Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bond Is Forever: “Thunderball”

Getting much needed rest and recovery at a health clinic, agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is so skeptical of a man he encounters that the spy makes a call to MI6. Subsequent investigation uncovers a SPECTRE plot to switch identities with a Vulcan bomber pilot. When the jet bomber is hijacked and its atomic weaponry stolen, MI6 initiates a mission codenamed Thunderball to recover the bombs. Included in the dossier is a photograph of the pilot and his sister, Domino (Claudine Auger), and 007, knowing that the pilot who boarded the Vulcan was an impostor, requests to be reassigned to the Bahamas to trail Domino. Once there, Bond learns that the woman is the mistress of SPECTRE No. 2, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi). The agent must covertly inspect Largo’s ship, the Disco Volante, and try to stay ahead of SPECTRE before the nefarious conglomerate can detonate the atomic bombs.

Thunderball (1965) was dire
cted by Terrence Young, who also helmed the first Bond film, Dr. No in 1962, as well as From Russia with Love (1963). There are familiar faces (Bernard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny and Desmond Llewelyn as Q) and familiar elements (various gadgets and the beautiful Aston Martin), but Thunderball also plays with conventions and expectations. For instance, Bond is asked his name a few times but never responds with his popular, “Bond... James Bond,” instead saying James Bond or simply Bond. Additionally, he enters the office at MI6 headquarters and is clearly prepared to toss his hat toward the coat rack, only to see his target next to the door. In a similar vein, CIA agent and Bond pal Felix Leiter is introduced to the audience before 007 sees him. Bond knows him, but viewers, in actuality, do not, as Rik Van Nutter is the third actor in as many movies to portray Leiter. Therefore, the audience fears the mysterious man shadowing the British agent, almost as if the film is mocking the ever-changing role.
One of the best ways in which Thunderball challenges the series’ conventions is the Bond villainess Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). Volpe is an amalgamation of Bond Girls and Bond Villains, more seductive than Rosa Klebb of From Russia with Love and more clearly a villain than Tatiana of the same film and Pussy Galore of Goldfinger (1964). She is introduced in the film in a nightgown, lying in bed (and equated with Bond, who was in bed with a female in the previous scene). Moments later, she is in the same room with a dead man, a man in uniform, and a man with a gun, but she is undeniably the person in charge (and still wearing her nightgown). Throughout the film, she is dressed in bright, pastel colors, but her actions contradict her dainty apparel, as she races in her Ford Mustang at 100 mph (making her passenger, Bond, visibly anxious) and brandishes a shotgun (expertly hitting the clay targets). Volpe is an assassin, but like 007, who is licensed to kill, the notions of sex and violence are interchangeable (further exemplified by Bond, even in 1965, being dubbed “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” in Europe and Japan). But it is Volpe who initiates an intimate encounter with Bond (waiting for him in his bathtub), and then subsequently ridicules the agent’s promiscuity, since Volpe did not succumb to his charms. The fiery-haired Paluzzi, who easily outshines the rest of the supporting cast, originally auditioned for the role of Domino. She lost the part but was offered Fiona Volpe, and it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.
Martine Beswick, who plays Bond’s assistant,” Paula, also appeared as a gypsy woman engaged in fisticuffs in From Russia with Love (1963). Italian actor Adolfo Celi also had a role in Mark Robson’s Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and starred in Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? (aka Chi l’ha vista morire?/1972) with George Lazenby, whose sole portrayal of 007 was 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Actor Robert Rietti (sometimes credited as Rietty), who dubbed Celi’s voice for Thunderball, had a small role in the unofficial Bond film, Never Say Never Again (1983). Anthony Dawson and Eric Pohlmann as, respectively, Blofeld’s hands/body and his voice, also shared the role in From Russia with Love (the former also appeared in Dr. No).

The rocket pack utilized by Bond as a means
of escape in the pre-credit sequence was the Bell Rocket Belt, a fully functional machine developed by the U.S. Army. The producers originally wanted the debonair Bond to fly it without a helmet, but the pilot who was actually operating the rocket pack refused. O.H.M.S. (On Her/His Majesty’s Service), an officially authorized marking, is witnessed in Thunderball on the dossier Bond receives as O.H.M.S.S., which, of course, stands for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the name of a Fleming novel and corresponding adaptation. The title song was originally “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” (a reference to Bond’s “name” overseas), recorded by Shirley Bassey and then rerecorded by Dionne Warwick. However, the producers wanted the title and lyrics to reference the film’s title, so the song was rewritten and was performed by Tom Jones.
The year of 1965 also saw the release of The Ipcress File, featuring another British spy, Harry Palmer. Based on a novel by Len Deighton (with a nameless protagonist), the film follows agent Palmer (superbly portrayed by Michael Caine), almost an antithesis to the flamboyant 007. Harry Saltzman produced, and Bond alumni Peter Hunt (editor), John Barry (score), and Ken Adam (production design) were a part of the movie. Two sequels followed, Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967), also starring Caine and produced by Saltzman (Adam was also the production designer for the first sequel). Guy Doleman, who was Count Lippe in Thunderball (the man whom Bond initially suspects at the health clinic), plays Palmer's superior, Colonel Ross, in all three films. Doleman was also the very first Number Two (an ever-changing role) in the cult TV series, The Prisoner. Number Two’s voice, typically featured in the opening credits, was voiced by Rietti in numerous episodes.

The journey to the big screen for Thunderball was one of epic proportions. In 1959, after Ian Fleming had garnered fame with his James Bond novels, the author had worked on an original story for 007’s cinematic debut. Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham also collaborated on the screenplay. When the project was ultimately abandoned, Fleming wro
te a novel based on the story, and in March 1961, McClory, having seen an advanced copy of the book, filed suit. Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli acquired rights to the Bond novels and the Bond character, and the plan was to first adapt Thunderball. However, due to the lawsuit, they chose instead to bring Dr. No to movie theater screens. The suit was finally settled out of court, and future publications of the Thunderball novel were to include on the copyright page: “Based on a screen treatment by K. McClory, J. Whittingham and Ian Fleming.”

McClory had also been allowed the rights for a cinematic adaptation, and he made a deal with Saltzman and Broccoli in producing what would be the fourth movie of the Bond series. Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins were given screenplay credit, but McClory and Whittingham were credited (with Fleming) for “original story,” Whittingham for “original screenplay,” and McClory received a credit as a producer. An agreement between EON Productions and McClory maintained that he would not make another adaptation for 12 years. McClory attempted such an adaptation in 1976 but was halted when United Artists filed suit against him. Receiving financing and assistance from producer Jack Schwartzman (actress Talia Shire’s husband) and Warner Bros., McClory was able to produce a Bond film in 1983, Never Say Never Again (released the same year as an “official” entry from EON, Octopussy). McClory’s film was directed by Irvin Kershner, who also helmed the 1980 The Empire Strikes Back (aka Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), and starred Connery as Bond (the first time he portrayed the fictional agent in 12 years), Kim Basinger as Domino, Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush (an alternative to Fiona Volpe) and Max von Sydow as Blofeld. The year of 1983 was referred to by the media as “Battle of the Bonds,” and although Octopussy made more money at the box office, both films were successful.

Sadly, the Thunderball legal scrimmage continued. In the 1990s, after years of trying to get Marvel comic book character, Spider-Man, onto movie screens, Sony/Columbia Pictures were awarded rights to Spider-Man via Marvel. MGM/UA disputed this, claiming that, in a previous settlement, it owned all rights related to Spider-Man screenplays and drafts. In retaliation, Sony announced another adaptation of Thunderball, and MGM, fearing substantial loss of the dependable Bond revenue, agreed to a trade-off. (During the legal turmoil, Sony additionally sued MGM with the claim that Kevin McClory had co-authored the film version of Bond, a suit which was dismissed in 2000, as it had not been filed in a timely manner.) Sony released Spider-Man in 2002, and MGM had no worries over a competing Bond movie. In 2005, Sony purchased MG
M and the following year released a new Bond film, Casino Royale.

John Stears won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for Thunderball. Production designer Ken Adam was nominated for a BAFTA (as well as other Bond films), but lost to himself for The Ipcress File.
I can find little to complain about with Thunderball. It’s a cinematic delight, with topnotch action, glorious villains, and the always reliable Connery. Fiona Volpe is one of my favorite baddies of the Bond series; her surname is Italian for “fox,” and the redheaded Italian actress is most definitely a fox. I think the film only falters in an extended underwater battle sequence. It has a strong start, but eventually just feels like a series of vignettes to highlight snazzy subaquatic attacks and kills. But that’s a minor flub in an otherwise smashing entry to the 007 movies. Any thoughts on Thunderball?

Bond Is Forever will return next month with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).


  1. Excellent and well researched article about Thunderball, Sark. This is my second favorite Bond film. Goldfinger is my number one. This Bond film moves quickly. I like the whole cast. You are right about Fiona Volpe being a great female villian. The scuba fight underwater is awesome and still looks good today. It is beautifully filmed and I still think it is the best part of the movie. Connery is as handsome as ever and the scenery is stunning. I had no idea about all the legal problems. It was interesting to read about it. I enjoyed your review.

  2. What an incredible legal tangle over these movies! Those guys are like the world's richest dysfunctional family! You did some real digging to get all of this interesting information, didn't you? Excellent. I love Thunderball. The opening scene at the spa is great, and I agree with just about everything you said regarding the actors. The book Thunderball is one of my favorites too. Every time I read one of your Bond posts, I get out my Ian Fleming collection (I have all of them) and read one. Time for Thunderball!

  3. Sark, loved reading your review. You obviously do a lot of research. Sadly, this is yet another Bond film I haven't seen, so I can't really add to the conversation.

  4. Sark, I think this is my new favorite among your BOND IS FOREVER articles; it's a great review and the background info is fascinating. I remember Kevin McClory's legal dispute quite well. I subscribed to VARIETY in those days and McClory would periodically announce his "new" James Bond film, which was (at various times) called JAMES BOND OF THE SERCRET SERVICE and then WARHEAD. Of course, EON would then file a lawsuit and McClory's plans would go back on the shelf. For me, THUNDERBALL is the prototypical Bond pic, the one that defined the formula for many of the later films (GOLDFINGER, which I think is a better film, boasted some unique elements such as three strong female characters who each drive a different segment of the movie.) THUNDERBALL has exotic locales, spiffy chases, and a terrific bad girl. In fact, the stunning Luciana Paluzzi may be the best "bad girl" in the entire Bond series (I also remember her fondly from MUSCLE BEACH PARTY as--yes!--Annette's rival for Frankie). As THUNDERBALL's heroine, though, Claudine Auger is pretty but makes little impact. The underwater climax looks great, but could be more know, everyone moves a little slower in the water. John Barry's music is awesome, as always, though the title song's lyrics are funky ("...and he strikes like Thunderball"). Overall, though, all my quibbles are minor. THUNDERBALL is first-rate entertainment and the strongest in the series until THE SPY WHO LOVED ME twelve years later (though personally, I love OHMSS, thought that's a topic for next month). P.S., I was thrilled that you mentioned the Harry Palmer films, too. The first two rank high among my favorite spy pics.

  5. Sark, Awesome review!! In this Bond film, it looks like it is time for Bond to have little fun.. like in one of my favorite scenes, where he kills an enemy agent and throws flowers on the body or how about the the scene where he discovers the body of a NATO aerial observer and steals a piece of fruit as he leaves… Touches like these make "Thunderball" one of my favorite Bond movies…

  6. Sark, you blew me away again! I especially loved the parallel you drew with Len Deighton's work that year. Harry Palmer is indeed almost diametrically opposed to James Bond. No bells and whistles and big budget gadgets for Harry. Even his name seems quieter.

    Your research was meticulous and the litigation is an odd and, to me, sad part of the "Thunderball" legacy.

    I think many people feel that "Thunderball" is the quintessential Bond film. I really liked your reminders that the "Bond, James Bond" isn't utilized and that Felix Leiter is portrayed by yet a third performer.

    Once again, a remarkable post on one of the Cafe's most looked forward to series!