My memory of Thunderball, which I hadn’t seen in over fifteen years, was hazy. I remember it being confusing, boring in places, with lots of people underwater cutting each other’s air hoses. It wasn’t a great film, and it wasn’t terrible, but somewhere in the middle. Regrettably, that’s how I experienced it in my recent DVD viewing. While the film is entertaining, it suffers from all of the above, not to mention the waste of a great potential villain in Emilio Largo.
We begin as we always do, with Mr. Connery’s portrayal of the iconic MI6 agent. In this case, however, it’s difficult to separate Mr. Connery from the rest of the movie because I believe the script’s inherent flaws affect Mr. Connery’s performance. There’s nothing wrong with his work this time around, but I couldn’t help but feel that he’d almost become too comfortable in the role. The first three films were so well-scripted that any actor would still find discoveries to be made in Bond’s character. Both Mr. Connery, and the audience, are still becoming accustomed to who this man is in the earlier films. With Goldfinger, the series pushed the boundaries of reality that it took Mr. Connery to keep the whole thing grounded.
In Thunderball, Bond is as confident as ever, to be sure. He’s as professional as ever. He knows what he’s doing, and utilizes all of his and the CIA’s resources to uncover the plot. Yet something is lacking. There are no more surprises to be had with Bond. I blame the script. This is a real shame, because the film starts out promising with a long first act that sets up the rest of the film beautifully. I thought I was in for a well-structured picture. Not so. The problem is once the damn nukes are stolen, they are just left to sit with Largo until it’s time for them to be deployed. Mr. Connery is left to handle a host of illogical maneuvers to mark time. Certainly Mr. Connery is game, and does his absolute best. It’s almost easy to think the film is actually better than it really is simply because of his presence.
About That Script…
Frankly, the script stinks once the nukes get stolen. Up to that point, however, it’s actually terrific. All the set-ups are clearly explained. The clever use of a double to hijack a NATO test flight is slowly revealed to both us, and then to Bond. There is intrigue and danger at Bond’s spa retreat, an amusing attempt on his life (or at least his spine) as Bond gets a taste of poetic justice for his…uh…pelvic activity. There’s the unexpected theft of two nuclear bombs. We get to see Blofeld and a quick glimpse inside SPECTRE. It’s all wrapped up in a neat package forty minutes in, as Mr. Lippe is taken out by Fiona Volpe, an assassin on a motorcycle firing an RPG into the back of his car. Tight scripting. It’s a meaty first act with lots of possibility.
Then it grinds to a halt. If you examine the second act closely, nothing happens. And because nothing happens, the script flails around trying to come up with things to happen, even though they make little sense. The problem is one of story. The nukes don’t get moved. Largo is supposed to stay put. So he does. And so does the movie. The reason is probably due to the troubled history of the script itself.
The script’s logical inconsistencies really are a deal-breaker in my mind. Bond first encounters Largo in the casino*, planting references to SPECTRE several times to see if it impacts Largo. Clearly it does, because Largo sends a man to hide in Bond’s shower, with intent to kill. Bond disarms him and send him back to Largo. Later, Largo finds an underwater intruder by his boat. He’s got to be fairly certain it’s Bond.
So why does Largo welcome Bond to his estate? Why doesn’t he just shoot him right there? This is just such sloppy storytelling, and at this point, I threw up my hands. Any dramatic suspense has been blown out of the water (so to speak), I lost all interest in the story, and had to sit back and just enjoy individual scenes.
What made this all the more frustrating is that Largo could have been a great character. I’ve not read the novel, but I’m told Largo is a sadist, and a far more interesting personality. What I like is that this villain has a defined agenda, he’s a leader, and he’s kick-ass serious about it. He strides right into the SPECTRE meeting, and following the electrocution of Number Eleven, commands the room as he strides down the catwalk detailing his plan. Alas, there’s no depth to him. Dr. No was an embittered outcast who finds a home in SPECTRE. There is a suggestion that Largo is the same, in that SPECTRE’s hideout is inside the French Ministry of Displaced Persons, but that’s all we get.
I found Volpe to be an intriguing femme fatale, but again the drama strips away any suspense or interest. When she picks up Bond on the beach, she then roars down the road at a hundred miles an hour to suspenseful Bond music.
What’s she going to do? Crash the car and kill herself and Bond? Not likely. That the filmmakers insert this scene as if it was somehow supposed to raise the tension is pretty insulting. It’s frustrating because Volpe has the capacity to be an interesting character, but there isn’t much else given to us. Then there’s Largo’s sidekick, Vargas, introduced as a man who does not drink, smoke, or have sex. We don’t see this dramatized. We don’t see how these alleged character quirks drive Vargas’ behavior. One possibly interesting character, the nuclear physicist, is barely in the picture at all.
The conclusion arrives with Largo finally ready to offload the bombs, and Bond in hot pursuit. But it pains me to say that the underwater sequences, which were innovative and probably exciting at the time, just don’t hold up. The climactic fight is boring, with bodies flailing around, and everyone moving like snails. There are only so many ways to kill someone underwater, and the ideas are tapped out before that sequence.
Like the previous films, production designer Ken Adam does a marvelous job, and his work is worth noting. One thing that Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Thunderball share is the continuity of Mr. Adam’s work. His style for the films share similar characteristics and it’s worth noting that I feel From Russia lacks a cohesive sense of design — and he wasn’t the designer.
In previous articles, I suggested viewers keep an eye out for contrast — whether it be in shape, lighting, lines, space, color or texture — or uniformity. A great designer’s use of these elements can really elevate a picture’s visual style, and subconsciously create emotional or visceral reactions. Mr. Adam does not disappoint. He owes credit to his directors, who shoot Mr. Adam’s expansive and expressive sets and locations from low angles, often permitting viewers to see all the way to the ceiling.
The fight sequence in Col. Boitier’s home is typical of a Bond set. High ceilings, massive space, filled with contrasts of shape — in this case, circles and rectangles. So deft is the filmmaking that contrast exists not only within shots, but between shots, appropriately heightening the subconscious tension. The contrast of shape itself is representative of the collision between Bond and Boitier.
There is marked contrast between the SPECTRE’s HQ and that of MI6, where the briefing for all the double-O’s takes place. SPECTRE’s hall is (once again) expansive. Here the space stretches horizontally, with a lowered ceiling, creating a sense of narrowness and claustrophobia. The colors are stark and cold — black, white, and silver. It’s a rectangular room for the most part, with little round lights above each man’s head, suggesting an interrogation. In a way it is, as they report their progress to Blofeld.
Meanwhile, the MI6 briefing also takes place in an expansive set. However, there are several wide shots which emphasize the softer, more welcoming, and refined setting of British Intelligence. The double-O’s are seated in a semi-circle. Circles dominate the shapes in the room, even on the floor. Here, a vertical perspective is emphasized, giving the room an open and airy feeling (think “freedom”).
One other sequence drives home the concept of shape contrast. The health farm where Bond is recuperating is decorated in muted, but pleasant tones. There are squares and rectangles everywhere. The moment his nurse opens the curtains to the spine stretcher, there is a massive oval shape above it on the ceiling. Viewers of Dr. No have seen this before. The sudden contrast of a circle with the squares foreshadows the attempt to maim Bond. The editing also cuts rapidly between the linear, boxy shapes of the spine machine and the round speed gauge.
Finally, we have the explosions of color that flood the picture when we enter the Bahamas. And need I mention the strong blues and reds that accompany that dangerous Volpe?
Look, the film is not an aesthetic failure and not a failure for the Bond franchise. I like that the dramatic tone returns to that of From Russia With Love – a serious espionage film that lacks the more arch aspects of Goldfinger. The direction is solid. The actors are all engaging. The design and editing are all strong. The real weakness is in the second and third acts of the script, and it really does the picture a disservice.
James Bond will return in “You Only Live Twice.”
*Footnote: Baccarat has no skill associated with it whatsoever. It is entirely a game of luck.