Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bond-arama: No. 005 Thunderball (1965)

When he strikes, he strikes like Thunderball. Heck yeah, he does. Of all the original James Bond films, this one is probably the most action-oriented. This thing is a rollercoaster ride of murder, chases, and near escapes. Nobody gets out alive. It also set a standard for underwater action scenes that few films have ever lived up to. That has earned this film its place at No. 005 of 0023.

Plot Quality: The plot is top notch. The story begins with Bond observing the funeral of a SPECTRE agent. He is here to make sure the dead man is indeed dead. He’s not. Bond realizes this and finishes the job. He then escapes with a jet pack. Way cool. That opening scene tells you the film is going to be violent, and it is. When next we meet Bond, he’s been sent to a rehab center for treatment of several wounds. While he’s there, he notices a Count Lippe, who just happens to have a criminal tattoo. Bond searches his room, but finds nothing. Bond is spotted, however, and Lippe makes an attempt on his life.
Meanwhile, we meet Fran├žois Derval. Derval is a French pilot scheduled to fly as an observer aboard a NATO flight, an Avro Vulcan loaded with two atomic bombs. Derval is having an affair with a hot, but evil, Italian woman named Fiona Volpe, who just happens to be a SPECTRE agent. When Derval leaves to make his flight, he is surprised to find a double of himself at the door. The double kills him. This is Angelo, and he’s been surgically altered to take Derval’s place.

As Angelo boards the flight, Bond comes across the body of Derval at the clinic. Bond doesn’t know what this means. Angelo, however, does. Halfway through the flight, he kills the rest of the crew by turning off their air supply. He then pilots the Vulcan to Nassau, where he lands it on the water and it sinks to the ocean floor. A SPECTRE crew is waiting to remove the bombs... and kill Angelo.
Bond is called to MI-6 along with every other 00-agent in the world. They are told about the disappearing Vulcan and the bombs and a ransom note NATO has received from SPECTRE, who want £100 million in diamonds in exchange for the bombs. Bond is assigned to search Canada, but as he looks through the briefing package, he realizes that he saw Derval’s body the prior night, which means he couldn’t have been on the plane. Derval’s sister is in Nassau, so Bond asks to be given that assignment.

Once in Nassau, Bond finds Derval’s sister Domino, who happens to be the mistress of Emilio Largo, the number two man in SPECTRE. Bond begins a cat and mouse game with Largo, Largo’s henchmen, and Fiona Volpe, as he tries to locate the bombs. The story ends with a massive underwater battle between Largo’s crew and special forces.
Not only is this a truly solid plot, with no filler and no dead ends, but the story is exciting. The tension ratchets up scene by scene. The film is packed with tense chase scenes, witty dialog, and near misses. More importantly, the film includes a tremendous number of cold-blooded killings. This film is not for the faint of heart. Both good and bad people die, die hard and die quickly. All of this gives this film a real edge which makes it perhaps the most exciting Bond film ever. The film also sports the usual requirements for quality Bond: strong characters, the travelogue feel, and exciting visuals. He even does a lot of quality spying.

There are three things that let this film down, though they are minor. First, Volpe and Largo both fail to kill Bond when they should have. It is understandable why they didn’t, but it adds a hint of cartoon to the film. Largo should have shot Bond rather than relying on his sharks – even if it made sense that Bond would drown or be eaten. And Volpe should have shot him in the car, or the hotel, or the car a second time. Her failure seems to be that she was following orders to bring Bond in, but it still feels like stupidity.

The second problem is that once it becomes clear that Bond is right about the bombs, you would think Nassau would be flooded with agents, but MI-6 leaves this all up to Bond. That feels a bit like movie logic.
Those two problems, however, are minor and easy to overlook. The third problem is a little different. The third problem is actually the ending. Throughout the film, the script sets up this cat and mouse game between Bond and Largo personally. They are constantly running into each other. There are several near misses where Largo almost gets Bond. They even toy with each other verbally. This suggests a build up to a Clash of Titans Ending so to speak between Bond and Largo. And this film is violent enough to do that. Yet, when the ending comes, it really turns into a battle of color-coordinated henchmen as Bond chases the fleeing Largo (with some bad effects hurting the film), only to have Domino kill him. This is disappointing and deflates the ending a good deal. It’s still a good ending, but had this film delivered the mano-a-mano ending it builds up to, it would have been a good deal stronger.

Bond Quality: This is Connery’s fourth film and he’s got it all down at this point. His suave is fantastic and he’s super charming. His brutal is truly brutal, and is helped by a script that lets him kill several people indifferently. His delivery of the one-liners is perfect. His fierce loyalty is perhaps lacking a bit in this one, but the film is more about trading murders than it is about loyalty. All told though, Connery is just about perfect in this one. He’s at ease in the role and really hitting his stride.
The Bond Girl: Wow! This film has two Bond girls and they are both amazing. First, you have Claudine Auger as Dominique “Domino” Derval. A former Miss France and the first runner-up in Miss World 1958, Auger is amazingly beautiful. She’s also a great character. She is Largo’s mistress, who learns that Largo killed her brother. She then helps Bond find the bombs to help avenge her brother’s murder. Interestingly, her character is one of the more complex in the series. Despite being Largo’s mistress (she pretends to be his niece), she clearly has a great deal of shame about this, yet she’s not willing to leave him and what he offers her. None of this is ever said, but she manages to imply it all with her eyes and what is never said. That’s impressive. She’s also the first Bond girl to get to kill the villain. She will become the model for Melina Havelock in For Your Eyes Only.

As an aside, both Domino and Largo had to be dubbed.

The other Bond girl is Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe. She’s a ruthless SPECTRE agent who mixes sex with murder. At least, she uses sex as a trap and then becomes the ruthless killer. Normally, when you have one solid Bond girl, the other is kind of a waste, but not here. Volpe is the polar opposite of Domino and both are fantastic. Whereas Domino is scared or reserved, Volpe is aggressive and bold, and Paluzzi makes her a fascinating character. Paluzzi presents Volpe as an amazing mix of adorable, sexy, and deadly, and she moves effortlessly between the three. She truly comes across as a real psychotic. In fact, like many real psychotics, she is so compelling that, even knowing she is evil, it wouldn’t surprise me if men still flocked to her. And her death is one of the most memorable in the series too, coming as a major surprise to the audience... and to her. (Note the cold look in Connery's eyes.)
Villain Quality: Finally, we come to the villain. The villain here is Largo (Adolfo Celi), who is the number two man at SPECTRE. Celi absolutely looks the part. He projects just enough respectability that you could see him fitting in well in Nassau, but he simultaneously presents an incredible amount of menace. His scheme is fantastic too. It’s simultaneously simple, yet super complex. It feels like it could really happen, yet it also feels outlandish. That makes it brilliant: it is the perfect scheme you send a superspy to stop.
As I said before, where Largo falls down a bit is in not killing Bond, though ultimately that may not be a fair charge. We know who Bond is and that he will prevail. Largo doesn’t know that, and he needs to weigh whether killing Bond makes sense. After all, if he kills Bond, then who knows what the British will do to the island. As for his chances to kill Bond, Largo mainly meets Bond in public places, like a casino or a dance. When he invites Bond to the house, he can’t kill him because he doesn’t know who is watching Bond. And his other attempts, like dropping a grenade into the ocean or sealing the pool to drown Bond if the sharks don’t get him first, really do seem to him like they should have worked.

Where there is a flaw in Largo, it is the ending. As I noted above, the film strongly suggests a one-on-one fight is coming, but it doesn’t. To the contrary, Largo turns coward and tries to run away only to be shot in the back. That’s not worthy of the setup.

Ultimately, this is a great film and a great Bond film. Its images are iconic. Its characters are strong and each is interesting in their own right. Connery is at the top of his game. There’s so much to love about this film, and while it does have a few flaws, they can be explained or forgiven. If only the ending had been stronger, this film could have been the best Bond film ever, but the ending was a letdown. Thus, it sits at a well-earned No. 005 of 0023.

22 comments:

ScottDS said...

This is one Bond film I need to see again. I think my issue with it is the same for any underwater movie - when you're underwater, things tend to go much more SLOOOOWLY.

But it's definitely entertaining. And I'm sure you know the original theme song was "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." Someone put the song to the existing title sequence and you can watch it here. It's a good song and you can actually hear parts of it in John Barry's score.

The one thing in this movie I hate is the scene at the spa on the traction machine - it just doesn't look good.

Tennessee Jed said...

At the risk of sounding like an old geezer, you have pretty much nailed this one as being one hell of a Bond film. Why? Yes it's a hell of a story. It may be harder for younger folks to understand, but in the 60's, this is how one would go about global terror and ransom. We didn't have suitcase nukes then. Bond is great, the girls are great. My only quibbles are with your quibbles. BUT, you admit them as such, so you are forgiven. What are you talking about, Jed? Mainly, the why don't they shoot Bond. Letting the meglomaniacal super villain feed him to the sharks. You can get away with in Thunderball, but later, having Moore run across the gators seems like we have been there and done that. My only other quibbles. My original mental image was of my 9th grade music teacher for Largo, so once on has that .... Second, somehow, the underwater scenes look a little dated to me today. Oh, and third? In the book, they did a little better job on selling the fact that Bond and Leiter were virtually sitting this one out since SPECTRE had plenty of bigger targets. In the books, events moved so fast, it was impossible to bring in the cavalry. And, truth be told, that was a slightly easier sell in the 60's than today. Good review and good call on the positioning

tryanmax said...

I personally think this was Connery's best outing as Bond, right at the apex where he's comfortable in the role but hasn't yet tired of it. More as it comes to me...

tryanmax said...

Andrew, Just out of curiosity: In your intro piece you mentioned "adding up the points" to rank the films. Were those literal points? If so, do you plan to release the spreadsheet? I'd be very interested in the raw data behind this series (when it's complete, of course.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, As an interesting aside, all those machines you see underwater didn't exist before this movie. The crew had to invent them. How cool is that?

That said, the underwater stuff is a little slow. I think that For Your Eyes Only handled the underwater stuff better. The real special effects failures here though relate to the yacht moving at light speed toward rocks until someone randomly spins the wheel and the it moves towards the next set of rocks.

I agree about the back machine. It never once seems dangerous.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, This is one those films where you need to accept the times. Things were different then -- no cell phones, no satellite surveillance, etc. Moreover, the mindset was different. Films just weren't as murderous as today because people weren't yet immune to the violence they saw on film. So this really was a violent film, even if today it doesn't feel that way.

Also, as an aside, the public hadn't yet been sold on the silly idea that there are people sitting in darkened rooms who can watch anything happening in real time and move in troops to handle it. What Bond does here is what "intelligence" used to be about.

On the quibbles, they are only quibbles. I don't think you would even notice most of them if those issues hadn't become a problem throughout the series, with Bond escaping pretty inexplicable over and over. As for the ending, I think the ending is great... I just think it could have been better. I probably would have had Bond and Largo fighting at Largo's estate and then Bond dumps him into the shark tank.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree. This was Connery at his best. He had figured out the role and he was comfortable delivering all the parts he needed to deliver. He was helped too with a strong script that was written to bring out his "Bond parts."

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I'm not sure I still have that information, but I'll check. Once I had them ranked, I didn't need it anymore. If I have it, I'll post it.

What I did was I ranked each film compared to the others separately for: (1) plot quality, (2) Bond quality, (3) Bond girl quality, and (4) villain quality. Then I gave them all numbers 23-1. I multiplied the "plot" numbers by 2 and the Bond girls number by 0.5 because of their importance or lack thereof. Then I added up the numbers.

And interestingly, they came in clumps -- it was not a smooth line. For example, you would get 5 films that hovered around 100 (say 103-97), and then the next batch wouldn't be until 140 above it or 75 below it. So getting them into groups was really easy. Inside those groups, however, they were often separate by single or even half points.

Tennessee Jed said...

What do you mean girls are .5???? L.o.l.

Koshcat said...

If I remember right, the only problem I had with this movie is the ending. It almost ruins the whole movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, LOL! Sadly, Bond girls aren't ultimately that important the films. The great ones are great, but you can still do well even with a poor one.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, The ending is weak. This could have been a much stronger film with a more realistic ending.

Voz said...

I just watched this again last week and I think it might be my second favorite Bond film after Casino Royale...all your insights are spot on...Bond is ruthless in this one...

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, Thanks! He is ruthless in this, even by modern standards. Most of his kills in this one are in cold blood and he simply writes them off the moment after they are complete. It makes him a very interesting character here because he'd lost that in the prior two films.

This is definitely a favorite of mine.

Rustbelt said...

Hm...I'm of two minds on this one, Andrew. On the one hand, I really like this one. If I'm channel surfing and come across it, it stays on the tube. Like you said, terrific action, great action, and terrific scenery. (You know what I mean!)

However, there's something about the second act that bugs me, and I think I found it. It kind of goes into what you said about the cat-and-also-cat game played by Bond and Largo. It's the storytelling technique. After the opening titles- by Tom Jones of the British Invasion, no less!- SPECTRE immediately tells the audience their plans. Then, we see their plan take place. Most screenwriters would have Bond discover SPECTRE's plan along with the audience, and I have a lot of respect for this technique. Sometimes, it feels like Thunderball grinds to a halt as Bond tries to find out what the audience already knows. (Dramatic irony is good, but mainly in small doses- not half the film.) That's why, for me, much of act two- despite the scenery- feels like filler. In fact, when the underwater scenes start, my reaction is often "Finally!"
Granted, probably a minor complaint, but one aimed at the director's decisions nonetheless.

And did anyone notice how this might be the first self-referential Bond film? After Bond sleeps with Volpe, she makes it clear his charm didn't work. She remains bad. I think the producers were referencing 'Goldfinger' and the fact that Bond taking, um...Miss Galore for a woll in ze hay, thus turning her good so that she helps his comrades-in-arms, is basically all he does to stop Goldfinger's plan. I'm not sure if the producers were trying to make Volpe stronger by being immune to Bond or admitting that the previous film hinged almost solely on Bond's, um...prowess, not his agent skills.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, You make an interesting point.

I see your point about Bond feeling behind the audience, but keep in mind that he does already know they did it. What he's doing now in Nassau is trying to find the bombs, and he's even figured that out within about a 10 mile radius. So in a way, he really isn't any further behind than us. BUT, it definitely has that feel. So what is the solution? Perhaps shifting the dialog more to "where are the bombs"? I'm not sure.

To me, the real problem is that the very ending wipes out the build-up to the ending. Here you have Bond getting ready to go one on one against Largo in a brutal cage match and then it all kind of ends up a different movie as Bond's manager smacks Largo over the head with a chair in the lockerroom.

On Ms. Galore, I've always felt that was the weak link in that film. Letting Bond save the world just because he kissed some possible lesbian in a barn was a stretch. They really should have include something more... but we'll get to that.

Rustbelt said...

In other words, Andrew, if I could also make a wrestling analogy...

This Bond movie ending brought to you by WCW and the New World Order. (Who needs a clean finish?)

AndrewPrice said...

Yeah. I think it was a mistake. When you build up two characters as equals who genuinely hate each other on a personal level, anything short of the film ending with a death match between the two is a let down. This movie spent a lot of time making Largo and Bond out as equals, showing both being absolutely cold-blooded and determined, neither being afraid of the other. Then in the ending, Largo becomes a coward and gets killed by an extra. That is deflating.

And again, I don't want this to seem like I'm panning the movie. The movie is good and satisfying, but it would have been an order of magnitude better if Bond and Largo had fought, hand to hand, to settle this at the end.

You could even send in the Marines, but Bond needs to stop Largo from pushing the button. That would have been better.

Rustbelt said...

Oh, definitely, Andrew. This film is great and has high re-watchability value. What impresses me the most is the underwater fight scene. Having seen several documentaries for the underwater scenes in Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," I can only imagine how hard it was to choreograph 'Thunderball.' But it was worth the wait. No CGI. No cheats. (No PETA!) Just good guys and bad guys dueling it out in a setting not seen before or since.

And since you brought up the equipment, I saw a Modrern Marvels episode on Bond tech on the History Channel (when it was still good) that mentioned Bond's breathing device. Apparently, several contractors and military officials contacted the filmmakers to find out how it worked. Sadly, they had to tell them it was just a movie prop. Connery and his stuntmen were apparently just holding their breath.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, That's funny. I agree about the underwater fight stuff. It's done super well. The whole thing feels real and looks real and feels very, very credible. The fact they achieved this in 1965 and it's only been outdone maybe twice (For Your Eyes Only, The Abyss) is a real testament to their skill.

I'm also impressed with how strong this movie is as an action film. It really does hold its own against modern films. It feels tough, strong and fast paced. It doesn't feel dated or outdated, and I suspect it would be just as exciting on the big screen today as anything else they are putting out.

This movie is a very strong film with a high re-watchability factor.

John Jameson said...

Excellent review as usual, Andrew. Now that you have reviewed the entire franchise, It is interesting to see just how well this one compares... which makes me wonder if it does not deserve a higher ranking. The flaws it exhibits (failures to kill Bond, movie logic, and the ending) can all be found in more highly ranked Bond films.

In particular, I'm not sure the film would be better with a one-on-one fight ending for the following reasons. The game of cat-and-mouse that Bond and Largo play is more of a cerebral one. Largo (in contrast to Red Grant say) prefers brains over brawn, and indirect involvement in murder over getting his hands dirty. Had he been successful, one could imagine him at a glamorous party remarking to his associates, "Terrible shame about Mr Bond. I should have warned him about those sharks in the swimming pool."
Bond's assault on Largo is like a well-executed plan in chess, ruthlessly exploiting a weakness in the opponent until they are defenceless. In this case, the weakness is Domino, and from the very beginning, Bond persistently targets her. In the final duel, she is his weapon of choice, and it is entirely appropriate that she is the one who kills Largo.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks John! It has been interesting to see them all broken down. I agree with you that this should be higher, it just never seems to enter the conversation.

Interesting point about the one on one fight. So perhaps a better solution would be some sort of mental challenge, like a puzzle Bond needs to solve to get to Largo, which Largo doesn't think Bond can overcome. That would be better than the ending they've chosen for the film.

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