THUNDERBALL, the 4th installment of the legendary initial quintet with Sean Connery, isn’t the best James Bond movie—though it is really cool—but it reigns supreme atop the entire pack as the biggest hit of the lot if you factor inflation, something the top brass of SPECTRE may have considered when they sicced their nuclear blackmail plot on NATO just in time for Christmas of 1965. *
ERNST STAVRO BLOFELD: “My dear Prime Minister, two atomic bombs, numbers 4-5-6 and 4-5-7, which were aboard NATO Flight 7-5-9, are now in the possession of SPECTRE. Unless within the next seven days your government pays to us one hundred million pounds sterling, in a manner to be designated by us, we shall destroy a major city in England or the United States of America. Please signal your acceptance of our terms by arranging for Big Ben to strike seven times at six p.m. tomorrow.”
Following a room-wrecking pre-credits fight, 007 goes to the Bahamas to confront “SPECTRE #2”, a.k.a. ‘Emilio Largo’, who has a platoon of murderous henchmen, a super-cool luxury yacht—the Disco Volante—that converts into a hydrofoil with heavy weapons, and two stunning lady playmates, one his mistress, the other his top assassin. Bond must bed them both, because, well, just because, and the escalating elegant mayhem factors in a jet-pack, a literal ‘hot-seat’, a rocket-equipped BSA 650cc A65L Lightning motorcycle, high-tech undersea vehicles, a bunch of sharks and a full-scale battle between scuba teams in the waters off Miami.
The first two Bond films were big hits, but the phenomenal success of Goldfinger laid down that the next had to go even bigger. $6,800,000 (some sources have it $9,000,000) was lavished on this one, it was longer, at 130 minutes, and while some filming was done in France and at the Pinetree studio in England, the majority was shot on locations in the sun-drenched Bahamas. Fittingly, when Tom Jones belted out the title tune, he almost passed out from the 9-second high note finale: “I closed my eyes and I held the note for so long when I opened my eyes the room was spinning.”
Guy Hamilton was exhausted after piloting Goldfinger, so Terence Young, who’d done Dr.No and From Russia With Love, was back again as director, with Peter Hunt editing. Maurice Binder did the suggestive title sequence, with a flash of nudity (a big plus right off the bat for my enraptured school buddies and I in the audience back in 5th-grade).
To get the carp out of the way so we can focus on the barracuda: though it has a slew of great elements, this always gets dutifully thumped as not living up to Goldfinger. Aside from that pillar of the 60s being hard to top, that’s due mainly to script structure problems, traced to too many cooks. The Richard Maibaum & John Hopkins screenplay was fashioned in the wake of material other writers besides Ian Fleming had put together years before. For a quick dive of that labyrinth we refer you to our review of Never Say Never Again, the clusterlucked 1983 remake. Have Index, Will Unravel. **
Fed up by the time of post-production, exasperated director Young turned a great deal over to harried editor Hunt, who did what he could to lash it together. Even with the extra length, it feels like pieces are missing—they are, including a goodly part of lovely Martine Beswick’s too-brief stint as Bond’s ill-fated helper ‘Paula’. There’s dazzle to spare, but the packaging aspect is already taking over from the tight freshness of the first entries. Reviewers often burp about the extensive underwater scenes slowing things down, but we deem them pretty cool, and John Barry does aquatic mystery like few other composers (John Williams, Bernard Herrmann are obviously in there bubbling).
The irreplaceable Barry then brings us to the pleasures that make an imperfect movie still a lot of nostalgic fun. His score is one of the series best, from the smashing title tune (a belting Tom Jones was a perfect choice, with lyrics by Don Black), and the undersea passages mixing languor and menace, to the suggestive slow-swing of his “Mr.Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” theme for the evening casino swank.
Connery of course is fully in command; charming, bemused, relaxed and ready to make rough-stuff look smooth, although off-camera he was beginning to chafe under the publicity onslaught and evaporated privacy. Q-branch gives him a spruced-up scuba apparatus to play with.
The sultry Ms. Beswick had been in From Russia With Love (one of the battling Gypsy hellcats), but otherwise, apart from Sean and three essential regulars (below), the movie continues one of the series strong points by having fresh faces in key parts of the supporting cast. Sinister-looking Sicilian character actor Adolfi Celi is an impressive cold-hearted Largo (voice dubbed by Robert Rietty), and French head-turner Claudine Auger voluptuously fits out swimsuit and evening wear as ‘Domino’. Best is Italian stunner Luciana Paluzzi as Bad Girl ‘Fiona Volpe’ (heartbreaking personal story below in Asteriskville), one of the sexiest, most convincing femme fatales in all of Bondage. **
We accept at face value that Blofeld’s boardroom is equipped with an electrified chair that can be lowered under the floor to dump off a failed underling. Action is delivered via the opening hand-to-hand rumpus (fights with Bond are nearly always battles to the death), the nifty jet highjacking, Fiona’s fiery motorcycle introduction, too-close encounters with sharks, 007s debonair dispatch of ‘Vargas’ (who “got the point“), and the climactic underwater wipe-up with 60 stunt-divers, followed by the explosive demise of the movies biggest prop.
As with the previous missions, cinematography was handled by Ted Moore. Ricou Browning (immortal for playing the Creature From The Black Lagoon) tackled the underwater sequences. In the cast: Bernard Lee (ever-crusty ‘M’), Guy Doleman (‘Count Lippe’), Molly Peters (yielding spa masseuse), Rik Van Nutter (the series 3rd ‘Felix Leiter’), Desmond Llewelyn (ever-finicky ‘Q’), Lois Maxwell (ever-patient ‘Moneypenny), Roland Culver, Paul Stassino and Philip Locke, as the silent but deadly ‘Vargas’. “Vargas does not drink, does not smoke, does not make love. What do you do,Vargas?”
The freely dispensed sex and blithely accepted violence swept up $63,596,000 in the States alone, third in line behind The Sound Of Music and Doctor Zhivago, adding to a global haul of $141,200,000. An Oscar went to John Stears for Best Visual Effects.
* The greedy arch-criminals of SPECTRE knew gold when they smelled it. Roughly one-hundred and forty million individual ticket sales made Thunderball not just the third-highest grosser of 1965, but number-crunching has it edging out Goldfinger for time-adjusted loot, and putting the humongous present-day loot from Skyfall and Spectre in the wake like dispensed Largo thugs tossed off the runaway Disco Volante. As a 007 boy fanatic, I had the tie-in Attache Case (now they’re worth hundreds of dollars), three 600-piece puzzles (the Thunderball poster art was sensational), trading cards and soundtracks. How this keyboard clacker didn’t grow up to become a secret agent is a tragedy I’ve yet to come to grips with. Before I pin a guy to a palm tree with a speargun I always have to remove my glasses.
Due diligence uncovers Rik Van Nutter may have been an earache as Felix, but the guy knew his way around the Jet-set block: he was married to Anita Ekberg.
“It’s the first time I’ve tasted women. They’re rather good.”
Martine Beswick: “Absolutely massive. Everywhere you went in the world, people were tearing clothes off you. It was like being a rock star at that time, it really was. ‘Bond girl’ was the thing: ‘Bond girl! Bond girl!’ They would be screaming and chanting and trying to rock your limousine and tear your clothes off and tear your hair out. It was amazing, just amazing….Well, it was fun. I have to tell you it was a lot of fun. Not great at that time in terms of career. But then one did not plan career moves as one plans them today. It’s not the same thing at all. You just thought, ‘Oh, that’s fabulous. Let’s do it.”
** The backstory of the story, and subsequent script was tortuous. Ian Fleming’s 9th Bond escapade was published in 1961, but lawsuits by associates Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham showed ownership issues. Connery returned to the role for a one-off in the 1983 remake, Never Say Never Again, but other than his presence and a wonderfully lively bad girl courtesy of Barbara Carrera, it was a groaner, leaving the original Thunderball secure in its pride of place. Okay, now hit that Index like a good SPECTRE henchperson.
*** Life can be a cruel mistress for those simple sheep unprepared for a heart-punch. Red-tressed vixen Luciana Paluzzi was a major “please, God!’ fantasy from childhood. Imagine my staggering disbelief and sputtering outrage when—in middle age–I find out that she was a friend of my sister and her actor husband back in the early 60s (Paluzzi was married to one of my brother-in-law’s pals, Brett Halsey). Yes, my very own flesh & blood did not bother to let me know this vital fact for…decades. “Oh, yes, Luciana was really sweet.” Wow: you wonder why people become monks or mercenaries.