When it’s on: Saturday, 16 June (3.15 pm)
Bond is back! After making way for ITV’s coverage of the tennis, the gentleman spy returns in Thunderball.
Dollar for dollar, Thunderball remains the series’ biggest commercial success. The formula of releasing one film per year had increased the momentum to feverish levels by the time Sean Connery donned 007’s hairpiece for the fourth time. The actor was perpetually hounded by fans and press alike, whilst you could buy his image on just about any item of merchandise imaginable. The pressure to ‘up the ante’ with each release must have been enormous. Treating Ian Fleming’s source material as a mere prop, the aim was to make a film with more thrills, bigger explosions, better looking girls and ever greater levels of peril. There was also the attempt to package it with fresh locations and backdrops. Dr No had its Jamaican paradise. From Russia with Love took place in Istanbul and on a train, and Goldfinger really pushed boundaries with its Fort Knox set. Where could the series possibly go next? The answer turned out to be in the sea, leading to the technical excellence of the underwater photography, all beautifully lit, that we get in Thunderball.
Elsewhere, all the principals charged with making 007 the blockbuster it was returned to duty – Terence Young behind the camera, John Barry scoring, Maurice Binder’s credit sequence, the luxuriant set design of Ken Adams and, of course, Connery himself. Sicilian actor Adolfo Celi was hired to play the villain, SPECTRE agent Emilio Largo. Claudine Auger swapped Paris for the Bahamas as love interest, Domino, whilst SPECTRE’s femme fatale, Fiona, was played by Rome’s Luciana Paluzzi. There were also roles for Martine Beswick, as Bond’s assistant (and required to dazzle in a bikini), and Molly Peters playing his health club squeeze, Patricia.
The plot involves SPECTRE up to its old tricks, Largo as the organisation’s No. 2 stealing a pair of nuclear warheads and holding the world to ransom. As heads of state sweat over meeting SPECTRE’s demands ($100 million, or similar nonsense) the Double Ohs are dispatched to recover the weapons, our man inevitably jumping right into the thick of the action.
Even discussing the plot of Thunderball is a tongue in cheek exercise. All the key events you need to know are covered in the first half hour, when SPECTRE pinch the warheads by the rather ingenious device of using plastic surgery and two year’s training in mimicry to plant their own man in the place of a NATO pilot who’s due to join the test flight of a plane loaded with two nuclear bombs. The doppelgänger kills the pilots, hijacks the plane and lands it in the Atlantic ocean, at which point the warheads are lifted. It’s a great set-up, though here the story more or less runs out of steam as Bond enters the fray and goes through the usual motions of infiltrating Largo’s lair – a luxury yacht – and putting things to rights.
Much of Thunderball takes place underwater, lengthy aquatic scenes that are shot to visual perfection. An early shot gives an impression of the inky darkness we’d normally have to put up with, before the back lighting is deployed to bring it all to brilliant life. Brilliant, but deadly dull in places, as scenes involving underwater fighting are, by natural order, slower than action above the surface, not to mention difficult for viewers to work out who’s who. These bits of the film go on and on. Clearly, a lot of money was spent on them and the production team had every right to be proud of its technical achievement, but thrilling viewing it does not make.
As it turns out, what happens out of the water is no more exciting. Domino is one of those rubbish, simpering Bond girls, ravishing to look at but given very little to do. She’s effortlessly outclassed by the vampish Fiona, who deploys sex and death to equally devastating effect. There’s a cracking scene where she’s shot Bond and injured him. He escapes into a carnival and Fiona pursues with her henchmen, following the trail of blood. For a moment, he seems in actual danger, meeting his match in this deadly female agent who’s just as virile and potent as he is. But then the threat just kind of ends, Fiona being offed in a really casual and unlikely way, as though Richard Maibaum’s script didn’t call for such a good performer taking the role and failing to give Paluzzi the kind of send-off she deserved.
There’s the overall impression of many good elements in the film wasted, 007 clichés falling neatly into place (Largo’s pet sharks; Q turning up to bicker with Bond over this film’s set of gadgets, and so on) and even the agent’s charms with the opposite sex slipping into outright lechery as he blackmails a girl into bed. Such business might have counted as fair game in the 1960s; now it seems wrong, especially when he later gives her the brush off just as casually. Connery shows increasing signs of the boredom he developed over the course of the franchise. And why wouldn’t he? The combination of constant intrusion and doing the same gig over and over surely took its toll.
Still, whilst Thunderball slips out of the ranks of Bond’s best, it’s never really a bad film, particularly if brain-disengaged action is the day’s order. A glimpse of what’s to come is offered in the pre-credits sequence, where Bond gets into a fight in a château filled with ornaments, all of which are routinely destroyed in the course of the scrap, before getting away with the use of a jetpack and his trusty, gadget-rigged Aston Martin. Nothing wrong with any of that, though the sense that mindless thrills have overcome hard-boiled tension can’t really be concealed.