I have to admit. Despite being a Bond fan since seeing The Spy Who Loved Me in the cinema as a boy, and my dad introducing me to the Sean Connery Bonds on TV, and having been to see almost every Bond since then on the big screen, and buying the DVDs, and tuning into them whenever they are on TV… I only watched Thunderball for the first time only a few months ago.
I don’t know why, but I had never come across it on TV, and certainly never thought of buying it. Of course, I had seen Never Say Never Again before, with a similar story, so I didn’t need to see Thunderball, right?
Wrong. There is a LOT to like in this film.
The film itself doesn’t have an intricate plot, so I’ll just talk about the highlights that stuck with me from that first viewing earlier this year.
The Producers shot in Panavision widescreen format, meaning that, amongst other things, the opening gun barrel sequence was re-shot (filmed with a pinhole camera and starring Connery – the figure shooting at us in previous films was a stunt man).
Strangely, the first section of the film in France doesn’t seem to utilise the new wider format much. But later, it is clear that they really wanted to fill that screen. M’s office is remodelled and HUGE. The boardroom where M and the British officials meet the nine “Double-0” agents is VAST. In fact, almost every interior is seemingly designed to be WIDE!
In addition, when the film moves to the Bahamas proper, the wide shots of the scenery or the substantial location shots are fantastic. I seem to go on a lot about the location shooting in these reviews, but a key factor of Bond has always been the glamorous locations and Thunderball spends its money well.
WIPES… LOTS OF THEM
Perhaps as a result of the wider screen, the number of wipes used in this film is quite excessive. Yet, it really helps to push the pace of the film along. In fact, there are some scenes which start late and leave early (as William Goldman might have said) and the film flies by – which is great – because as I mentioned earlier, the plot is pretty thin, and the main action finale is underwater, which is a little… slow.
When recuperating at a Spa, Bond spots some strange activity by some of the residents. Later, we learn that SPECTRE has stolen nuclear bombs and is extorting money from the UK and US – the pilot of the stolen bomber was one of the suspicious characters at the spa. The only lead is the pilot’s sister, known as “Domino” who is currently in the Bahamas. Bond meets her, and her mentor/protector Largo. We know he is SPECTRE as we saw him attend a meeting in Paris with the other members of the organisation (and the unnamed Blofeld and his cat). To be fair though, Largo even looks like a villain – eye patch and everything. (The days when disfigurement = evil, right?)
Bond suspects Largo has the bombs and he, Felix Leiter from the CIA (played by another different actor, Leiter #3) and two local agents try to locate the bombs. That’s it. The film still moves well and looks great, but I think this is an early indicator of the bloat the Bond receives in the next outing.
Bond: That looks like a woman’s gun.
Largo: Do you know a lot about guns, Mr Bond?
Bond: No, but I know a little about women.
THE RETURN OF “SPY TIME”
Bond has a tape recorder hidden in a book. Q – sent out to the Bahamas, brings gadgets that are needed in, or further the plot.- mini respirators, a tracker Bond has to swallow, an underwater infra-red camera.
Worth noting too that Bond has a spectacular escape in the pre-credits sequence using a jet pack, AND rides off in the Aston Martin DB5. It’s good to know that Q Branch retrieved it from Goldfinger’s factory in Geneva and refurbished it!
At the very end, Bond and Domino are plucked from the life raft by a plane which pulls them up with a “skyhook” – more military than spy time, but it’s an impressive exit for a film which started with Bond in a jet pack!
A TRULY GREAT FEMALE VILLAIN CALLED, EM, “FIONA”
Luciana Paluzzi plays a fantastic femme fatale – I’d go as far as to say she is a female equivalent of Bond, she just happens to work for SPECTRE. She seduces the pilot at the start, rides a mean motorbike, is a crack shot with a gun, drives recklessly, trades witticisms and sinister words with her minions, as well as holding her own and being almost disrespectful to Largo.
She has two great moments – both with Bond. The first is when Bond finds her in his bath and she asks him for something to wear. Bond hands her some slippers. Her glare is hilarious.
The second is when she and her henchmen corner Bond in the hotel room, and she hit him with this:
“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 a heavenly choir singing. She repents then immediately returns to the side of right and virtue. But not this one.”
Fiona’s surname in the film is Volpe – which is Italian for fox. Can’t be a coincidence that she has amazing red hair. Bond escapes from her and the henchmen and runs for ages through the streets before hiding in a float during the festival parade, then slipping into club “Kiss Kiss”. But on the dance floor there, she reappears having tracked his moves. Spy time from Fiona! And then, really disappointingly, she is dispatched by a stray assassin’s bullet, before Bond leaves her on a chair at the club. I wish she had escaped to return in later films.
The fist fight on the Orient Express in From Russia With Love is fabulous. But for some reason, the fights in Goldfinger, and here in Thunderball aren’t quite as impressive. However, it is noticeable that the violence has been turned up. Bad guys harpooned underwater fall back as blood billows out of their wounds.
The pilot is deliberately drowned, a snitch is thrown into a pool of hungry sharks, and in the underwater set-piece battle, one of Largo’s team of divers is harpooned through the eye. Pleasingly, there is a great moment at the end when Largo is about to kill Bond on the out of control hydrofoil when thunk – he falls over, revealing Domino standing behind him, having harpooned him in the back for the killing of her brother. In the back. Vicious retribution from a charming character who really does get psychologically and physically mistreated in the story. Note: like Goldfinger before it, Bond doesn’t save the day – Domino kills Largo, then they jump off the hydrofoil before it crashes. Bond eh?
THIS IS THE TEAM
In the Daniel Craig Bonds, I’ve really enjoyed the fact that he works as part of a team (Moneypenny, Tanner, Leiter etc). And for a while, I thought this was a new thing. Of course, he had local help in Dr No way back in 1962! In the Bahamas, Bond teams up with two locals Paula (played by Martine Beswick – who was a dancer in the titles for Dr No and one of the gypsy fighters in From Russia With Love) and Pinder “our man here” played by Earl Cameron.
The film took on the huge task of setting key sequences underwater, meaning that the production had to design sets underwater, as well as preparing divers, actors, equipment, lighting and cameras to capture the action. The underwater photography is fantastic and lit really well. The climactic battle between Largo’s divers and the US Navy divers goes on for a long time, yet to the filmmakers’ credit, it is still clear to follow what is going on. The fights are quite inventive, although a few punches and karate chops are thrown, which look silly. John Barry’s music helps immensely here too. Appropriate to mention also that the opening credits by Maurice Binder were also filmed underwater (with real female nudity for the first time!)
THE SLIGHT DISAPPOINTMENTS
Largo looks great but is largely lacking in presence. He is slow and dignified (his name is Largo, I suppose). There is a chilling scene when he traps Domino in the bedroom of the yacht when he discovers her betrayal, and she is tied to the bed and he calmly explains how he will torture her (reminds me of Robert Davi’s viciousness in Licence to Kill). Yet Largo does little else. A shame.
The 1960’s back projection is poor, but it is seldom used – although it is very noticeable in the finale as the hydrofoil careers out of control (coupled with the film being sped up to create the illusion of speed).
The title song “Thunderball” was a late addition to the production, for they had already recorded Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but decided the song should reflect the title. It is well known that singer Tom Jones fainted during the final notes of the song during recording. Not my favourite them song – but almost certainly the loudest!
JAMES BOND WILL RETURN…
Thunderball is notable for the well-known legal battles over ownership. When the novel of Thunderball was released, two writers sued Ian Fleming as they claimed elements of a screenplay the three of them worked on years previously were used in the plot. When the lawsuit was settled, one of the men, Kevin McClory, retained screen rights for the book.
To avoid the possibility of McClory developing his own film, EON Productions gave him a producer’s credit. This battle over the rights would continue for decades, but we’ll mention this again when we get to the rivalry between Octopussy and Never Say Never Again (the only “proper” non-official Bond film) later in this Retrospective review series.
At this time, Connery had made it known that he felt Bond wasn’t a challenging role as an actor. He had also avoided much of the crazy globe-trotting publicity for the film. Perhaps the writing was on the wall…
The current prints of the film don’t have the usual “James Bond will return in…” at the end. The original plan had been for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to follow but they decided to change it to You Only Live Twice, perhaps to capitalise on the Japanese location (as Bond hysteria had hit Japan hard).
Thunderball was premiered in New York, December 1965, and was a worldwide success, making more money than the previous films ($5 million budget, making $141 million globally). Read that again. Then consider, that was nearly 45 years ago!
Bond was kind of a big deal. How could they top the performance of Thunderball? How can you be bigger than the biggest film of the year?
Producer: Kevin McClory
Presented By: Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli
Director: Terence Young
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum, John Hopkins
Based on An Original Screenplay By: Jack Whittingham
Based on An Original Story By:
Composer: John Barry
“Thunderball” written by John Barry, Don Black sung by Tom Jones
Production Design by Ken Adam
Rik Van Nutter