title Song: Tom Jones sings "Thunderball," and he sings it magnificently. It's a silly song, in a way, but undeniably powerful, and I especially love the six-note into section. Interestingly, this was not originally intended to be the title song; that was going to be "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" as sun by Dionne Wawick, and while the song was removd from the movie, you can still hear the melody in a few scenes (such as during the dance of death Bond shares with Fiona). And if you have the DVD, you can watch the credits with the Warwick song. All things considered, I like it, but I think "Thunderball" was an exceptional replacement, and I'm glad they made the change. Points awarded (Title Song): 006/007
The Score: A great deal of Barry's score is based on the melody he composed for "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (or, perhaps, vice versa). It's an exotic score, and while it's not as good as the previous two scores in the series -- it's a bit too repetitive -- it's still one of the highwater marks for the franchise. Points awarded (The Score): 006/007
Total points awarded (The Music): 006/007
|poster art by Robert McGinnis|
Double-0 Rating for Thunderball: 006.37/007
And we have a new leader! For those keeping track at home, the results stand like so:
006.37 -- Thunderball