(*with apologies to Van Morrison).
Thunderball (1965, directed by Terence Young) is the James Bond movie with which I have the least familiarity. I think I've seen it exactly once, and that on cable way back in the early 1980s. Thunderball is the first Bond film to be filmed in 2.35:1 widescreen, and I know that I've never seen it wide before. And yet, Thunderball somehow took root in my movie consciousness in spite of this. Part of this is the remake, Never Say Never Again, which I've seen several times (and remains the only one of the Connery Bonds I've seen in an actual movie theater). Part of it is Tom Jones's theme song, which is in heavy rotation on my iTunes; I think it's the best of the Bond themes, bar none. But the movie itself? It turns out that I had forgotten most of it in the thirty years since I first saw it.
It's...interesting. All of the associations I have with the movie, the ones that have nothing to do with the movie itself, overlayered the experience of watching it. Certainly, the baggage I bring to the movie isn't its fault, but it's there none the less.
Thunderball turns out to have more elements that have shown up in parody than any of the other Bond films I can think of. Certainly, there's the spy car, which is the series most elaborate gadget up to that point. And the rocket pack--which was real, by the way. And the shark tank. And Bond unmasking a SPECTRE agent in drag in the prologue (a moment that I can't even watch without hearing the voice of Austin Powers exclaiming: "That's a MAN, baby!"). In its own way, Thunderball is as seminal a Bond movie as its predecessors. But that's not necessarily a good thing. You also begin to see the cracks in the formula. Hell, the movie itself is aware of the cracks in the formula and has some fun lampooning them (more on that in a minute). I mean, this is a retread of Doctor No and Goldfinger, with an escalating budget and an escalating level of ridiculousness. The reliance on gadgets on both sides of the fence was becoming troublesome.
Still, the franchise hadn't jumped the rails just yet. There are still pleasures to be had. A key part of the pleasures Thunderball offers is the triumvirate of Bond girls: Claudine Auger, Luciana Paluzzi, and Hammer star Martine Beswick. It knows how to use its eye candy, too. This is a movie that, metaphorically, goes back to the beach in order to show off its stars to their best advantage. The production design is eye candy, too. Thunderball had a larger budget than the first three Bond films combined, and it lavished that budget on Ken Adams's department. It compounds this by filming his sets in glorious widescreen. This is very much the best-looking of the Connery Bonds.
The story here finds SPECTRE's number 2 man, Emilio Largo stealing two atomic bombs from a NATO training mission in order to extort a ransom from the NATO member nations. Bond, for his part, stumbles up on the plot when he happens across suspicious goings-on at the spa where he's recovering from his last mission. The trail leads him to Nassau, where Largo has a yacht. Largo's ward is Domino, and she's the weak link in the organization because Domino's brother is the poor bastard who flies the mission. SPECTRE sees him as disposable, a fact that Bond eventually uses to leverage Domino's collaboration. Also in Nassau is Fiona Volpe, a SPECTRE assassin, who has her eye on bond. The early part of the movie finds Bond fencing with Volpe and her goons. It's actually kind of disappointing that the movie disposes of her so early. She's a LOT more interesting than Largo. C'est la guerre, I guess.
From my point of view, Largo gets screwed by my own personal associations with the movie. Adolfo Celi plays Largo as a pretty generic Bond villain: ethnic and maimed and seemingly evil for the sake of being evil. Unfortunately for Celi, another actor played Largo later on, and whatever the faults of Never Say Never Again, Klaus Maria Brandauer is not one of them. He brought Largo to life in a way that Thunderball completely fails to do.
Fiona Volpe is the first true femme fatale in the Bond series, unless you want to count Lotte Lenya, but she's also one of the key instances of the self-awareness the Bond movies have always dabbled in. She throws Bond's seduction back in his face: "But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue...but not this one!" In doing so, she's actually criticizing Goldfinger (a film that probably needs more criticism than it gets) and the way it turns on the ridiculous notion that the plot is undone when Bond, epic cocksman that he is, gives the lesbian Pussy Galore a good fucking. It's nice to see the series itself even the score. What was it that Godard once said: "The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie?" Yeah. Like that.