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.