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With 1965's Thunderball the first wave of the James Bond series reached its pinnacle of popularity. The superb Goldfinger had put Ian Fleming's 007 over the top with the perfect mix of action, sex and comic book escapism. The first two outings Dr. No and From Russia with Love were reissued on a killer double bill that performed better than most new releases.
Danjaq and Eon aimed for another Bond film for Christmas of 1965, which is where the trouble started. Breaking with their previous careful production process, Saltzman and Broccoli went all out filming in locations in England, France and Caribbean, with as many as three second units working parallel to the main shoot. Terence Young returned as director to find that the script hadn't been entirely finalized. Protesting the schedule, Young quit at some point in the hasty post-production period, leaving editor Peter Hunt to do major filmic surgery to put the film together. The result is that Thunderball has some of the series' most impressive filmic set pieces but an unusually sloppy structure.
The bigger budget means more gadgets, vast sets and in particular a huge underwater battle scene, all of which diminish James Bond's importance in his own movie. Goldfinger had played fun games with its own excess, stretching reality just far enough to include fanciful things like a Rolls-Royce with fenders of cast gold, and a bowler hat that doubles as a lethal Frisbee. Thunderball's main idea is an almost mundane nuclear extortion gambit, perhaps modeled on the Robert Aldrich's 1954 Cold War thriller World for Ransom. 1 Spectre operative Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) uses his voluptuous agent Fione Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) to replace N.A.T.O. bomber pilot Francois Derval (Paul Stassino) with Angelo Palazzi, a pilot bribed to undergo plastic surgery. Palazzi murders his flight crew in mid-air and delivers the bombs to Largo's yacht Disco Volante in the Caribbean. Spectre threatens to blow up Miami unless the countries involved hand over a big ransom.
Unfortunately, Thunderball goes off on frequent tangents to work flashy gadgets and action into the story. A prologue has a nice battle between Bond and a "widow" but we're then treated to scenes with rocket jet packs and motorcycles that fire missiles. Mattes and rear projection are required to put Sean Connery into scenes like these, as well as most of the entire concluding battle. Action-wise, Bond is too often only along for the ride.
The long episode at the health spa gives us sinister Spectre agent Count Lippe, who waves his secret Spectre tattoo in Bond's face. We like the cozy back-rubs with Patricia Fearing (Molly Peters), but trapping Bond into a muscle-traction machine is funny in the wrong way, and a gag more suited to Laurel & Hardy.
Faced with the extortion plot, Britain's spymasters worry and fret in a beautiful situation room that inexplicably sets their giant secret spy wall map right in front of an equally oversized picture window, in full view of the city outside. When Bond goes to the Bahamas to track down Francois Derval's sister Domino (Claudine Auger, totally colorless but wearing a terrif peek-a-boo swimsuit), the story bogs down while he wanders about like a tourist, clashing with the dangerous Fiona (whose new Mustang sounds like a Jaguar) and poking around Domino, who just happens to be Emilio Largo's main squeeze.
What characterized the first three Bonds was a strong narrative drive, with Bond the key figure in every scene. The forward momentum of Thunderball breaks down in repetitive underwater scenes (for some reasons, scuba gear and bubbles wear out their welcome very quickly) and return visits to the Junkanoo, the Bahamian equivalent of Carnival. We're told that the dullness of this section forced editor Hunt to accelerate the action, cutting a "day" out of the story. Bond races from scene to scene, and most of agent/aide Paula Caplan's (Martine Beswick) role is eliminated.
Bond keeps returning to the rather phony prep room of Q (Desmond Llewelyn), to listen to more awkward exposition about gadgets he'll need to use in upcoming scenes. The rushed continuity makes it seem absurd that Emilio Largo isn't more serious about killing his obvious enemy. We're told that editor Hunt "flopped" an entire scene of Bond returning to his hotel. The producers knew they had the essential ingredients for a hit but no longer seemed to care about crafting a superior film; Hunt's opinion of the show might be expressed in a brief shot of a dog urinating on a Junkanoo float.
Part of the trouble at the producing level could have been a surplus of cooks in the kitchen. Thunderball started life as a film project separate from the official Bond series. Kevin McClory bankrolled the Fleming screen treatment that was eventually published in book form as Thunderball. A big rights battle ended up with McClory sharing producer credit; with one too many producers, it's possible that the shooting units weren't all filming the exact same script. The Thunderball property stayed with McClory, enabling him, years later, to entice Sean Connery out of retirement for a slightly altered but inferior remake called Never Say Never Again. If I look at that mess again, it's only to glom the young Kim Basinger!
Thunderball's "good stuff" eventually outweighs the bad, even though the movie doesn't live up to its massive publicity hype. John Barry's score is one of his best, helping in no small part to glue scenes together and keep something of interest going during all those underwater scenes. Luciana Paluzzi makes a delightfully sexy villainess, while she lasts. The photography is sleek throughout, with all the night scenes looking great except the hand-held Junkanoo material. The N.A.T.O. jet hijacking is handled well, with the spectacle of the Vulcan bomber ditching in the moonlit ocean particularly well handled -- the effects won an Academy Award.
Bond has some okay encounters with Largo and an even better nighttime burglary scene ending in the villain's shark pool. The underwater scuba battle is elaborate and interesting, but still ponderous, like a slow-mo ballet. The stunt divers and second unit directors think up scores of action bits, only for the scene to go slack. After a fun entrance riding a one-man torpedo backpack Connery hardly seems to be involved. But the movie momentarily kicks into gear with the exciting (and, in 1965, astounding) spectacle of Largo's yacht splitting in two to reveal that the front half is a high-speed hydrofoil suited for fast getaways. It's all preposterous -- there's no way the boat could escape the Air Force -- but irresistibly exciting. In that year we'd never seen anything so extravagant as building an entire ship for the one amazing stunt.
It's really all over from that point on, with Peter Hunt working overtime to put together a fight scene in the Disco Volante's wheelhouse, and the 007 rubber life raft company delivering its wares right on cue. In 1965, we were slightly disappointed that Thunderball wasn't as fantastic as the previous Bond adventure .... but we were still ready to see it again.
MGM's Blu-ray of Thunderball looks clean and bright, especially with the added contrast range afforded by the 1080 progressive signal. It's 007's first show in Panavision, a screen shape that lends itself to Maurice Binder's soft-core silhouette title sequence: Sploosh! Have a spear gun bolt in the butt, dear. Besides sharpening the image and optimizing the color, the Lowry restoration erases the wires that were once so obvious during the Vulcan ocean landing. I'd squawk louder about the revision, but those wires just looked terrible -- I have to admit that I'm looking forward to a similar clean-up for the wires that pull Goldfinger's Lear Jet in that movie's aerial model sequences.
MGM again has duplicated the contents of the earlier Ultimate DVD editions, bumping some of the extras to HD. Some of the old interviews from 1995 were taped in ordinary 8mm video and still look pretty weak, but with a few exceptions (like John Stears' preposterous stories about blowing up the Disco Volante) the docus are very interesting. (full list below)
That's it for Savant, for this batch of 007 releases. Dr. No, From Russia with Love and even the first Moore Live and Let Die make the grade with this reviewer, who has fond life-altering memories of staring agog at every new Connery release, as well as buying all the record albums and memorizing the events of each picture as synchronized to the John Barry cues. Next time up I hope we'll get Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and You Only Live Twice, other nostalgic favorites.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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