Written by Richard Maibaum, John Hopkins, and Jack Whittingham
Directed by Terence Young
The fourth entry in the James Bond franchise is thought to be the best by some. Sean Connery had become totally comfortable with the character and was in peak form in the role. There is more humor here, without descending into silliness. The action scenes have become more refined, and the gadgets perfected. If Thunderball is not the best of the films, then it’s quite close to it.
Once again, Bond is back to battling the agency known as SPECTRE and its agents. The opening scene has Bond lamenting that he didn’t kill one of the top agents as he’s attending the funeral. Bond’s suspicions are aroused, however, and he goes to confront the widow with surprising results but a good deal of satisfaction for Bond. Right from this first, pre-credit sequence, the viewer is treated to a great action scene complete with some cool Bond gadgets.
However, one agent does not make a dent in SPECTRE’s influence around the world. The scope of their reach is shown in a sequence where various supervisors report on their progress of things like assassinations, train robberies, and drug trafficking to #1, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (portrayed by Anthony Dawson). As plans to hold NATO hostage are detailed by Blofeld, Bond tracks a SPECTRE agent known as Count Lippe (portrayed by Guy Doleman) to a health farm in Northern England. There is much more to this health farm than meets the eye, as Bond soon learns.
From there, SPECTRE manages to put an agent in place of the co-pilot of a fighter jet transporting nuclear warheads. Angelo Palazzi (portrayed by Paul Stassino) has been physically altered to be a doppelganger for Major Francois Derval, who was scheduled to pilot the flight. The agency has captured these warheads and brought them to a secret hiding place in the Caribbean to hold the world hostage. It’s up to Bond to thwart their plan.
The action takes place in the most beautiful of settings in the Caribbean. Bond gets to romance the only lead they have while time is running down. It’s the perfect story as it combines intrigue and the destruction of the world with the not-so-subtle contest between two enemies over the woman in the middle.
The scenery is absolutely beautiful, especially once the action moves to the Caribbean. This is the first film produced on what was a big budget for the 1960s and it shows. The scenery and sets are lavish. The underwater sequences are magnificent and credit must go to the cinematographer for some incredible work with the input of noted underwater filmmaker Lamar Boren. The action sequences are well crafted and detailed. Bond has more gadgets given to him by Q (portrayed by Desmond Llewelyn) than ever before.
The script is great as well, although this is definitely where it took an even sharper turn of focusing more on the action than the plot. However, the plot here is not at all thin. The script is based on Ian Fleming’s ninth book, which is the one he ended up in court over. The story goes that all the stress over the legal battle is what drove him to an early grave. I can’t say that I think any script is worth dying for, but at least he didn’t die in a legal battle over Howard the Duck.
The story resonated in its day with the ever-present Soviet threat of nuclear annihilation having people perform what I would term useless drills to give the masses some comfort level with their survivability. Against that backdrop where the population had this very real threat hanging over their head, the story of a megalomaniacal rogue organization getting their hands on nuclear warheads ratchets it up a notch. With the way the world is today, the story holds up quite well as we seem to be in constant fear of this very thing happening – or at least our government would like to keep us that way.
The dialogue is crisp with Bond throwing out witty punctuations to scenes at various turns. It doesn’t descend into the silly but rather shows him being somewhat dismissive of all the killing. The cavalier way the dialogue rolls from his tongue would seem to make the case that Bond is a killing machine the same as those he battles. The only difference is that he’s on “the right side”.
The acting is superb. As I stated, Connery was at his peak as Bond here. He had a good handle on the character and seemed to actually b James Bond. I don’t know how anyone else could ever have come close to his performance as the super-spy. He handles everything thrown at him not with total nonchalance, but with confidence and cunning.
Although the subsequent film would be the one where Blofeld makes his mark, Thunderball was where he had his origins. However, it is Adolfo Celi and Emilio Largo who is strong enough to be Bond’s equal on the other side of the law. He is just as charismatic, cunning, and strong as Bond. At the same time, he has no problem being ruthless and cruel, allowing his mistress to figuratively hang herself and taking a certain delight in how events play out. Largo sees her as a toy; something to be played with. If part of that play means he gets to toy with her as she dallies with his rival and then cuts her down, it doesn’t bother him in the least.
To that end, Claudine Auger as Domino is one of the best “Bond girls” out there. She has Domino so conflicted and at the same time assured and confident. Domino is no wilting violet, but at the same time, she is growing tired of the way in which Largo treats her. Auger has a grace and elegance that makes it seem she could easily travel in the circles she does. At the same time, she is vulnerable although she tries to hide it. Her brother is the pilot that was killed, and this seems to cement the idea that Largo felt nothing toward her – only the means to an end to be disposed of once he was tired of her.
On the opposite end of the spectrum among the women is Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe. She’s a sinister woman who also manages to capture Bond’s attention, although not in the same slightly vulnerable way Domino does. For him, Volpe is an intense rival to be conquered rather than seduced.
I have one complaint about the DVD. I found the volume to be quite uneven. Sometimes it seemed excessively loud, while at others it seemed like I could barely hear the conversations. I had to keep adjusting the volume all the way through the film. The disc is loaded with special features, however. These are thoroughly enjoyable to watch and listen to.
• Audio Commentary featuring Terence Young
• Audio Commentary featuring Peter Hunt, John Hopkins & other members of the cast & crew
• Still Gallery
• Documentary: The Thunderball Phenomenon
• Documentary: The Making of Thunderball
• Inside Thunderball Featurette
• TV Spots
• Radio Spots
Previous film in the series (link): Goldfinger
Next film in the series (link): You Only Live Twice