Thunderball (1965)

Film #15: Thunderball (1965)

James Bond film #04 (Sean Connery Bond)

After their absence from the third Bond movie Goldfinger, SPECTRE is back in Thunderball to screw with the world and try to kill James Bond in the process. This time, hook-nosed, eye-patched #2 Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) hijacks two atomic warheads from NATO and threatens to destroy Miami unless he gets 100 million pounds in diamonds. It’s a classic hostage situation that must have reminded audiences of the contemporary Cuban Missile Crisis, and it’s a great return for an evil organization that uses Cold War fears to enrich themselves.

As for Bond himself, he’s up to his usual games. Thunderball Bond is a cheeky chap, and the movie is injected with a more noticeable amount of humor than its three predecessors. It’s mostly little things – tossing flowers onto a fallen foe, popping a grape in his mouth after an intense fight scene, coming out of a black-out with a quip – but it lends the character and the film more of that playful awareness that’s been growing ever since From Russia With Love established the template for Bond films. Indeed, there even seems to be referential callbacks to earlier moments in the series, such as when 007 emerges from the water in a very Honey Rider fashion. Also, with the Bond standards familiar to fans by now, Thunderball plays with the regulars and lets us see them outside their usual structural constraints. M isn’t confined to his desk in a small office – he gets an entire conference room and a league of double-O agents to direct. Q doesn’t show up until much later than usual, and he’s at his snarkiest yet, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt and a fedora as he gives Bond all of his underwater gadgets.

The underwater aspect is probably the most defining feature of Thunderball, and with good cause: Apparently, an entire fourth of this movie takes place underwater. I won’t say that’s too many scenes underwater, but anyone with a fear of drowning might want to avoid watching this. And actually, I lied – I will say that it’s too many scenes underwater. They lack dialogue and are sometimes unclear in their action, so they grow a bit tedious. I don’t mean to dismiss them entirely – the sequence where SPECTRE steals the atomic bombs (and Largo ruthlessly leaves henchman Angelo strapped in the cockpit seat to drown) is awesome, and the final gigantic fight scene between scores of SPECTRE henchmen and US Coast Guardsmen is nothing less than epic – but I would have appreciated the effective scenes a whole lot more if there hadn’t been so many boring ones alongside them. Also, with a runtime exceeding 2 hours,Thunderball is the longest Bond film yet, and when a quarter of it is underwater without dialogue, it doesn’t help speed that time along.

By the way, Bond is, as always, pretty rapey in this movie. I realize it’s part of his character and all, but the amount of times he forces himself onto women really dilutes my enjoyment of the series. However, I will say that Thunderball plays up the sexual power dynamics a bit. Usually there’s an attractive female ally of the super villain that Bond seduces and gets information out of – see: Tatiana Romanova, Jill Masterson, Pussy Galore, etc. Here, however, it’s Bond who’s seduced by the foxy Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), who waits for him in his bathtub, has sex with him, and then captures him. She even taunts him about it. In fact, Volpe is a badass through and through, driving a car fast enough to unnerve James, killing an incompetent villain with a motorcycle-seated rocket launcher, and even capturing Bond’s fellow MI6 agent Paula Caplan (Martine Beswick). Alas, she is ultimately killed, but she’s an excellent addition to Bond lore, as a woman who is finally impervious to his seductive charms.

Thunderball is a James Bond film like all the others before it – complex, playful, and above all, entertaining. It runs too long and it spends too much time toiling underwater, but the successful return of SPECTRE and another memorable villain in the form of Emilio Largo makes Thunderball a welcome addition to the Bond series.

Final rating: 7/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • Cheesy Bond Post-Kill Line of the Film: (after shooting henchman Vargas with a harpoon) “I think he got the point.”
  • The above may have been the cheesiest, but I lost it after Volpe was killed and he set her down at a table, saying “Would you look after my friend? She’s just dead.”
  • Implied underwater sex! Whaaaatttt!
  • I didn’t mention Domino at all in my review. I thought that Claudine Auger was wooden from the first line she delivered. Maybe my least-favorite “Bond girl” so far.
  • As usual, we get an excellent opening title sequence. Maurice Binder, who created the gun barrel sequence and made the titles in Dr. No, returns after an absence from the previous two films. He gives us silhouetted nude women swimming around to a powerful Tom Jones vocal performance. Good stuff all around.
  • Terence Young, director of the first two Bond films, also returns for this installment after sitting Goldfinger out. Today I learned that Young was pretty much Bond himself – a smooth and cultured lady’s man. He actually took Connery out and taught him enough so that people said Connery was just doing a Terrence Young impersonation when he was Bond.
  • I find it funny that Martine Beswick is, to me, the most attractive woman I’ve seen yet in a Bond film (which is certainly a high honor), and she’s the only female who Bond doesn’t sleep with.
  • Panavision! Used to GREAT effect when all those Coast Guardsmen parachuted into the sea. Amazing scale of action there.
  • Editor Peter R. Hunt really ups his game here, and a lot of the editing seems more modern than his work in the previous films. Some parallel editing and whatnot. Then again, there are still wipes and the showy close-ups of Q’s gadgets, but even if those seem out of date now, they still work great as part of the Bond film experience.
  • SPECTRE apparently has an entire branch devoted to execution. And Largo has a POOL OF SHARKS. Why would Angelo try to extort them? You shouldn’t even be doing business with them in the first place, fool!
  • Bond even shoots rifles from the hip. He simply doesn’t give a damn.

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