Countdown to Spectre: Thunderball Revisited

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The Bond: Sean Connery again, who looks like he’s aged ten years in the three since Dr. No‘s release.

The Release: Producers Saltzman and Broccoli originally wanted to adapt Thunderball first. Richard Maibaum even wrote a script, but authorship of the novel was the subject of a heated court battle so they went with Dr. No. Fleming first wrote the story as a script with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham and later adapted it into a novel. McClory especially thought he deserved credit and the case was eventually settled out of court. All future printings of the novel would state that McClory and Whittingham had helped develop the original story, but they otherwise forfeit publication rights. More importantly, McClory won the film rights and planned to make his own Bond film just as the Eon franchise hit its stride. So, in order to avoid competition, Broccoli and Saltzman struck a deal and gave McClory a prominent producing credit (his name appears twice in the title cards), but also made the mistake of barring him from subsequent adaptations. After years of court battles Eon finally acquired the full rights to the novel in November 2013.

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Despite the legal troubles, Thunderball was a phenomenal success from the moment it hit US theaters on December 22, 1965 and exactly a week later in the UK. Adjusted for inflation, it is the highest grossing film in franchise history.

The Girl: Claudine Auger as Dominque “Domino” Derval. Hundreds of women tried out for the role including Julie Christie, Faye Dunaway and Raquel Welch, but Auger–a former Miss France–won out. Domino is the first Bond Girl with emotional depth and motivations outside of sleeping with Bond and Auger does surprisingly well. There’s also Luciana Paluzzi as the villainous Fiona Volpe and Molly Peters as the unfortunate Pat Fearing, a nurse who Bond blackmails into sleeping with him so she won’t lose her job. More importantly, there’s Paula, played by Martine Beswick, who was also the gypsy girl Zora in From Russia with Love. She is the first woman in franchise history with whom Bond spends significant amounts of time, but doesn’t share any hints of romance. But she also takes a cyanide pill while being tortured so….

The Villain: Adolfo Celi as Emilio Largo and, more broadly, a still-unnamed Ernst Stavro Blofeld as head of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). While Bond’s faceless nemesis also appeared in From Russia as #1, this is the film that defines him in the scene where–with a disinterested push of a button–he simultaneously electrocutes a SPECTRE agent and disposes of the body. SPECTRE and Blofeld would be the enemy in every film through Diamonds are Forever (and now the upcoming installment), but this is film that establishes just how much of a threat they are to Bond and the world.

The Gadgets: The coolest thing Bond personally uses is the jetpack (an actual device on loan from the British military), which might be the best gadget in franchise history. However, the most impressive tech in the film is SPECTRE’s aquatic gear. When Ken Adam first designed the submersibles, he never imagined someone could actually build them, but he and audiences are lucky they did. While the big, orange, flying saucer-esque contraption that carries the stolen nukes is impressive, it’s Largo’s boat, the Disco Volante that takes the cake. Half hydrofoil yacht/half catamaran, there’s nothing quite so spectacular (or indicative of where the franchise was headed) as the shot of the boat splitting in two in the middle of a chase.

The Song: “Thunderball” by Tom Jones—though that wasn’t the first song John Barry wrote for the film. That would be “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” However, after Shirley Bassey then Dionne Warwick recorded it, the producers worried audiences wouldn’t connect the song with the film if the titles didn’t match. So, it was scrapped despite the fact the name of the club in the film had been changed to match it.

While Barry’s horn-heavy orchestration gives “Thunderball” much of its bombast, Jones throws so much character into the lyrics (penned by Barry and Don Black) he almost hides that they are utter nonsense. Lighting strikes, not thunder; so what does it even mean to strike like Thunderball? The credits sequence makes the lyrics’ silliness even harder to notice. Maurice Binder would design every sequence through 1987’s The Living Daylights and this film’s, with its silhouettes of scantily-clad women swimming through psychedelic-colored water, would set the tone for the rest of his work on the franchise.

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The Book: Besides the doppelgänger plot, Domino’s switch from Italian to French and making Largo’s decision to use her brother to steal the nukes deliberate instead of coincidental (always a tough pill to swallow), the film mostly follows the book. Unfortunately, it also inherits its structural problems.

The story is told from multiple perspectives (Bond, Blofeld, Domino’s brother) and while it gives the reader a larger picture of the conspiracy, it also makes the story feel somewhat episodic. While the movie streamlines some of the early beats quite well, the second half of the film is far more complicated than it probably needs to be. In the book, Leiter and Bond get on a submarine, guess right that Miami is the first target and then attack by sea. In the film, Bond takes the place of one of Largo’s swimming team, gets trapped in a bomb housing disguised as coral, is rescued by Leiter and then joins the fight with Largo’s men by sea while the rest of the good guys parachute in. It’s a more active climax for Bond, but it’s also completely unnecessary.

The Movie: In terms of box office grosses and popularity, Thunderball is the height of the Bond franchise, but it’s also the beginning of its descent into bloated spectacle. This is the first Bond to exceed two hours, but it feels even longer. On some level, the blame lies with the story itself, a complicated, fantastical plot that spans much of the western world. But the film seems more concerned with set pieces than plot anyway.

This is clearest in the middle section. It starts with Bond taking Domino to the Junkanoo (a Bahamian holiday held on Boxing Day) and being quickly called away when Felix Leiter (played by Rik Van Nutter this time) says Largo has taken Paula. So, Bond tells Leiter to entertain Domino while he goes to save her. That scene involves gunplay, a tense swim with sharks and zero rescuing. He then–for whatever reason–returns to his hotel to find Fiona taking a bath. He sleeps with her and then she and Largo’s henchmen chase him through the Junkanoo parade to a club. There, he gets Fiona killed and then, presumably, goes back to Leiter and Domino.

The scenes provide some great local color and thrilling action, but they do nothing to move the plot forward. Really, the best thing about them is Fiona. Played with sass and verve by Paluzzi, she’s a better villain than Largo. Unfortunately, she’s also representative of the franchise’s growing self-awareness. Bond’s sexual prowess turning bad girls good was an established trope by this point and Fiona not only bucks that trend, but comments on it. She declares proudly–and perhaps a little bitterly–that her loyalties haven’t been changed. While the moment probably felt fresh and smart then, now, when everything is postmodern self-reference, it seems too obvious. It also doesn’t help that Fiona is essentially punished for it when Bond uses her as a human shield. Book Bond would feel terrible about killing a woman, but Movie Bond barely bats an eyelash. And sadly, from here on, Movie Bond would resemble his inspiration less and less.

By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.