Directed by Terence Young
Written by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins,
from a story by Kevin McClory & Jack Whittingham and Ian Fleming
Premiered 9 December, 1965
There are so many firsts involved with this film, but here's one that matters right now: in the famous opening gun-barrel image, it is only with this movie that we actually see Sean Connery playing James Bond shooting us dead, and not stuntman Bob Simmons. Does it matter? Probably not. But it gives the movie a little extra kick when you can't visibly tell that it's not "really" Bond.
Another first: instead of the white dot that follows cutting to the movie's first shot, it dissolves and then irises out, to reveal a crest reading "JB" on a coffin. Heavens! Is James Bond dead? No, and neither is the actual inhabitant of the coffin, Col. Jacques Bouvar (Bob Simmons, in case you missed him), a known member of the evil international terrorism group SPECTRE. Bond shows up to the man's funeral on the assumption that he was faking his own death, and of course he's right: Bouvar is dressed in woman's clothing and posing as his own grieving widow, which means we're treated to the sight of Bond fighting a man in drag.
I will get around to arguing that Thunderball is the film where active misogyny, rather than a passive, laddish sensibility that's more dated than truly offensive, began to creep into the series, and here's where it starts: Bond knows that the woman is really a man in disuise because "she" opens her own door. He's so confident of this judgment, in fact, that he punches the widow right in the face without checking first. It's a little thing, and in another context, I would not make a deal about it.
After successfully killing Bouvar for real this time, Bond straps on a jetpack and flies away from the dead terrorists chateau to his waiting Aston Martin, as well as a woman whose identity is pretty much immaterial, and this saves what is otherwise a sort of drowsy and bland opening sequence - the fistfight between Bond and Bouvar is decent and all, but a jetpack? Bond has a damn jetpack? Now that is what I want to see in my spy movies.
Rating: 3 Union Jack Parachutes
The first thing we must be aware of is that, at one point, the theme was going to be "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", performered by Shirley Bassey, then by Dionne Warwick, and then at some point Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman agreed that they would rather have the movie title appear in the title song ("Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" was a nickname given to the character in some countries; it remains in the film in the name of the Kiss Kiss Club). And so John Barry and Leslie Bricusse collaborated to give us "Thunderball", performed by Tom Jones. Let us not mince words: the song makes absolutely not the slightest damn bit of sense. "He strikes, like thunderball!" What the hell? ("Thunderball" was a military term for the mushroom-shaped cloud that follows a nuclear explosion; this nicety is not explained in the movie, and still doesn't help the lyrics). And for that reason, it's hard to regard it as one of the truly great Bond themes.
But holy shit, Jones sings his lungs out. According to myth, he held the final note for so long that he literally passed out (the same myth accrues to Bassey and "Goldfinger", which makes me awfully suspicious). And while this does not, of course, justify the fluffy idiocy of the lyrics, I have always nurtured a private fondness for the largeness and intensity of the song, however dumb.
Rating: 4 Shirley Basseys
Maurice Binder returns to the fold after two films away, and creates what will forever after be the quintessential James Bond title sequence: nothing but silhouettes of naked women, swimming against colored backgrounds (it, and the song, would serve as the immediate point of reference for the Weird Al Yankovic opening to the 1996 Leslie Nielsen vehicle Spy Hard, and I do apologise for reminding you of that film's existence). And so we must give credit to this sequence for its primacy and durability, even if as far as "silhouettes of naked women" go, there would be later movies which boasted more graphical appeal, or were more erotic, or both.
One need not have a degree in feminist thought to read this as one of the film's, and the series', most undisguised expressions of one of its key tropes: women are to be looked at and objectified. And the fact that the only other objects we see are men with harpoon guns firing at God knows what, intensifies the feeling that the women are being presented as some manner of prey. It's squicky, though not really more nor less squicky than later films in the franchise; I bring it up only because it is in keeping with a new ugliness regarding women throughout Thunderball.
Rating: 3.5 Silhouetted Women
This is quite possibly the purest expression of the Bond supervillain plot: steal nukes, hold the world ransom. It's elegant enough to have been the obvious and specific forebear to the most notable of all Bond parodies, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (in fact, that film takes more specific detail from Thunderball than any other Bond film: besides its plot, the eyepatch-wearing Number 2 and the villain's conference room of death chairs are two obvious lifts).
The problem - and I do not know that "problem" is the most apt word - is that Thunderball as the first (another one!) Bond movie with a running time over two hours, has a whole lot of time to explore that very simple and streamlined threat, and so we get an extremely lengthy opening act that watches as SPECTRE brings its plot to fruition: with a bit more energy and slightly more complex planning, we'd basically have a caper film, what with the switcheroo involving a NATO-bound pilot, the infiltration of a British health spa - where Bond happens to be recuperating under orders, naturally, or else how would he end up as our protagonist (and it's a close one, too: we see a room full of 00 agents at one point, and Bond has to essentially lie his way into getting the assignment that lets him be the hero). And this opening act is distinctly slower-moving than an action thriller had ought to be. It picks up, and the last 80 minutes of the film are surprisingly engrossing, considering how little happens; but the opening leaves a rough taste that never quite goes away. And given how much of the movie ends up in Nassau, after the Euro-trotting Goldfinger, I will confess the unforgivable: I never much like it when Bond ends up in the Caribbean.
Rating: 3.5 Stolen Nukes
Why, none other than the ruthless mastermind of so many SPECTRE plots, that organisation's second-in-command, the debonair, dashing Emilio Largo, played by Adolfo Celi (and overdubbed by Robert Rietty). Smart, ice-cold, wearing an eyepatch so that we have exactly no doubt as to how uncompromisingly badass he is: oh my candy-coated Jesus, is he boring. When it takes an eyepatch to provide a ruthless crime lord with the bulk of his personality, things have gone spectacularly far off script; but Largo has absolutely no color or spark of his own, no cackling "I expect you to die!" moment of excessive evil, nor any moments of taut, emotionally monstrosity. He's just a guy who stands there and barks out orders, and we can tell that he is really evil because he has some of his subordinates killed. That makes him functionally effective, but it is not the stuff of great Bond villainy, by any stretch.
Rating: 2 Evil Cats
A certain Domino Derval, played by Claudine Auger and the voice of our favorite dub artist, Nikki Van der Zyl, her second go-round as the voice of a Bond Girl. She gets a heck of a back story: Largo's mistress, and the sister of the man he had killed to get his whole nefarious plot going, there's no real reason for her to not be the most dynamic and exciting female lead yet. Instead, she is every bit the female counterpart to Largo himself: a bland non-entity, undeniably gorgeous, but that's the baseline for a Bond Girl - issues of taste aside, none of them come within swiping distance of "normal-looking", and only a very few fall short of the model-beautiful standard that Auger so undeniably fulfills. So no points just for being easy on the eyes. And that is, in truth, all she really does; a combination of a singularly empty performance and a script that offers her absolutely nothing to do besides look pained when Bond reveals Largo's treachery, Domino is the first of, I am afraid, many Bond Girls who are only eye candy, and whose function in the plot is limited to giving Bond somebody to canoodle with when he's tired of effortlessly mowing down the bad guy's army of thugs.
Rating: 2 White Bikinis
And another first: a seductive henchwoman! Of course, Fiona Volpe, the clever and treacherous co-conspirator played by Luciana Paluzzi, is not the first evil woman in a Bond picture; that honor falls to Rosa Klebb, so unglamorously played by Lotte Lenya in From Russia with Love. Therein lies the difference: Paluzzi isn't just a villain, she's also one of Bond's many sexual conquests (in fact, a different reviewer could just as easily interpret her as the "true" Secondary Bond Girl), something Klebb was never, ever going to be. Of course, Bond claims to have known all along and sexed her up just for the needs of the mission, but that is a half-truth if ever I heard one.
Anyway, the point being: Volpe is sort of just a sex object, but she at least manages to have the most spine and visible intelligence of any of the primary women depicted in Thunderball. Perhaps that's why she had to be made evil, I don't know. Even so, I enjoy her presence: in addition to being damn hot, Paluzzi plays the role with a certain malevolent self-amusement that makes her rather more memorable than her boss. There are a quite a few other "featured" henchmen in this movie, in fact, but there's no denying that she has far and away the most screen presence.
That said, major points taken away for inspiring the first real groaner of a pun in the franchise, after Bond uses her as a shield against one of her own assassins wile dancing: "Mind if my friend sits this one out? She's just dead." Though I'll admit that in my love of awful puns, that is probably the line I quote the most from this movie.
Rating: 3.5 Metal-Plated Teeth
THE SECONDARY GIRL
You do not, if you treasure your own well-being, go to a Bond movie looking for progressive sexual mores; but there is a difference between "this is sort of dated and offensive and chauvinistic" and "this is a real, serious problem". For me, the first time the series crossed that line was in the admittedly lovely person of Patricia Fearing (Molly Peters), Bond's therapist at the health spa where he spends the unnecessarily protracted first act. Initially, she holds her own pretty damn well, rather firmly and even antagonistically shutting down the spy's casual attempts to seduce her. And that is why he ups his game, trapping her in a steam room after he's narrowly escaped an attack by SPECTRE goons, and very calmly pulling her into a corner as she sternly, then nervously, declares "no" over and over again. You know what having sex with a woman saying "no" is called? Because it very much has a name, and even a legal definition. Not okay, 007.
Rating: 1 Golden Corpse
There's surprisingly little, especially given the expanded running time and budget: really, the only setpiece worthy of that name is a big underwater fight between two veritable armies of scuba divers near the end. It is a somewhat notorious moment: even in 1965, when nothing like this had ever, ever been done, there were critics carping about how slow and un-thrilling it was. For it is the thing about scuba diving, it rather limits your speed, and that becomes exceedingly obvious when you're watching men underwater trying to throw punches, and John Barry's score is working double overtime attempting to keep the pace up.
You know what? I kind of like it, anyway. It is certainly not one of the great moments in screen combat, but the part of me that admires complex film shoots simply for how much work it took to bring them off, the part that knows damn good and well what a logistical nightmare choreographing that many diving stuntmen, as well as the cameras and lights necessary to film them would have been. And even if the results aren't the best in the world, I am in total and complete awe of the fact that it exists in any form. Yes it's like what Johnson said about a dog walking on its hind legs (or rather, given the film's sexual politics, what Johnson said about women preachers). But I will not feign embarrassment over this that I do not feel.
Also, there is a boat that explodes in the film's climax, and by God, but it explodes well.
Rating: 3 Walther PPKs
Well, I mean, a jetpack. But that is not necessarily a "gadget" in the class sense. What we do have, alas, is not exactly a bumper group: a flare gun, a pill with a tracker beacon, a Geiger counter watch, an underwater infrared camera, and a little tube that allows people to breathe underwater for four minutes, in defiance of all physics. And that is, okay, pretty cool. But it's no tricked-out Aston Martin, that's for sure.
What we do have, though, is the first out-and-out silly Q scene, in which Desmond Llewelyn gets to carp about being dragged out into the field and bitch at Bond being careless with much more familiarity than he had in the last movie. It's not as wacky as the Q labs sequences that present the character in his element, but it's amusing in its small way.
Rating: 2 Easily-Riled Welshmen
THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Largo gets not one but two lairs of varying fiendishness: the first is glamorous Nassau hidey-hole with sweeping white curves every which way, and a damn shark tank - making him the first Bond villain to keep killer animals for fun - the second is a sleek, immaculately sexy yacht called the Disco Volante, which has no meaning that I can decipher, but is awfully cool-sounding anyway. Neither of these locales find Ken Adam working at his absolute peak, but there's an undeniable insouciant chicness to them that does more to characterise Largo than the bored actor playing him can manage.
The best sets, I'd wager, are the far lower key environs of Nassau, which is of course celebrating Junkanoo; the film takes place, therefore, in an entirely pleasing combination of designed sets and found locations which have a lot of color and energy and lived-in scruffiness. I cannot say that this is exactly the sort of thing that we look for in a James Bond picture, but it is certainly a fine example of the production designer's craft.
Rating: 3 Volcano Fortresses
ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Very little, in fact: notwithstanding the poniness inherent in a trip to Nassau, where the blue ocean could not possibly be bluer, there's not too much that Bond does that makes you desperately want to swap lives with him in this go-round. And this is specially disappointing given that it was director Terence Young who introduced Bond to the finer life in the first place.
That said, there is a scene where Bond idly pour himself a glass of Campari, and as a Campari obsessive myself, I am obliged to significantly overrate how cool such a gesture actually is.
Rating: 2 Vodka Martinis
APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
I don't know if this counts: for it is said by the villainous Fiona Volpe, in articulating her foe's personality: "I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond, James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing."
Forced or Badass: In this particular movie, it is kind of badass to hear 007 get called on his sexist shit, even if it's by a killer.
DOMINO: "What sharp little eyes you've got."
BOND: "Wait till you get to my teeth."
Thunderball is the moment where the Bond films, which had already lost some of its edgy credentials with the infusion of fantasy in Goldfinger, became spectacles that were, incidentally and not often significantly, spy thrillers. It cost a tremendous amount of money, and you can see the results, particularly in the Panavision frame, that vast anamorphic rectangle that meant, even in '65, "this is a Big Event Picture". Audiences responded in kind: Thunderball remains, in adjusted dollars, the highest-grossing James Bond movie in history, and even without accounting for inflation, it wasn't passed until 1979, seven films later.
And by no means is it a film without its significant pleasures on that front: I may have a personal distaste for any Bond film that involves the waters and beaches of the Bahamas, but there's no denying that they look incredibly gorgeous; and it is a particularly energetic, jaunty Bond adventure, the kind that is just plain fun to watch, in a perfectly relaxed and undemanding register. Better still, it doesn't require that the film be frivolous and trivial to get that way: Terence Young, returning to the director's chair after a one-movie break (it was to be his last Bond picture), removed virtually all of the fizzy humor that Guy Hamilton brought to Goldfinger, returning us to a more serious Bond who has a certain light tone, rather than a Bond who seems vaguely incapable of taking things seriously. Given how soon it would be that the franchise spun out into a seemingly irreconcilable divide between the movies that are simply goofy and insubstantial, and the ones that are grim and borderline nihilistic, I'm even tempted to say that out of the entire franchise, Thunderball does the very best job in any of the films of balancing moods, remaining serious when it should be but never abandoning the sense that all this is mostly for our popcorn-consuming delight. And since this balance is, in my mind, the thing that makes Bond films what they are, not the flimsiness of a Roger Moore picture nor the sobriety of a Timothy Dalton picture, but a genial combination of the two, I have long regarded Thunderball as being, at least, one of the quintessential Bond movies.
The fact remains, I liked it a lot more when I was 15 than I do now, and it's not just increased maturity and/or cranky old man syndrome (Goldfinger still delights the shit out of me). It's because, when you actually sit down to deal with what Thunderball is, and not what it looks like if you only pay attention to the edges, it's kind of aimless. The crushing lack of a decent villain or an engaging female lead has a lot to do with this, beyond a doubt: the bloat that such an apparently basic story takes on is another (this is among the longer Bond films, and certainly one that does the least with its running time). It is the first indulgent, lazy Bond film, in fact - the first of more than a few, and still far and away entertaining enough that I refuse to even briefly call it one of the bad films. But most of the problems of the worst Bond films are here in some tiny way.
What it does have to keep it going is an absolutely terrific Connery performance: reportedly his favorite turn as Bond, and certainly mine. It isn't just that he's finally comfortable with the character (that had certainly happened with Goldfinger), but that he marries all the elements of his characterisation in a complete whole better than he did before or after. The wit, the above-it-all bored quality he brings to the actual profession of his job (his scenes with Bernard Lee's M are great here; less so his interaction with Lois Maxwell's Moneypenny, who is inserted somewhat arbitrarily), the predatory charm of his relationship with women, the distinct sense that there is a working-class thug hiding underneath the gentlemanly shell, without being an actual brute as some of those to follow him in the role would sometimes do. It's all there, and Connery was still enjoying finding the character enough that the palpable boredom that would enter his performance in the next film is not here in even trace amounts.
It's such a fantastic, alive performance that really, one almost doesn't mind how minor the film is around him; for the justification for a Bond movie is, ultimately, Bond himself, and however much Thunderball falls short of top-shelf 007 action in many respects, I cannot think of denying that Bond is, here, just about as cinematically exhilarating as he would ever be.
(NB: the behind-the-scenes story of how this story came to be is weird and fascinating; but I shall speak of it at another time).