Folklore has it that, while recording the title song for Thunderball in the studio, singer Tom Jones fainted while trying to sustain that ridiculously loud and long note at the end of the song. You certainly don't hear that in the performance (unless, of course, they used an alternative take), but it's a great story.
True or not, that is an apt metaphor for the movie Thunderball. The producers reach for something bold and striking and ridiculous, and in the end (according to some) fail. They weren't just making Bond #4, they were making the sequel to the monster phenomenon of Goldfinger, and felt they had to make it bigger and better in every way. They threw everything but the kitchen sink at the screen, and as a result created a bloated, unfocused mess. So some say.
But like the song, I don't see that failure here. Sure, Thunderball has its faults and warts. But I like Thunderball more than most, and I think that it accomplishes most of what it sets out to do.
This was the story Broccoli and Saltzman wanted to do for the first Bond movie, but the legal wrangling over Thunderball forced them to chose Dr. No instead (much, much more on that legal wrangling later in the week). That would have been a very interesting proposition, I think...the Thunderball story done on a much smaller budget, when they weren't quite sure of how to do all the elements of a proper Bond, no teaser...oh, wait, that was Never Say Never Again!!
Anyway, no matter what critiques you want to lay at the feet of Thunderball, you surely can't complain that every dollar of it's budget wasn't up on the screen. The massive sets, the wonderful use of the Bahamas, the 5,000 underwater stuntmen, all the military hardware, the Junkanoo,...no expense was spared, and it all ended up on the screen (even if you can argue that some of it shouldn't have).
This was the first James Bond film to break the 2 hour running time mark (a length that it would only dip below twice more in series history). Is that too long? A lot of critics contend that the final underwater fight is too long and boring, especially after all of the other underwater scenes in the film. Forgive me for disagreeing. Yes, it is long...but is it any longer than, say, storming the volcano in You Only Live Twice, or raiding the oil tanker in the Spy Who Loved Me? And this climactic Thunderball battle has the added advantage of being something no one had ever seen the likes of, before or after. Aside from a couple of minor continuity glitches, the battle is excellently choreographed...you never are lost as to what's going on. The languid, dreamlike pace of the underwater movements contrasts well with the viciousness of the fight, creating the most surreal battle seen I can ever remember seeing. And like most Terence Young directed fight scenes, you believe that this one is to the death for everybody involved. Boring? Balderdash!!
Still, there are cuts to be made. Unlike the underwater fight scene, the underwater "disguise the plane and take away the nukes" scene takes literally forever, and really stalls the film's momentum. And there's just too much going on once Bond gets to the Bahamas that doesn't advance the plot at all. The "Quist being caught in the hotel room and then fed to the sharks by Largo" sequence, for example, eats up a lot of screen time without telling us anything we didn't already know. And it just starts the perpetual back and forth of Largo trying to kill Bond, Volpe saying no not yet and besides I get to kill him, Largo makes a feint and Bond and fails, Bond discovers a tiny piece of info that he should have already known, Volpe makes a feint at Bond, ad nuaseum. The whole center of the movie could have used some real tightening.
Not the Junkanoo, though. Wow, that is so well done it blows my mind. They actually paid all expenses to stage a full Junkanoo parade 8 months early (or 4 months late?). The actors and cameras were basically left to fight their way through the parade and crowds as best they could. The result is very real tension and confusion on the screen, and another feather in Terence Young's cap.
The film's ending came across as particularly flat. After a somewhat ridiculous final battle marred by the deus ex machina of Kutze suddenly changing sides for no particular reason, and by the terrible looking sped-up footage--which apparently has the Disco Volante traveling at nearly warp speed and constantly passing the same stock footage--we're ready for a final bit of Bond/Domino romance. But no...she just sits in the raft looking bemused while we see every nanosecond of Bond hooking up his balloon harness. And then the rescue plane drags them away through the air, and we don't even get a final one-liner or a final kiss!! BOO!!
Otherwise, the Bond/Domino romance is handled particularly well, too. I can't say enough about how unbelievably beautiful and sexy Claudine Auger is, and the fabulous wardrobe they give her doesn't hurt, either. The underwater scenes are exotic and romantic, and the stars have a great chemistry together. And of course she gets the death blow against Largo. (But compare with For Your Eyes Only, where Bond spends the whole movie warning Melina not to kill in revenge...perhaps because of some ill consequences for Domino after the events of this movie?? That would be sad...) Domino is certainly in the running for the top Bond girl ever.
And speaking of Bond girls, in my opinion this is the most babelicious Bond movie EVER. Look at what we get: we start with his French contact, played by Mitsouko (a Japanese French agent? How exotic!!). Then we get our first scenes with Fiona Volpe (Luciana Pasluzzi), the sensual killer. Then we go to Shrublands, and spend a lot of time with Patricia Fearing (Molly Peters). After Bond steals her from Count Lippe, we have some some of the hottest scenes ever (think mink gloves). I was always disappointed they never brought her back, because she sizzled. Then we meet Bond's Bahamas "assistant," Paula (Martine Beswick, who was one of the gypsy girls in From Russia With Love). Then we meet Domino. In terms of both quantity and quality, this is an unrivaled bevy of beauties. Talk about a cornucopia...
Speaking of Fiona, what a great henchman!! Clearly more competent than all of those around her, she proves a much better opponent for Bond than either Lippe or Largo or Vargas. She's the one who's a match for 007, and she's the one who comes closer to taking him out than anyone else in the movie. She also has quite the classic death scene. (I have to say, every time I rewatch Thunderball, I find myself disappointed again by Vargas. Yes, he has a great death and the classic death quip, and everyone remembers Largo's classic description of him, but he doesn't actually do anything. He can't keep Paula from killing herself, he's always chasing Bond but never catching him...really, besides his death he doesn't have a single memorable moment in the whole film!!)
As for Largo himself, well, S.P.E.C.T.R.E #2 talks a good game, and he sure looks like your prototypical Bond villain. But man, he is just pretty pathetic. While barely working up a sweat, Bond beats him badly at cards, beats him at skeet shooting without even looking at the target, steals his woman, kills his top henchpersons, and thwarts his master plan. And Largo consistently can't seem to do anything about it. He's no Goldfinger, that's for sure.
And let's talk about that master plan. I have a few suggestions, Emilio. Number one, don't hang around the sister of the man you killed to get the bombs. She's the only link Bond has. If you sent her to California or Spain for a vacation, Bond never gets anywhere near you! Plus, keeping her around is good way to get yourself killed when she finds out what you've done to her brother. There's a good question--did Largo take up with Domino before the operation got underway, and that's how he found Derval? Or did they target Derval first, and that led to his becoming infatuated with Domino? Or was it all some ridiculous coincidence?
Number two, why in the world keep a bomb, let alone both bombs, so close to where the plane went down? If the plane is found, you should know they'll intensify the search in that area. Your first step after securing the nukes should have been to send one of them to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Island or somewhere secure. Send the one you intend to use ahead to Miami. Whatever you do, don't keep both bombs close to the plane AND close to Domino. That's just begging for Bond to find you.
Third, and most importantly, DON'T GIVE SOMEBODY A SEVEN DAY DEADLINE FOR NUCLEAR BLACKMAIL!!! What, are you a complete moron? (In fairness, that one might have been Blofeld's fault...). 7 freakin' days?? That's begging to be found. Why give them time to find you, or find a way out? Seven days, with the bombs just sitting in one place?!?!?!?! Man, Matt Helm could have found you in that time frame. Next time, give 'em 24 hours. Sheesh...
Anyway, in contrast to Largo's buffoonery, Bond is particularly effective this time around. Perhaps they had realized what a nimrod he was last movie, or perhaps it's just the natural evolution of the character. But in this film, he's confident and ruthless, and perhaps becoming just the tiniest bit overconfident. After the vicious murder of Boitier, 007 takes the time to throw flowers onto his corpse. After investigating Lippe's suite at Shrublands, he takes time to swipe a piece of fruit. Reckless, or self-assured? This is the Bond most people think of, the perfect balance of charm and steel and pluck, the gentleman who can kill at a moments notice, who can woo every lady (hey, Fiona claimed she wasn't impressed, but she still went back for seconds!), and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and its goons are no match for him. Sean Connery is razor sharp in this film, never letting his bemused winks at the audience get out of hand, and clearly relishing everything he's asked to do.
This film also has the best Bond/M moments. Yes, they joust. But twice, when outsiders question Bond's competence, M swiftly and strenuously rises to his defense, "If 007 says he saw this man, than that's enough for me." This is a good working relationship, where M doesn't let his annoyance at some of Bond's habits get in the way of his absolute respect for the man's abilities. We would rapidly lose this quality between them, as later films (especially under Moore, when M could barely seem to tolerate his presence) tended to devolve the relationship into M seemingly putting up with Bond only because he has no other choice. It wasn't until Brosnan/Dench that we regained the level of respect we see here.
In fact, in terms of dialogue at least, this is a very sharp script. There were so many hands involved at various points, that the plot suffers the tiniest bit, both from padding and some plot peculiarities. But the dialogue sparkles throughout, and I'm glad to give most of the credit for that to Richard Maibaum. The Bond/M scenes above, the hilarious put downs Fiona Volpe aims at Bond (not to mention mocking the end of Goldfinger!), Bond and Domino, Bond and Patricia Fearing...the dialogue sparkles throughout. Bravo!!
Ken Adam? The man just goes crazy. Check out the secret S.P.E.C.T.R.E. headquarters:
...and the frankly insane MI-6 conference room:
Fact: Ken Adam is god. Another fact: Ken Adam has a new book coming in November, which looks to be a must for fans of the Oscar-winning production designer.
The teaser also reinforces the "Bond swagger/S.P.E.C.T.R.E. lame" idea of the movie. How big a pussy is S.P.E.C.T.R.E. #6, that he needs to fake his death and pose as his own widow, just to hide from Bond?? Seriously, grow a pair. 007, meanwhile, saunters in casually, so supremely confident of his ability to single-handedly knock off Bolthier that he's almost overcome in the antique-smashing brawl. His gesture to toss the flowers almost gets him caught by Boltier's goons. And rather than dispatch those same goons, or make a thrilling escape, the movie is content to merely make fools out of them, letting us watch as they're taken out by essential a big fire hose. Has the playfulness edged just the tiniest bit over into smirk and snark?
Which brings us back to the theme song. It was supposed to be "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" by Dionne Warwick, but at the last minute the producers decided they had best have the film title in the theme song (a novel concept that, obviously, they didn't apply the same rule to Octopussy or Casino Royale (2006)...) And the effort put out by Tom Jones, and John Barry, has all the strengths and flaws of the movie. It's bold, exciting, adventurous. At the same time, it's over the top, desperate to top Shirley Bassey's Goldfinger, and (according to legend) too ambitious to be sung without passing out. Gloriously fun, but not 100% successful. And that's the movie in a nutshell--it's not Goldfinger or From Russia With Love, but that's no reason to damn it with faint praise.
Of course, the real question is, would that constant need to top themselves, and the increasing smugness and jokiness, continue? And how would it effect the series? Only time would tell...
SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
**Maurice Binder's first "live action" title sequence makes its appearance here...we've come a long way from just projecting scene onto a woman's body, and Bond title sequences would never be the same again.
**While we're ragging on Largo's plan, what exactly is the profit margin S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s plan? Sure, $100 million was a good chunk of change back in 1965, but look at the costs: an underwater cavern carved out just to hide the bombs, underwater landing lights, the specially-outfitted Disco Volante, hundreds of goons, all the training and prep for Angelo...I'm just saying, they might have been better off sticking to blackmail and drug running...
**One final question about the plan: Angelo says he's spent two years in training, surgery, etc, preparing for this role. Even if we allow for some exaggeration, the question is this--how did S.P.E.C.T.R.E. know, 2 years earlier, that Derval would be assigned to a training flight with nukes? I mean, what if Derval were transferred, or retired, or died, or was never assigned to a nuclear flight? That would have been a heck of a lot of time and effort down the crapper, eh? Or did Lippe have many doubles in preparation, ready to replace any one of several NATO officers?
**Oh, and NATO--is it really a good idea to have live nukes on your training flights? Really??
**You do have to admire S.P.E.C.T.R.E. perks--like these kicky T-Shirts!!
**As I mentioned above, we do finally get a look at many of S.P.E.C.T.R.E's smaller scale schemes: assassinations, drug running, consulting on robberies. If only they'd stayed in the background like this, they might have stayed of Bond's radar. But nooo, they had to get nuclear bombs...
**BLOFELD KILL!! Poor, #9, but very relieved #11...
**Note for all villains: if you're going to be secret members of a secret group, it's not a good idea to wear HUGE freaking ring with that organization's symbol on it. Note Largo:
Man, can you make Bond's job any easier?? Why not just wear T-Shirts saying "Hi, we're S.P.E.C.T.R.E!!"??
**Rick Van Nutter--what can be said? Uhhh....seriously, was Eon's goal to find the blandest Leiter possible every film, so Bond looks better? I mean geez, talk about a boring performance (and to be fair, boringly written)! No surprise that we're done with Felix for a few films...
**Another Terence Young trademark: a hotel clerk checks out James Bond's ass again:
**Look--other Double-O agents!! All of them!! in one room!
It's cute how they manage to not really show you the faces of any of them. I wonder...which one is Alec Trevelyan?? They're all male, apparently...
**Bond Score: you may disagree with me, but I think it's pretty clear that Bond scores with both Mitsouko ("Later, perhaps") AND Paula (c'mon, they shared a suite!!). And in Fiona, Patrica, and Domino, and that's 5. An all-time record! Cumulative Bond Score: 16!
**How big a loser is Largo?:
He has to play his employees at in order to win at baccarat. He has to take money from his hard-working henchmen!! And Vargas, I thought you were passionless!! Gambling??
**The instrumental version if Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang showed up during the scene at the Kiss Kiss Club..but really, is that an appropriate song for a loud bongo solo in the middle??
(Shut up, dummy, you're messing with an obvious homage to The Man Who Knew Too Much) (I know, but come on...a bongo solo??)
They neglected to put it in the closing credits this time, but JAMES BOND WILL RETURN IN...wait a minute...what's happening...some freak break in the space-time continuum...JAMES BOND WILL RETURN IN..a comedy version of Casino Royale??!!??