With Bond-mania in full swing and the coffers overflowing with box office proceeds, Eon Productions – with nary a thought of the legal shenanigans which would ultimately follow – put together a budget larger than the previous three films combined and set out to film Ian Fleming’s (but maybe Kevin McClory’s) James Bond in a Kevin McClory production of Kevin McClory’s (and definitely probably not entirely Ian Fleming’s) “Thunderball”.
With the move to the wider vista of Panavision, the opening gun barrel sequence was reshot by returning designer Maurice Binder so Connery finally got to appear as Bond from the opening seconds of his fourth film. Binder’s return also means the opening title sequence ditches the projection technique favoured in “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger” and reinstates the silhouettes, this time of naked ladies swimming and scuba diving, neatly (fore)shadowing the aquatic antics to come. The theme song is belted out by Tom Jones this time and where Bassey nearly passed out singing the end note of “Goldfinger”, it turns out Jones is made of softer stuff and actually did faint during recording of the high note at the song’s end.
The plot this time out is deceptively simple: Everyone’s favourite FIFA-lite, SPECTRE, have concocted a plan to sabotage a NATO training exercise and steal two nuclear warheads are. They then present the Governments of NATO with a chilling ultimatum: either they pay a ransom of £100 million or a major city in the United States or the United Kingdom will be destroyed in a nuclear detonation. Although seemingly straightforward, it’s one of the best plots of any of the Bond films – so good they eventually made it twice – with the action flowing right from the pre-credits sequence and combining just the right amount of coincidence, luck, skill and detective work by Bond for the story to feel fluid and uncontrived.
The pre-credits initially teases us again with the death of James Bond as we open on a coffin draped with an insignia dominated by the initials ‘JB’ but fear not, it’s the funeral of Colonel Jacques Bouvar, an enemy agent recently killed by Bond. Thanks to Bond’s keen observation of Bouvar’s widow, Bond realises his foe has faked his death and follows him back to his château to finish the job. Having successfully (this time) killed the cross-dressing SPECTRE agent and made sure he’s dead, Bond escapes to his waiting DB5 using a jet-pack, but not before he’s taken the time to throw a bouquet of flowers onto the corpse. Bond is not only back, he’s cockier than ever!
His fight with Bouvar sends Bond to Shrublands where he stumbles across a SPECTRE agent undergoing plastic surgery in order to replace an Italian NATO officer. Although the health farm stuff is pretty good, it’s also the source of the movie’s biggest sour note because Bond is an incorrigible sex pest to his nurse while he’s there. I’m sure back in the day Bond was simply being manly and rugged as he ‘seduced’ nurse Fearing but it’s pretty unpleasant stuff when you look at it: Bond literally forces himself on her despite protestations and when she continues to resist, Bond blackmails her into having sex with him. Later on, the relationship seems more consensual but by then it all feels a little Stockholm-syndromey and she’s callously ditched as soon as his time at Shrublands comes to an end.
It may be the unfair application of 21st Century sensibilities on an earlier era but it’s probably the most uncomfortable and uneasy ‘conquest’ in the history of Bond’s notching up Bond’s bedpost (which must, by now, be more notches than bedpost). Certainly the film makers weren’t ashamed of it as the scene in question features prominently in nearly every single trailer and TV spot at the time of the film’s release but it seems to me that irresistibility to women should be measured by the lack of actual resistance rather than ‘success’ in spite of it.
In any event, there’s a dark edge to the encounter which is absent from his interactions with any of the other female characters in the film, even the sensual but deadly SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe. As much of a horndog as Bond is in this film, fortunately he still finds time to do his job which includes a spectacularly ostentatious meeting with all the other ‘00’ agents and Bond’s seemingly random encounter at the health spa providing the only potential lead and allowing 007 to swap an assignment to Canada for the more glamorous and sun-drenched setting of the Bahamas. It’s here that the plot swings into full-on Bond mode with glorious underwater scuba sequences, a memorable and iconically eye-patched villain: new SPECTRE No. 2 Emilio Largo and, in Domino Derval, a Bond girl who is not only central to the plot but has some sense of agency of her own. Once again, we’re in the land of the dubbed though, so Adolfo Celi’s physically imposing Largo is voiced by Robert Rietty while Claudine Auger’s Domino is voiced by Nikki van der Zyl (who previously provided the voice of Honey Rider in “Dr. No”). In addition to the eye-patch and the Bond girl being somehow connected to the villain, “Thunderball” brings us another new Bond tradition: the villain’s femme fatale sidekick, the incorruptibly bad Bond girl and although there were many who followed in her footsteps, Luciana Paluzzi’s copper-haired Fiona Volpe is up there amongst the best of them.
In many ways, there’s more drama and sizzle in the various confrontations between Volpe and Bond than with Largo himself, and it’s a credit to SPECTRE’s tactical division that they realised that the best way to counter James Bond is to use his biggest ‘weakness’ against him. After the all too easy defection of Pussy Galore in “Goldfinger”, it’s a particularly nice touch that Volpe scornfully dismisses his charms in a pithy post-coital exchange.
With so much fun being had with the bad guys, the film leaves little room for Bond’s own support crew, with Martine Beswick as Bahamian agent Paula Caplan being particularly short-changed. Felix Leiter gets yet another makeover, shedding the years and frosting his tips to take on a more surfer-dude aesthetic than the long-suffering journeyman of “Goldfinger”. Leiter too often gets overlooked and must be a real asset to the CIA given his innate ability to radically alter his appearance so often (he may even be in the service of the Many-Faced God given his preponderance for transformation).
Although director Guy Hamilton was invited to return, he declined on the grounds of feeling creatively drained by the making of the “Goldfinger” and wanted to take a break, so directing duties fell once again to Terence Young. From this point on, with one exception, there would always be at least a two year gap between Bond films.
Thanks to the significantly increased budget, the film looks spectacular and, by and large, the underwater sequences – and there are many – look spectacular. It’s also a little bit of a thrill to see the Avro Vulcan Bomber, a much beloved (now retired) staple of Air Shows in the UK, in a movie both in the air and under the crystal clear Caribbean waters. Sharks, another perennial Bond favourite, make their debut both in open water and in an improbably shallow pool at Largo’s residence.
Along with the tendency to cast actors whose vocal performances aren’t up to scratch, the frenetic finale of “Thunderball” still sees the series’ reach exceed its grasp when it comes to action sequences involving vehicles. There’s a lot of Terence Young’s preference for using speeded up footage to convey action and cover for sluggish performances, most egregiously in the final voyage of Largo’s yacht the Disco Volante. The back projection during the fight on the bridge is atrocious and surely couldn’t have been that convincing when the film was brand new, let alone when it’s subjected to the unforgiving precision of BluRay.
Faults and all, this is still a fine Bond film and remains the all-time most popular Bond film with cinema audiences measured by number of tickets sold. It’s also reputedly Connery’s favourite performance as Bond (opposed to his favourite Bond movie) although behind the scenes he was starting to grow weary of the celebrity grind of being 007, something that would begin to show in the next movie. With the Bond formula ‘locked’, the future looked exceedingly bright for Albert R Broccoli, Harry Saltzman and Eon Productions. However, Kevin McClory, like the mysterious head of SPECTRE himself, had other plans…