starring Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celi, Luciana Paluzzi
screenplay by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins,
based on the novel by Ian Fleming
directed by Terence Young
by Ian Pugh Thunderball is far from the worst Bond film--you'd be hard-pressed to even label it outright bad--but it may be the entry in this venerated series most worthy of contempt for its concerted, ultimately successful effort to formulize its hero's adventures. After the grim uncertainty of From Russia with Love and the classic iconography of Goldfinger, Thunderball is more than content to let a suddenly-enormous budget ($9M compared to Goldfinger's $3M) carry it far, far over-the-top with ludicrous underwater battles and pieces of gadgetry that become full-blown set-pieces in and of themselves. (That jet-pack sequence must have been astonishing in 1965, but it comes from a different cinematic world entirely--and, maddeningly, the filmmakers bend over backwards to accommodate it.) It's not too difficult to understand such a lopsided reliance on special effects, however, considering that Thunderball's premise is far too slim to accommodate its bloated 130-minute running time: SPECTRE hijacks a NATO bomber jet and threatens to detonate its nuclear warheads in a major city in America or Great Britain unless both governments pay a hefty ransom. Heading the operation is Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), a sinister something-or-other calling the shots out of the Bahamas. Bond travels to Nassau to contact "Domino" Derval (Claudine Auger), Largo's mistress and sister of the missing jet's pilot, and persuades her to help.
Indeed, it's the kind of scenario so ridiculously vague that you're practically encouraged to plug in Bond's familiar traits at the appropriate moments and coast through the rest on autopilot. As the victim of a long and convoluted legal battle, the Thunderball that finally made it to the screen feels like the product of too many lawsuits and committees, its various concepts treated as copyrighted properties and empty utilities.* SPECTRE is no longer a sweeping, interfering power in the Cold War--it's become a cadre of interchangeable bad guys, collectively groomed to serve as Bond's long-term arch-nemesis. It's particularly difficult to care about the antagonists this time around: Despite his alleged importance to the evil organization, literal #2 man Largo is all but defined by his eye patch, a growling supervillain prototype who doesn't lock horns with 007 so much as cross paths with him now and then to trade a clandestine "fuck you." The film seems to be onto something with femme fatale Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), who insists that a sexual encounter with Bond at the behest of "Queen and Country" isn't nearly enough to sway her to the side of righteousness--but soon she is dead, and our attention is drawn back to the bland and uninteresting Domino. Shots are fired, women are seduced, et cetera, et cetera. While you can't deny the series its lifeblood, there's a difference between molding those aspects to fit the story's parameters and doing it the other way around. This may be only a mediocre work, but it's also the precursor to every single one of the "bad Bonds"; in its desire to standardize, Thunderball becomes the very last thing a Bond film should ever be: a terminal snoozefest.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers From a transfer standpoint, Thunderball is the first dud in MGM's Bond-on-Blu-ray line. Part and parcel of its steroidal excess, this was the first 007 adventure in 'scope, and the transition to a wider frame still packs a punch when viewing these films in chronological order. But there's something incongruously lacklustre about Thunderball's visuals that Lowry Digital's restoration efforts have done little to rectify. While I laud them for not revising the sickly colours, apparently a shortcoming of Ted Moore's cinematography (you could almost forgive Lowry had they tried to infuse the picture with the pop-art appeal of its predecessors, also shot by Moore), other such temptations evidently proved irresistible, as this 2.35:1, 1080p presentation looks overprocessed throughout. (Note that Maurice Binder's title sequence is windowboxed at 2.20:1.) DNR is abound, and the contrast seems jacked-up to compensate with an illusion of sharpness; since the original elements were often irreparably damaged (note the streaks running through much of the second-unit stuff, as well as the hair caught in the gate during Largo's entrance), it's pretty pointless to leech the image of grain. C'mon, guys! These remasters were supposed to be definitive. At least the 5.1 DTS-HD MLA remix kicks butt this time around, sounding fuller than the DD 1.0 "original mono" option--unless I'm mistaken, Thunderball was exhibited in quadraphonic stereo at select venues--and legitimately discrete, with the subwoofer occasionally used to italicize the likes of Bond's jet-pack.
Two commentaries grace the disc instead of the usual one, though there's enough dead air in the second, more meandering track (featuring editor Peter Hunt and co-screenwriter John Hopkins) that I wonder if it wouldn't have been prudent to consolidate them. John Cork does hosting duty on both yakkers and emerges as an invaluable participant, bridging sometimes-banal recollections with informed insights and meticulously-researched anecdotes. It's here and from Cork that we learn the details of the Kevin McClory debacle, complete with a synopsis of the telltale screenplay on which McClory collaborated with Ian Fleming. And I think it says something positive about the eclecticism of these commentaries that I only just noticed Sean Connery's complete absence from them. Moving on to the video-based extras, the Declassified: MI6 Vault kicks off with "The Incredible World of James Bond - Original 1965 NBC Television Special" (51 mins., 480i), an allegedly landmark slice of propaganda hyperbolically narrated by golden-age radio voice Alexander Scourby. Dull and interminable, it compacts the first four Bond flicks into digest form, only occasionally cutting away to behind-the-scenes footage that is recycled and better contextualized elsewhere on the platter besides. I did kind of enjoy the relentlessly goofy montage of stock footage depicting Bond's early life (the word "orphan" cues a redheaded boy fishing alone on a riverbank), but that, too, is excerpted within the making-of materials. Equally listless, "A Child's Guide to Blowing Up a Motor Car - 1965 Ford Promotional Film" (17 mins., 480i) is edutainment with a bone-dry sense of humour as a Ford exec takes his son to the set of Thunderball, where the kid gets into all manner of Dennis the Menace-style mischief. Did I mention it's silent save the narration from writer Denis Norden? Yawn.
The titular production designer describes the content of his Thunderball home movies in "On Location with Ken Adam" (13 mins., 480i), a piece that mainly caused me to hope something similar appends You Only Live Twice. "Bill Suitor: The Rocket Man Movies" (4 mins., 480i) finds Connery's jet-packing stunt double editorializing a Super8 reel of his 21-second voyages in the apparatus, which necessitated reshoots of Connery's inserts when Suitor refused to propel himself off a rooftop at 60mph in an experimental rocket without a helmet, the big sissy. Lastly, "Thunderball Boat Show Reel" (4 mins., 480i) is an early, abbreviated version of the underwater battle cobbled together for promotional purposes nine months prior to the film's release, while "Selling Bonds - Original 1965 TV commercials" collates three short advertisements for tie-in raincoats, slacks, and of course toys. Skipping over the next section, 007 Mission Control (I said all that I can say about this "special feature"--"special" is right--in the From Russia with Love review above), brings us to Mission Dossier and "The Making of Thunderball" (27 mins., 1080i), a featurette that begins tediously (do we really need the genesis of James Bond recapped for us again?) and ends tersely, much like Thunderball itself. Ian Fleming Foundation member Cork meanwhile betrays his allegiance to the author with amusingly unflattering photos of McClory. Between the lines of this doc and the subsequent "The Thunderball Phenomenon" (31 mins, 1080i) is the message that, bolstered by the inclining success of the franchise, everyone involved in the production was cocksure to a fault. "Phenomenon," by the by, refers to Thunderball's proto-blockbuster roots: So much hype swirled around the movie that it ultimately came second to the marketing gimmicks. Even the soundtrack was rushed into stores before John Barry had finished composing the score! Capping off this section, "The Secret History of Thunderball" (4 mins., 1080i) examines the minute differences between various incarnations of the film; based on the illustrative clips, I assume this BD contains the theatrical cut.
Ministry of Propaganda houses three trailers, five TV commercials, and an unprecedented ten radio spots for Thunderball. Rounding things out, the requisite Image Database is divided into the following categories: Portraits, The Aston Martin, Chateau D'Anet, Pinder's Shop, Searching for the Vulcan, Romance Beneath the Waves, Underwater Action, The Final Fight, The Pinewood Tank, Thunderball Around the Globe, and Merchandising. Disappointingly excluded: a gallery showcasing the myriad magazine covers and titillating photo spreads for which the women of Thunderball posed. For the record, MGM has once again shortchanged the 130-minute film's length on the cover art, claiming it lasts 125 minutes. (If only.) Perhaps some intern is going by the pictures' running times in PAL format. Originally published: November 20, 2008.
*I think I finally understand why producer Kevin McClory clung so jealously to the movie rights for Fleming's Thunderball, awarded him after he successfully argued that he created Blofeld and SPECTRE as part of a committee intended to bring Bond to the screen. After remaking the film in 1983 as the fey, forgettable Never Say Never Again, he could have feasibly developed a rival series without too many complaints of recycling the same material. Roger Ebert's contemporary review of Never Say Never Again makes no mention of the circumstances that brought the movie to fruition, concentrating on fifty-something Connery's return to the role while insisting that "nothing in this movie has much to do with anything else"--like a good Bond film should, I guess. return