Thunderball (1965)

*. I’ve written quite glowingly (at least by my standards) of the first three Bond films: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger. With Thunderball the franchise was truly off and running, being a property that was one of the most anticipated movies ever made. Its budget was greater than the first three movies combined, and it did the best box office yet.
*. Still, I find it the first real misstep in the series. Not a bomb by any stretch of the imagination, but just not as good. Or, as Pauline Kael put it, I think exactly, in her review: “Not bad, but not quite top-grade Bond. A little too much underwater war-ballet.”
*. Things go wrong right from the start. The pre-credit action sequence features a good fight, but ends in silliness with Bond taking a jet-pack off the roof of a chateau and then spraying bad guys with water cannons from his newly-equipped Aston Martin (the water tanks it must have been carrying are hard to imagine). This struck me as just being pranks and hijinks, and that’s a feeling that was reinforced when the action turned to the spa and Count Lippe dials up the power on Bond’s back table, leading him to lock Lippe into a steam cabinet. Were they really trying to kill each other? Or just playing silly games?
*. Tom Jones put everything he had into trying to sell one of the worst of the Bond theme songs, whose lyrics neither he nor the songwriter knew the meaning of. They’d wanted to use “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” sung by either Shirley Bassey or Dionne Warwick, but to be honest I didn’t like that one any better. They just didn’t turn over any aces for this movie.
*. Terence Young back directing for his third and final round of Bond (Guy Hamilton had taken the reins for Goldfinger). But by now the series belonged to Sean Connery. They give him more killer quips, like parking a murdered Luciana Paluzzi at a table and explaining “She’s just dead,” or shooting a heavy with a speargun and saying “I think he got the point,” but his best bit is silent, when Paluzzi asks him to give her something to put on when she gets out of the tub and he hands her a pair of slippers, then sits down facing her. That’s a great bit of Bond stuff, and really I can’t think of another Bond who could have pulled it off.
*. There’s a fair bit of action but I didn’t think it was that well done. Or, to be fair, while it may be well done a lot of it is underwater (which is what ate up a lot of the budget) and I don’t find underwater action very thrilling. Everything is in slow motion. Even the stirring Bond secondary theme that I raved about in my notes on From Russia With Love has to be slowed down here and still can’t save the final “underwater war-ballet.” As Kael said, there’s just too much of this stuff.
*. Several critics have also complained that it’s hard to tell who the bad guys and the good guys are in the underwater scenes. I don’t understand this. They wear different coloured diving suits so it’s pretty obvious. I don’t like the underwater scenes, but not for that reason.
*. The story wasn’t so much based on Ian Fleming’s novel as an original screenplay that had been written to be the first of the Bond movies and which Fleming later turned into a book. Apparently it took over forty years to sort out the legal disputes. Putting such questions aside, it’s actually a pretty good story, but for the first time in the series I got the sense that the producers were more interested in showing off the beautiful locations than tying them into the plot in any interesting way. Men wanted to dress like Bond, make love like Bond, and now vacation like Bond in Nassau.

*. A quick aside here: When the original double-0 team is assembled and sent off to find the missing nukes Bond is first assigned to Section C, which is Canada. No way, M! Not going to happen! Bond has seen a photo of Domino in a bikini (and her dead brother, who he recognizes) and wants to go to the Bahamas. This made me wonder if Bond ever visited Canada. I don’t believe he did.
*. Another aside: on the DVD commentary John Cork (of the Ian Fleming Foundation) does a nice job pointing out various slip-ups in continuity due to the way the film was shot and edited into a different order. I think most of these are invisible and make sense, but I didn’t understand why he felt the need to say “while many might identify these as continuity problems they are actually skillfully made edits.” No, they are both. If a character’s clothes change between shots then that’s a continuity error, however many days of filming it may have saved.
*. As in earlier instalments the main supporting players — Claudine Auger (Bond girl) and Adolfo Celi (Bond villain) — are dubbed, but it doesn’t matter because they both look the part. I mean, I don’t know why Largo is such a hard out for Bond in the final punch-up, but he does look nasty with his shock of white hair, eye-patch, and black scuba suit. Auger, in the meantime, looks good in a swimsuit but I’m still sad that Raquel Welch never got a shot at being in one of these flicks. She was pursued here but appeared in Fantastic Voyage instead.
*. So what happens to the scientist at the end who releases Domino and gets rid of the bomb trigger? I guess he’s got his ring buoy, even if he can’t swim. He’s sort of like the guy who shuts the bomb off at the end of Goldfinger, just showing up out of nowhere to save the day and then disappearing.
*. The final shot of Bond and Domino being yanked off the raft was too much for me. Wouldn’t they have suffered some pretty major dislocations being picked up like that?
*. Young thought Dr. No the most interesting of the Bond films, From Russia With Love his favourite, and Thunderball . . . the one that did the best box office. That’s not a bad summary. Success would mean the series would keep going, and indeed Thunderball would even be remade in 1983 as Never Say Never Again. That later movie would drag Connery out of retirement, and his lack of interest showed. Here, however, he still seems to be game, though I think his commitment was about to fade.
*. I’m a Bond fan and I’ve seen Thunderball many times. Watching it again certainly didn’t hurt. It’s still a fun movie. But it also marks a gentle falling off in my book. The series had much worse, but also some better, to come.

4 thoughts on “Thunderball (1965)

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