Thursday, January 1, 2009
James Bond review: Thunderball (1965)
(For my other Bond reviews, and my apologia for the project, see the tags on the right.)
CUT TO THE CHASE: How do you top Goldfinger? More of everything.
BOND, JAMES BOND: Which means that Bond gets more girls, and fights more bad guys, than in any of the first three movies. It’s over the top, to say the least, and turns Bond into more action hero than spy. Bond flies! Bond swims! Bond plays with sharks!
Connery does what’s required of him, and to his credit he does it in the only way that would really make this material work: lightly, sarcastically. Thunderball’s plot is the most serious to date, or at least the most bombastic, but Thunderball’s Bond is the lightest to date, as Connery walks around outclassing everyone, kicking all the guys’ asses, turning all the girls’ heads, and never breaking a sweat. If Connery had played it straighter, the movie would have collapsed under the weight of its own silliness; likewise if Connery had played it for laughs. Both mistakes would be made in future installments, but here Connery gets it just right.
What Makes Bond Bond: Fiona Volpe impugns his potency, and he just smirks and says, “Well, can’t win them all.” James Bond’s manhood is not threatened.
What Makes Sean Connery Sean Connery: He flies in with a rocket backpack wearing a stupid-looking helmet, and as he’s putting the gear away in the trunk of the Aston-Martin he says, “No well dressed man should be without one.” Heh.
BAD GUYS: SPECTRE again. An elaborate and fairly well-thought-out plot to capture a couple of A-bombs and hold them for ransom. Blofeld is around again, hiding behind a screen in SPECTRE headquarters in Paris. But that’s his last appearance; as in From Russia With Love, the real villain of the piece is one of Blofeld's top underlings. In this case it’s Emilio Largo.
He’s one of the big problems with the movie. He looks impressive, with his white hair and eyepatch and large, rangy frame. And he’s certainly menacing, with his pool of sharks and all. But he doesn’t have much personality. After Goldfinger, and even Dr. No, Largo is a pretty one-dimensional villain; certainly not an effective foil for Bond.
His henchmen are even less impressive; the only one with any presence at all is Vargas, who is said to avoid alcohol, tobacco, and sex. But he’s never given any scenes in which to develop this monklike behavior, or show that it makes him an effective killer, so his abstinence is reduced to a throwaway detail.
One other member of SPECTRE has a significant role, however, and she almost manages to hold Evil’s end up single-handedly. See below.
GRATUITOUS SEX: Four unforgettable Bond girls here, and each of them brings us something different.
In the early sequence at the health clinic, he beds Patricia (Molly Peters). This interlude harks back to the first two films, where Bond gets to pluck a little English rose before heading off to save the world. But with her pert nurse outfit, mink glove, and fetching way of wagging her finger, Patricia’s a bit more than just a memento of queen and country.
Then when he arrives in the Bahamas, Bond is seen in the company of local MI6 agent Paula, played by Martine Beswick – last seen as one of the gypsy combatants in From Russia With Love. She was Bond’s then, and if Bond’s familiarity with her adjoining room is any indication, she’s Bond’s now, too. This inaugurates the tradition of sexy female MI6 agents assisting Bond; see also, for example, Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun, Die Another Day, and Casino Royale. Unfortunately these liaisons tend not to live long…
Then there’s Domino (Claudine Auger), identifiable by the two moles in an unmissable place; she’s the main Bond Girl in this film, the one he saves, and the one in whose company he most often finds himself. With her innocent air, she’s pretty reminiscent of Honey Ryder in Dr. No – a connection that’s not hard to notice, since the same actress looped both characters’ dialogue. But Domino combines this innocence with a worldliness that comes from being Largo’s pet and mistress.
Finally we have Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), a SPECTRE assassin who seduces Bond in order to position him for a kill. When she reveals her true colors, she gets one of the best speeches in the series: “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… What a blow it must have been: you having a failure!” (Bond’s response? See above.) She’s not the first female in the series to remain an enemy to Bond even after sleeping with him – see Miss Taro. And she’s not the first female in the series to taunt Bond for his inability to persuade her – see Pussy Galore. But she is the first female to sleep with him and then taunt him for his inability to persuade her. In that she’s new, if you see what I mean.
All are luscious in that uniquely wonderful mid-sixties, pre-anorexia, pre-silicone way. And to have them all four in one film – simply dizzying. The Bond girls are far and away the best thing about Thunderball.
Oh, and GS: 4, if you count Martine.
AND VIOLENCE: I gather that the underwater fight scenes were innovative for 1965. That must be why they devote so much of the movie to them. Unfortunately I find them utterly boring; always have. It’s the limitations of the form, I think: characters can’t really speak during these scenes, you can’t see anybody’s faces, the lighting is poor, and everybody’s moving slowly because, duh, they’re underwater. A little of this goes a long way, and in Thunderball there’s a lot of it. As a result, the last third of the movie really, really drags.
As I say, this turns Bond into more action hero than spy, and they exacerbate things by turning the climax into a quasi-military action. Once the cavalry dive in, there’s not much for Bond to do but fight. So when the fight scenes aren’t as effective as they should be, it hurts the movie.
On the other hand, the pre-title fight, between Bond and a French SPECTRE agent faking his death, is Bond for the ages.
BOYS WITH TOYS: They preserve the Q sequence as defined in Goldfinger, and in fact build on it, by giving Q his first field trip. Not his last. Nice repartee, nice array of gadgets, and Q gets to wear a stylin’ aloha shirt.
The rocket backpack is the immortal gadget from this film, though. So far-fetched (yes, I know it actually existed, but why would Bond use it there?), so over-the-top, so silly – and so perfect, so magnificently over-the-top. It’s an icon of the series, and deservedly so.
JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: France, then the Bahamas, with a side trip to rural England. Yes, it’s back to the Caribbean setting of Dr. No; a bit of a repetition, but forgivable.
ETC.: Evidently, Dionne Warwick singing “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was originally slated to be the title song; if so, replacing it with Tom Jones belting out “Thunderball” was an inspired choice. As a rule, women should sing the Bond title songs; when men sing them, they should sound like Tom Jones. And here’s what I was talking about with the Goldfinger theme song: it’s a hymn to somebody, either Largo or Bond, and in the end it doesn’t matter which… Maurice Binder is back for the title sequence, and it’s elegant in its simplicity. Nude women in silhouette, swimming through brightly colored water. Starts as beautiful, passes through cheesy and comes out on the other side as beautiful again… Another Felix Leiter; just as forgettable as the last one… To top Goldfinger, the producers tried to go bigger, louder, and all-around more. They almost make it. What’s weak here is pretty weak, but what’s strong is really quite strong indeed.