WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: SPECTRE’s number 2 Emilio Largo comes up with a fiendish plan to hold the world to ransom by stealing two atomic warheads from under the noses of NATO. However, Largo has reckoned without James Bond catching wind of where the missiles might be stored. With a little help from Largo’s plaything Domino, and despite the hindrance of SPECTRE’s femme fatale Fiona Volpe, 007 tracks Domino and the weapons down to the Bahamas.
It is, of course, my fault rather than Thunderball’s that I haven’t been diligent enough to watch the Bond films in proper order, and thus that I had a sense of déjà vu watching it that I should have had watching Never Say Never Again. But there we are. Bond and Connery’s fourth outing builds on the glamour and spectacle of Goldfinger, but does that make it a better film?
After dispatching a SPECTRE agent in Paris, James Bond (Connery) heads to a health spa for a spot of rest, relaxation and, if he can find it, a bit of the other. However, as is Bond’s way, he stumbles upon a plot by Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) to extort £100 million from the West by replacing NATO pilot Major Derval (Paul Stassino) with a ringer undergoing plastic surgery at the spa. Although he escapes with his life and a link to the bad guy in Largo’s mistress/Derval’s sister Domino (Claudine Auger), Bond can’t prevent the missiles themselves from going missing. 007 hotfoots it to Nassau, where Largo’s boat, the Disco Volante, is moored; there, he divides his time between making Domino fall in love with him, searching for the missiles with CIA contact Felix Leiter (Rik van Nutter), and neutralising the threat from voluptuous SPECTRE vixen Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) by whatever means he can. However, he can’t afford to lie around all day as the time ticks down to the world reluctantly paying the ransom (or facing the destruction of a major city). He relies on Domino’s willingness and ability to help him to get close to Largo’s underwater lair and, if he can find them, the nuclear devices.
Thunderball shows Bond absolutely in the swing of things, trotting the globe, bedding the women, using the gadgets – early on, he uses a jetpack, that’s right, a jetpack! – and (naturally) saving the day. Connery is comfortable to the point of underplaying the role (which isn’t a criticism) and his chauvinism somehow remains consistently charming; when a naked Fiona demands something to wear so she can leave the bath, Bond offers her her shoes. The familiar attributes, so clichéd and tired in Roger Moore’s Bond films, are still relative novelties here; and it’s just as well, because whilst the general mechanics of the plot and the movie function admirably, in some specifics Thunderball doesn’t work so well, and there are hints of the glibness to come. A good example of this occurs at the health spa, when Bond almost dry-humps himself to death on a silly traction table; mere seconds later, he’s fit enough to drag Molly Peters’ lovely physiotherapist into the shower for some slightly wetter…well, you get the drift. That said, there’s a nicely protracted scene of SPECTRE agents conducting their housekeeping with an (unnamed) cat-stroking protagonist pulling the strings and dismissing the incompetent and corrupt, Dr. Evil style.
More importantly, whilst the underwater sequences are certainly an innovation for the series, this is not necessarily a recommendation. Thunderball’s big climax is a harpoon shootout between Largo’s henchmen and the good guys, presumably the CIA. The problem is, everyone’s movements are slowed to such an extent that the scenes become unbearably protracted and unintentionally daft, especially since everyone is clad in flippers. It’s little wonder that after a while the camera starts watching passing marine life instead. Technically the film is rough around the edges too, with some haphazard editing, obvious modelwork and instances of sped-up film to try to inject drama into both fist fights and the sequences featuring sharks, which presumably didn‘t have the requisite menace at normal speed. Also, one shark in particular appears to fall foul of cruelty which seems gratuitous now, just as Fiona is callously dispatched (007’s quip, ’she‘s just dead‘, hardly even counts as a joke). I haven’t mentioned the acting of those other than Bond, but the cosmopolitan, European cast do fairly well: Celi’s Largo is a bulky, threatening bully and the superbly ballsy Fiona makes up for Auger’s pretty but bland Domino. Sadly, the only impressive feature of Rik Van Nutter’s Felix Leiter is the actor’s name.
The jetpack, the noise and spectacle of the Caribbean junkanoo, Connery’s cruel Casanova and his curvaceous conquests are all thoroughly enjoyable aspects of Thunderball; the slo-mo underwater shenanigans and a sometimes silly, slightly spotty plot are notable negatives. I liked Thunderball much better than its remake, but it didn’t capture my imagination in the same way as Goldfinger. At least it’s a lively adventure from a time when ‘more of the same from Bond’ was something of a recommendation, rather than a sigh of despair.