I re-watched Thunderball last night (the first time in nearly 10 years). Here are some thoughts:
After setting the blueprint for the series in Dr No
and From Russia With Love
, there was a feeling that Goldfinger
represented a commercial turning point for the Bond series. There was the sense that the film was more palatable and neutered for consumption by American audiences. Therefore, it’s encouraging that Thunderball
returned to the original format with a film more ambitious than the previous three combined.
I see Thunderball
as truly the film where Bond ‘arrived’. The movie expertly marries together Dr No
's more brutal nature, with From Russia
’s charisma, and Goldfinger
's grandiosity. It all comes together capably under the graceful eye of director, Terence Young.
- in the most part - is a entertaining film. Terence Young imbues proceedings with a lavish tone and invites the audience into the the jetset lifestyle of his lead characters. Not to be overly austere, Young never forgets to inject the requisite levels of sex and violence. So whilst the film is polished, there is still an evidently scrappy and juvenile quality at play throughout Young’s Thunderball
Nonetheless, despite its charms, there is a slightly disjointed and convoluted approach to the storytelling. Eventually, over the film’s bloated 130 minutes, it becomes clear that the filmmakers have little interest in following character arcs or answering any of their own narrative conundrums.
This problem presents itself early on. The pre-title sequence is a tad flat as its mainly there to add a little variation and scope to the film’s location quota and eventually work up to the jetpack gag. Beyond the marvel that the jetpack is actually real and works - the sequence itself hasn’t aged well. Clearly the filmmakers thought that the jetpack’s inclusion was an inspired piece of forward-thinking; a product that was on cusp of being in widespread military use. A proposition that clearly never materialised. Though, you shouldn’t undersell it. After all, that stunt was done for real and the pack actually works.
We are then thrown into the first act, which is by far the most problematic of the film. The whole reason why Bond is at Scrublands is baffling and his tiresome hazing with Count Lippe (contender for the most perfunctory character in this series) never feels like anything more than schoolyard taunting. I’m unsure how audiences in the 1960s took these scenes. But today they play a little long and narratively feel wholly redundant.
The whole crux of the first act boils down to Bond finding Francoise Derval’s body and later realising that he could not be the same man who piloted the NATO plane. I feel there must have been a quicker and neater way of reaching this conclusion. I suppose much of your tolerance of this section of the film falls on how much you appreciate Mollie Peters’ brief and gratuitous role.
However, (despite many differing opinions), I will confess to thoroughly enjoying seeing Largo’s flan come to fruition. Effectively, we are witnessing a heist-film trope play in reverse. The film doesn’t explain what is happening and we slowly see Largo’s devious plan take shape. It’s a thoroughly accomplished piece of filmmaking, mainly as the special effects are terrific. If you told me that Largo hijacked a NATO plane and stole the bombs mid-flight before landing the plan underwater in the Bahamas, I wouldn’t have believed you. Well, it seems Thunderball
calls your bluff and goes one further by actually showing you the heist. It’s so convincing and conceivably staged that you have no choice but to believe your eyes. It’s at this point the film begins – a mere 45 minutes into the runtime.
We are then thrown into the Bahamas, which is as richly glamorous as you’d expect. Young and Ted Moore show the bright opulent beauty of the area, whilst injecting a European sense of elegancy. Nonetheless, he isn’t afraid to celebrate the more salacious aspects of the far-flung locale (which mostly comes in the form of a scantily clad Sean Connery or a woman). The tone and feel of the Bond pictures was really established by filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchock, but Young isn’t afraid to ape that style whilst making it a little more cheeky and kinky.
Nonetheless, the actual story in the Bahamas is haphazard and shakily told. Soon it becomes clear that the film merely wants to string together a series of set-pieces and confrontations with little regard to building them succinctly on top of each other. Instead, scenes play out with little relation to the sequence before it or after it. Subsequently, narrative momentum is tarnished and characters are introduced only to be neglected. Which is a shame, as the film has a very impressive and somewhat busy supporting cast.
I think the stodgy narrative may come courtesy of the fact that the audience are ahead of Bond. We know where the plane is and that Largo has the bombs. So we have to sit and watch Bond play catch-up and flaunt around the Bahamas for 90 minutes before catching up. The move slows down any narrative momentum and rids the picture of some drama.
The most impressive sequences in the Bahamas are the scenes with Bond doing some actual espionage work. I really enjoyed the moments where Bond (decked out in that black polo shirt) is spying on Largo – whether it be casing the Disco Volante at night or stalking Palmyra. It’s great seeing Bond using his trade skills and these sequences are brilliantly tense and thrilling.
One of the film’s greatest assets is the sumptuous underwater photography. It’s undeniably thrilling when you see Bond underwater – shirtless and with a knife strapped to his heel – whilst a shark casually swims past him. It feels like a shot from a comicbook or the cover of an adventure novel come to life. Furthermore, the fight scenes underwater are terrifically staged and hugely ambitious – even if they eventually they become a tad monotonous. Nonetheless, the ambition and execution cannot be understated.
Sean Connery gives his best performance in the series in Thunderball
– in fact, his performance makes the more baffling and groanworthy aspects of the film forgivable. He still has that insouciant and charismatic edge mixed with a sense of physical menace. But this time, he also has a much better sense of humour and mischief than he displayed in his previous films. This is the secret ingredient that makes Thunderball
really work. Connery is simply having a great time and is making everything feel effortless. In particular, Connery is at his peak of coolness and nonchalance with the girls, who he has terrific chemistry with them.
Not to mention, it’s the film where he looked the best. His suits are immaculate and his sense of style perfect (except the odd garish beach shirt). Not to mention his physical presence and oozing sex appeal. There is a relaxed and cool nature to his performance; a feeling that he isn’t trying to impress and it all just comes to him naturally.
It be wrong to say that there is any leading lady in Thunderball
– as the film has a pretty stacked supporting ensemble who all get equal billing time opposite Connery. Most impressive is Luciana Paluzzi, who comes close to stealing the picture. She’s just as mischievous and fun as Bond and it’s always genuinely exciting to see Fiona Volpe in the film. It’s no coincidence that ‘Volpe’ means vixen in Italian- as Fiona is a cunning fox of a character. Someone who happily makes love to a man before ruthlessly orchestrating his death. She might take her orders from SPECTRE, but she callously directs her goons to carry out her bidding. She is someone who takes pleasure in using her sexuality for her own ends. She even lures Bond into bed to taunt him and pass the time (growling and clawing at 007) while waiting for her hired hands to arrive. She later launches a withering verbal attack on 007’s vanity and ego, mocking him with his failure to turn her to the side of right and virtue. It's the film's sharpest dialogue.
Adolofo Celi is perfectly adequate and looks the part of a sleazy, well-fed Sicilian mobster who has a habit for sunbeds. He isn’t quite on the same league as Gert Frobe, but in his defence, Thunderball
isn’t overly interested in developing him beyond his piratical tic.
Then you have Claudine Auger – who is one of the most beautiful women in the world. The character of Domino is a little underserved. She appears to have an emotional arc as she’s a captured woman being manipulated by Largo. There is certainly drama to be mined in the concept of a kept-woman in a loveless relationship with an older man in order to live the high life. Additionally, she has a real frisson with Bond. However, it really isn’t developed enough and the character does disappear into the ensemble. It’s a shame as Domino was maybe a scene or two away from being an interesting character. Auger does rise to the occasion when the material gives her a chance. The MI6 team are a little unnecessary and Rik Van Nutter scarcely registers as Felix.
Technical and Conclusion:
In technical notes, the usually faultless John Barry submits a score that is a little spotty and overly bombastic. In the third act, it accentuates the overly repetitive nature of some of the underworld scenes. But the title song by Tom Jones is close to perfection alongside Maurice Binder’s impressive visuals. Ted Moore’s photography is an irresistible lure. Ken Adams, inevitably, does a great job with the production design. Though there is less to marvel at this time out. Peter Hunt’s editing wipes are a little tiresome.
Meanwhile, the script is patchy and raises illogical question. For example: Why can’t SPECTRE remember who Bond is whilst he’s at Schrublands? Why isn’t Largo shocked by Bond’s arrival on the island? Why does Largo even try to kill Bond and raise more attention to his scheme? Why is Domino so happy to see Bond after he bailed on their date at the Junkanoo? I know these are rather nitpicky concerns, but they do mean that beyond the entertaining nature of the film, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny on repeat viewings.
The film is overall a very entertaining and fun picture – I was hoping on repeat viewing to fall head over heels for it. Though, it’s clear that the movie is a ton of fun that is beautifully filmed. Nonetheless, it’s flawed. The real standout is Sean Connery – who gives a great performance, even when the film threatens to overwhelm him with special effects, explosions and underwater tussles (and did I mention sharks?) – he never falls into the background. Thunderball
is an ambitious film, perhaps too ambitious.