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

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…