Skip to main content

James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing.


Thunderball
(1965)

Look up! Look down! Look out! Her comes the biggest Bond of all! So advised the poster for the fourth 007 cinematic feast. Biggest it most definitely was, but unfortunately in almost every other respect the finished film is inferior to its three predecessors. Nevertheless, the approach taken by the producers (a favourite of Hollywood generally) was to throw enough money at the screen in the hope it would result in higher box office receipts. Which proved a successful one on this occasion. It remains the highest grossing Bond film (inflation-adjusted), in the US.


Thunderball (even the crass, overbearing title suggests excess, as does barrel-voiced Tom Jones on the theme song) was originally intended to be the first Bond film. Ian Fleming enlisted Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham to collaborate on a script that floundered, the material eventually being used by Fleming as the basis for the ninth Bond novel (the sixth, fifth and seventh had previously been adapted to film). The legal quagmire that resulted eventually led to the “non-canon” Never Say Never Again (1983), based on Thunderball. McClory would attempt to get a further remake in the late ‘90s, titled Warhead 2000 A.D.


It is slightly ironic that a story/script with such longevity and backstory should be so lacking in substance. Emile Largo (Adolfo Celi) is charged by SPECTRE with stealing a jet carrying two nuclear warheads. The object is to obtain a $280m (£100m) ransom within 7 days or a major US or UK city will be destroyed. So far, so unnuanced (the ransom plot is the inspiration for much mirth in the first Austin Powers). We learn little more about SPECTRE’s machinations in this outing. Their activities are increasingly cartoonish, and their sets match the larger-than-life, broad strokes tone. There’s a suggestion of some sort of masonic code applying to its members.

Blofeld: SPECTRE is a dedicated fraternity, whose strength lies in the absolute integrity of its members.

And, really, that’s it. Bond is called upon to investigate and has the inspiration that Nassau is the place to look (and the person to look for is Claudine Auger’s Domino). Which he does for the next hour-plus.


Part of the problem is that no one has been called upon to ruthlessly cut the fat. Peter Hunt may have worked wonders on the first three films, but it’s 40 minutes into Thunderball before the villains even issue their demands. Sequences that could take a couple of sentences of script are turned into unwieldy set pieces. Was it really necessary to see the whole laborious abduction of the jet? In an earlier film it might have happened off camera. But there’s money to spend now, and spent it is. The underwater photography in this sequence, and throughout the film, is very pretty but it has no dramatic heft to it. This is particularly true of the climax where you can’t make out who is fighting who for much of the time.


Curiously, the film kicks off with an echo of From Russia With Love; a signifier of a dead James Bond, apparently at his funeral. No time is wasted in showing him alive and kicking, and Bond’s knowledge of etiquette also recalls his encounter with Red Grant; instead of red wine with fish there is a SPECTRE agent in drag who attracts Bond’s attention by opening a car door himself. Although, this scenario does suggest the more humorous and flamboyant ideas the series would embrace over the next decade (a man, in a dress, having fight with 007). The jet pack (why is it even on the roof?) has maximum cheese appeal to the modern eye and, even more than its failure dramatically as a bit of highly versatile tech, it bears the uneasy marks of having been grafted onto a scene because someone could get hold of a jet pack, not because it helped the plot.


It seems an extraordinary coincidence that the health spa Bond is sent to is the very place SPECTRE’s operative, who has undergone plastic surgery to replace the jet pilot (who is Domino’s brother), is recuperating. Most of this sequence involves Bond being smug and canoodling with the staff. On the plus side, we see Guy Doleman as SPECTRE’s Count Lippe. Doleman would make an indelible mark in the other great spy series of the ‘60s, playing Harry Palmer’s boss Colonel Ross.


Claudine Auger is undoubtedly one of the most attractive Bond girls, and certainly sports highly impressive designer swimwear. As per the Bond producers’ penchant, she was a former Miss World runner-up. She doesn’t really have much chemistry with Connery, however.


In contrast, Luciana Paluzzi, who plays SPECTRE’s Fiona Volpe, makes a great match for the burring Scotsman. She mocks his sexual prowess and generally will not be intimidated by anyone at any point in the proceedings.

Fiona Volpe: But, of course! I forgot your ego Mr. Bond. James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents and immediately returns to the side or right and virtue. But not this one! What a blow it must've been, you having a failure

It’s fortunate that she is so strong, as Celi only makes an impression because he’s wearing an eyepatch. The card game between him and Bond is a tired retread of earlier moments, with witless dialogue and dull threats. Bond’s reduced to making cheap shots such as accusing him of shooting with a girl’s gun (ironic too, considering the actual reason for Bond changing from a Beretta to a Walther PPK).

At least is henchman, Vargas (Philip Locke), is memorable. He does not drink or make love we are informed, which leads one to conclude what one will about his proclivities; Locke certainly plays up the sadistic side. He also provides Bond with his most obvious but effective quip of the film (“I think he got the point”).


The structure is so loose, and the threats against Bond so sporadic, that real tension evaporates. Bond encounters Largo, escapes. Goes swimming to Largo’s boat, escapes. Is fed to the sharks, escapes. Peppered amongst these sections of the film are some strong moments; the shot of Connery (actually Connery!) as a shark swims by him underwater, the Mardi Gras scene where Bond, pursued, falls in dancing with Fiona Volpe at the Kiss Kiss Club. The music is masterfully coordinated with the the scene such that when Volpe is shot the drum roll cuts out.


Elsewhere recognizable characters pass in and out. We already saw M and Moneypenny (the hatstand business saw her throw it in Goldfinger; this time it has moved and Bond must place it on the stand). Q appears in the field, clad in Hawaiian shirt. Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter), in his third incarnation, is a definite improvement on his previous self although Jack Lord still comes tops.


The all-action climax, when it comes, is a 20-minute bore. A pretty bore, but a bore nevertheless. It is interspersed with a dose of sadism directed towards Domino on the Disco Volante (she is rescued by the nice George Pravda, who – as a non-swimmer – is unceremoniously left to fend for himself with just a life preserver while Bond and Domino fly into the air (ludicrously) when they are rescued at the climax.

The irony of all this is the return of Terence Young, who so economically delivered the first two films. Thunderball is an unwieldy beast. It holds incidental pleasures, but it neither possesses an intriguing plot nor is it put together as an exciting film. The franchise looks self-satisfied and tired suddenly, even if it’s never been more popular.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016) (SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

What do you want me to do? Call America and tell them I changed my mind?

  Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) (SPOILERS) The demolition – at very least as a ratings/box office powerhouse – of the superhero genre now appears to be taking effect. If so, Martin Scorsese will at least be pleased. The studios that count – Disney and Warner Bros – are all aboard the woke train, such that past yardsticks like focus groups are spurned in favour of the forward momentum of agendas from above (so falling in step with the broader media initiative). The most obvious, some might say banal, evidence of this is the repurposing of established characters in race or gender terms.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

I don't think this is the lightning you're looking for.

Meet Joe Black (1998) (SPOILERS) A much-maligned Brad Pitt fest, commonly accused of being interminable, ponderous, self-important and ridiculous. All of those charges may be valid, to a greater or lesser extent, but Meet Joe Black also manages to attain a certain splendour, in spite of its more wayward impulses. While it’s suggestive of a filmmaker – Martin Brest – believing his own hype after the awards success of (the middling) Scent of a Woman , this is a case where all that sumptuous better-half styling and fantasy lifestyle does succeed in achieving a degree of resonance. An undeniably indulgent movie, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you got yourself killed.

Bloodshot (2020) (SPOILERS) If the trailer for Bloodshot gave the impression it had some meagre potential, that’s probably because it revealed the entire plot of a movie clearly intended to unveil itself in measured and judicious fashion. It isn’t far from the halfway mark that the truth about the situation Vin Diesel’s Ray Garrison faces is revealed, which is about forty-one minutes later than in the trailer. More frustratingly, while themes of perception of reality, memory and identity are much-ploughed cinematic furrows, they’re evergreens if dealt with smartly. Bloodshot quickly squanders them. But then, this is, after all, a Vin Diesel vehicle.