Monday, January 5, 2015

Thunderball - 1965

Background: to call Thunderball a troubled production is understating it by a fair bit. Before Eon even came on the scene, Ian Fleming had seen the potential for his books to be turned into films and started to write a film script with the assistance of a screenwriter called Jack Whittingham and an Irish filmmaker by the name of Kevin McClory. Ian Fleming being Ian Fleming became bored with the whole idea and chucked it in before anything got completed. When he later published Thunderball as his own work, McClory and Whittingham took legal action and the work had to be published with all 3 writers names on it.

Eon had wanted to make Thunderball before Goldfinger, but the ongoing court battle about who it actually belonged to had prevented them from doing so. The case was settled in 1963, and in 1964 Eon came to an agreement with Kevin McClory to cinematically adapt the work. McClory was also made a producer and a co writer. He had more influence than anyone of his largely in name only credits should have had and some of the problems with the film could be attributed to that.

McClory was given the rights to make another film using the ideas if he wanted to, and in 1983 he released Never Say Never Again starring Sean Connery as Bond over 10 years since he left the role for the second time. There were rumours right up until McClory's death in 2006 that he was planning a 3rd remake of Thunderball with Timothy Dalton playing Bond and Sean Connery as Largo. This never eventuated, though.

Story: the story behind Thunderball was nothing new even in 1965 and it's been used plenty of times since. Some never do well gets their hands on weapons of mass destruction and threatens to use them on an unsuspecting populace unless they're paid a large amount of money. The powers that be are then in a frantic race against time to find the weapons and avert a disaster of cataclysmic proportions.

As in the 1960's people were worried about nuclear weapons it made sense that the weapons were part of the payload of a nuclear armed NATO plane that went missing. However I don't think any actual nuclear weapons had the words 'handle like eggs' stencilled on their outsides as did at least one of these.

The never do wells were comprised of SPECTRE and their unseen boss with the penchant for fluffy white cats (once again voiced by Anthony Dawson), mainly their No 2; wealthy Nassau based playboy Emilio Largo. He had help from an assortment of hench people (one of whom is rather casually shot by Bond using a spear gun and the comment 'I think he got the point') and the redheaded femme fatale Fiona Volpe, who curiously enough seemed to have more power than he did, at least when she told him to do something he did it.

The method of obtaining the weapons was a rather complicated plan that included plastic surgery to make a SPECTRE paid pilot look like a NATO pilot by the name of Francois Derval. The real Derval was killed (body found by Bond) and then the fake Derval was also killed when he had brought the plane down in the sea near Nassau, once Largo's team of frogmen had retrieved the weapons and safely stored them onboard the playboy's yacht the Disco Volante.

Bond is still a major thorn in SPECTRE's side and they even attempt to kill him on the way to MI6 to attend a briefing about the disappearance of the nukes. They were wise to do so, because it only takes a look at a picture of Derval and his younger sister Dominique (known to friends as Domino) before Bond knows where the plane and it's payload are and intending to use his masculine charms to locate the weapons and save the day.

Aside from the pre credit sequence, and a rather unsavoury start in a health spa where Bond is recovering from the effects of what took place before the credits rolled, Thunderball is largely a paint by the numbers Bond film.

I don't think any talk about Thunderball would be complete if I didn't at least mention something about the spa. It is true that a discovery there is what leads Bond to find the missing nuclear weapons. but there are other problematic things about this entire section of the film. While recovering from his injuries Bond takes a liking to a pretty blonde nurse called Patricia Fearing. Trying to kiss her against her will when she's treating him is bad enough (even in the '60's that should have at least had him reported as a difficult patient), but what happens after that is completely unconscionable. She hooks him up to a device that is meant to gently stretch his back out and leaves him there for a few minutes while she checks other patients. Someone involved with the theft of the weapons, also staying at the spa, sets the machine up to high and Bond is very nearly stretched to death before Patricia comes back in, sees what has happened and turns the machine off. In payment for saving his life Bond blackmails the girl into having sex with him. Classy James, very classy. I'm still not sure how this made it past the censors or why they even elected to keep it in the film. It doesn't add anything and it paints the hero in an extremely bad light. Bond is meant to be nigh irresistible to women, yet he finds it necessary to blackmail this one lady into having sex with him. Very odd choice by everyone concerned.

The underwater sequences are excellent and they make the most of the Nassau scenery. I can only conclude that they spent most of their budget on that and the Disco Volante set and forgot about the story, which is extremely poor and comes across as almost an afterthought. The dialog wasn't great either and is very stilted at times. They also found it necessary to resort to 'fridging' (for those who aren't aware of the term, it means killing off a female character to anger the male hero and force him into some sort of revenge attack). I suppose it's kind of surprising it took 4 films before they did it. Shame that the victim was Paula Caplan, a character I rather grew to like from her brief screen time before Volpe and Largo had her killed.

Before this viewing I had kind of remembered Thunderball as a fun and solid entry in the franchise. Somewhere in the intervening years it's been visited by the suck fairy and become one of the weaker, if not the weakest, Connery Bonds.

Interestingly enough it does sort of end with Domino (and I still don't really know how she went from being sort of interested and concerned about Bond to being madly in love with him. They clearly didn't think the relationship was worth properly developing) and Bond in a dinghy placed there by the CIA. Now while this is par for the course, being picked up by a rope attached to a plane as does happen, is not. In fact there are a few things in this film that later Bond's seem to have borrowed. The ending is rather reminiscent of the end of Goldeneye and the scenes in Nassau where Bond plays Largo at Banco, romances Domino under her sugar daddy's nose and is driven very fast around the island by Fiona Volpe put me in mind of Bond's sojourn in the Bahamas in Casino Royale.


Director: Guy Hamilton claimed to be creatively drained after his efforts on Goldfinger and so Terence Young returned to direct Thunderball. Right from when he was first asked to direct Dr. No, Young had also expressed interest in directing filmed versions of From Russia With Love and Thunderball, so he got his wish.

He directed the underwater scenes really well. Even now they're still among some of the best staged and filmed scenes of their kind that I can remember. Even the scenes in the pool with sharks are excellent, probably helped by the fact that Connery wasn't keen on sharks and one of them managed to get through the plexiglass partition that had been erected between them and the actor who only just got out of the pool in time to avoid being bitten.

I found the rest of it quite pedestrian and I think Young struggled to come to terms with how to make a different Bond to the ones he had left, because the public reacted so well to Hamilton's vision of Bond in Goldfinger.

James Bond: Connery came back to reprise his role for the 4th time. He may have become too comfortable by now. The fighting was certainly better, except for the sped up climax on the Disco Volante, which just looked odd. However the Scottish accent was far more noticeable, Connery seems almost on auto pilot a lot of the time and he plays Bond as a rather bumbling, but surprisingly effective detective. He still looks uncomfortable with the one liners, of which there are a lot, and they mostly fall very flat.

Emilio Largo: veteran Italian actor Adolfo Celi landed the role of Largo. He has a wonderful time chewing his way through the scenery. He certainly looks the part and the eyepatch gives him a fantastic piratical air. Occasionally Largo is referred to as No 2, in keeping with his position with SPECTRE. The Austin Powers films later spoofed Celi's Largo, using both Rob Lowe and Robert Wagner as a second in command called only No 2 and also sporting eyepatches. His voice was dubbed by Robert Rietty.

Peripheral roles: the usual suspects (Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewellyn) all came back as M, Moneypenny and Q. We see how powerful M is when he's front and centre in amongst some very high powered political types, and Bernard Lee looks very at home doing it. Lois Maxwell's role was a little smaller, most of the flirting was done on the phone, although there's a lovely bit of by play between her, Bond and M, when she refers to him as the 'old man' and he hears it. Q is forced to use a field laboratory in Nassau and he's none too pleased about it, if anything he seems crankier than normal when briefing Bond on his latest toy collection. although Bond is also more distracting than usual. I did like Q's loud tropical shirt though, and Bond's 'Oh no!' when he walks through the door.

Fiona Volpe: Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi also auditioned for the role of Domino, and they clearly liked her enough to cast her in the femme fatale role. I thought given her dreadful material that she did a fairly good job and was a strong female character in a film that verges on the misogynistic at times.

Paula Caplan: I really liked her and it was a shame that she didn't see the end of the film. She would have made an excellent main Bond girl. Broccoli, Saltzman and Young seemed to have a soft spot for Martine Beswick, as she's one of the few actresses to have a role in more than one Bond film. She also played one of the 'fighting' gypsy girls in From Russia With Love.

Felix Leiter: it's always fun to the look at the revolving door that was the role of Bond's CIA contact Felix Leiter. Exactly why they couldn't cast Cec Linder I don't know, other than the fact he looked wrong for the role anyway. This time the honour went to Rik Van Nutter (no honestly that's his name. I didn't make it up). I can only think that he came fairly cheap. He was married to Anita Ekberg and that was his in with Broccoli and Saltzman as the Swedish actress starred in Call Me Bwana with Bob Hope, which was also made by Eon productions. He looks way too young to be Felix and more like a beach bum than a dangerous CIA agent. He spends most of his time choppering Bond around the island, and this proves that in between helping out Bond, Felix does things like get a pilot's licence, because in Dr. No he barely knew how to pilot a motorboat, now he's an ace helicopter pilot.

Patricia Fearing: the unfortunate, but undeniably beautiful nurse Fearing was played by British actress Molly Peters. Thunderball was her only real claim to any fame. She did as well as she could with a fairly difficult, if small, role.

Dominique 'Domino' Derval: a number of actresses were looked at for the role, among them Julie Christie, Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway. For various reasons none of these ladies were available and former Miss France Claudine Auger was cast. Young's fingerprints are all over that. The script had to be altered to change her nationality from Italian to French, even though Nikki van der Zyl (the voice of Ursula Andress' Honey Rider in Dr. No) dubbed her dialogue. She was the first brunette to play a Bond girl (according to my definition of Bond girl), and despite a badly written role and even worse dialog she did a pretty good job. Like Tatiana in From Russia With Love, it is Domino who has to shoot her mentor to save Bond's life at the end.

The Curse of the Bond Girl: I was surprised that Claudine Auger didn't do more work in English language films after Thunderball. The world loved French actresses in the '60's and she had the elfin looks that was popular at the time, she was also a good actress. While she never had a lot of international success, the film did launch a modestly successful career in Europe (mostly France), although she hasn't done anything since 1997.

Gadgets: I'd say very much against his will, Terence Young, had to include gadgets in Thunderball. Q really came through for Bond this time. The pick of the bunch was the rebreather, a miniature oxygen tank, it fits easily into the mouth and seemed to have as much oxygen in it as any full size tank. He also got provided with an excellent underwater camera and geiger counter (so he could tell when he was near the missiles) a watch sized geiger counter and a locational pellet which he swallowed when he needed to be tracked. The most memorable gadget comes from the pre credit sequence and that was a one person jet pack that allowed to him fly up and out of danger.

Pre credit sequence: once again Young decided to fake the audience out with Bond's possible death, we see a coffin draped over with a large flag and the initial's JB. As luck would have it, it is not Bond's funeral, but one for someone who shared Bond's initials. The recently departed is a SPECTRE assassin who has faked his own death and then turned up dressed as a female mourner. Bond works the ruse out and follows said mourner. There's a short and brutal fight, in which Bond is beaten with an iron fire poker (I'll say this for Connery's Bond, he could certainly take a beating), he kills the assassin for real this time and escapes using the jetpack and is also still driving the DB5. It's a bit worse for wear, but has now had water jets from the exhaust pipes added in. Q never rests it would seem. It relates peripherally to the film. Injuries incurred land him at the spa and it gives SPECTRE another reason to want him dead.

Music: this was interesting. The song Thunderball is sung at the start by Welsh singer Tom Jones, although it didn't really seem to suit his deep lower register, however it tends to be identified with Shirley Bassey, who covered it and had a monster hit with it. On reflection it suits her voice better than it did Jones'.

James Bond will return in You Only Live Twice.

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