Thunderball Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Thunderball Review

    “You've only got four days, 007. So don't spend your time sitting around!”

    If Moonraker was the one in space, OHMSS was the one in the snow and A View To A Kill was the naff one, then Thunderball was, unmistakeably, the wet one. Sean Connery's fourth outing as England's finest government sanctioned hit-man-cum-womaniser was set predominantly in, on or above the sea. With SPECTRE's latest madman unleashed with a truly world-threatening scheme, the superpowers on the brink of meltdown and Bond's much-needed sojourn to a health spa violently curtailed, it is time to batten down the hatches, take a deep breath and dive into some of the most elaborate set-pieces and inventive action in the series so far.

    Already heading into troubled water, the filmed version of Thunderball was controversial in that Ian Fleming's original novel had outside parties Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham claiming that they had co-conceived of the idea with the established author with a view to making it a screenplay for a Bond movie even before Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had taken the bait. Complicated legal wrangles meant that the story could be released again by rival companies because the rights were still in dispute. This, of course, happened in 1983 when Sean Connery returned to his defining role for Irvin Kershner's production of Never Say Never Again - which is not held as one of the “official” Bond pictures by, well, anybody. Suitably epic in scope, Thunderball was the mega-success of the series, garnering not one but two official premiers in the UK just to cater for the massive surge of Bond-maniacs that the series had gathered. Marketing for the film was colossal and the like would not be seen again until George Lucas gave us a story from a galaxy far, far away ... But if the hype was extraordinary, then the expectations were even higher.

    Providing more insight into the workings of SPECTRE, the movie was concerned with eye-patch-wearing playboy, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), the organisation's number 2 agent to Blofeld's cat-stroking number 1, and his brilliant scheme to use the nuclear warheads from a stolen RAF Vulcan as a threat to destroy a city in either Britain or the USA unless a mindboggling ransom is paid. With only a matter of days to either pay up or face Armageddon, it becomes imperative to find and neutralise the threat. And, with every 00 agent in the field brought into play to seek out the hidden cache, James Bond has a hunch about the Bahamas and the nefarious Largo and, with M's approval, heads out to uncover the bombs, destroy the man and his private army and, have a little fun in the sun. With Ken Adam's hugely impressive sets - the SPECTRE HQ is an absolute delight that recalls his War Room for Dr. Strangelove and foreshadows Blofeld's future lair in the hollowed-out base of a volcano in You Only Live Twice - and revelatory, boundary-pushing underwater action scenes, Thunderball, as M christens the operation to derail Largo, is big and bold and punctuated by a level of extravagance that feels lush and decidedly over the top. Basically every penny of the immense budget is up there on-screen. Yet, for all its gory, Thunderball - admittedly a favourite of many fans - perhaps goes a little too far in its joyous enthusiasm for undersea bravado. So much time is spent with Bond and various ne'er-do-wells brawling in the briny, that the film seems positively water-logged at times. The action on the surface, such as the great pre-titles sequence involving the unmasking of a hit-man at his own funeral and subsequent transvestite-tussle in the ornate chateau - literally every piece of object d'art and stick of furniture is utilised as a weapon - is equally as exciting and, with the inclusion of Bond's Bell jet-pack and a rocket-firing motorcycle for a slice of extreme road-rage, just as outlandish. Adam was given free-reign to come up with all manner of mechanised maritime war-machines and, finding just the right guy in submersible-engineering to bolt his dreams together, the film ended up with a veritable fleet of fantastical, yet believable vehicles, savage spear-firing manta-craft and zippy single-man propulsion units that would leave even the fastest, hungriest shark eating its bubbles. Of course, the creation of Largo's floating fortress, his exotic yacht the Disco Volante, was the icing on the cake. With underwater chambers for its henchmen to disperse from, rockets and guns aplenty, the vessel's ace up the sleeve was its ability to split into two - a super-fast catamaran lurking within the more stately and luxurious surrounding shell, proving that even imperious, high-ranking SPECTRE masterminds plan for the eventuality of a quick getaway.

    “My outboard capsized, so I had to swim ashore. Uh, how far do you go?”

    Steady on, Commander, we've only just met.

    Terence Young relishes his third stint as a Bond director. He relinquished Goldfinger to Guy Hamilton, who placed a lot more spiritedness and joviality into his first outing in the series, and this notion seems to have rubbed off on Young, who now finds that he cannot resist the opportunity to over-indulge. Now, everything is bigger and more protracted, director and star having the benefit of a well-founded template to bounce ideas off. The required elements are all there, neatly stacked but heaving with a brazen impetuosity that guarantees a spectacle or a skirmish every other scene. Connery smirks throughout the movie, 007 almost totally in control of things this time around. Short of one escape and evasion that sees our hero take a bullet in the leg and frantically use crowds to throw his pursuers off the scent - marvellously expanded upon when Lazenby went on the run in OHMSS - Bond comes up trumps throughout the mission with surprising ease. Whether battering cross-dressing mourners and murderous submariners or dodging sharks and outwitting stealthy assassins (who should obviously have been a little bit stealthier), 007 proves why he is Britain's finest with an air that definitely nudges over in smugness. His libido is a wild and untameable, too. Getting slung around by Pussy Galore obviously taught him a thing or two about cutting to the chase a lot quicker. In the Shrublands health clinic, poor Patricia Fearing's (Molly Peters) physiotherapist can barely introduce Bond to the dubious delights of the Traction-Bench - which goes on to provide a scene of spine-juddering jeopardy that is purely hysterical - before he has virtually assaulted her. You can imagine many of the blokes watching Thunderball at the time it came out making a mental note of the sensual properties of a mink glove. Just as we get a “look-closely-and-she's-not” nude Ursula Andress in Dr. No, a streaking glimpse (supposedly) of Daniela Biancha in FRWL and the eerily seductive form of a gold-lacquered Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger, Peters does a spot of flesh-revealing in the steam-room that will have raised more than just temperatures back in 1965. And Connery effortlessly gurns his way through such scenes like a seasoned gigolo.

    “Do not live in hope, my dear. There is no-one to rescue you.”

    Felix Leiter, now played by Rik Van Nutter after Cec Linder in Goldfinger and Jack Lord in Dr. No, sports a youthful face beneath some trendy Man-In-A-Suitcase-style silver-grey locks. His dependability is once again never in question and, indeed, it is he who arrives in time with a platoon of US Navy Aquaparas for the requisite final battle. Here, Young, effects man John Stears and phenomenally audacious underwater choreography from Ricou Browning, provide ample adrenaline-blasting carnage. When Largo's dive-team and these fish-soldiers go flipper-to-flipper there are torsos stippled with spears and arrows, oxygen-hoses severed, torn and yanked from mouths, face-plates ripped off, knives thrust into rubber-coated bodies and even a spear-gun jabbed into an eye. The slaughter is highly impressive, a nautical massacre on a grand, and very intimate scale, culminating in the ghostly image of floating bodies loitering in death on the seabed. Mind you, it is funny how the number of actual combatants seems to grow with each passing minute, when only a dozen or so on either side seemed to enter the water in the first place.

    “Aren't you in the wrong room, Mr. Bond?”

    “Not from where I'm standing.”

    Women-wise, things are just as hot as ever and the fans had, by now, come to expect some searingly sultry sirens to embroider the film. Returning Martine Beswicke, who had previously appeared in FRWL, was all down to Cubby and Young, who both obviously fancied her. She had even tried out for the role of Honey Ryder in Dr. No, but quite rightly, her darkly exotic Amazonian looks were too strong, and her temperament far too obviously firebrand. But, after the cat-scrapping gypsy Vida, she appeared here as Bond's Bahaman contact, Paula Caplan. Although clearly left without a great to do other than look glamorous at the side of Bond's debonair agent-about-town, Beswicke gives the part some degree of barely controlled wildness. There is a flash of unpredictable volatility in her eyes still, and it would have quite something to have had her courageous and, ultimately, self-sacrificing agent do a Jinx-style fight-back once she had fallen into enemy hands. It is worth mentioning that Bond's discovery of her final moment marks a brief, but impactful air of anger and disgust within the otherwise unflappable MI6 operative, eliciting a frisson of wariness as to what lengths he will go to in order to even the score. Former Miss France, Claudine Auger, as the unfortunate Domino, ensnared within the oily coils of Largo's nefarious scheming and just looking for a dashing hero to take her to freedom, is phenomenal in a bathing suit, but her performance, whilst nothing to complain about in terms of a conventional Bond-girl, lacks real effervescence. The scene on the beach when Bond informs her of brother's fate forces some unconvincing tears and her subsequent plight, twitching beneath the clutches of Largo's sudden Marquis De Sade mood-swing, is more laborious than upsetting and fails to ignite any tension or suspense.

    By far the most memorable vixen in this watery hotbed of double-dealing and murderous global blackmail is Luciana Paluzzi's Fiona Volpe, the BSA Lightning-babe-cum-assassin, whose decorous antics in either swim-wear, negligee or skin-tight biker-leather are sure to stoke some fervent excitement. Largo's smouldering accomplice is a pivotal character, without whose aggressive sexuality in the first place - securing the addled affections of the real Vulcan pilot to pave the way for the eventual theft of the bomber and its payload - the whole plot would never have gotten off the ground, is another of those uber-villainesses that the Bond sagas hinge upon. Again, the Fleming ideal of sensuality as a weapon, glamour as a ticket of pure exploitation is proved to be a novel, controversial and, when boiled down to its basics, ironically non sexist component. Fiona is an independent and fully-rounded character, a dangerous woman who uses her charms to beguile, use and destroy her victims. Fiercely assertive and profoundly skilled - that motorbike-execution of Tong-tattooed Count Lippe (Guy Doleman) is purely professional, streamlined and shorn of indecision. Her final curtain may be slightly limp, but the editing of Peter Hunt, the build-up from Young and the clever use of Barry's score - providing the beat of a rococo band - still make it memorable.

    “You seem to be unbeatable, Mr. Bond.”

    Sadly, some of the back-projection stuff is pretty lamentable. By now in the series, we were used to seeing Connery against a conspicuous background - even the stuff in front of the hotel swimming pool in Goldfinger or his Alpine drive - but Thunderball added plenty more. The final rescue lift-off as Bond and Domino reach an all-time-high, the little motorboat carrying 007 and Felix Leiter out of the Nassau harbour and, especially, the otherwise rollicking finale of pell-mell, wave racing, rock-dodging super-yachting. You can certainly appreciate why 60's audiences lapped up a sequence such as this all-out climax, though. What with a raging, desperate fist-fight taking place on board - everyone seems to get their hands on the wheel at one point or another, don't they - and hyper-sped-up footage of perilous chunks of gnarled islet whistling past, it is difficult enough for the viewer to draw breath, let alone the actual combatants.

    The abundant shark activity is an enjoyable ingredinet. The Bond movies have a consistent love of deadly animals being used as villainous weapons or traps. Ian Fleming had been brought up on the grisly tricks and dungeon-parlours of Doctor Fu Manchu, so his notion of giving his bad guys a concerted penchant for pits of piranhas, executions sited in alligator parks and such-like was an already well-founded trait for connected evil-doers. And what self-respecting, and well-funded, antagonist wouldn't have made space within his lair for sundry means of exquisite torture and punishment before launching his heinous schemes? Goldfinger had Bond's dangly-bits endangered by a laser-beam, here Connery comes nose to nose with a shark in Largo's saltwater playpen, when both he and a black-garbed baddie contrive to be sealed up with the predator. Indeed, Largo's matter-of-fact assassinations of his own men - clearly influenced by Blofeld's dispassionate frying of an embezzler in his ranks earlier on - seems to know no bounds. If he isn't despatching the luscious Fiona to blow wastrels and disappointments up, he is slugging them himself and feeding them to his toothy pets. This casual disregard for his own henchmen would, naturally, be a massive motivation for them to get the job done right, but it would also put a severe dent in his recruitment and retention scheme. In fact, Largo is quite a deviant in many ways, what with his eagerness to torture Domino at one stage with ice and a cigarette (!), though this comes across as quite vaguely shoehorned-in and the monocular madman loses a degree of menace as a result of this almost throwaway aspect to his nature. Even his chief henchman, Vargas (Philip Locke) receives a bit of a dressing-down from Largo, which is doubly weird as it takes place in front of Bond. “Vargas does not drink. Vargas does not smoke. Vargas does not make love. What do you do, Vargas?” he snidely goads, hardly establishing the credentials of his own top hit-man.

    Vargas does look good pinned to a palm tree, however.

    “I think he got the point.”

    With Desmond Llewelyn's Q brought out to equip Bond “in the field - on the run, as it were” there is the by-now expected sparring and exasperation between the two. And the gadget-heavy roster of standard kit goes way beyond what we've seen before. As well as a brief return of the Aston Martin DB5, sporting just the rear bullet-proof shield and some handy water-jets this time, we now enjoy the silliness of the mini-breathing device - something that Jedi Knights Obi-Wan-Kenobi and Qui-Gon-Jin would steal for use in The Phantom Menace - a Geiger watch and a personalised underwater variant of Bond's jet-pack ... all of which add to the gleefully camp sci-fi appeal of Bond's world. But, even if the sheer fun of Goldfinger is attempted here, Adolfo Celi's Largo is no match for the bullion-loving bad-boy whose regal Austrian pomp was so amusing. He lacks the charisma and the coolly glib sense of arrogance. His sense of humour is not as insinuating and his demeanour is accentuated more by his eye-patch than by any conniving turn of phrase, any smartly sadistic verbal ploy. He is a man on a mission, himself, but we seldom feel any pressure upon him despite Bond's meddling. Despite expectations running high and Connery certainly feeling the heat from fans and filmmakers for him to deliver more, more, more - he still ensures that Bond has a good time, definitely confirming the fact that the actor realised, right from the start of the series, that none of this was to be taken seriously. The little bout of shooting-contest one-upmanship is spot-on - “Seems terribly difficult ... Boom! ... no, it isn't, is it?” he wryly comments through a knowing smirk, constantly reminding us that Largo is no match for him physically, verbally, with a gun or even at the card table. Largo is very much in need of his minions and his support chain, perhaps far more so than most of Bond's enemies and there is a straining in the plot to establish him as a truly effective SPECTRE number 2. Visually, however, he still cuts a dash in the Bond-familiar Bahamian sunshine. Craig's Casino Royale spent a lot of time filming around much the same locations and there are plenty of islanders in the newer film who had actually worked on Thunderball.

    Famously, Tom Jones passed-out whilst hitting that long sustained final high note in the title song. But the song was still a success despite having the awkwardness of having to fit the word “Thunderball” into it. John Barry comes up with one of his most fascinating scores as well. Naturally, as you'll know if you read my review for From Russia With Love, my adoration of his 007-theme knows no bounds, and here, in Thunderball, Barry gives it its most strenuous workout with its elongated underwater-battle rendition. Elsewhere he perfects some terrifically moody suspense and mystery cues. His inspiration being the shadowy depths of the sea means that he creates some melodic and mesmerising cues to denote its wordless menace and mystique. There is a particularly wonderful and evocative piece - the slowly building a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-aaa tune - that, ahem, lingers in the mind afterwards, and some smart ethnic colouring for the carnival and dance-band scene that simply trounces George Martin's similar native-vogue for Live And Let Die.

    Blofeld would receive a face in the next instalment, You Only Live Twice, in the form of the menacingly scarred, yet icily calm Donald Pleasance. Connery, himself, would be forced to affect a very unconvincing Japanese disguise and the gadgets and sets would grow in number, size and preposterousness once again. But, even though a sense of weariness was to creep into the series courtesy of the main man's increasing dissatisfaction with the scripts and the overlong shooting process, the films still made money and gained more fans. Thunderball was the high-water mark for the franchise as a hyped-up, concept-heavy “event”, but it still retained all the elements that had made the earlier films such classics of the Bond genre.

    Oh, and keep a look out for the poor dog trying to do its business in the middle of both a Junkanu procession and a film-shoot!

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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