‘Dear girl, don’t flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for Queen and country. You don’t think it gave me any pleasure, do you?’
Thunderball remains the most successful of all Bond movies at the box office. Adjusted for inflation, its take (at 2008 prices) was a formidable $966.4m. Neither is it hard to see why the film did so well. All the right elements were in place - Connery, Young, Barry, Binder, etc - along with the things that we now traditionally associate with the franchise. Much of the action takes place in the Bahamas, which have rarely looked more like a paradise location. Bond gets various glamorous women to play with, not to mention an array of enemies and the uncovering of a dastardly SPECTRE plot.
Scratch beneath the surface, however, and the cracks appear. After an extravagant pre-credits sequence in which Bond breaks just about anything worth breaking during a fight before escaping with the help of a rather unecessary jet pack, we get to meet this episode’s baddie. Enter Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), also SPECTRE #2, a figure of sufficient portent to make gendarmes shy away from issuing him with a parket ticket yet in reality a hired hand to the still anonymous #1. A heavy he is, whether being effortlessly duped by 007 or letting the agent work under his nose for much of the movie’s duration. Largo has so many opportunities to see off Bond yet fails entirely to do so, instead allowing the agent to give him the slip again and again, not to mention making off with his ‘kept’ girl, Domino (Claudine Auger).
That wouldn’t be so bad, but much of Bond’s detective work takes place underwater. Thunderball’s producers clearly spent an awful lot of money on their acquatic scenes, enough to ensure we watch stuff happening beneath the waves again and again. The film scored a first for the detail and clarity of its underwater footage and for that feat alone it deserves some kudos. But the troubles with acquatic filming soon become apparent. One is that it is by definition slower and more sluggish than normal action. The second is that it isn’t often obvious who’s who; the protagonists wear swimming masks and that makes it difficult to pick people out, indeed in one action sequence the only way you can tell who’s Bond is from the fact that he alone is wearing shorts. The sheer number of underwater scenes doesn’t quite turn the film into ‘Thunderbore’ but it doesn’t fall too far short.
Things bode far from well during Bond’s stay on a health farm. His near death on a back stretching machine - followed by his vengenance involving a steam tub and a strategically positioned broom - along with his interminably slow uncovering of a SPECTRE plot is bad enough, but worse comes with his treatment of Nurse Molly (Patricia Fearing). 007 has his usual eye for the lady, but this is the first time in the series that his advances are more lecherous than charming; his wooing of her via an opportunistic bit of blackmail is uncomfortable, certainly from a twenty first century perspective, and has an unfortunate whiff of ‘Carry on Bond’ about it. I remember a time when the agent could win a girl’s heart with his winning smile and boyish quips; this is just seedy.
Of course, being a Terence Young movie Thunderball is never really bad. What irks is it’s nod to excess. It was felt quite clearly that high concept action is what audiences wanted, hence Thunderball’s budget being far greater than that lavished on any of the previous outings. Money was sunk into the replica model of the hijacked nuclear jet. A cool $500k went on Largo’s yacht, Disco Valante. Unfortunately, it seems this where much of the creative effort went also, leaving us with a good looking piece yet a drama that plods too often. It picks up whenever Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) is on the screen, so much so that you can almost forgive the film for its bland lead villain. Fiona is SPECTRE’s femme fatale. Like any decent Bond bad girl (see also Xenia Onatopp (groan!) in Goldeneye), she’s instantly more attractive than the heroine and uses this as a weapon. When not luring the luckless Derval (Paul Stassino) to his doom, she’s bedding Bond himself, via the slaying of his assistant Paula (an underused Martine Beswick). Later, she very nearly sees off the agent, or at least puts him in a state of some peril, which is more than can be said for the fairly rubbish Largo. His weapon of choice - a lampoon-friendly shark-infested pool - can’t match Fiona’s deadly, desirable charms.
Fiona introduces herself to the movie with a seduction scene. She keeps Derval occupied before he goes off to test pilot a British Vulcan bomber, which just happens to be armed with two nuclear warheads. In anticipation of this, SPECTRE have spent two years training a doppelganger, who thanks also to plastic surgery looks and acts exactly like Derval, all the better for impersonating him. The double, Angelo Palazzi (also Stassino) kills the original and then naturally demands more money for carrying out his sabotage work on the plane. I like this bit, as much as I enjoy the scene where #1 kills a henchman for embezzlement (using a frickin’ electric chair, no less). It seems that SPECTRE, an organisation made up of crooks and thieves, occasionally has to deal with people from within who are trying to steal from it, which is entirely credible.
Thunderball runs for 130 minutes, which makes it the lengthiest of the Bond movies to date and also noticeably the flabbiest. Too often the action is cut short with scenes of Largo and 007 talking, and these bits are just weird. After all, Bond’s opposition to the eyepatch wearing villain is pretty much established from their first meeting and yet they maintain a strange semblance of feigned friendliness in their conversation. Certainly, Largo is blase enough to let Bond carry on with Domino. We’re supposed to believe that she helps James because she’s Derval’s sister and the agent recruits her to the cause by telling her of his fate. By this late point, however, she’s fallen for him already, indeed there’s no question she’s his from the moment he pulls her flipper from a coral in their opening seconds together. Auger certainly makes for a comely Domino, but she’s no match for Fiona in terms of sex appeal and simperingly messes up the one favour Bond asks of her. This leads to one of Thunderball’s most unintentionally comic moments. Largo advances on her, wielding what looks like a cigarette and some ice cubes and explaining that ‘This for heat, these for cold, applied scientifically and slowly’ will lead to untold levels of pain. No please, make it stop! Then she’s rescued by a scientist who has hardly appeared in the film up to this point, no doubt a character whose scenes have nearly all been cut. It’s a bit of a mess, in truth, and just as bad as the film’s conclusion, which involves Largo’s boat heading at top speed towards a reef, which is rather clumsily represented by the outside footage being played quickly through the yacht windows.
The special edition DVD features an excellent documentary on the Bond phenomenom, which of course it was by this stage. A mixture of audience favour and sheer momentum (they were releasing one film per year, putting it on a par with the rolling hype garnered by the Lord of the Rings trilogy) meant that by the time Thunderball was due for release over the Christmas holiday in 1965, you could buy just about anything featuring the 007 brand. The marketing and anticipation surrounding the movie meant it couldn’t fail, and it didn’t. Regardless of its ‘by the numbers’ direction and working to strict formula, the public lapped it up, greenlighting the direction into which the franchise was heading. Following its initial run at the theatres, Thunderball was rereleased as a double bill. One trailer on the DVD blends scenes from the movie with others off From Russia with Love, the films being shown on one ticket, and already there appears a gulf in class and imagination between the pictures. This wasn’t too gapingly apparent yet. Connery was still on board and the franchise retained enough ideas to keep Bond fresh. Yet Thunderball offered an early glimpse of what happened to the series when money and spectacle were chosen ahead of characterisation and plot development. It’s just okay, and that isn’t good enough for this secret agent.