Thunderball

Thunderball ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Bond-A-Thon 2017
Film #4: Thunderball (1965)

Directed by Terence Young
Starring Sean Connery as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007

*This review contains spoilers for the book and movie versions of Thunderball. You have been warned.*

"It's the first time I've tasted women. They're rather good."

I suppose it was inevitable. After three increasingly successful Bond movies, Thunderball is the first one in the series that I like, but don't love. As many Bond fans know, the story was originally conceived as a screenplay by Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory, who had hoped to produce a James Bond movie. Alas, Fleming used the ideas to write his next Bond novel, leading to a plagiarism lawsuit that McClory won. As such, when Cubby and Harry came to make Thunderball, an agreement had to be reached with McClory, who served as the film's sole producer. The end result is hardly bad by any means, but there's certainly some issues to be explored. We'll get to most of those later.

For now, let's enjoy the pre-title sequence. From a logistical standpoint, none of it makes that much sense. How did Bond get to the château before Colonel Bouvar? How did he manage to stash the jetpack on the roof? Did he fly there? And why was Bouvar at his own funeral in the first place? But it hardly matters. The fight between Bond and Bouvar is bone-crunchingly brutal (most of Connery's fights are), and the subsequent escape by jetpack is suitably spectacular. Knowing that said jetpack (known in reality as the Bell Rocket Belt) was actually flown by a real person over the château only makes the scene about ten times more awesome, as does John Barry's bombastically brassy score.

Obligatory John Barry Tracks:

"Chateau Flight"
"Cafe Martinique"
"Thunderball (Instrumental)"

Onto the watery titles, and three changes are instantly noticeable: Maurice Binder is back to do them, the silhouetted ladies are actually naked this time (as Alan Partridge would say, "ooh, bit of nipple..."), and the filmmakers have finally switched to widescreen, which is why they had to reshoot the gunbarrel (this time with Sean Connery). Also, I'm afraid I must retract my earlier statement about "Goldfinger" being the loudest Bond song, because "Thunderball" (sang by Tom Jones) is practically deafening. Still a good song though, even if the original selection, "Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", was arguably even better.

Thunderball continues the trend began by From Russia with Love of letting the viewer see into SPECTRE's operations, this time with a full staff meeting in their Parisian branch. As before, Blofeld remains unseen, though the meeting does introduce the movie's central antagonist, Emilio Largo. Aside from Robert Wagner's eyepatch-wearing Number 2 in Austin Powers, Largo seems largely forgotten by popular culture, perhaps due to his status as a secondary villain behind Blofeld (à la Rosa Klebb). This is a shame. By my reckoning, Largo's a better baddie than he's ever given credit for, and Adolfo Celi gives the role a nice sense of understated menace and imposing physicality. He could also qualify as another "Evil Bond": not in the physical sense that Red Grant did, but definitely in terms of his psychology and lifestyle. The yacht, the mistress, and even the penchant for baccarat do fit the image of a version of Bond in the employ of SPECTRE.

As with Fleming's novel, Bond spends the opening act at the Shrublands sanatorium, per M's suggestion that he improve his health. While there, he has several confrontations with SPECTRE agent Count Lippe, partially discovering the villains' plot in the process. This is a narrative contrivance to be sure, but it's also a problem I seem to remember the book having, so fair enough. Also, I have a feeling that Bond's seduction of hot physiotherapist Patricia Fearing won't go down well with everyone, though it isn't nearly as bothersome (read: rapey) to me as his relationship with Pussy Galore.

During this portion of the film, we are also introduced to its breakout character, the venomous supervixen Fiona Volpe. Played with sultry confidence by Luciana Paluzzi, Fiona drifts in and out of Thunderball's narrative as she pleases, screwing over the good guys and making the other bad guys (e.g. Count Lippe, Vargas) look like bumbling morons. She begins the series' tradition of femme fatales: villainous, promiscuous women who make Bond's life hell and dominate whatever movie they're in. More outlandish ones would follow, but Fiona remains a benchmark. She comfortably ranks behind Red Grant as my second-favourite Bond henchman. Sorry, Oddjob fans, but I have a fondness for redheads.

As if Goldfinger didn't stretch credibility enough, SPECTRE's plot involves hijacking a NATO plane to steal two atomic bombs, using a surgically-enhanced doppelgänger of Naval Commandant François Derval. The heist itself is fairly well executed, even if it does go on a bit. The London stuff is enjoyable, though, and played for a suitable level of tension. The sight of all the 00 agents in one room is one thing, but the actual conference hall itself is magnificent. Ken Adam strikes again.

About 40 minutes in, and we finally arrive in the Bahamas. As you can probably tell, Thunderball doesn't quite have the lightning-fast pacing of its predecessors. Thankfully, it soon picks up with the introduction of Domino Derval, Largo's mistress and Bond's love interest for the evening. Played by the winsome Claudine Auger, Domino is an atypical Bond girl in that she never really falls for Bond, only using him as an escape from Largo. Like previous Bond girls, she becomes a pawn in the battle between Bond and his nemesis, though she eventually rises above it. An underrated female lead, though one that is grossly overshadowed by Fiona. Ironically, the character of Fiona didn't exist in the novel, so book Domino was the fiery one.

After an evening at the casino spent sparring with Largo, all of Bond's allies are properly introduced in quick fashion. One of them is the returning Felix Leiter, played this time by Rik Van Nutter. He's admittedly one of the better Felixs: with his laid back attitude and granny sunglasses, he could almost pass for Jack Lord 2.0. Unfortunately, none of the other allies (Pinder, Paula) are particularly interesting, and their interactions with Bond seem a little more cursory than usual. But hey, at least Q stops by to give 007 his gadgets, and dazzle the viewers with his pineapple shirt.

Bond investigates Largo's ship (the gorgeous Disco Volante), before visiting his island estate, Palmyra - once during the daytime, and again under cover of darkness after Paula is kidnapped. It's a serviceable villain lair, mainly in that it has a pool filled with sharks. Naturally, Bond has an encounter with them, which is pretty terrifying, especially considering that in some shots Connery is the one dodging them.

The highlight of Thunderball arrives shortly afterwards. Having previously petrified Bond during a joyride, Fiona surprises him in his hotel bath. As others have pointed out, this is the best underwater scene in the movie, and one of the sexiest moments in the entire series. The actual sex itself is no different- I swear you can actually hear Fiona orgasm at the end of the shot. Her successive verbal attack on Bond caps the scene off in style, and is a perfectly written deconstruction of his ego. It does feel very metatextual, though, as if she literally just watched Goldfinger and wants to tear 007 a new one. Bond's tense escape from Fiona at the Junkanoo ends the second act on a high, leading into her suitably excellent death scene in the Kiss Kiss Club. The film is an undeniably duller experience once she's gone.

Let's talk about Connery's acting. After finally discovering the sunken Vulcan bomber, Bond tells Domino her brother is dead in an effort to locate the bombs. While Connery spends most of the movie acting aloof (I find there's a fine line between a character's disinterest and the actor's boredom), his performance in this scene is a great showcase of his skills. The brief tremble in his hand, the uncertainty in his face, and his decision to don a pair of sunglasses to avoid looking Domino in the eyes are all tremendously effective. Oh, and there's a cool line somewhere in there about Vargas getting the point, whatever that means.

And then we get to the third act. I've avoided discussing the underwater sequences until now, even though I ultimately have nothing against them. They're fine, but they just go on far too long for my liking, so the fact that so much of the movie happens under the sea is a bit of a problem. That being said, I really dig the big battle between SPECTRE and the Marines. It's a thrilling variation of the traditional Bond climax, with the decision to colour code the characters (orange = good, black = bad) ensuring that the viewer always knows who's murdering who. The actual final fight onboard the Disco Volante is even better, particularly given that Domino is the one who gets to kill Largo. An inspired choice, following her torture at his hands. A giant explosion follows, before Bond and his leading lady are rescued by a CIA B-17. Good stuff.

Where the first three films saw the gradual creation of the Bond formula, Thunderball is the first in the series to really feel formulaic. Instead of trying to break new ground, it seems more concerned with being bigger and better than the last one, and that's a shame. It's far from a disaster, and is infinitely more watchable than most of the Eurospy flicks that attempted to ape the series' success, but for a movie titled after the nickname for a nuclear mushroom cloud, you think it could've been even more explosive.

Postscript: I almost left out my favourite John Barry cue from the Thunderball soundtrack - his original score for the ending, which was replaced at the last minute with Monty Norman's Bond theme. Here's the scene with Barry's music reinserted, but be warned, that brass section may blow your eardrums out.


Best aspect: Aside from Fiona Volpe? It's gotta be the underwater cinematography. Yeah, everyone complains about how those scenes go on forever, including me. But let's be honest, they still look incredible, particularly for 1965. The fact that you can actually tell what's going on during the underwater action sequences is something of a minor miracle.

Worst aspect: Bit of a weird one, but hear me out. I usually quite like the expository branching scenes between Bond and his allies (like Bond and Kerim's conversations, or drinks with Felix and Quarrel). Here, they feel completely perfunctory, so much so that it takes me out of the movie slightly. Say what you will about those underwater scenes, at least they give the audience time to breathe.

Best scene: Literally any bit with Fiona, though her hotel room tryst with Bond is a highpoint. Runners-up include the pre-title sequence, Bond's conversation with Domino about her brother, and the final underwater battle.

Worst scene: Bond and Domino's underwater sex. Not awful, but wildly unnecessary and nonsensical.

This movie's MVP: There's a few. Kevin McClory would go on to be a major pain in the ass to EON Productions, but at least he was willing to work together with them on this picture, so kudos for that. If we're sticking with the EON crew, there's also title designer Maurice Binder, who returned to do Thunderball and would go on to work on all of the films up to and including Licence to Kill. And let's not forget John Stears, the man who built Bond's DB5, who won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for Thunderball (a belated shout out must go to Norman Wanstall as well, who won an Oscar on Goldfinger for Best Sound Editing).

James Bond will return in You Only Live Twice

My Bond-A-Thon ranking
CJ Probst's Master list

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