“Well…can’t win them all.”
Way back in my Halloween 4 review I half-joked that, in the vast multiverse of franchise films, only Star Trek and Godzilla have managed to field strong fourth entries. I was immediately “well, actually”-ed by friend of the site David Lee Ingersoll‘s contention that Thunderball “isn’t bad.” Shopping this critique around, I realized Thunderball divides quite a few Bond fans…though nowhere near as much as some Roger Moore movies I could, and will eventually, mention.
I should’ve expected this. Now that we’re on Film Number Four, we can see the full scope of Bond’s world. From this point on, we’ll have plenty of time to consider all its wonderfully disparate elements and decide which we’d prefer to see…as opposed to what we’re actually watching. Because what we’re watching will increasingly serve to remind us of other, better, James Bond films. And why shouldn’t it? Goldfinger made a ton of money, so why not give the people more of that? Making this film knowing in their guts that it would be a hit must’ve felt like a license to supply heroin to William S. Burroughs. Especially since the bones of this script were already four years old by the time cameras rolled.
As mentioned in the Dr. No review, this was supposed to be the first James Bond film, and began life as a 1961 screenplay by Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. That film never got made, obviously, so Fleming took the script home to Goldeneye (his Jamaican estate, not the movie…though now you know where the movie got it’s title) and novelized it…without crediting his co-writers. The resulting lawsuits were settled out of court by the time Goldfinger hit the editor’s desk, with McClory allowing Eon Films to proceed with Thunderball provided they added the credit, “based on the original story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming” and made McClory himself a producer. That choice would lead to some teapot tempests a little less than twenty years later…
But for now, what did I tell you about this series’ continuous efforts to make “the next From Russia with Love“? It’s right there in this film’s first shot: a coffin with the monogram JB, attended by mournful guests. It’s the second fake-out of the series and the movie seems to know it, immediately showing us Bond (still Sean Connery) alive and well in the wings. The actual coffin-stuffing’s meant to be Colonel Jacques Bouvar, whom Bond (somehow) knows as an agent of the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion (SPECTRE – but they’re thinking of changing their…oh fuck this running gag; I’m taking a page from Marvel Studios’ playbook and strangling it in its cradle). Bouvar’s very much alive and dressed as his own widow, so Bond tails Bouvar back to the latter’s mansion for the opening fist-fight.
Director Terrance Young returns for a third go-round and editor Peter Hunt returns for his fourth. As soon as the action starts, you can tell someone certainly watched some French New Wave movies in their off-season. Tricks with camera speed give the action a choppy, faster-paced quality that most of my generation associates with silent comedies. Most of Thunderball‘s target audience would’ve associated it with the cheap, scholocky adventure serials that were (in all likelihood) no longer playing at a theater near them by the time this came out, but still well within living memory. Some of this stuff snuck into Goldfinger, making me think Hunt alone is responsible, but here it’s off the chain, faster and flashier, with more transitional wipes (left, right, and center) meant to increase the movie’s pace and carry us through its convolutions.
Speaking of old adventure serials, Bond chokes Bouvar down with a fireplace poker and escapes via one of his most notorious gadgets: the jetpack. And while it’s the first of many bones of contention even Bond fans (especially Bond fans) love to chew over when it comes to this film, I love the damn thing. Yes, love. Bond already has the strength, stamina and resistance to injury common to other “peak-human” superheros, so if we’re going to pile on things that’d make Captain American jealous, we might as give Bond the power of flight. I only have one real problem with the jetpack: the fact that it’s never seen again until it’s notorious cameo in Die Another Day…despite the many, many, many, many, many, many times it could’ve come in handy.
But let’s all go back to pretending Die Another Day doesn’t exist. On the other side of Thunderball‘s credits we find Bond recovering at a government health spa. And by “recovering” we mean “sexually harassing his physical therapist (Molly Peters).” Pausing long enough to meet the shady-looking Count Lippe (Guy Doleman), Bond notices a Tong symbol any Thomas Harris fan should recognize tattooed on the Count’s arm. (It appears on a mah-jongg piece. It marks the Red Dragon.) Lippe notices this noticing (and Bond searching his room) and so almost kills Bond with a spinal traction machine.
This first attempt on Bond’s life sets the tone of the whole film, undermining what should be a deadly serious scene with comedy (intentional and/or otherwise). I say “and/or” because you can’t tell me Terrance Young didn’t place the camera exactly where he wanted it to go. He saw those pneumatics pumping away and his mind went to same naughty place mine’s struggling to escape right now. C’mon: in your heart, you know it’s right. Or elsewhere, if you’re into Connery the way some of my friends (and family members) are. So don’t blame me for giggling. Besides, the tension’s immediately defused by Bond’s physical therapist, who saves him far too quickly, believing the machine’s malfunction to be all her fault. She pleads with Bond not to tell anyone about her alleged screw up. Bond responds by extorting sex from her. In the steam room.
Our Hero, ladies and gentlemen! No amount of physical trauma can dissuade him from being a creep. This sequence tells us either (a) Bond’s neigh-invulnerability’s in full effect or (b) the action in this movie will have no real consequence. Me, I’m going (b). A little later, Bond will take a shot to the leg and bleed enough to leave a trail through the city streets of Nassau. Yet, when we see him clean the wound, we’ll see it’s just a scratch. Perhaps there’s some Wolverine in this man’s woodpile. Who knows? Logan got around a fair bit in those inter-war years…
Back to things you actually care about: Count Lippe’s managed to sneak a SPECTRE agent named Angelo (Paul Stassino) into the spa, the better of Angelo to replace NATO pilot François Derval (also Paul Stassino) who’s due to run a training flight – with two live nuclear weapons – the very next day. Gassing the cockpit, Angelo crashes the plane into the ocean, the better for our actual villain to pick those bombs up…and kill Angelo. Can’t leave any loose ends hanging about. Besides, Angelo made the mistake of demanding more money from his SPECTRE handler, Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), before he left the spa.
Just to put the cherry on top, Fiona kills Lippe the next day…within sight of Bond. Who does nothing about the violent exchange of rocket fire he just witnessed on his drive to work. Once again: Our Hero, ladies and gentlemen! He’ll crawl through Hell for the chance to force himself on a woman but he won’t bat an eye as motorcyclists blow the shit out of his fellow commuters. After all, he’s already late for M (still Bernard Lee)’s mission briefing about the two missing bombs….the theft of which he could’ve prevented had he not been so busy spreading the Gospel of Gonorrhea.
With two nuclear weapons at his disposal, SPECTRE’s Number One, Ernst Blofeld (this time played by Anthony Dawson in body and Eric Pohlmann in voice), demands £100 million worth of uncut white diamonds from the NATO powers. Bond and his Double-O colleagues are given four days to find the bombs before a randomly chosen major city in the U.S. or UK ceases to exist. Recognizing Derval from his briefing packet, Bond gets a trip to the Bahamas out of this deal in the hopes of tracking down Derval’s sister, Domino (Claudine Auger).
Auger, the former Miss France, is certainly hot, and her character’s smart enough to (at least initially) resist Bond’s “charm,” making her that much hotter. But on the whole, Auger’s yet another dubbed pageant winner in yet another Bond film, cast for her looks and fuck-all else. Actual actress Luciana Paluzzi auditioned for the role of Domino, but I can see the wheels spinning in the producer’s heads: “Casting a civic pageant winner worked so well in From Russia with Love, casting a national pageant winner is sure to work here!” It seems to have: Paluzzi reportedly had tons of fun with her villainous role and Thunderball became the highest-grossing Bond films of its time (most likely thanks to all the goodwill Goldfinger earned).
Too bad it’s an unholy mess, and the mess only grows once we come to the film’s main location, Nassau, and meet Domino, “kept woman”/”mistress”/sexual prisoner of the eye-patch wearing international playboy/shark-collector Emil Largo (Adolfo Celi in body and Robert Rietty in voice). Bond meets Largo over cards, taunting him with talk of “a spectre over your shoulder…the spectre of defeat” and gently cradling Domino as the two slow dance by the ocean. Christ, I’m friends with swingers and even I’m not this bold. There’s bold, and then there’s rude. Secret Agent Rude. (We’ve not yet crossed the line into “free-range rude” quite yet.)
Yet Bond and Largo’s pissing contest over Domino form some of Thunderball‘s best dialogues. Each knows the other is a double-talking shill and each seeks to kill the other from the moment they meet. At least one great sequence – Bond’s underwater fight with a henchman in Largo’s shark pool – comes from this, but on the whole I find Largo…strangely underwhelming.
Maybe it’s Goldfinger hangover. Minute for minute, Auric’s Teutonic joviality was much more fun to watch than Largo’s sneering seriousness. Thanks to him, we have our first instance of someone being eaten by a shark in this series…but what else? He’s not a Stock Pulp Villain, like Dr. No, or an evil vision of Bond, like Grant…and while Largo’s certainly a criminal mastermind, he’s far from the criminal mastermind of this plot. That honor goes to Blofeld, who makes more of an impression in five minutes of preceding over SPECTRE’s financial reports thank Largo makes for the rest of the movie.
The whole “pay someone to get plastic surgery so they can impersonate a NATO salad-chest” plan is pretty convoluted…but since they’re stealing live nuclear missiles, I’d expect a great degree of convolution to be necessary. However, I question the necessity of all the plastic surgery when we’ve seen (in From Russia with Love‘s pre-credits sequence) that incredibly life-like masks already exist in this universe. Mission: Impossible wouldn’t ruin the concept for everyone until the year after Thunderball‘s release so what gives, Eon Productions? Were you guys already forgetting which fantastical spy-fi concepts you’d previously introduced? Well…I suppose that’s only natural…after all, there are so many…
And that’s my root issue with Thunderball: too much of almost everything. Bond gets not one, but two Local Contacts in this episode, plus a Felix Leiter (now played by Rik Van Nutter) who’s grown younger and thinner between movies at the sacrifice of his acting talent. One contact’s a dude named Pinder (Earl Cameron) with all of three lines. The other’s a woman named Paula (Martine Beswick) with four lines. Guess which one dies at the villain’s hands? It doesn’t matter, but say, “Bye, Paula.” We hardly knew you. Literally. And your death feels like a red flag symptom of sequelitis.
There are too many characters on both sides of the counterintelligence equation: Largo gets two henchmen, plus Fiona, who easily eclipses them both on account of being Luciana Paluzzi and a certifiable badass, SPECTRE’s own redheaded troubleshooter. A cool professional who speaks to her thugs with the clipped bark of someone used to being surrounded by idiots, she even dresses Largo down for hastily trying to kill Bond “because he tries to make love to your…woman.” Her involvement with Bond triggers the best scene in this movie, where Fiona explicitly critiques the last two movies by bedding Bond before trying to kill him. If only she hadn’t paused to monologue about
“James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and immediately returns to the side of right and virtue.”
she could’ve had him, no matter how true and righteous and good that monologue might be. Bond escapes her clutches, of course, but Fiona traces his bloody path through a Junkanoo parade in the film’s tensest sequence. All the underwater action scenes in the world can’t compare to the sight of two spies trying to kill each other in a public place, all while attempting to keep it casual. You could lift this sequence out of the film and set it down as the pre-credit teaser of a better Bond movie. Then again, its one of the few things keeping from falling asleep on this one.
You could say the same about most of this flick. By themselves, its individual components mostly work (mostly), and many of them worked in previous Bond films. Assembled into a whole, they feel disconnected. The flow is off, somehow. And now that these movies are pushing past the two-hour mark, I’m starting to see self-indulgence creep in, unnecessarily padding things out. Did we really need all these scenes of M and the Defense Minister giving in to SPECTRE’s ransom demands? Do we need so many sweeping shots of the ocean and its manta rays? It’s narrative fat. Cutting it all out could’ve improved the pace mightily. But why do that when you can wow idiots with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of what’s essentially nature photography…? Oh, and the real anchor around Thunderball‘s neck: its far-too-many underwater sequences.
Choreographed and partially directed by the Creature from the Black Lagoon himself, Ricou Browning, these certainly wowed audiences in their time. In ours, they go on too long, especially during the climactic battle, when Largo’s small army of henchmen face off against the U.S. Coast Guard’s frog squad as Bond races to stop the bombing of Miami Beach. At best, this final battle’s repetitive and tension-free, as we’ve only met two of the combatants (Largo and Bond) and don’t care to meet rest. At worst, it’s incoherent filler, the action obscured by bubbles and playing out at half speed anyway, as does everything underwater. Some French editing tricks could’ve improved the hell out of this, but I guess even Peter Hunt ran out of energy. He requested and received two extra months to get this film up to what he felt would be par. He should’ve taken a few more.
“Not bad” is a tricky phrase. Not exactly “good,” is it, Chief? Thunderball’s that frustrating kind of film that just doesn’t work. It’s the first film in the series I’d recommend only to die hards, who’ve already seen it anyway. It starts out shaky, verges on become good, and eventually shakes itself apart. Maybe Eon should’ve stirred things instead. (Thank you, I’ll be here all night.)
I know, I know…”be careful what you wish for.”