When I went to see SPECTRE at the cinema, people asked me what I thought about it. My immediate reply was that “it was like Thunderball”. Some got the reference, others didn’t. It’s not a about the obvious resemblances; the same criminal organisation, a French Bond girl, a big meeting of SPECTRE officials where one gets killed because they’re scamming the boss….the resemblance is tonal and contextual. Both SPECTRE and Thunderball had the task of following a hugely successful and influential predecessor; where critical and audience expectations had been raised considerably in anticipation. Goldfinger was a massive box office and critical success and it set the tone for over 30 years where movie critics bemoaned that every new Bond movie wasn’t Goldfinger starring Sean Connery. Naturally the studios, United Artists, wanted what every producer and entertainment executive want: Can we have more of the same but different and better? Broccoli and Saltzman thought the Fleming novel that would have all that was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but events transpired so that Thunderball would be next.
That novel was chosen because an accord had been reached with the co-owners of the novel. As has been gone over in books, documentaries and film review websites, the novel of Thunderball has its origins in a failed screenplay which Fleming collaborated on with scriptwriter Jack Whittingham and producer Kevin McClory. When that project went wrong and was cancelled, Fleming went ahead and turned the script draft into a novel and was promptly sued. McClory was awarded joint ownership of the rights by a court and that would have implications not just when the Bond movies were starting to be made, but 20 and even 30 years later. Even so, Thunderball is most definitely an EON production Bond movie and it’s difficult to see what stamp McClory put onto it.
It is, however, most definitely a Terence Young Bond film and it’s here where you can compare and contrast the directorial styles of Young and Guy Hamilton, who directed Goldfinger (and would go on to direct Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun). Hamilton injected a lightness of touch with Goldfinger, he established a brusque relationship between Q and Bond which then went on to provide some of the most enjoyable comedy moments in the series. To a lesser extent, that same brusqueness can be seen in the relationship between M and Bond as well; M rarely questions 007’s competence, but gets exasperated at Bond’s lifestyle and know-it-all attitude. This was something Young didn’t bring to the series and there’s a more straightforward chain of command between Bond, M and Q in his films.
The most pointed difference between Hamilton and Young is in the way both directors drive the story. Hamilton was very focussed and lean with Goldfinger. Despite some glorious cinematography in the Swiss Alps in Summer, Goldfinger doesn’t revel in its settings as Dr No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball do. Hamilton keeps the story going and focusses on the tension between Bond and Goldfinger; in this regard the movie feels more like a duel between the two, unlike in the first two Bond films where the villain is revealed only in the third act in Dr No and is represented by a committee that hardly confronts Bond in person in From Russia With Love. Even the high point of Goldfinger, the attack on Fort Knox, was filmed on a set at Pinewood studios. Goldfinger is not a travelogue movie as others have been or as Fleming often wrote his novels; the locations serve the story.
By contrast, Young immerses the viewer in the locations and was well served by them in his three Bond movies. Bond doesn’t merely pass through the Caribbean; the camera lingers on the colourful aspects, the beaches, the sea, and the people. When the action shifts to the Bahamas, Young is in his element and a key moment in the movie is Bond trying to escape in a local carnival. This is what made Young a good choice to helm the first two Bond movies as they were establishing the character and the fictional spy world of Ian Fleming to an audience; his immersive style (which extended to him coaching Sean Connery in the art of the gentleman) instead of Hamilton’s slightly detached, comic book way of looking at it.
However, Young’s style creates problems for Thunderball. First of all, the budget was way bigger than the first 3 movies which gave him a free reign in creating dramatic set pieces but it also led to some slackening of pace as those set pieces were indulged in. The first act of the movie, set at the health resort of Shrublands, creates mystery but little tension. The second act, Bond investigating around Nassau and his first encounters with Domino and Largo are cagey, rather than cat and mouse as they were with Goldfinger or with the frisson with Pussy Galore. Second, with his attention to the details of style and setting, he doesn’t give the interpersonal scenes between Bond, Largo, Domino and Fiona Volpe more focus leaving some of them to come off a poor second to their counterparts in Goldfinger.
What illustrates this variable pacing is John Barry’s soundtrack. For me, Thunderball is perhaps his weakest soundtrack from the period between From Russia With Love through to Diamonds Are Forever. If you listen to the score, even the title song, the music has rhythm but then slows or even stops, before resuming again. For example, the 007 theme (wonderfully scored when it debuted in From Russia With Love) has the familiar rapid staccato but then hangs in the air for a few bars with just a trill before resuming its usual course. Start, stop, stop, start and so on. The music never really flows like in Barry’s other Bond scores and this pretty much matches some of the pacing of the movie itself. Even Barry’s haunting underwater music, again, promises mystery but little tension.
Thunderball has a lot of plot and locations to go through but it lacks a dynamic villain or a feisty foil for Bond to grapple with. Adolfo Celli is a fine actor and Largo does have menace, but he’s more laconic than Goldfinger and, he’s still a 2nd in command to the still unseen Blofeld. Largo’s plan sees him oversee events happening, rather than him revelling in them as Goldfinger did. This is a valid other approach; that Largo is more business-like in his dealings rather than grandstanding but his other persona of a playboy in his Bahamian manor doesn’t quite come off to balance his ordered villainy. Other villains don’t quite come off; Philip Locke, as Vargas, has a creepiness about him but little menace. Guy Doleman as Count Lippe is really underused given that he’s an actor that could have played a main Bond villain. His character is intriguingly set up but he never really pays off and what his role is, exactly, in SPECTRE’s plan is vague as Fiona Volpe seems to be more in charge of the plan to hijack the Vulcan bomber. He also gets bumped off quickly for reasons that are vague as well: Whether it’s because he’s been identified as an enemy agent by Bond or that he didn’t handle the situation with the fake Major Derval’s demand for more money very well, it seems odd that SPECTRE orders him killed. And we don’t see Doleman in his own death scene which suggests more was filmed but left on the cutting room floor.
Volpe is more promising as a villain; she’s ruthless, sexy and cunning and her death is memorable. It’s similar to the moment in Goldfinger where Bond embraces a femme fatale and then swings her around to take a blow from an assassin but in this case it’s terminal. In Goldfinger, the same action is reactive and raw, in Thunderball Bond is more calculating as he and Volpe are embracing, knowing that one of them must die at that moment. Hamilton had his tongue firmly in his cheek, Young played it more darkly.
However, Felix Leiter is much better represented by Rik Van Nutter. In the novels, Leiter was a lanky, fair haired Texan and this matches Van Nutter better than any other Felix, before or since. The script gives him not much more than the loyal buddy role for Bond to work with, but Leiter here is depicted as he was in the novels; as Bond’s contemporary and almost equal instead of an exasperated older agent who frets about what Bond is up to.
The interplay between Bond and Domino has some very interesting moments that mirrors the book fairly well but also gives Bond some depth about his attraction to a certain kind of woman. There’s a recurring theme to Bond’s relationships; he’s drawn to what is called “the bird with the broken wing”. In Doctor No he is, of course, stunned by Honey Ryder’s appearance but he becomes close to her after listening to her life’s story. He does that a lot; Bond is fascinated by the Bond girls’ backstories and if there is hurt, or loneliness, or a sense that something’s gone wrong in their lives he latches onto it and becomes more emotionally involved. You get this with Domino, the first girl to attract Bond with her sad life story. It continues with Tracy and then Melina Havelock, Octopussy, Kara Milovy, Elektra King and Vesper Lynd. There’s a moment on the beach where Bond has to break the news of her brother’s death to Domino and he is visibly uncomfortable about having to do it. He puts on his sunglasses as a way to keep his eyes hidden as he haltingly tells her. Only the appearance of Vargas breaks Bond out of his awkwardness. But, again, the role doesn’t go as far as it does for Tracy, Elektra or Vesper. Domino is a kept woman by the man who cold bloodedly killed her brother and ruined his good name and she has to be the one to enact the revenge (a nice twist when it comes) but Claudine Auger is too remote in the role; a problem that also applies to Carole Bouquet as Melina Havelock. The one female character who comes across as a well-rounded person in their own right is the physiotherapist Pat Fearing; who convinces as an attractive, fun loving yet professional young woman with a girl next door charm. She has only a brief role, but a memorable one. There’s even a hint that Bond and Lippe are rivals for her attention, which doesn’t get developed due to Lippe’s untimely demise.
All these things are blips on what is otherwise a movie filled with great set pieces and which expand on the Bond universe. The hijacking of the Vulcan is one but also the assembling of all the 00 Section with each agent being given their own throne in a semi-circle, as if they are the new knights of the Round Table. However, the most extraordinary sequence must be the movie’s climactic underwater battle. It’s a stunt sequence that had hitherto not been done in film in such detail or scale but it’s also remarkable for one other reason: It conveys a “war is hell” message in a Bond movie; the only time the series does this.
In other Bond movies, the 3rd act commando raid is full of people getting shot, grenades blowing up, extras flying through the air and no matter how badly the goodies seem to get gunned down early on, they never decrease in numbers. Thunderball’s U.S. Marines vs SPECTRE divers depicts combat in a novel and often gruesome way. The easiest way to take someone out of play is to cut their air hose: It doesn’t kill them, but they’re left to bob helplessly on the surface. Others get a spear in their guts…or in one shot, a harpoon right through the arm. There are no guns, one explosion (courtesy of James Bond), lots of spears and knife fighting. After the fight has been going on for a while, you see bodies floating lifelessly in the background with spears going right through them. The trails of blood eventually attract sharks and both Marines and minions have to fight each other whilst keeping an eye on what the sharks will do. Intercut through the battle are shots of marine creatures going about their business. Make no mistake; this is a message of the brutality of men at war contrasted with the simple existence of animals. Bond, with a Q Branch super underwater jet pack on his back (mirroring the opening scene) just breezes his way through the fight, and Connery is upstaged by a blonde stuntman playing a U.S. Marine who seems to get the better of his opponents and all without the benefit of 007’s gadgets.
Once the battle is won, the sharks circle once more…SPECTRE surrenders (the villain army rarely surrenders in Bond movies) and everyone knows they have to get out of there before their eaten. We know what’s going to happen to the dead… By which time Largo’s escaped and we have the final fight on the Disco Volante. There’s something rushed about this scene, and I don’t just mean the sped up back projected shots of the boat speeding out of control. After having an intricately directed underwater battle, Bond’s fight with Largo is an anti-climax, but it is fitting that Domino is the one to dispatch him. She was his lover whilst all the time he had been using her to get to her brother, kill him and ruin his reputation in a plot to extort money from the world. Domino no longer needs Bond by this point and when they’re in the boat together, instead of the usual sex-in-a-boat moment, Bond instead deploys a skyhook line so they’re hoisted out of the sea. Domino must rebuild her life and relationships from this point onwards and that won’t include James Bond; the man who sympathised with her but ultimately shattered her view of reality.
When I get to my analysis of SPECTRE, I will return to some of the themes and issues raised in Thunderball for there are definitely parallels. Sometimes two Bond movies will reflect each other, not necessarily by ripping each other off but because themes and circumstances put them together. Sometimes, as in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The World Is Not Enough the parallels are deliberately put in, in this case the demand to follow up a classic by giving something the same but different and in greater quantities shaped Thunderball and SPECTRE.
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