Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Fifty Years of 007! Josh Reviews Thunderball (1965)

Well, my apologies, gang, for the long delay between installments of my look back at all the James Bond films.  I’ve been eager to get back to this Bond re-watching project, but I’ve just found myself busy with other things and continually drawn to other films.  In the months since my last installment (my review of Goldfinger), I’ve had to change the title of this series from (Almost) Fifty Years of 007 to just Fifty years of 007, without the (Almost)!  Yes, we have arrived at the fiftieth anniversary of the first James Bond film, Dr. No. Can you believe that?  But I’m not here to talk about Dr. No. (I did that already — click here for my full review of that first Bond film!)  No, let’s dive into Thunderball:

The film: Thunderball is probably my least favorite of the first batch of James Bond films, starring Sean Connery.  (It’s way better than the later film that featured Mr.Connery’s return, Diamonds Are Forever, and my recollection is that it’s also better than the remake, Never Say Never Again.)  Thunderball isn’t a bad film — no, it’s still a pretty great Bond film and a pretty great film, period.  But for me, it lacks some of the magic of Mr. Connery’s first three Bond films, as well as the next film, You Only Live Twice.

The opening/The music: The film gets off to a rocky start with an opening sequence in which Bond attends the funeral of a SPECTRE operative.  But it turns out the bad guy isn’t dead, he’s just pretending to be one of the mourning old ladies.  Bond spots him, of course, and soon engages in an extended fight sequence with the dressed-as-a-woman SPECTRE agent.  Disregarding the lunacy of the whole set-up (if the SPECTRE agent was just pretending to be dead, why did he attend his own funeral??  Why wasn’t he 10,000 miles away??), the whole Bond versus a dude in drag fight is just ridiculous, and even less compelling than the Bond versus an old lady with a knife in her shoe climax of From Russia With Love. The fight also hasn’t aged well, as there are so many obvious camera tricks (over-cranking the film to speed up the pace, stunt doubles a-plenty) that render the scene silly to the modern viewer.  The whole thing has nothing at all to do with the rest of the film, and is best forgotten altogether.

Things pick up with the terrific theme song, sung by Tom Jones.  I tend to prefer it when the Bond themes are sung by women, but damn if Mr. Jones doesn’t turn in a winner of a number with his song (which was written by legendary Bond composer John Barry & Don Black.)  The lyrics are appropriately absurd if you listen carefully to them (“then he strikes… like Thunderball!”  What does that mean exactly??), but I love that little bit of absurdity (and weird sexuality — Thunderball just SOUNDS dirty, doesn’t it?) in Bond songs.

The good: So many iconic aspects of the Bond series have their origin in Thunderball. There’s the eye-patch-wearing Number Two, who has become an iconic Bond villain (and was brilliantly parodied by the Austin Powers series, in which the Number Two character was so memorably played by Robert Wagner).  There’s Bond’s jet-pack.  There’s the villain with a penchant for feeding his enemies to sharks.  And on and on.  In many ways, Thunderball is the most quintessential of the early Bond films.

I love all of the SPECTRE aspects of the story.  Their scheme is an interesting one, and I really enjoy all the time spent, during the film’s first thirty-minutes, following the complicated SPECTRE plot unfold.  Those sequences build some strong tension in the film’s early-going, as our hero James Bond seems impossibly behind-the-curve in terms of figuring out what SPECTRE is planning.  I love the continuity between these early Bond films, with each movie giving us slightly more information about this global criminal network.  We get a bit more of a glimpse of Number One in this film (though we don’t yet know that his name is Blofeld), and, in one of my favorite sequences, we get to see a SPECTRE staff meeting (which involves, of course, the death-by-electrocution of an unfortunate agent who wasn’t fully loyal to the cause).

The bad: This film was made for a huge-at-the-time budget of nine million dollars.  Most of that was spent on the underwater action sequences at the end of the film, in which Bond and a huge number of US Coast Guard agents do battle with an equally large group of SPECTRE agents.  The sequence looks marvelous, and despite being nearly fifty years old I found it to be totally convincing.  The action is suitably epic, and it really does look like it was all filmed deep underwater.

The problem is that these scenes are deathly boring.  We watch shot after shot after shot, and what started off being exciting quickly grows tedious.  The main reason for this is that there is zero soundtrack over the vast majority of this footage.  If these underwater action shots were scored with some propulsive action music, then I think the sequence might be really exciting.  But as it is, it just lays there, totally defusing the film’s momentum.  Every time I watch Thunderball, I start getting drowsy once the underwater fight starts.

“I told the stewardess liquor for three” (the supporting players): Adolfo Celi plays Number Two (real name: Emilio Largo), and there’s a reason he’s become such an iconic villain.  He’s got a great look — Largo is a big, burly man, a convincing physical opponent, and there’s something so simple and yet so evil about the eye-patch that it works perfectly.  Following in the tradition of Goldfinger, the voice of the villain was dubbed by another actor — in this case, the voice of Largo that we hear is actually that of Robert Rietty.

In our fourth Bond film we get our third Felix Leiter: Rik Van Nutter.  Mr. Van Nutter is fine in the role.  He’s certainly more convincing than the elderly Cec Linder seen in Goldfinger, though I still prefer Jack Lord (who originated the role in Thunderball).  It’s nice to see Felix, but he doesn’t have much to do in this film.  I have no idea why the filmmakers had such trouble keeping one actor in this role (though I did stumble across this interesting story as to how Mr. Van Nutter landed the role).

“Where’s Pussy?” (the women): Thunderball features a LOT of gorgeous women!  Bond’s libido is in high gear throughout this film.  First there is Patricia Fearing (played by Molly Peters), the pretty young physical therapist Bond takes a liking to in the clinic where he’s hanging out at the start of the film.  They shtupp in the shower, which we get a glimpse of through a steamed-up window, and later we see Bond massaging her bare back with a mink glove.

Then there is SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe (played by Luciana Paluzzi).  She’s the one who masterminds the whole scheme to steal NATO’s atomic bombs.  Bond bumps into her in Nassau, where she picks him up on the side of the road and proceeds to drive him really, really fast to his hotel.  Later she waits for Bond in his bath-tub and the two have sex, then she turns the tables on him and mocks him for not turning her to his side through his passionate love-making.  (Guess she’s watched the previous three Bond films.)  “James Bond,” she says, “the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue…but not this one!”  Bond is able to escape her, later, when he’s able to spin her into the path of another SPECTRE agent’s bullet.  (Somehow the bullet passes through the less-than-an-inch space between Bond’s fingers on Volpe’s back, which could be the craziest thing in all of the Bond films.)

Then there is MI6 agent Paula Caplan (played by Martine Beswick).  She’s Bond’s contact in Nassau, but despite her beauty (she looks dynamite in a bikini) Bond is pretty much a jerk to her (because she is a woman?) and then she meets a sorry end when she’s captured by SPECTRE and commits suicide with a cyanide pill before she can be interrogated.

Lastly (whew!  I TOLD YOU there were a lot of women in Thunderball!) there is Domino (played by Claudine Auger).  Domino (real nameL: Dominique Derval) is the sister of the NATO pilot murdered by SPECTRE at the start of the film and also, somehow, the mistress of Number Two.  (Domino’s bizarre connection to the SPECTRE plot to steal atomic weapons has never made any sense to me.  Isn’t it enough that she’s Largo’s mistress?)  Anyways, Domino and Bond “meet cute” when they’re scuba-diving and she gets her foot stuck in a rock (I guess because she’s a woman she’s too stupid to know how to scuba-dive properly, is that what we’re meant to think?) and so Bond has to rescue her.  Though he failed to turn Fiona Volpe over to his side through his sexual magnetism, Bond is easily able to turn Domino into his ally against Number Two.

Q branch: We’re only a few films into the series and already Q has had it with Bond.  When Bond comments “Everything you give me –” Q interrupts snidely: “–is treated with equal contempt, yes, I know.”  Yikes!  Thunderball gives us Bond’s first really crazy gadget in the rocket pack he uses at the very end of the pre-credits sequence.  It’s a pretty laughable moment when watched today, and presaged the film series’ regrettable shift from somewhat reasonable spy gadgetry into sci-fi silliness.

Best line: I’m rather partial to Bond’s dry exchange with M, after examining a photo of Domino.  M: “Do you think she’s worth going after?”  Bond: “Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that, sir…”

Continuity nods: As I discussed above, the film does a terrific job in advancing the continuing story-line of SPECTRE.  With each one of these early Bond films, Bond (and the audience) learns more and more about this criminal organization.  I love the way Bond isn’t able to defeat and expose SPECTRE in any of these early films.  He’s able to undo some of their schemes, but the larger organization continues to exist as a force to challenge him.  It’s a great continuing story in these early Bond films.

Why not just shoot him? Bond encounters Number Two and Domino at the gambling table.  Largo obviously knows who Bond is (Bond, as always, freely announces his real name, and we know that SPECTRE knows all about MI6 agent James Bond), but Largo doesn’t do anything and, indeed, seems OK with Bond’s entertaining his mistress, Domino.  Then later Bond goes over to Largo’s home for lunch, and again somehow emerges unscathed.  Huh?  And don’t get me started on the ease with which Bond escapes Fiona Volpe after she captures him, post-coitus, in his hotel room.

Rape alert: I thought Bond’s near-rape of Pussy Galore in the haystack in Goldfinger was the character’s most unappealing act towards a woman in the film series, but clearly I had forgotten his forcing himself upon poor physical therapist Patricia at the start of this film.  A bad guy traps Bond in his traction table at the clinic, nearly killing him.  Patricia is horrified, thinking she’d made a mistake that might have cost Bond his life, and she begs Bond not to tell anyone, because then she would lose her job.  Bond, of course, knows that it’s not her fault.  But he keeps that piece of information to himself, instead telling Patricia that he’ll keep his mouth shut as long as she agrees to have sex with him.  She protests, but then he pulls her into the shower room.  WOW, that is a REALLY ugly thing to do and extremely uncomfortable to watch today.  Did everyone think that was FUNNY back in 1965??

Nudity alert: Watching the opening credits sequence (in which apparently nude women swim alluringly underwater while Tom Jones sings “Thunderball”) on my high-def TV, it seemed to me that I could occasionally see a bit more of the women than was probably intended.  Maybe it was my imagination, though the film’s wikipedia page indicates that the women were actually filmed nude.  (In another bit of unintentional HD-clarity, it’s pretty easy to see that Number One seems to have hair on his head, when we glimpse him behind a screen during the SPECTRE staff meeting…)

Alcoholic alert: At one point in the film, Largo offers Bond a rum collins, though whether it was shaken or stirred is not addressed.

James Bond will return in You Only Live Twice (1966), and so will I!

Previous Bond Reviews: Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964).

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone