Our Word Is Our Bond returns with Mike Baker’s in-depth examination of Thunderball (1965) starring Sean Connery, Adolfo Celi and Claudine Auger.
With the first five Bond films, there’s a perpetual feeling of elevation – spiralling production costs, more ambitious baddies, increasingly elaborate action scenes, greater levels of danger to go with the dizzyingly high stakes. It’s as though with each entry – those relatively moderate beginnings in Dr No by now a long way off – the producers pondered over how to make the next one take it up an extra notch, the result being films that were less concerned with spycraft and more on high concept thrills. Little wonder that the focus on extravaganza culminated in The Ipcress File, Harry Saltzman’s antidote to his own 007 franchise that showed the ‘real’ spying game to be all about waiting around, dealing with petty bureaucracy and working in a tedious, rundown world at odds with the glamorous, overseas circles Bond occupies.
In the same year as Michael Caine took his sweet time to make a cup of coffee in The Ipcress File, Sean Connery starred in Thunderball, Eon’s fourth instalment in the Bond series. The ‘bigger and better’ ethos was reflected in the film’s $9.5 million budget, a fortune by contemporary standards, but in truth a no-brainer as 007 was practically a byword for box office success at the time. People queued around the block for tickets. They bought the merchandise in droves. This was true event cinema, the films a mere end product within a cycle of publicity and marketing. Connery discovered that his private life was virtually non-existent and became progressively irritated over never being left alone. This would be reflected in his performances as Bond, the actor putting in detached and uninvolved work as his character was lost in the razzmatazz.
Purely in terms of numbers, Thunderball was a wildly profitable entry, the most successful film in the series until 2012’s Skyfall, which is a brilliant achievement. How much of that was to do with its quality as a piece of cinematic art is of course another question. Thunderball‘s production was convoluted and not always happy. The story started life as a screenplay, a collaboration between Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham, before that plan was shelved and Fleming simply converted the script into a novel. It was originally intended to be the first film in the series, but McClory held the rights and kept the project on hold. Eventually, it was his threat to take Thunderball outside the Eon fold that persuaded Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli to use it for the fourth instalment and give him the sole producing credit.
The story involves SPECTRE getting up to its usual tricks. A couple of atomic bombs are stolen and the Western powers are threatened – pay £100 million or a major city will be destroyed. The governments agree, but in the period whilst arrangements for payment are being made the 00 agents are dispatched to various corners of the earth that might involve leads. Bond goes to Nassau in the Bahamas, trailing Dominique Derval (Claudine Auger). She’s the sister of Francois, a pilot of the RAF plane carrying the stolen bombs that went missing, whilst somehow simultaneously Bond discovered him dead at a health club. Putting these impossible pieces together and, through Dominique, finding himself face to face with Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), her ‘guardian’ and the hidden SPECTRE Number 2, 007 is at the action’s epicentre.
Thunderball starts well, SPECTRE coming up with a scheme that involves one of their agents undergoing plastic surgery to look like Francois Derval before replacing the original, who’s killed, and arranging for the plane to go missing. We’re introduced to Largo’s paid assassin, Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), voluptuous, deadly and entirely without morals, who’ll go on to become Bond’s main antagonist. There’s even time to sneak into a gathering of the SPECTRE boardroom, overseen by the mysterious Number 1, who shields his identity behind frosted glass. Failure is not tolerated, as the death of a board member who’s been helping himself to narcotic sales profits ensures, though one could argue that his self-enriching is entirely in line with the organisation’s values. The point of all this is clear – SPECTRE is global, powerful, ruthless and capable of remaining beyond infiltration.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, nobody explained this to Bond, who happily works his way into Largo’s orbit with apparent ease. The character had already been established as more or less superhuman in Goldfinger. Now that principle was taken a step further, Bond using his charms to effortless effect on Dominique and thence to Largo himself. No matter that Number 2 is protected by hundreds of henchmen and is badass enough to keep sharks in his pool, it’s obvious once Bond has him in his sights that it’s just a matter of time. Even Fiona is no match, though she actually manages to hurt 007 at one point. Having murdered Bond’s assistant, Paula (Martine Beswick), she’s soon dealt with when she finally catches up with him and takes a bullet in her back.
At this stage, the Bond films weren’t quite so far down the ‘high concept’ route that the villains were housed within an extinct volcano; Largo operates from his boat, the Disco Volante, a vessel that looks like a pleasure cruiser but in reality is a base loaded with gadgets. But the stakes were definitely being raised, much of Thunderball’s action taking place underwater. This involved expensive photography and the hiring of aquatic specialist Lamar Boren to ensure elements like lighting would work on film. It does and these sequences are beautiful in their sheer clarity, but by definition underwater action is slower than normal, and thanks to characters having to wear snorkels it isn’t always obvious who’s who. Little wonder they made Connery dress up in luminescent diving gear so that viewers could identify him.
The Disco Volante is a rather wonderful Ken Adams creation, yet Celi is somewhat unmemorable as the chief antagonist, content to bark orders at minions rather than get his hands dirty. His inevitable death is an anti-climactic low point. Viewers are left wishing for more of Paluzzi, a beautiful and deadly sidekick, who has little trouble in relegating Auger to the second division of Bond babes. Auger was Miss France 1958 and brought a short CV of previous roles to the table when auditioning for the role of Domino, a part that was considered for the likes of Julie Christie and Raquel Welch, the studio’s initial preferred choice. As it is, she looks the part without ever owning it, turning out to be a lightweight female lead despite the unusually large amount of screen time she gets.
Not that it would be easy to become anything else when the actors are drowned in explosions, spiffing gadgetry and those seemingly endless underwater shoots. Connery’s natural charisma just about saw him through, but the cracks were beginning to show in a performance that demanded little in terms of acting talent beyond being part of the expensive light show. Adrift amidst the thrills is any real element of drama, of peril. Bond never appears to be in much trouble, and in any event the dye is cast in the pre-credits sequence, a fight that takes place in a room filled with antiques that are there to be smashed up during the tussle. Escaping from the scene, Bond doesn’t even have to use his ingenuity because there’s a handily placed jetpack that he can use to make his getaway. And it’s at this stage, just several minutes into a film that breaks the two-hour barrier, one realises it isn’t meant in any way to be taken seriously.
And that’s a shame. There’s a lot to like about Thunderball, even to twenty first century viewers who can play a drinking game that involves spotting the references stolen by the Austin Powers films. It’s big, often daft, and it tries – and succeeds a lot of the time – to be very good fun. But something’s lost, almost certainly the suggestion of vulnerability that any man facing an army of enemies – or one Red Grant – would surely feel. All the same, Thunderball’s success ensured the direction in which Bond was going, and would remain so despite several notable diversions over the years. Bigger, louder, sexier were the buzzwords, all topped off with a risqué Maurice Binder titles segment (is there any man who wouldn’t want to have had Binder’s job?) and for this one a title song belted out by Tom Jones. Legend tells that Tom collapsed after the sheer effort of holding his final note, the irony being that the song rejected for Thunderball (Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, sung by Dionne Warwick) was actually better, only it failed to mention thunder, or indeed balls.
As for McClory, the legal wrangling continued, Eon ultimately were denied being able to use SPECTRE in their films, and Thunderball was remade in 1983 as an ‘unofficial’ 007 film, once again starring Connery, in Never Say Never Again. Its modest returns ensured this writer’s suspicion that it was never that great a treatment to warrant so much attention, although Barbara Carrera in the Luciana Paluzzi role needs to be seen to be believed.
MoM Rating: 6/10