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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1965)

4. Thunderball

After the massive success of “Goldfinger,” Bond-mania was in full swing. Harry Saltzman and Cubby Brocoli had made the biggest Bond movie yet. Their next goal was to make an even bigger Bond movie. Adapting Ian Fleming’s ninth James Bond novel, “Thunderball,” EON Productions set the uncertain goal of topping “Goldfinger,” which did and still largely does define the entire series. Whether or not they succeeded is a matter of opinion, though “Thunderball” was also an enormous box office success. Many fans, myself included, consider it one of the best James Bond movies ever made.

After recuperating at a health clinic, James Bond receives a new mission. Through a convoluted series of events, SPECTRE has stolen two American nuclear missiles. Focusing on the “ransom” part of their name, unless they receive 100 million dollars worth of diamonds, SPECTRE will drop the bombs on a major American and British city. Heading to the Bahamas to investigate, Bond discovers the man leading the plan, Emilio Largo, SPECTRE’s Number 2. He also meets Largo’s mistress, the beautiful Domino. Racing against the clock, Bond has to find the nukes and stop Largo before its too late.

The previous three Bond films benefited from their Maurice Binder designed opening credits. Though all three are united by a few central elements – sexy women, awesome music - “Thunderball’s” opening would set the standard for all future Bond openings. Women, seen only in black silhouette, swim against a brightly colored background. Meanwhile, spies and guns mingle around them, interacting with the titles. All future entries in the series would copy this style. On-top of the awesome opening is Tom Jones’ singing the movie’s titular theme song. Considering Jones’ own status as a sex symbol, it’s appropriate that he would sing a James Bond theme, one that might as well be Bond’s personal theme. The song describes a man that can have any women he wants, fights a battle worth winning, has opulent taste in all things, and always strikes at the best moment. Yep, sounds like our Bond. Jones, naturally, sings his heart out, powering the song with his propulsive vocals which combine perfectly with John Barry’s bombastic trumpets.

Determined to recreate the success of “Goldfinger,” “Thunderball” follows a similar structure to that film. The first half of the story mostly focuses on Bond as he gathers intelligence, follows leads and sleuths around. Both movies have a sequence where the spy infiltrates the villain’s lair. The central bad guy in both are men who enjoy the finer things in life and put up a mask of civility to Bond before trying to kill him. Most successfully, both films slowly build towards an action-packed finale that has a literal army facing down wave after wave of henchmen, with plenty of machine gun fire and explosions. There’s enough differences between the approaches to prevent it from being repetitive. However, there’s no doubt that the Bond series would use “Goldfinger” as the blue print from now on.

With his fourth go-around as the character, Sean Connery is comfortable in the part of Bond. The thick Scottish brogue that has become so heavily associated with the actor has fully grown in at this point. In “Thunderball,” we get a slight peak into the mind of Bond. After successfully seducing an enemy agent, he informs her that he gets no pleasure from it, that everything he does is for queen and country. Connery is typically rough with women, particularly raping his nurse at the health clinic. (When forcing a kiss on her doesn’t work, he more-or-less blackmails her into sleeping with him.) Connery here lets his actions speak for him, remaining rugged and tough. Also, he hasn’t lost any strength for the cheesy one-liners. “I think he got the point” might be the biggest groaner yet but Connery makes it work.

One of the things I must looked forward to with this retrospective is seeing how censorship standards will evolve over the years. As the sixties rolled on, the amount of sex and nudity that could appear in a film became more lax. “Thunderball” is by far the sexiest Bond movie yet. Bond beds at least three women, maybe five, over the course of the movie. His love scene with Patricia the nurse features some brief nudity and she’s topless, though covered, during a latter moment. We see Fiona Vulpe in the bathtub, Bond teasing her, before the two leap in bed together, which is about as graphic as the time would allow. Domino, Bond’s primary love interest, spends nearly the entire movie in various revealing swim suits. “Thunderball” is about as randy as a mainstream film could get in 1964.

Speaking of the love interests. “Thunderball” features a fantastic collection of Bond girls. His main squeeze throughout the plot is Domino. Claudine Auger is gorgeous, melting off the screen in an array of cleavage-barring outfits. Auger has fantastic chemistry with Connery. Unlike Honey Ryder, Domino isn’t just eye-candy, as she actually contributes to the plot and helps the protagonist out. We’ve had women in Bond films before that seek to betray the spy and usually they fall to the hero’s charms. Not so with Fiona Volpe. After the required roll in bed with Bond, Volpe pointedly does not switch sides, continuing to pursue Bond, acting as the film’s secondary villain. The fiery Luciana Paluzzi is great in the role, matching Connery’s wit and strength. (She also gets to ride on a rad, missile shooting motorcycle.) Though their roles are a lot smaller, Molly Peters as Patricia and Hammer starlet Martine Beswick as Paula are both surely sights to behold.

Bond’s adversary this time out is Emilo Largo. Largo is given a dynamic entrance, shown walking into SPECTRE HQ and meeting with the other highest ranking members. Blofeld, with his white cat, is given another tease. As for Largo himself, he adds a few iconic aspect to the Bond villain idea. He sports a distinctive eye patch. He drops a henchmen that has failed him into a pool of vicious sharks. Like past opponents, he also has an eye for gambling and rich-people-hobbies, like skeet shooting. Adolfo Celi, though he has his thick Italian accent dubbed over, proves an intimidating enemy. However, he’s not as compelling as Goldfinger or Red Grant. Aside from his distinctive visual and tendency to feed people to sharks, there’s nothing especially memorable about Number Two.

“Thunderball” gets started with a strong, action-packed opening. Bond has a knock-down fist fight with a SPECTRE agent in drag. The fight is brutal and concludes with an iron bar strangulation. The hand-to-hand combat in the film continues in that brutal vein. Bond slams a guy into a concrete partition, before giving him a judo chop to the neck. The final act has Bond having a close-quarter struggle with some enemies in the cockpit of the boat. Yet the biggest gimmick “Thunderball” has is its underwater photography. There’s extensive underwater footage, with plenty of scenes of people swimming around. At first, these moments are a bit awkward. The first fight Bond has underwater is rather stiff. However, “Thunderball” escalates nicely. A one-on-one fight in the shark pool works fantastically. The climatic battle between U.S. Navy divers and SPECTRE henchmen is intense and nicely chaotic. There’s so much going on, with people being stabbed with knives and spear guns. For extra points, “Thunderball” also includes speedboats shooting at each other.

The best Bond gadget of all time gets a reprise here: The modified Aston Martin DB5 reappears, showing off its backward facing water cannons and rear window shield. Q shows up, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, and gifts Bond with some rather subdued gizmos. The Geiger counter watch is nothing to write home about. “Thunderball” features the first instance of a device being tailor-made to get Bond out of a specific scrap. Considering how much water is around, I suppose it's fine that Q would deliver a small, air-providing device. It still appears right when Bond needs it. The coolest gadget in the flick, aside from the real life Skyhook at the end, is the jet pack Bond slips on at the very beginning. Because when isn’t a jet pack the coolest thing?

“Thunderball” doesn’t feature a lot of jet-setting, mostly being set in and around Nassau. However, the film still makes great use of this location. Aside from the scenic beaches, of which we see plenty, “Thunderball” also has a stand-out sequence set during a Junkanoo parade. Bond disappears among the colorful dancers. Since the location is so close to the U.S., the movie includes a token appearance by Felix Leiter. Rik Van Nutter fills the role of Leiter this time. With his vaguely Clint Eastwood-style good looks, Nutter is the first time Leiter has seen as stylish and cool as his British counterpart.

As much as I enjoy “Thunderball,” it does have a few notable flaws. It has one of the slowest first acts of any Bond film yet. Though Bond’s stay at the health clinic is amusing, it doesn’t add much to the story. All the information concerning the plane pilot, and the plan to replace him with an exact double, seems extraneous. The extended sequence devoted to the plane going down and SPECTRE stealing the missiles goes on far longer then it should. Once Bond gets to the Bahamas, “Thunderball” really takes off. That takes a while though and seems to extend the film’s 140 minute run time even more.

So “Thunderball” isn’t a perfect movie. However, it represents Connery’s Bond right at the peak of his power and popularity. Director Terence Young, his production team, and everyone involved was running like a fine-tuned machine at this point. The film has everything you associate with the Bond series: Glamorous girls, beautiful locations, evil villains, big actions, fun gadgets, and an awesome theme song. For these reasons and more, “Thunderball” remains my favorite of the entire James Bond franchise. [Grade: A]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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