24 Weeks of Bond: Thunderball

Art by Frank McCarthy

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

THE MOVIE: Thunderball! Directed by Terence Young after taking a break after the first two, the fourth 007 film was released in 1965. Originally intended to be the first film, Thunderball was the focus of extensive legal battles that ran all the way until 2006 between Ian Fleming and his story collaborators. A settlement saw credit being given to a screenplay written by Jack Whittingham in addition to screenplay credits to Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins. It also led to the film being remade in 1983 as Never Say Never Again by an independent production company, although Sean Connery would reprise his role as Bond in that as well.

At the time of rewatching, I remembered very little about the film except that there were some extensive underwater sequences. It turns out that’s because there IS a ton of the film set underwater, especially in the back end, involving sharks that got dangerous close to the actors (they tried to restrict filming those scenes to low tides due to the threat of sharks), and a climactic final battle underwater involving sixty divers. In fact, water motifs permeate the film in spas and on yachts, and even in the elaborate credit sequence.

The plot is fun. The terrorist group SPECTRE enacts an absolutely audacious, complicated plot to infiltrate NATO and abscond with nuclear missiles to hold the world hostage with. They threaten to launch a missile at a major English OR American (keeping the United States box office in mind by keeping them involved) if a ransom isn’t met. Bond, recovering from a previous mission, gets involved largely on accident at first, and then requests to be officially assigned to the case. Both feeding people to sharks and holding the world for ransom would later be aped by Michael Meyers in his Austin Powers spoofs.

This film is also notable as being the first with the Bond actor performing the “turn-and-shoot” down the sight of the barrel at the beginning of the film.

By this point, the 007 franchise had become a veritable juggernaut in terms of cinematic events. Thunderball became the first Bond movie to be released in the United States before the UK.

THE BOND: This is Sean Connery’s fourth outing, and his take on the secret agent this time around skews closer to the version he played in Dr. No. The womanizing is still there (a Bond staple), but not overdone. The cruelty and comfortability with murder is present, as is the charm. Thunderball has a spy thriller tone separate from the romanticism of From Russia With Love and the occasional camp of Goldfinger.

Gambling and drinking, also Bond staples, return here, though Bond swaps out his martinis for Dom Perignon (which he also enjoyed in Goldfinger).

THE GIRLS: There are three women in Thunderball who might be properly considered Bond women. The first, Patricia Fearing (as played by Molly Peters; dubbed by Barbara Jefford, who also dubbed Tatiana Romanova in From Russia With Love), is a physical therapist assigned to help Bond recoup after a harrowing assassination mission. Initially cold and clinical with Bond, she becomes more intrigued and attracted to the special agent after he nearly suffers a fatal occurrence on her rehabilitation machine.

Fiona Volpe (as played by Luciana Paluzzi) isn’t just a Bond girl in Thunderball… she’s a major villain! And in my opinion, the first femme fatale in the 007 movies. Dr. No’s lady leads were mostly love interests or damsels in distress. From Russia With Love’s Tatiana Romanova was technically a double agent, though she was never outright villainous; Rosa Klebb was a villain but not the amorous and alluring type associated with “femme fatales”. Even Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore, while morally ambiguous, seemed more of a flirt to Bond than an actual danger.

In Thunderball, Fiona uses her looks to manipulate targets, colleagues, and James Bond himself, and when they’re right where she wants them, she’s unafraid to resort to cold-blooded murder.

Lastly, Claudine Auger (dubbed by Nikki van der Zyl, who also dubbed Honey Rider and Sylvia Ttench in Dr. No) plays Dominique “Domino” Derval, the sister of SPECTRE’s NATO target and the imprisoned mistress of SPECTRE’S #2 agent and Thunderball’s main villain. She is integral to the film’s resolution.

THE VILLAINS: This film is also jam-packed with villains, including a look inside SPECTRE’S operations, with a number of operatives in their lair giving #1 (Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played in body here again by Anthony Dawson, though there is disagreement on who provided the voice over) reports on their progress, with fatal rewards for failure.

The main villain, though, is #2, Emilio Largo. Largo is played by Italian actor Adolfo Celi, and the overlarge hands of the villain in the novel are replaced with a more visually striking eyepatch for his film appearance. Largo is an utterly ruthless fence and black marketeer who came up with the plot to infiltrate NATO with a body double and steal nuclear weapons.

Largo’s lackies also include Fiona Volpe (See Above); the henchmen Vargas (Philip Locke) and Anni (Michael Brennan); Angel Palazzi, the body double who takes over NATO pilot Franç Derval’s assignment (both roles played by Paul Stassino); and the rich and nefarious Count Lippe (played by Guy Doleman and named after Bond creator Ian Fleming’s actual count friend), also ranked #4 in SPECTRE).

While seeing so many SPECTRE operatives and the inner workings of their organization is exciting, it’s hard to understand how they keep working, with so many betrayals and sudden murders.

ALSO, actor Bob Simmons makes a brief but memorable appearance in the beginning of the film as SPECTRE assassin Jacques Bouvar.

THE LOCATIONS: Beside a brief (and always necessary appearance) at MI6 headquarters in England, the first and only time we see all 00 agents in one place, Thunderball is set primarily in two locations:

The first, France, is used only during the opening sequence–a funeral followed by a surprise reveal and a thrilling action sequence.

The bulk of the movie, though, is set in the Bahamas. Former pirate refuge Nassau and New Providence Island, specifically, and the waters around them (though shooting also took place in Florida for some water shots). It’s visually distinctive enough to set it apart from Jamaica (Dr. No) and the resorts of Miami (Goldfinger), although the true spectacle comes from the sequences set beneath the surface of the water: heists, sabotages, and a full blown battle.

THE CARS: There are some absolutely beautiful cars in this film, including a black 1962 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II, a white 1960 Peugeot 403, and a black 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner Retractable Hardtop 51A.

James Bond’s tricked out 1963 Aston Martin DB5 returns, this time showcasing its rising bulletproof plate that covers the back window, and rear water pumps with seemingly firehose level power behind them.

You can find a full list of other cars featured in Thunderball here.

THE GADGETS: In addition to Bond’s excellent car, he uses a jetpack in the opening sequence that was a REAL thing that had been developed by the army. Onlt a few people were qualified to use it, and so one of them acted as a stunt double for that scene.

Bond also utilizes a tape recorder hidden in a dictionary; a watch and an infrared camera, both with Geiger counters meant to help find the missing nuclear weapons; a rebreather for extended time spent underwater; and a homing beacon hidden inside a radioactive pill meant for consumption.

On SPECTRE’s end of things, Largo gains entrance to their headquarters via a remote control hidden in a cigarette case; Blofeld has had the chairs in his lair outfitted with lethal devices and disposal methods to take care of those who have displeased him; and Fiona Volpe’s motorcycle comes outfitted with a torpedo launcher.

THE MUSIC: John Barry returned to score for the 007 series a third time, and included dynamic pieces for the action and underwater sequences. When it came to finding a theme song, however, they ran into some difficulties.

First, a song titled, “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” was written (by Barry and Leslie Bricusse), record (Shirley Bassey) AND re-recorded (by Dionne Warwick) before being dropped entirely and remaining unreleased for nearly 30 years.

Then, Johnny Cash, of all people, recorded and submitted a song titled, “Thunderball.” It wasn’t chosen.

Finally, John Barry and Don Black then went on to write the version of “Thunderball” that would be used for the film. Tom Jones would record the vocals, becoming the first man to sing a 007 theme song.

THE SUPPORT: A lot of familiar faces return: Bernard Lee as Bond’s superior, M; Desmond Llewelyn as the gadget master, Q; Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, M’s secretary and Bond’s unattainable goal.

New is Rik van Nutter as CIA agent and Bond’s friend, Felix Leiter, appearing somewhere between the flashy version of Dr. No and the bureaucrat version of Goldfinger.

Marine Beswick has a small but welcome role as Paula Caplan, a secret agent colleague from the CIA. While her role isn’t extensive and doesn’t end well, it’s nice to see women in the field (as heroes and villains), holding their own.

Earl Cameron plays Leiter and Bond’s assistant, Binder, while Leonard Sachs plays the liaison to the Royal Air Force, Group Captain Prichard.

Lastly, George Pravda has a somewhat important role as nuclear physicist Ladislav Kuntz, who helps Largo initially but finds a small measure of decency within himself.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Thunderball probably isn’t in my top 5 Bond films, but I do like it quite a bit. I think it’s one of Connery’s finer turns in the role. The villains, though many, are genuinely exciting. The plot is ridiculous but fun. The water sequences do go on a little long but are astounding in their execution. There is a lot to like here, but it as impressive as the final sequences are, they almost wash away the rest of the film.

OTHER BOND BREAKDOWNS:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

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