Friday, July 25, 2014

Thunderball (1965)

It is safe to say that by the time the mid-sixties rolled around James Bond was a household name, and the franchise was truly a juggernaut. Goldfinger was a huge success, and audiences just wanted more and more. The producers knew they needed to go bigger and more spectacular. This movie would be the Bond movie to end all Bond movies. But in the race to create the biggest and the best, would they end up with a misfire no one saw coming?

That evil organization of terrorists known as SPECTRE is at it again. This time they hijacked a plane with two nuclear warheads. They threaten to blow up two major cities unless their ransom is paid. MI6 pulls in all of its top agents to stop this heinous plot, and that means brining in James Bond (Sean Connery). Bond decides to start his search in Nassau, not just to work on his tan, but also to investigate the lovely Domino (Cloudine Auger). Her brother was on the plane that went down, and Bond thinks she may have some additional information.

Of course Bond runs into more than he bargained for. Turns out that the mysterious Largo (Adolfo Celi) may be in on the whole scheme, but he’s got Domino under his thumb. Bond will also have to match wits with the seductive and deadly Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). It becomes clear that the missiles are somewhere near the Caribbean island, and 007 is going to have to fight to retrieve them, but will he a match for the full weight of SPECTRE’s forces, or will operation Thunderball fail in an atomic explosion?

Good Points:
  • Manages to go larger in scope but still keep the thrills
  • One of my favorite villainous women in the entire franchise – Fiona is wicked
  • John Barry gives us his most diverse and brassy Bond score

Bad Points:
  • Takes a while to really get going, lots of set up
  • Pretty much stays in one locale the whole movie
  • The underwater battle scenes may drive some viewers nuts

When it comes to all out escapism for a 1960s James Bond film, you can’t beat Thunderball. It’s got some great action scenes, some of the sexiest babes of the franchise and a thrilling plot that keeps the stakes high and Bond’s mission vitally important. It does have a slower pace than the previous film, but all in all it is a winner in my book.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Even while relaxing at the beach with a babe, Bond
can kill!
When it comes to Thunderball, the feeling really is, bigger is better. Eventually this film was dwarfed in scale by You Only Live Twice. But Thunderball manages a tough balance.  It is huge and yet stays on course with thrills and excitement. It includes some of the most classic scenes from the James Bond franchise and also pioneers some firsts in underwater cinematography.

Largo's only eye is the evil eye.
Thunderball is based on a concept that Kevin McClory and Ian Fleming came up with when James Bond was still only a character in novels. Because the two came up with the idea together, it ended up giving McClory rights to the story, and is the main reason we ended up seeing a remake of the film in 1983 called Never Say Never Again. The script for the film is very close to the novel that Fleming ended up writing. For me it makes it feel a bit closer to the first two James Bond films, Dr. No and From Russia with Love. The other reason for that is director Terence Young is at the helm again. Young asked for a break after the troubled production on From Russia with Love, but the studio was able entice him back for one more Bond adventure.

Fiona: being a bad girl never looked so good.
Young has a deliberate style, focusing on building tension over explosive action. This was put to wonderful use in From Russia with Love, but it does end up hurting Thunderball in the pacing department. One of the main issues with the film is the extended set up for the villains’ plot. It eats up nearly a half hour of the film. While it is important to get everything in place for the action to come, I think that reliance on Fleming’s novel actually hurts this portion of the film. I tighter way to script this plot heavy portion could have been found, and made the film move with greater momentum toward the climax.

This time the villain has gadgets too!
But one of the side effects of taking your time is that you can show off the visuals. Of the 60s Bond films, this movie really has some of the most amazing visuals (topped only by the scope of You Only Live Twice). Most of the action takes place in the Bahamas, and the result is a film steeped in tropical imagery and underwater action. Thunderball used state of the art underwater cameras to capture some amazing action scenes as well as sequences around coral reefs. The amount of underwater footage ended up surpassing the impressive work done by Disney for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. All this state of the art equipment was really put through its paces, and it gives Thunderball its own look and feel.

Every evil board room in every movie is based
on this one.
Production designer Ken Adam returned. His visual style really defines the 60s Bond films and while locations shooting really ends up taking the cake here, Adam does create some interesting and impressive sets. The most memorable is the SPECTRE boardroom where the villains plan their dastardly plot. This scene has inspired countless other films (and parodies). Adams spartan but futuristic set is a big reason for it. He also designed the set for MI6 briefing where all the 00 agents learn about the mission. It’s an impressive room, and one that fits the look of British opulence.

Thunderball marks a few firsts for the James Bond saga. This is the first 007 film to be filmed in Panavision for a 2.35 aspect ration.  This was done to make the film look bigger of course, but was also a perfect showcase for the underwater footage that was being heavily featured in the film. This required a few updates, such as the gun barrel sequence, which had to be re-filmed. In an odd bit of trivia: the man in the gun barrel sequences for Dr. No through Goldfinger was not Sean Connery. So Thunderball marks the first time Sean Connery appeared in the gun barrel sequence.

Floating naked beauties. It all started here.
This is also the first time Maurice Binder worked on the opening titles for a James Bond Film. Binder’s work became synonymous with James Bond. He worked on all the opening credits for the James Bond films until Goldeneye. For Thunderball includes all his trademarks, naked silhouettes, vibrant colors, and creative editing around the music. While I like some of Binder’s work for later films a bit more, it is neat to see how he started out his style for these.

The only negative aspect to the visuals are moments of poor rear projection, but that is an issue that plagues all the early Bond films. The action scenes are all pretty impressive. One of the best is the entire pre-credit sequence, featuring Bond punching a widow in the face and escaping from a French chateau via jetpack. Then you also have the full on underwater battle at the end of the film, but I’ll talk a bit more about that later.

Sound effects in these early Bond films are pretty good for their time. Thunderball provides some added challenges with all the underwater action. Some creative sound effects were created for the film, but much of those scenes are actually supported more by the score.

Underwater mayhem!
John Barry returns for his third James Bond score and this is one of my favorite efforts of his from the 60s. Thunderball sports the most number of themes and motifs of any of the Barry scores. You get the traditional James Bond theme, the 007 theme introduced in From Russia with Love, the title theme, an underwater motif and a searching motif. Originally this film had another theme song, called Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, supposedly named after the Japanese nickname for James Bond. The song is never performed in the final version of the film, but Barry uses the theme quite liberally through out the score, and it is highlighted when Bond visits the Kiss Kiss Klub. With all these themes to work with Barry gets to mix, match and manipulate them all. The score is a blast to listen to, with heavy use of brass, making this the boldest of his scores. He uses his 007 theme for most of the final underwater battle turning into an almost melodic piece to match the slowed motion of the fighters. The theme song itself is performed with verve by Tom Jones, and is a song that is either about Bond or the villain Largo – argument still rages among James Bond fans.

"What sharp little eyes you've got." "Wait till
you get to my teeth."
For my money this is one of Connery’s best performances as Bond. He really plays the part of the professional in this one, always staying one step ahead of Largo and his plot. His interaction with Domino is genuinely warm, something that was missing from Goldfinger, which seemed a bit more playful. To be honest, Connery ends up looking a bit bored in the next two Bond films he is in. So for me, this is his last performance where he seems genuinely engaged in the character. Auger makes for a fine love interest. She’s very lovely looking, but she also brings a touch of sadness to the character. It’s a shame she ends up pushed to the side a bit as the film progresses, but she does a solid job over all.

Yeah Largo, Fiona would shoot you if she had too.
When it comes to the villains, I have mixed feelings. Largo is intimidating and brutish, but I don’t get the feeling of cunning from him. The plot requires Celi to give Largo a genial but cruel edge. Well the cruel comes across very well, but he doesn’t seem as suave as the film wants him to be. I still think Largo is a fairly strong Bond villain, but not one of the best from the decade. But his henchwoman Fiona – wow! Now she pretty much steals every scene she’s in. Paluzzi is sultry and wicked. I love the way she manipulates the men around her, and even manages to make Bond look foolish. In some ways, I really wish the film had turned her into the mastermind of the plot, with Largo as her minion (like the inspired twist in The World is NotEnough). I’m always sad to see Fiona get killed two thirds of the way through the film. Thunderball shines a little less once she’s gone.

Poor Q never gets to enjoy a holiday,
The supporting cast does a fine job as they always do. Desmond Llewlyn gets a bit of fun as Q while he attempts to equip Bond in the field, muttering the whole time. We also get a new Felix Leiter in this film (this role is rarely ever filled by the same actor twice). This time we get Rik Van Nutter, and he’s not bad, but the part seems a bit shoehorned in. Both Bernard Lee and Louis Maxwell return as M and Moneypenny. They get to fret and worry about the mission back in London, and provide the film with most of the “ticking clock” moments.

Thunderball is not high on everyone’s list and one of the main complaints I see leveled at the film is the final battle sequence. It does last quite a while and it occurs entirely under water. From a technical point of view this battle is really amazing. The submersible equipment they use in this scene is pretty nifty looking.  Pretty much any way you can imagine men in scuba gear battling is covered. You get harpoons, knives, explosives and masks being ripped off. They even throw a shark into the mix.

Jet packs for everyone! Oh wait, that's Moonraker.
For a lot of folks the intensity of the film really loses a lot momentum with all the underwater action. Since all the motion on the screen is literally slowed down, it does end up making the film feel longer in places. But I feel that the crew was also showing off the amazing cameras. The Bahamas presented them with some wonderfully clear water, and the footage is really impressive. In the end, I think Young could have trimmed some of it to keep the urgency in the film.

"When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way."
But I can’t blame Young for being excited with the footage, and so I usually don’t let it bother me. Besides, he does end up bringing James Bond a bit back to earth after the comic book fun of Goldfinger. While the film deals with holding the world hostage for a nuclear threat (a staple of the Bond films pioneered here), the action centers mostly on Bond as he uses his wits and guile to discover and undo Largo’s plot. The only side effect is that Bond in Thunderball has retained the immunity to damage that he obtained in Goldfinger. But still, this movie feels more like a thriller than a series of set pieces. I think it has as much to do with Flemings story being the core as it does with Young’s direction.

So what it all comes down to it, Thunderball is easily one of my favorite Connery Bond flicks. I like the larger than life scope, but the fact that it stays true to the thriller roots. The caveat of the underwater action seems to the make or break item for this movie. And I understand why it doesn’t work for everyone. But for me it’s a fun summer Bond film, one of the best of the era.

One more shot of Fiona. :)


  1. Definitely one of the brighter stars of the series -- and the Vulcan is the coolest looking heavy bomber ever to fly for any air force anywhere. The B49 Flying Wing would have given it competition, had it gone into active service, but in the end the design was too radical for the USAF.

    1. Yeah the Vulcan is pretty darn cool. Lots of interesting vehicles in this one. I thought a flying wing was created back in the 40s. Or have I just seen "Raiders of the Lost Ark" a few too many times?

    2. Yes, there were several flying wing designs in a few countries. Northrop (which later built the B2) had a special interest in them during and after WW2. The YB49, built in the late 40s, had a real shot at being the frontline bomber for the US, but ultimately the air force opted in the 50s for the less radical B52. The B52 is still flying, so the decision is hard to fault. The Vulcan went into service in the UK in 1956.