Wednesday, February 29, 2012

50 Years of 007 - Thunderball

50 Years of 007 takes Cody under the sea for 1965's Thunderball.  

Thunderball has caused a lot of troubles and headaches over the years. Not the film, but the basic story and the rights to it. Ian Fleming had never been averse to his James Bond novels becoming a film or television series, and actively pursued getting such a project going himself in 1959. Over the course of meetings between Fleming and collaborators Ivar Bryce, Ernest Cureo, Kevin McClory, and Jack Whittingham, the story for Thunderball took shape. Outlines and treatments were written, Whittingham wrote a screenplay... but when it seemed that the project wasn't going anywhere, Fleming took the ideas and turned them into his ninth Bond novel. When Thunderball was published in 1961, McClory and Whittingham were very displeased to find that Fleming had taken sole writing credit, with no mention of their substantial contributions. A court case ensued and McClory and Whittingham won the right to have "based on a screen treatment by" credits added to any future publications of Thunderball.

McClory also received part of the film rights to the story, so when Bond film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman decided to make Thunderball the fourth film in their series (after having considered following Goldfinger with On Her Majesty's Secret Service), they made a deal with McClory. Under the deal, McClory would receive the Producer credit, with Broccoli and Saltzman taking Executive Producer credits, and McClory would retain the right to remake Thunderball after ten years. The remake rights would cause more trouble down the road, but in 1965 all was copacetic and Thunderball was a go project.

The first director approached was Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton, but he needed to take a rest after that film. An offer was made to Dr. No/From Russia with Love director Terence Young and he agreed to return to the series that he helped shape.

The films had been getting bigger and bigger with each installment, with the budgets rising each time. Goldfinger had been massive, Thunderball went even further and tripled the budget to $9 million. To capture the widening scope of the films, the picture also went wider - Thunderball was the first in the series to be shot in 2.35:1. As such, the gun barrel opening that was used for the previous three films, which featured stuntman Bob Simmons standing in as James Bond, had to be reshot for the new aspect ratio. Finally the gun barrel features the actor playing Bond in the film, as Sean Connery performed the gun barrel "walk and shoot" himself.

The gun barrel segues into the pre-title sequence, which begins in a church, on a coffin draped with a funeral cloth that bears the initials of the deceased: JB. They were oddly amused with implications of James Bond's death in the early films, with this and the garroting of the man wearing a Bond mask at the beginning of From Russia with Love, and they went on to "kill Bond off" again at the beginning of the next film.

Viewers are only left to wonder about the initials for a few seconds, as the camera pans up to see James Bond and an ally observing the funeral from a balcony in the church. The deceased is Colonel Jacques Bouvar, a man who murdered two of Bond's colleagues. Bond has been hunting him down and is disappointed to find that Bouvar apparently died in his sleep. Watching Bouvar's grieving widow, Bond notices something off about her and follows her home. Bond confronts the woman with a punch to the face - she is revealed to be a man, Bouvar himself in disguise. Yes, this is one of the many Bond moments that directly inspired Austin Powers scenes.

Bond and Bouvar have an intense scuffle, with Bond taking his fair share of hits, including whacks to the ribs with a fireplace poker, but of course Bond is the victor. As Bouvar's guards pursue him, Bond runs to the roof and makes his escape - with a jet pack. I've seen people call the jet pack ridiculous and mock its design, but this was a case of the films using an experimental gadget that existed in reality. It was actually called the "Bell Rocket Belt" and, powered by hydrogen peroxide, could boost the operator over a 9 meter tall obstacle or across short distances. Quite short distances; it only worked for 20 seconds at a time. It was designed for the US Army, who decided they didn't have much use for it.

The jet pack gets Bond to his waiting Aston Martin DB5 and the title sequence begins. Dr. No title designer Maurice Binder made his return on this one and here sets the style that he would use for every Bond film for the next twenty-four years. The primary feature of this sequence are the silhouettes of nude women swimming around the screen through explosions of bubbles and at one point there are very clearly bare breasts on the screen.

Composer John Barry had some trouble coming up with a title song, as he couldn't think of any sensible way to work the word Thunderball into the lyrics. He wrote a song called "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", Bond's nickname in Italy, and versions were recorded with Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick singing it. The Warwick version can be heard in full on one of the DVD/Blu-ray audio commentary tracks. When Broccoli and Saltzman decided that the song should have the title in it, Barry and songwriter Don Black worked together to come up with "Thunderball". The resulting song is really good and well sung by Tom Jones. "He strikes like Thunderball!"

Following the title sequence, we're introduced to the villains of the piece. Through a hidden doorway in the Paris building that houses the charity organization The International Brotherhood for the Assistance of Stateless Persons is a large conference room, which is hosting a meeting of SPECTRE agents. Thunderball was the first novel to feature SPECTRE, here of course they've been built up over two of the three preceding films.

At the head of the meeting is the mysterious mastermind Blofeld, his face still obscured from the audience's view. Blofeld's body is that of Anthony Dawson, as it was in From Russia with Love, but there is disagreement over who provided the voice this time, with the choices being Eric Pohlmann, who was the voice of Blofeld in FRWL, or Joseph Wiseman, who had played Dr. No. The voice does sound similar to Wiseman's...

Among the SPECTRE agents is the film's main villain, the eyepatch-sporting Emilio Largo, and a couple things are made clear over the course of the meeting - Blofeld does not tolerate insubordination, and Largo is cold as ice. With a flip of a switch, Blofeld electrocutes an agent who had been shortchanging the organization. As his fellow operative fries, Largo just glances over with a blank expression, barely interested. Largo is at the meeting to discuss "the NATO project", the most ambitious plan that SPECTRE has ever put together, from which they expect to get $280 million.

Adolfo Celi is great as Largo, a man who's a bit more presentable to society than his villainous predecessors but has a hidden cruelty beneath his successful jetsetter lifestyle. Celi was dubbed by Robert Rietty, and it's an expert job because there are seamless transitions between Celi's actual voice and Rietty's dub.

Thunderball is kind of a strange story, even stranger is that this was considered as having the potential of being the first James Bond movie. It's odd because Bond spends most of the first quarter of the film hanging out in a health clinic. M sends him there in the novel because he's getting out of shape, drinks and smokes too much, and has bad eating habits. In the film, he's apparently there to recover from the rib injury Bouvar dealt him.

It's while at the clinic that Bond, by pure coincidence, first gets wrapped up in SPECTRE's schemes. He notices a tattoo on the arm of fellow patient Count Lippe, a tattoo that represents a branch of the Chinese Tongs. Ultimately it's an irrelevant tattoo since Lippe is working for SPECTRE now, but it's enough to get Bond snooping around the clinic to find out more information about Lippe, who doesn't appreciate his curiosity.

Bond looks around in Lippe's room and finds that it's connected to the room of another patient, a man with his face wrapped in bandages. As Bond exits Lippe's room, he steals a grape from a bowl of fruit, a popular moment that was paid homage in the 2002 Bond film Die Another Day.

The man with the bandaged face, Mister Angelo, has been given plastic surgery to look exactly like bomber pilot Major François Derval. In the novel, SPECTRE just hired the actual pilot to do the intended job for them. Here, Derval is killed and replaced by his doppelganger, who has spent the last two years studying everything about him.

While Lippe takes Derval's body to the health clinic and puts it in Angelo's place, Angelo manages to take Derval's place on the test flight of a jet bomber equipped with two atomic bombs. He gasses the crew and crash lands the plane in the Carribean at the Bahamas, where Largo and a small army of henchmen are waiting to unload the bombs. Angelo is killed for demanding more money for his service, whereas the pilot in the novel was killed just because he had outlived his usefulness.

The next day is check out time for Bond at the health clinic. His stay wasn't just filled with health food, exercise, and spying, he also made it worthwhile by seducing one of the therapists there, Patricia Fearing (played by Molly Peters). As he leaves, Patricia asks him what he does for a living. He tells her that he's a "sort of licensed troubleshooter."

Also checking out is Count Lippe, who follows Bond with the intention of taking him out of the equation once and for all. Bond is preparing to ward Lippe off with some of his Aston Martin's gadgets when Lippe is taken out by another troubleshooter with deadly gadgets - SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe blasts Lippe's vehicle with a rocket fired from her motorcycle. This is another coincidence, Volpe has no idea what's going on with Bond and unknowingly interrupts the assassination attempt just by doing her job. Like the pilot in the novel, Lippe had outlived his usefulness. Volpe wasn't in the novel and Lippe's assassin wasn't identified. She did exist in the 1959 treatments, with the name Fatima Blush, and she's a welcome addition to the film. As played by Italian redhead Luciana Paluzzi, Volpe is one of the most memorable things about Thunderball.

Reporting in at MI6 headquarters, Bond is informed by Miss Moneypenny that there's a big meeting going on, all 00s have been called in. In MI6's own large conference room, the scope of SPECTRE's scheme is revealed through an audio recording of Blofeld laying out facts and demands. SPECTRE is in possession of two atomic bombs, if they aren't paid 100 million pounds sterling ($280 million) within seven days, a major city in England or the U.S. will be destroyed. MI6, CIA, NATO, all allied intelligence units are now working on finding the bombs, an operation codenamed Thunderball.

Included in the Thunderball file folder is a picture of a man who Bond recognizes as the corpse of "Mister Angelo" that he saw at the health clinic, but the photo identifies the man as François Derval. Pictured with Derval is his sister Dominique. Bond requests that M send him to Dominique's location for his individual assignment. With that, Bond is off to Nassau, where the rest of the film takes place.

Bond makes contact with Dominique - her friends call her Domino - and begins to charm and woo her under the guise of an interested fellow vacationer. Domino is played by Claudine Auger, who was dubbed by Nikki van der Zyl, the voice of many Dr. No characters.

Domino is at Nassau with her guardian, who has a large yacht called the Disco Volante and a nice piece of property called Palmyra. Her "guardian" is Largo, she became his mistress after meeting him with her brother in Capri, but her attraction to him has since worn off. The "brother in Capri" backstory fixes a huge coincidence from the Fleming novel, the biggest in a story brimming with them - in the novel, Largo had no idea that Domino and the pilot were related and this lack of background research is his downfall. In the film, he obviously knows that he's had Domino's brother killed, it just doesn't matter to him.

Bond's mission now is to figure out if Largo has the bombs and if so, where he's keeping them. Much of the film is spent on Bond's investigation in and around Nassau, which in addition to his pursuit of Domino includes diving around Largo's yacht, sneaking around Palmyra, and looking for the sunken plane from a helicopter. When Q drops by to deliver some gadgets that will help out, Bond greets him with an "Oh, no." The gadgets aren't very flashy this time around - a geiger counter watch, an underwater camera with infrared film, a flare gun, a pocket size rebreather, and a homing beacon in pill form that Bond is meant to swallow. Q requests that Bond take special care of the camera, though he knows that everything he gives him "is treated with equal contempt."

Aiding Bond in his search are a couple local contacts, CIA agent Felix Leiter (who, as in Dr. No, is first seen as an observant suave dude in sunglasses), and a female assistant named Paula.
Leiter was again recast and is this time portrayed by Rik van Nutter. van Nutter only starred in a handful of films after this, though he did have a chance at being in more Bond films. The producers were happy with him as Leiter and intended to bring him back, they just couldn't find a way to work the character into the next couple movies.

Paula is played by Martine Beswick, who has previously appeared as one of the gypsy girls in From Russia with Love. The character doesn't do much other than drive a boat while wearing a bikini and read magazines in the hotel room, her most important act in the film is to end up dead.

Bond's interactions with Largo and Volpe are the highlights of the film. He first encounters Largo in a casino, over a game of baccarat. It's a very entertaining interaction, as Bond taunts and tests Largo by slipping the word "spectre" into their conversation as many times as possible.

Largo reacts to this, and Bond's obvious interest in Domino, by sending a henchman named Quist to kill him in his hotel room the next day. Quist sneaks in and hides in the shower. The plan is foiled when Bond returns to the room, as he checks an audio recording device that's hidden in a hollowed-out book and hears that footsteps moved through the empty room right before he entered. The hotel room scenes in these early films were great - Bond having the hidden audio recorder here, checking for bugs in From Russia with Love, putting hairs across closet doors and powder on briefcase latches in Dr. No so he'd know if they'd been opened. Very simple and smart showings of security and thoroughness.

Largo has two swimming pools at his Palmyra property, one of which he keeps pet sharks in. Quist is fed to these sharks for his failure, and as you might expect, Bond also has a close call in the shark pool later in the film. There have been a lot of potentially dangerous members of the animal kingdom on display in Bond movies over the years, and this is just the first of several installments to feature sharks.

Another of my favorite Bond-Largo moments occurs when Bond takes the villain up on an invitation made in the casino and stops by Palmyra. They do some skeet shooting, a favorite pastime of Largo's. Largo blasts a clay pigeon out of the sky, then calls one for Bond. Facing Largo, Bond comments that this "seems terribly difficult", then casually turns and shoots his clay pigeon. "No it isn't, is it?"

Bond first meets Volpe after swimming ashore from avoiding henchman and grenades during a dive near Largo's yacht. He walks up to a secluded road and hitches a ride with the first passing car... which just happens to be driven by Fiona Volpe. She recognizes him, he notices her SPECTRE ring, but they don't let on that they know they're enemies. They banter while Volpe drives along the dark country road at up to 100 miles per hour. This causes Bond to reiterate something he told the chauffeur in Dr. No - he's a "nervous passenger."

Bond and Volpe do end up having sex, when he sneaks into her hotel room to look around and finds her relaxing in the bath. There are no martini orders in this film, nor does Bond speak the line "Bond, James Bond," but Volpe does, during their time in bed together. "Do you like wild things, Mister Bond, James Bond?" As they're about the leave the room later, Bond is captured by henchmen. Unlike the women in Goldfinger, Bond has not been able to charm Volpe over to his side. She mocks the idea that he thought he might, almost directly quoting critics who reacted negatively to the turning of Pussy Galore. "James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents and immediately returns to the side of right and virtue... But not this one."

The girl who makes love to Bond and is on the side of right and virtue is Domino. After discovering the sunken plane and completing his seduction of Domino, Bond informs her of Largo's villainy and the murder of her brother. She does her best to aid our hero, and for her troubles Largo ties her to a bed and tortures her with a cigar and ice cubes.

As SPECTRE's deadline gets nearer and Largo moves forward on their plan to destroy Miami, everything culminates in an epic underwater battle, Largo and his henchmen against Bond and American soldiers, all in SCUBA gear. The underwater sequences are the standout feature of the movie and also an element that draws a deciding line on how much someone will enjoy the film.

Underwater unit director Ricou Browning (who had played the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the '50s) did fine work and composer John Barry scored the sequences with some great music. I appreciate the effort that went into filming the underwater action, but I am one who does not find it particularly enthralling. The sequences just go on too long for me. For example, the sinking of the plane and unloading of the bombs is around 5 minutes long. The climactic battle goes on for 11 minutes. Editor Peter Hunt says he had cut the battle down to 4 minutes at one point, but was convinced to include a lot more.

The underwater sequences aren't the only times during Thunderball that I lose interest. Beyond the bright spots that I've pointed out, I also don't find Bond's time in Nassau all that interesting. I don't think Thunderball is a bad entry in the series, it just doesn't completely gel for me. The story is decent and the screenplay by Richard Maibuam and John Hopkins is full of good lines, but the health club start is questionable and there's something off-putting about the overall structure. I notice something new in Thunderball every time I watch it because my attention wanders during viewings, so I miss things.

Back on the positive side, the characters are good and the actors handle the material well. Sean Connery is still doing strong work as Bond, I've read that he felt he gave his best Bond performance here.

Thunderball also had the best box office performance of any Bond, passing Goldfinger's record and, when adjusted for inflation, earning almost 1 billion dollars.

The film doesn't end with the usual "James Bond will return" note in the credits. Apparently it did when it was first released in theatres - "James Bond will return in On Her Majesty's Secret Service". But when the necessary locations for OHMSS couldn't be secured, the note was cut from the credits and a different story was chosen for the next film...


  1. As iconic as Thunderball is for the whole James Bond franchise, its really my least favorite. It has it's moments but these are so distantly separated by so much swimming. Thunderball could have easily been better by cutting off 30min to an hour from the running time. Great review!

  2. Aw, it's such a beautiful movie - one of the first that really impressed me watching in 2:35:1 on DVD - can't wait to watch my Blu-Ray! This is the first movie made after Bond mania struck with the release of Goldfinger - and to me it's interesting to watch if only to see scads of money being spent in every frame of the film - like the HUGE map in the briefing room - they reveal this thing, and it has a couple of circles on it. "This is the flying range of the missing plane." And THAT'S IT! In real life, they would have passed out mimeographed sheets with the map on it that would have cost $2 - here they build this thing for thousands of bucks - and that kind of expansive production design and filmmaking occurs throughout. I really like Thunderball - it's even fun to play "Spot the Continuity Errors" with Leiter's pants/shorts switch from shot to shot in the helicopter to Bond's blue/black SCUBA mask changing color left right and sideways. Very nice overview!

  3. I saw this in the cinema in 1966 or thereabouts on Saturday afternoon.
    When the underwater scene went on for many minutes, James Bond makes a grand entrance with a motorized propulsion unit strapped on his back and everyone in the cineme cheered and applauded.