Tuesday, September 8, 2009


The fourth James Bond movie, director Terence Young's "Thunderball," (**** out of ****) by far the most ambitious 007 escapade when it came out in 1965, is the only Bond picture that won an Oscar for Best Special Visual Effects. Scenarists Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins brought back the worldwide criminal organization SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counterespionage, Terror, Revenge, and Extortion, to menace Bond after his previous adventure against Auric Goldfinger, who had cooperated with the Red Chinese. SPECTRE was behind Dr. No in "Dr. No," the villains in "From Russia with Love" as well as here in "Thunderball." Blofeld appeared in close-ups with a white cat in his lap in "FRWL" and here at a criminal organization summit when he kills a traitor. Nevertheless, you don’t get to see his face. You just hear his ominous voice. The Bond producers let Blofeld come out into the open for the next Bond epic "You Only Live Twice."

Like the best 007 movies, "Thunderball" takes advantage of actual events and the main real life event was the loss of two atomic bombs in the early 1960s. Blofeld's number two man, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), hatches a grand scheme to steal two Atomic bombs from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and use them to hold the world for ransom. Bond villains come in three types: those like Blofeld who are criminals and want to make the world powers pay, but they don't want to destroy the world. Those villains, like Stromberg and Drax in later Bond movies "The Spy Who Loved Me" and "Moonraker," who want to destroy the world and recreate civilization in their own image. Finally, there are the independent villains, like Franz Sanchez in "License to Kill," Mr. Big in "Live and Let Die," "Goldfinger," and Max Zorin in "A View to a Kill" who want to corner a market, but who have no designs of world domination. There is also a mention about the real life British train robbery that occurred in England before "Thunderball" was released. The actual train robbery netted the thieves £2.6 million. They committed the robbery on 8 August 1963 at Bridego Railway Bridge, Ledburn near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, England.

The "Thunderball" pre-credit sequence ranks one of the top five James Bond pre-credit sequences because it contains a surprise and a gimmick. James Bond and a French agent attend a funeral and the casket bears the initials JB, but the initials stand for Jacques Bouvard. Bond knew Bouvard as an assassin who had murdered two of his colleagues. He watches a veiled widow leave and climb into a limousine. She pulls the rear door shut without help from the chauffeur and the vehicle drives off. At a French ch√Ęteau, the widow enters a large drawing room to find 007 awaiting her. He rises, expresses his condolences, and then decks the lady with a right cross that sends her flying across a table. "My dear, Colonel Bouvard," Bond informs the man in drag, "I don't think you should have opened that car door yourself." A brief but potent slugfest ensues until Bond chokes Bouvard to death with a fireplace poker. Bouvard's henchmen break down the door seconds before Bond exits. He straps on Bell Aero systems Rocket belt jet-pack and flies off to his Aston-Martin where the French agent is waiting. They shove the jetpack in the trunk. Bond activates the bulletproof shield from the trunk. Never mind that the jetpack and the retractable shield could occupy the same space, then unleashes to stream of water that knocks Bouvard's gun-toting henchmen down.

Bond gets himself into several tight spots in "Thunderball." At the Shrublands clinic, Colonel Lippe (Guy Doleman of "The Ipcress File") catches Bond on the exercise machine and cranks up the speed. Bond is harnessed to it and cannot stop the machine. Later, he exploits his advantage over the nurse and has sex with her to maintain his silence over the incident. Bond is trapped during a fight in a swimming pool with one of Largo's henchmen and Largo lets in the sharks while placing a shutter over the pool. Bond is nicked in the ankle during the Junkanoo parade, and later a Largo henchman almost spears him under Largo's yacht.

Adolf Celi makes a superb villain with his scimitar shaped snout, the black eye patch, and his razor sharp voice. He is despicable from start to finish, especially when he threatens to apply hot and cold torture to Domino with a burning cigarette and ice cubes. He feeds one of henchmen to the sharks when the man fails to deal with 007. Later, after the RAF Vulcan lands in the Bahamas, he refuses to cut the impostor pilot Angelo Palazzi (Paul Stassino of "Escape to Athena") free of the cockpit straps but slashes the man's air hose so that he drowns. Earlier, after the villains killed the real RAF pilot, Palazzi demanded more money because of the plastic surgery that he had to undergo to impersonate the pilot. Clearly, Palazzi's greed motivated Largo in part to kill him, but Largo is just enough of a dastard to have done it anyway to keep from paying Palazzi period.

They plan to crash land an RAF Vulcan at sea, retrieve the bombs, and camouflage the aircraft with sharks swimming around it is inspired itself. While the landing isn't that convincing, it will do, but once the plane is on the ocean floor, it looks cool. The climactic undersea battle off the coast of Miami has been vastly underrated. At the time, this represented the biggest underwater battle in cinema history; indeed, the Bond producers would mimic it in outer space for "Moonraker." Despite the continuity problems in the underwater battle, Young and second unit director Peter Hunt have a blast; even the lobster trying to avoid the fighting is amusing. All the scenes with the sharks are neat. Bond's first two encounters with Largo at the casino and later on Largo's estate where they shoot skeet are first-rate. Young keeps the tone of the film rather serious and the one-liners and puns pay off beautifully. The briefing of the double-00s in London in that cavernous room with the huge wall map is very atmospheric. John Barry's music is tops, especially the underwater music.

“Thunderball” represented the high water mark for the James Bond franchise in the 1960s. By the time that “Thunderball” appeared, everybody else had jumped on the bandwagon to produce espionage thrillers. The parody “Casino Royale” with a host of top names came out in 1967 had nothing to do with the series of films that United Artists was producing and apparently it fooled the fans who thought it was a Sean Connery James Bond picture, which it wasn’t. “You Only Live Twice” followed “Thunderball,” but the box office receipts slackened up. The 007 producers blamed Columbia Pictures’ for releasing “Casino Royale” and believed that that terrible parody may have scared away moviegoers. As far as I am concerned, the Bond pictures did not reach the high water mark until “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969) where George Lazenby replaced Sean Connery.