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The fourth James Bond film and the final one to be directed by Terrence Young, Thunderball has the most complicated production history of the films. Author Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory worked on a never filmed screenplay in the ’50s, which Fleming later recycled for his novel Thunderball. When Fleming sold the rights to the books, McClory sued, claiming part authorship and received money, story credit on the film, and even a cameo. Two decades later, Sean Connery would play Bond one last time in 1981’s Never Say Never Again, an unsanctioned, unnecessary, and unlikable semi-remake of Thunderball.

The series arguably reached perfection, or at least got very close with Goldfinger and then it started to run into problems, following with what may be the most flawed of the initial cycle of films. Thunderball contained many of the clichés and faults that would mar so many of the later films. It also demonstrated the maxim about sequels: the same, but bigger (and usually not better). Its budget was more than the three previous films combined and it was the first “spectacle” Bond, as well as the filmmakers’ biggest success to date. Much about it, from the blunt title to Tom Jones’s appropriately over the top theme song to the running time is a little too much. It opens well, with Bond fighting a SPECTRE agent in drag and a jetpack escape, and then segues into the now familiar Maurice Binder title sequence, which had a simple but potent formula: silhouettes of curvy naked women (was that a nipple?) and phallic symbols (guns, spear guns) suggestively filmed and set to the theme song. Often there would be a vague connection to the title or plot; this time, it’s an underwater theme. Binder himself deserves a pretty big chunk of credit (or blame) for laying the groundwork for music videos.

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Unfortunately, the film squanders the initial momentum by spending way too much time at a country spa, where Bond is recuperating (and shagging nurses) and, conveniently, running into villains. Note to villains: it’s probably best not to have a conspicuous, suspicious tattoo. Or to go to health spas. What also becomes readily apparent in this film is that Bond is a pretty terrible spy. Two of the more important qualities of a spy are anonymity and sneakiness and these are two things that Bond’s really bad at. He even drops his gun breaking into the bad guy’s compound! Luckily for him, the bad guys are more incompetent than he is. Botched attempts to kill Bond became a staple of the series, as well as the unnecessarily elaborate and sadistic way to kill him. Here, he is thrown into a swimming pool of sharks, which almost qualify as honorary co-stars of the series, reappearing in numerous later films. Nothing says villain like a shark pool, it’s like the ultimate evil guy accessory.

The story pits Bond, once again, against the shadowy terrorist organization SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) and its enigmatic mastermind Ernst Blofeld, who makes a brief appearance, seen only from the neck down, stroking his ever-present cat. This recurring master villain, who would finally be the chief adversary in You Only Live Twice, was a clever touch, a Moriarity to Bond’s Holmes. To demonstrate that he does not tolerate failure or betrayal, he electrifies the chair of one his agents who skimmed some money. Disposable henchmen are another integral part of the series and of many later action movies. Bond’s main nemesis in this film is Largo, who has a cool eye patch, a legion of frogmen, and a sweet boat, but is the blandest baddie of the early films. French actress Claudine Auger is the Bond girl (like Ursula Andress in Dr. No, her voice was dubbed) and while pretty, is not very interesting. Although getting cast as a Bond girl was a coveted honor, it also became a bit of a curse as few of the actresses seemed to go on to much else.

The plot is classic Cold War, involving stolen warheads. Much of the action takes place in and around the Bahamas; Bond films returned time and time again to the beach, no doubt because of their natural beauty and for the excuse to show lots of beautiful women in skimpy bikinis. Thunderball is the most aquatic of Bond movies. A notable, if regrettable, feature of the film is its plethora of underwater scenes. It does look cool and was state of the art for the time, but after a while, underwater fights get a little tedious, harpoons to the chest excepted. Bond does wear a ridiculous/awesome bright orange wetsuit and it is implied that he and Auger have sex underwater. I’m nor sure the logistics of it, but they do emerge from the ocean and he quips, “I hope we didn’t scare the fish.”

There is a cool carnival chase and, showing the growing self-awareness of the series, Bond dances with a female enemy at the Kiss Kiss Club. Bond was known in some countries as “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which Pauline Kael later used as the title for a collection of reviews. It was also to be a song and was recorded variously by “Goldfinger” singer Shirley Bassey and by Dionne Warwick, but the producers went with a different song and a different singer.

Too often Thunderball feels uneven, sluggish and overly dependent on explosions, flash and a reliable formula. It lacks the elegance, wit and effortlessness of the best films. Connery is typically great, more tongue in cheek than in previous films, but he doesn’t have much support from the bad guys or the hot but vacant babes. Peter Hunt’s editing, especially in some of the fight scenes, is fast and gritty, paving the way for many subsequent action movies, but this energy doesn’t really translate to underwater. The final hydrofoil showdown is a little anti-climactic, but as in From Russia, the girl saves Bond. The final shot of the two being whisked up into the air by a rescue team is silly and abrupt. Even with its flaws, it’s still more fun than anything Roger Moore did. Fortunately, Thunderball was followed by 1967’s You Only Live Twice, which took Bond to Japan and did spectacle better and bolder, as well as finally showing us the iconic Blofeld.

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One Comment

  1. oscar

    March 5, 2013 at 1:30 am

    The female villain compensates the weak bad guys and German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer did a more suave villain in “remake” Never Say Never Again than this fat Italian actor playing Largo with his huge nose and a pirate’s patch.

    This comment “botched attempts to kill Bond became a staple of the series, as well as the unnecessarily elaborate and sadistic way to kill him” is really unnecessary because real villains do behave sadistically unless you are living in Utopia and never read history. As an example we can include Hussein’s lions devouring enemies or Colombian drugdealers feeding alligators with the flesh of their enemies.

    Tom Jones’ theme song was not a little too much but perfect and hence passed the test of time.

    Reply

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