Like the sands through the hourglass, these are the films of James Bond. Hello and welcome to another installment in this ever-burdensome project. I appreciate your patience and understanding. Remember when I started this wild idea? I was just a blushing youth with my entire life ahead of me. And now? The winter of our discontent is upon us all and each breath we take just prolongs the inevitable residence of the grave from being occupied by us as we stand just one more day upright under our own strength in this trail of tears. Oh, and it is almost Christmas too! So with all that superfluous flummery of amazing pretentiousness under our belts, let us sally forth into the world of 007, shall we?
Goldfinger was a worldwide phenomenon when released in 1964. It has proven itself over the decades as well, remaining at the forefront of best of Bond movie lists with a memorable villain, a great henchman, that amazing Aston Martin, and a wonderful theme song. It surely deserves some of the accolades it receives. So with that background as our start, we can now dive into the waters of Thunderball!
Thunderball’s history is filled with more legal dockets than Perry Mason’s storage unit. This story is fascinating and I again recommend reading a book entitled “The Battle for Bond” by Robert Sellers because it goes into tremendous detail about the ins and outs of this tangled and snarled web of lawsuits and rights claims and legalese flapdoodle. Of course, if you just want a hastily written, condensed version instead, then go no further than rechecking my earlier post where I talked about Never Say Never Again because I’ll be damned if I’m writing all that over again.
Not that I find it boring, because I don’t, but I also realize that not everyone has the patience to sit through 25 or so posts about James Bond and reread the courtroom battles over legalities and rights repeatedly as well. Let’s just say that Thunderball was wedged in a legal quagmire from the moment the novel came out and leave it at that.
The great thing about these early Bonds is that so many people were part of the production team back then remained with the films for years. They really managed to bring about a professional looking product that was certainly different than the cheap looking knockoffs that had proliferated in the market in the mid to late 1960s. At that time you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing or hearing something spy related. On TV there was The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Mission: Impossible, I Spy, The Avengers, or Danger Man. At the movies, you found Derek Flint or Matt Helm or a host of others across the globe with their one shot flicks dishing out their attempts to horn in on Bondmania. There were even songs like “Secret Agent Man” that blasted through the airwaves.
So the Bond producers were aware of the competition, which they didn’t really have prior to Goldfinger’s release. But when the Bond phenomenon caused box office registers to overflow, the market smashed wide open and a lot of people wanted to cash in. (They even managed to get Sean’s younger brother Neil to star in a knockoff called Operation Kid Brother or Operation Double 007 or O.K. Connery. In case you’re wondering: this movie isn’t good enough to get one name let alone three of them.) This truly was the age of the spy.
But how do you top Goldfinger and the success that it brought? Fortunately, the novel Thunderball had a great story to build on with relative ease considering the legal woes. The plot of having a criminal organization steal two nuclear weapons and hold the world hostage was as timely then as it is now as it will be in the future. After all, the same story was used for Never Say Never Again, almost 20 years after Thunderball.
SPECTRE had been introduced in the film series already to be a substitute for the Russians that were the original baddies in the Fleming books. Dr. No was a SPECTRE agent, as was Rosa Klebb and Red Grant in From Russia With Love. Blofeld himself even made a faceless appearance in Russia, pulling the strings of the plot. After Goldfinger, SPECTRE would be the villain proper to bother Bond again in the film version of Thunderball.
As a random aside, one almost gets angry because the producers cherry picked the best Fleming novels to do first. The first six Bond movies were all based on terrific books and for the most part stuck close to the original stories. What I wouldn’t give to see Timothy Dalton in a remake of Thunderball at the time or watch Daniel Craig facing off against Blofeld in a rebooted You Only Live Twice. Instead we got films like The Man with the Golden Gun and Quantum of Solace. Argh.
Connery is back in what would be his last truly solid outing as Bond in the EON series. He was certainly feeling his oats as an actor; having recently worked on Alfred Hitchcock’s flawed but still interesting Marnie. Sean certainly appears at his most confident by the time Thunderball comes around. His hairpiece, always a potential point for attention, wasn’t obnoxious and actually was his best rug until Never Say Never Again.
The main bad guy I suppose would be Blofeld, as he is orchestrating the whole thing, but you never see his face and he spends every second stroking that damn cat, so I’ll pass over him. Instead we can focus on his lieutenant Emilio Largo played by Adolfo Celi, who despite his being dubbed for whatever reason still comes across as one of the signature Bond villains. His only point of grotesquery is an eye patch but as he doesn’t need a huge scar or metal teeth, it doesn’t matter. Largo definitely ranks right up there with Hugo Drax and Auric Goldfinger as a Bond villain. He isn’t as psychotic as those others, but his ruthlessness is quite effective.
The leading Bond ladies are a smidge better this time around. Domino, the good girl, is played by Claudine Auger, who is also dubbed and is quite lovely. She isn’t a wonderful actress, but she gets the damsel in distress down well and I’ll award some bonus points for her actually killing Largo at the end. There is also Martine Beswick, who plays a fellow agent alongside 007 and ultimate gets killed by the bad guys. Beswick also had a small role in From Russia With Love and is criminally underused in both movies. She could have been given a leading part in a Bond and would have definitely held her own. A missed opportunity indeed.
The bad girl is played by Luciana Paluzzi and she is easily the best female character in the movie. Playing a SPECTRE assassin, she plays the role with relish. Granted she doesn’t eat the scenery like Barbara Carrera does in Never Say Never Again, but she proves herself to be a worthy adversary for Bond.
John Barry’s score is another masterpiece throughout. Surprisingly there are many dead areas in the movie that would be improved with scoring. I know that Barry was rushed in this process because of the tight window leading up to the film’s release date. Even the original released soundtrack was missing some cues because the albums had to be in stores and Barry wasn’t finished scoring yet.
Special mention must be made to a song that actually is brave enough to use the lyric: “He looks at this world and wants it all; then he strikes…like Thunnnnderrrrbaalllll!” Not to take anything away from the performance of Tom and his Jones, because it is sung with great volume, but the title track is kind of dumb. Sometimes trying to force the title into a tune isn’t the best idea. Yes, Tomorrow Never Dies, I’m looking right at you.
Well, I certainly hope you enjoy a lot of underwater scenes because there is no other way around it if you want to get through Thunderball. Don’t get me wrong, the scale is very impressive and was incredibly difficult to coordinate. Ricou Browning, the Creature from the Black Lagoon himself (!), orchestrated the underwater filming. He was used again for the shorter underwater scenes in Never Say Never Again. On a technical level, the filming was challenging but on a dramatic level, the bottom line is: extended underwater scenes are quite boring. (Perhaps if the actual Creature from the Black Lagoon was awakened to fight SPECTRE too…? Again, a missed opportunity!)
Yes, I said they are boring and I’m proud to make that statement. Filming underwater is just like filming in slow motion only the dialogue is worse. A wiser soul than I once remarked that underwater scenes are like the drum solos of the cinematic world. Now there are some underwater scenes in other Bonds: The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, License to Kill, Tomorrow Never Dies, to name a few but they are all mercifully short in comparison. Even in Never Say Never Again, they are underwater, but thankfully due to the smaller budget, they couldn’t shoot film underwater forever.
This is why the aforementioned underwater scenes that have no musical score are especially brutal to get through. There are only so many sound effects of different bubbles that one can have in a movie. No, trust me, there are. Even the Mr. Bubble movie with the Lawrence Welk score sponsored by Scrubbing Bubbles didn’t have so many bubbles. (Well if such a movie existed and sadly it doesn’t, but a fellow can dream can’t he?)
However there are plenty of other good scenes above the waterline. One great scene with some tension is when Bond is pursued by SPECTRE agents in the middle of a local celebration with a parade. Another good one is when Bond is underwater and one of Largo’s captive sharks clearly makes a move towards Connery. And yes it is Connery and not a stuntman which makes the scene definitely more realistic. The pre-credits teaser where he beats up a widow (?!) is quite fun too.
At the end of the day, Thunderball made more than all of the previous three Bond movies when released. Audiences must have been so fascinated with filming underwater that they were able to sit through so much slow motion action in a cloud of air bubbles. Yet the sum manages to overcome the parts and become a good Bond yarn. Connery is at the peak of his Bond power and the franchise only reaped the benefits after the one-two punch of Goldfinger and then Thunderball.
Oh, before I forget, did I mention there are some underwater scenes? Just wanted to cover my bases.