Thunderball (1965)

When it’s on: Saturday, 16 June (3.15 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

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.

Thunderball: ***

From Russia with Love (1963)

When it’s on: Saturday, 19 May (3.40 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Beset with production difficulties throughout its shoot, From Russia with Love did all it could to undermine Broccoli and Saltzman’s wishes for annual Bond films. Just about everything that could go wrong did exactly that, topped off with the suicide of supporting actor Pedro Armendariz, who took his own life rather than fall to the ravages of the advanced cancer he discovered he had whilst on set. And yet From Russia with Love turned out to be amongst the best of the Bonds. Distinctly low key, and relying on the strength of its cast over the spectacular thrills and gadgetry that would come to define the series, it’s a great couple of hours’ cinema that may delight viewers who come to it expecting the same old nonsense from 007.

The story begins with a nice thread of continuity from Dr No. SPECTRE is riled by Bond’s quashing of Julius No’s machinations and resolves to rid itself of the spy. To this end, a plot is hatched that takes advantage of East-West relations. Bond (Sean Connery) is despatched to Istanbul, where he’s to bring home both Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a beautiful Russian secretary working on the Cold War front line, and the Lektor decoding machine she promises to bring along. The hook for Bond is that Tatiana is reported to have fallen in love with him. But the mission is an elaborate trap. Bond is rushing into the path of SPECTRE assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw), a man so tough he can take a knuckleduster to the abdomen without flinching. Believing his trip to be a success, Bond travels west on the Orient Express with Tatiana and the machine, oblivious to the fact his every move is being tracked…

There’s much enjoyment to be had from 007 going about his business, whilst in the shadows Grant watches. This is shown to best effect as Bond waits for his contact at a station, stood outside the train. Whilst he paces nervously (and ‘nervous’ is the operative word; the film suggests that Bond has an idea something’s afoot but only has the hairs on the back of his neck to go off), Grant can be observed through the window, keeping perfect pace with his prey. Later, the pair meet over dinner, the assassin posing as a Secret Service contact – after killing the real one – and attempting to lull our hero into a false sense of security, whilst Tatiana gets the spiked drink. His cover’s blown when he famously orders red wine with a fish course; a true British agent would never make such a working class error and Bond’s instantly onto him. The fight sequence that follows takes place in, of all places, a cramped train compartment, neither participant at their best in such close quarters, which leads to some fine, brutal action. Ultimately, Grant’s origins as a petty thief are his undoing. He has the better of his opponent and it’s only when Bond offers him money that he pauses.

Stunts and thrills are kept to a minimum, indeed it seems as though the film’s budget is blown on its last twenty minutes as Bond and Tatiana race to Vienna, pursued by SPECTRE helicopters and gun-toting speedboats. Otherwise, the most exciting sequence is the attack on a gypsy camp led by a Soviet agent, which Grant observes from a distance and chillingly offs anyone who stands in Bond’s way. In place of explosions and bullet dodging, the film offers suspense and a fine, slow burning pace, directed by Terence Young with an eye on the climactic fight between the spy and his would-be assassin. Also delightful is Lotte Lenya’s SPECTRE stooge, the lesbian Rosa Klebb, who gets her own opportunity to take Bond out after he’s dealt with everything else in his way.

Connery puts in some of his best 007 work, his vulnerabilities exposed more than once in From Russia with Love (we wouldn’t again see Bond show any such emotion until On her Majesty’s Secret Service, by which stage Connery was off-duty), whilst Bianchi comes across as adorable because the script gives her character time to grow on our affections. It’s impossible to round this piece off without a mention for John Barry, who enjoyed his first gig as the primary composer on a Bond film. His 007 arrangement makes an appearance here, most notably in the gypsy camp sequence, and it elicits all the adventure and fun these films tried to offer.

From Russia with Love: *****

Dr No (1962)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 May (3.15 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

As widely reported in the media, Sky has bought the rights to screen James Bond films on its channels, ending a long association between 007 and the ITV network. That it’s made the news is testament to the ingrained tradition of your serving of Bank Holiday Bond. Christmas Day certainly won’t be the same, though ITV’s omission of the spy from its 25 December schedules in recent years hasn’t exactly been lamented. A pity they have never found anything memorable to replace it.

Under the guise of celebrating 50 years of Bond, ITV is kissing off its partnership with Saville Row’s greatest walking advert with a weekly showing of each film, hopefully in strict sequence. We start, logically enough, with Dr No, which remains a spry, muscular piece of work fifty years since it first hit the screen.

These days, it’s tough to imagine a world without 007. A bit like Dr Who, he’s always been there, and I suspect many people have a fondness for their ‘Bond’ in the same way they love a certain Doctor, depending on the actor of the day (for me, it’s Roger Moore and Tom Baker). I think it helps that Sean Connery initially filled the role of the central character as though he’d worn those beautifully tailored suits for years. Connery was a little known, jobbing actor before he won the part over a raft of more famous actors, including a certain Roger George Moore. The Scot’s relative obscurity worked in his favour. There had previously been a cautious sounding out of Cary Grant for the role, which would have turned Dr No into a vehicle for its star. Instead, we got Connery – in his early 30s, handsome, athletic, at ease in his work (even with the famous toupee), an all-round fully formed gentleman spy.

Within the context of the 007 series, Dr No introduced parts of the formula that would become well established over the course of 22 (official) films – we get our megalomaniac villain bent on world domination (Joseph Wiseman) with his outstanding feature i.e. metal hands. Glamorous locations are laid on – much of Dr No is set in Jamaica, and that really is the Caribbean rather than some studio backlot. Bond’s snobbery and his enviable attraction to women are present and correct. And yet this film doesn’t quite set the template for entries to come. That comes with Goldfinger, in which Bond becomes more or less an invulnerable superhero. There’s definite fragility here, moments in which 007 finds himself in real peril, and he’s all the more interesting for the resources he calls upon when dealing with these instances.

Terence Young, already a veteran of nearly twenty directing jobs by this point, was called on to helm the project and did so economically. Dr No’s $1.25m budget was well spent on a fast moving yarn that showed off the beauty of Jamaica whilst never letting the audience rest long enough to consider how daft the whole show really was. Deep into the film comes its signature scene, the best known Young was ever involved with and utterly iconic, the one showing Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in a white bikini. Her dialogue may have been dubbed (by Nikki van der Zyl, a voice artist who applied her tones to many female characters in the film), but her aloof sexiness was unfakeable and added immeasurably to Dr No’s appeal. It’s a quality successive films tried to match, with results ranging from noble efforts to terrible messes.

Dr No: ****