“Look Up! Look down! Look out!”, so scream the film posters to “Thunderball”, the fourth James Bond film, and the one that demands we keep our wits about us. Because it tries to give more of what the previous three films had. Whether more of everything is always a great idea, is a question that comes up from time to time with the Bond series. Such is the nature of the franchise. But I bet the question was first asked about “Thunderball”.
The James Bond films were huge by 1965, and I mean huge in a way that they possibly are not today. Bond is now a popular culture icon, and references to the series are commonplace. The latest films have all done great box office and the series looks set to run and run. But in the mid sixties the series was new and I think that makes a difference. Taking into account the rate of inflation and the actual amount of bums on seats, “Thunderball” is still the biggest Bond of them all. It was one of the biggest cinema hits of the ‘60s.
Because “Goldfinger” had been such a success, the series wanted a similar adventure in an epic vein with elements of total escapism. This would be a big picture. So big, that the plot would involve nothing less than SPECTRE holding the world to ransom by stealing a nuclear weapon. The term ‘Thunderball’ actually refers to the type of explosion that occurs within the mushroom cloud of an activated nuclear bomb. Big explosive ideas were what this entry was all about.
And so “Thunderball” actually made it to the screen, after almost making it as the first film adventure some years previously. Ian Fleming had actually been involved in writing “Thunderball” for the screen, although he sadly never got to see it happen.
I do think Fleming’s more obvious involvement can colour my perceptions a bit. And that’s not all. I’ve always found it difficult to be nasty about “Thunderball” as it’s part of the most revered era of the series history. It was Sean Connery back for a fourth film. Terence Young also back for a third film (after directing “Dr. No” and “From Russia with love”). Another John Barry score. The same elements in other words; but it doesn’t always work as well.
For starters, “Thunderball” drags.
Because these films have been around for so long now, I tend to get the gist of popular opinion. With “Thunderball” I totally agree with the criticism of the film as an occasionally tedious watch. The underwater photography goes on way too long, as good as it is. Tedious scenes are not something you want in a Bond picture, but there are plenty of them in “Thunderball”. Bond spends a significant amount of time underwater in this adventure, but it’s not always as thrilling as his land based exploits. All it needed was perhaps some extra time in the editing suite. On the other hand, a lot of “Thunderball” looks really good, and there are some scenes that are rightfully quite iconic. Blofeld’s address to his subordinates has since been nicely lampooned by the “Austin Powers” series. We only see his hands and his white Persian cat, so the SPECTRE boss is still a rather mysterious character, and that makes him all the more effective. The pre-credits sequence is thrilling; with Bond jet packing to safety and Maurice Binder’s graphics are the best to date. But despite great moments like that, “Thunderball” is perhaps the blandest of the early Bonds because there seems far too much on show to really create the kind of impression you need. Perhaps it’s in the presentation. After all, both Terence Young’s earlier efforts had been quite low key espionage tales that saved the big thrills until a bit later on. Maybe “Thunderball” needed a faster pace. As it stands, it’s a bloated showcase of gadgets and action pieces, and for the first time I get a inkling of where the series started to struggle with the audience expectations.
But there’s still a lot of satisfaction and fun to be had with “Thunderball”. Claudia Auger is fine as Bond girl Domino, but she’s over shadowed by Luciana Paluzzi (Fiona). The first instance of the ‘bad Bond girl’, she is a joy to watch and her bedroom scene is one of the sexiest Bond moments ever. A passionate villianess, she’s usually one step ahead of Bond. The big shame here, then, is that the main villain isn’t one of the greats. SPECTRE agent Amilio Largo, played by Adolfo Celini, isn’t one of the more memorable villains, although neither is he that bad. But he fades in comparison to Dr. No or Goldfinger, coming across as more of a privileged thug than a truly great mastermind. The brief appearance of the real mastermind- Blofeld- possibly undermines Largo even more because Blofeld is far more interesting.
There are some great bike and car chases (with the Aston Martin DB5 making its second appearance). The scenes on the health farm are quite intriguing, as Bond closes the net on the terrorist scheme. It’s interesting to compare a lot of scenes like that to the ones in “Never say, never again”- a remake of “Thunderball” from 1983. Whatever the differences, “Thunderball” does it all with more style and flair.
And there’s the reason above all others to like “Thunderball”. When it does things well, it does them exceptionally well. The seamless join from live action to the title sequence is sublime. Ken Adams’ underwater craft designs are inspired and John Barry’s score is full and glorious. Tom Jones takes care of the title song as well, with the kind of gusto that seems to suit this outing. Connery was rarely better, taking great delight in patronising the villains and there are some fantastic one-liners. The harpooned heavy who gets the punch line of “He got the point” is one fine example.
It’s just that it sometimes gives us too much for too long and, as with any expensive spread, I can start feeling as if I’ve had enough for one sitting. Clocking in at over 2 hours, “Thunderball” requires a big appetite.
As a piece of entertainment, “Thunderball” delivers but it’s nowhere near as explosive or exciting as its title suggests. In the company of “Goldfinger” it pales in comparison, but it’s still the product of a series at the height of its power. In the context of the entire series it’s a very good effort indeed.
And it’s got killer sharks in it. That must count for something.