My contrarian instincts tend to show when it comes to Thunderball, because for me, it has always been the bête noire of the “official” Sean Connery Bond films. In terms of sheer box office power it was the most popular of the movies he ever made. It’s also rumoured that it was Connery’s personal favourite of his Bond appearances. But the long and tortured history it took to get to the screen resulted in what, on reflection, is an overlong, uneven and rather pedestrian entry, which is all the more disappointing given the production values and the presence of arguably the most jaw-droppingly stunning woman ever to star as James Bond’s leading lady.
Had history unfolded differently, Thunderball would have been the first James Bond movie, and it would have hit screens several years prior to Dr. No. Ian Fleming had initially worked with producer Kevin McClory and playwright Jack Whittingham to develop a 007 screenplay – when nothing came it, Fleming went ahead and adapted the work into his novel Thunderball and was subsequently whacked with a plagiarism lawsuit from his aggrieved former partners – the stress of which certainly contributed to the author’s failing health. Claiming rights to Thunderball, McClory was later prepared to go ahead and produce his own James Bond film in competition with the Broccoli-Saltzman series until all parties agreed upon a truce – McClory would produce Thunderball in collaboration with Broccoli and Saltzman, Connery would star, and in return, McClory would agree not to make another Bond movie for at least ten years. That would subsequently not turn out to be that, with McClory fighting a losing battle for the rights to James Bond for the rest of his life (he passed away in 2006). More on that when we get to Never Say Never Again in a few weeks.
Anyway, despite its turbulent pregnancy, the movie is serviceable, if deeply flawed for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. Agents of SPECTRE, coordinated by the eyepatch-wearing Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), hijack a NATO bomber with two nuclear weapons aboard, hiding it in the Bahamas and demanding 100 million pounds in diamonds as a ransom. James Bond happens to be recuperating at a health clinic where the operation is being coordinated and requests assignment to Nassau to locate the bombs before they can be deployed against the United States. He’s aided in his search by Largo’s beautiful girlfriend Domino (Claudine Auger), the sister of the NATO pilot who was murdered during the theft of the bombs, and challenged by sizzling femme fatale Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), who rides a motorbike equipped with rocket launchers. A large portion of the movie takes place underwater, with the climactic battle unfolding between legions of scuba divers having at each other with knives and spearguns beneath the waves.
Unfortunately, the screenplay, so key to the success of Goldfinger, is not equal to the visual spectacle this time around. A fundamental narrative mistake mars the plot in that the audience is always ahead of Bond; this is not always a bad thing (eg. From Russia with Love) but here the experience is frustrating. We have seen exactly where the bombs are hidden in the first act – in a sequence of exhausting detail – yet are subjected to repeated scenes of Bond wandering around looking for them, in some cases literally flying over water peering down with binoculars, exchanging bland exposition with Felix Leiter (Rik van Nutter). The main antagonist, Largo, is a paper-thin bad guy with no motivation other than as a required mechanism to move the plot along – he is SPECTRE’s muscle for this operation, nothing more, and accordingly receives no character development, giving us little interest in watching him be brought down. His social interactions with Bond are awkward and unmemorable, and have nowhere near the electricity of Bond’s encounters with Auric Goldfinger.
It’s perhaps unintentionally ironic that “largo” in musical terms means a very slow tempo, for this movie unfolds at such a lethargic pace (even with the looming threat of nuclear destruction) that there never seems to be any great urgency by anyone to do anything. The underwater scenes were likely a revelation in 1965 but they drag the film down – one gets the sense that so much money was spent in staging and shooting them that the producers did not want to waste a single frame of footage, however, a few minutes removed strategically here and there could have tightened the pace. Even John Barry’s usually brilliant scoring work gets repetitive as he’s forced to bolster these lengthy servings of underwater action. The temptation to push fast forward is regrettable for any movie, and you can skip whole sections of Thunderball and still follow the story.
So what remains to recommend this water-logged James Bond tale? Well, Claudine Auger, the first of many otherworldly French Bond girls, is a spectacular sight (even though her deeper continental accent was dubbed by a higher-pitched actress), garbed to keep the best of her natural assets on display as much as possible, and usually just out of the water. Even if her acting is not always up to par, her beauty alone makes her a compelling screen presence. Luciana Paluzzi has some fun also with the first substantial “sexy bad girl” role in a Bond movie but never pushes things into the arena of camp villainy (villainessy?), ensuring that her character maintains a sliver of menace. (There’s a fun scene where she mocks the convention established by Goldfinger where Bond’s sexual prowess can seemingly turn any evil woman to the side of the angels.) The Nassau locations would have been suitably exotic to a 1965 audience even if they seem a bit tourist-trappy to the jaded eyes of today, and the scene where a wounded Bond attempts to lose his pursuers through the chaos of the Junkanoo parade is well-staged. But overall the movie is bloated, lacks focus and is too enamoured of the technical prowess of its underwater scenes to make for a viewing experience one is terribly eager to repeat.