The good, the bad, and the Bond – Re-evaluating 007 – Thunderball

GOLDFINGER paved the way for innumerable parodies, references and homages. The next film in the series has a jetpack. Whadda ya want? It ain’t the Lotto Millions, but it certainly is “the biggest Bond of all: 1965’s Thunderball.

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Andrew Monk: Coming hot off the heels of Goldfinger is Thunderball. Bond returned only a year after his last appearance to face perhaps the highest stakes yet; to track down the location of two nuclear bombs stolen from a British Vulcan bomber by the nefarious SPECTRE before the country is ransomed. Terence Young returns for the last time to direct a Bond adaptation and, to his credit, in spite of various obstacles, creates a Bond adventure that is both fun and cohesive.

To get right off the bat, the main problem that Thunderball faced is that it has to record a significant amount of the film underwater, about a quarter at a guess. The fact that they were able to complete this undertaking at the time is impressive, but it is only with the help of yet another John Barry score that these segments do not drag. Although some of the fighting choreography can be embarrassingly naff, other aspects such the exotic locations and exposition of the story through visuals is remarkably well done.

Performances by the cast are certainly on par with the time, with M and Miss Moneypenny again played by the admirable Lois Maxwell and Bernard Hill. Claudine Auger and Adolfo Celi as Emilio Largo and Domino Duval, in spite of dubbing, also create a substantial presence when on screen. However, in my opinion, the best character is Fiona, a bike riding femme fatale assassin portrayed wonderfully by Luciana Paluzzi, who intimidates Bond and gives him a good run for his money in a moonlight drive.

While the context of a nuclear bomber with bombs gone missing and being ransomed is very dated and very much of the time of the 1965 release, given that Thunderball came out one year after Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and three years after the Cuban Missile crisis in which nuclear war was brought to a very close reality.

It is within this context that Bond first truly receives a mission to save the world from a globally defining moment. These high stakes help create some urgency to the plot, along with the four day deadline to find the bombs, though this translates poorly on screen due to the tropical setting of the Bahamas and the typically slow-moving spy plotline.

Though Thunderball works very poorly as a race against time, it certainly helps to expand the Bond universe, particularly the establishment of who and what SPECTRE is, their board meeting an iconic moment including electric chairs for participants and yet another tease at Blofeld, who will go on to antagonize Bond for three more films…

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Truan Evans: Yes, the one you’ve all been waiting for, the film where 007 finally gets his reward and wins big on the lottery, giving him the funds he needs to pursue his real dream of amateur aeronautics… if only. It’s the film where the initial golden age of Bond went up in smoke, or sea spray. Probably the first thing you’ll note about Thunderball is the length, clocking in at a good 130 minutes, a good half hour longer than its predecessor. Boy, does it ever show.

Despite this, it still succeeded in being one of the biggest money-spinners of 1965, reeling in $140 million, more than any of its prequels, coming behind only The Sound of Music and David Lean’s masterful Doctor Zhivago. Despite its mixed reception, Thunderball remained the biggest financial hit, adjusted for inflation, of the series until Skyfall.

The film feels bloated. What worked so well in Goldfinger was how condensed and seamless every scene was, but here the pacing is sporadic, with fights and chases – and… killer masseuse machines – suddenly lurching into action before lapsing, just as quickly, back to its regular plodding pace. It can’t be denied, however, that there’s some genuinely gripping, well-executed scenes here, such as the plane hijacking. It’s just a shame about all the padding.

Thunderball had been intended as Eon’s first picture, but legal disputes – Fleming’s early film collaborators engaged in a lengthy legal suit after Fleming used an early, co-produced script as the basis for the novel, pushed it back in the production line. Perhaps as a result, the film is over-saturated with detail and Bond lore as the producers cram in as much creative vision as they can muster.

The film’s primary antagonists, the shadowy criminal syndicate Spectre, has not aged particularly well- or rather, have long since ceased to have any of the genuine menace they might once have possessed. This is of course, partly due to the success of the Austin Power’s films in satirising the nefarious group; SPECTRE, despite some iconic acting performances, provides pretty fertile ground for parody. While a veiled, cat-stroking mastermind may have been intimidating once, it now smacks more of camp than genuine menace.

The simple reason is that these characters all fall into obvious one-dimensional tropes. While people will continue to picture the simple-looking businessman driven mad by gold-lust, eye-patched crooks who hold the world to ransom will forever reside in fantasy and farce. Nevertheless, Largo (Adolfo Celi) is pretty captivating as Bond villains go, and benefits from a reserved, largely implied, malice. Though still possessed of a tangible formidableness, Connery loses a lot of the charm he had in the first few films, often coming across as tired or overtly bored.

What with submarinal fashions and exploration being all the rage in the 60s – remember, this was the era of Jacques Cousteau – there’s no denying that Thunderball’s aquaphillia is very much a product of its time. Some of the aquatic scenes continue to impress, while others hamper an already congested film, with shots lingering indulgently over slowly guiding subs, again and again.

Thunderball deserves credit for its scope and breath of ideas. If the action and scenic distractions had been better consolidated, Thunderball might have been a near enough perfect Bond classic. But it is overly-protracted, and Connery is clearly already slipping into some kind of malaise. Though many of the locations and sets are certainly beautiful, you can have too much of a good thing.

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