Sunday, 23 September 2012

50 Years of Bond: "Thunderball"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, and the 23rd Bond movie, Skyfall, is set to hit theatres this November. I thought now was a pretty good time to revisit several of the Bond films. I'll probably not cover every film but I'll discuss the most important films in the franchise as well as my personal favourites, which do overlap frequently. Next up-the film that for its time was the "Biggest Bond of them all:" Thunderball.

When Goldfinger was released, I believe this was when the James Bond series became a full blown pop culture phenomenon as well as a genre of its own-rather than just purely being spy films or action films. In fact, one could argue this series was really the birth of the modern action film. With Goldfinger's success, the pressure was on for producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to pull out all the stops and make what was to be the "Biggest Bond of them all," as Thunderball was advertised. And to be fair, Broccoli and Saltzman, along with director Terence Young, succeeded- making everything work on much larger scale than ever before. And while it doesn't have the economy or iconic imagery of Goldfinger, it's a fairly entertaining Bond film and provides a nice blend of outlandishness while not succumbing to campiness.

If you want to see what the Austin Powers series was parodying, this is a good place to start. From punching a man dressed up as woman, stolen nuclear bombs, and minions electrocuted in their chair, this is where the first Austin Powers movie got a lot of its best material. The plot involves SPECTRE stealing two nuclear bombs and holding the world ransom. SPECTRE henchman Angelo, who has had plastic surgery to make himself look like French NATO pilot Francois Derval (Paul Stassino), replaces Derval on the plane containing the bombs, sabotaging the plane and crashing it in the ocean. The real Durval is placed in the clinic where Angelo was recovering from the plastic surgery. It's the same clinic James Bond (Sean Connery) is staying at- so when he's called in, along with the other 00s, Bond tells M that he saw Durval dead at the clinic. This leads Bond to Nassau where he encounters Durval's sister, Domino (Claudine Auger). Domino is also the mistress of SPECTRE No. 2, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), who was behind the operation to steal the bombs.

The film takes a while to establish its plot and I found it wasn't as economic as Goldfinger in doing so. In my write-up for that film I admired how the film really established the relationship between Bond and Goldfinger and the plot very quickly. Now, to be fair, there's a little more plot to be established here. I also found that this set-up doesn't drag too much and the mechanics of SPECTRE's plot and Bond accidentally happening upon it, is well orchestrated. 

After being absent in Goldfinger, SPECTRE, and its mysterious leader Blofeld, returns for this film. I really like how we get to see a full SPECTRE meeting in this film. While SPECTRE agents met with Blofeld in From Russia With Love, this is the first time we see all the main SPECTRE agents gathered together and talking about blackmail and exortion in the most casual manner. It makes them sinister because you can half-way believe them as existing in the real world. Blofeld casually electrocuting one of the SPECTRE agents in his change because he had embezzled money is menacingly funny. It shows how expendable these people are to Blofeld if they fail or disobey him. We still don't see Blofeld's face, continuing to tease the audience to what he looks like. The only problem with having Blofeld as the shadowy figure pulling the strings in this film is that it makes Largo a small fry in the grand scheme of things. Thankfully, the film gives Largo a sense of assertiveness and leadership (He came up with the plan to steal the bombs) that makes him still feel powerful despite Blofeld being his boss. 

In a nice parallel, we also get to see a meeting of all the 00s. The gathering of the 00s, after the bombs have been stolen, really establishes the stakes of the film, which are the biggest of the Bond series so far. Unfortunately, the film is a little over two hours and I feel it loses a little bit of its urgency due to its running time. I think the film would've benefitted from being just two hours or a little under two hours like the previous three films. The underwater battle between SPECTRE and the Coast Guard near the end of the film is usually criticized as being too long and I agree. Still, the underwater battle is unlike any action sequence I've ever seen in a film. It's bizarre to see all these guys fighting and shooting spears at each other underwater but, accompanied by Monty Norman's frantic score, is surprisingly visceral and in many cases, brutual.

In terms of action, I also really love the pre-titles sequence, which was the origin of the "That's a man, man" bit from Austin Powers. Bond attends the funeral of SPECTRE agent Jacques Bouvar, only to discover that Bouvar's "widow" is Bouvar himself. Bond follows him to a chateau and confronts him. Bouvar is still dressed as a woman and Bond punches him. It's a shocking moment because we're not yet clued in that this is actually Bouvar. Bond kills him and then escapes using a jetpack. It's really funny that Bond has a jetpack waiting for him. We never see it being placed  but we're asked to just go with it, which is part of the fun. "No well dressed man should be without one," he tells his female colleague. Like the pre-titles sequence for Goldfinger, It captures what the Bond series is all about as well as creating a mini-adventure that gets you pumped for the rest of the film. It's no wonder that Christopher Nolan has been inspired so much by this series.

 While it's always mentioned that Connery became bored with the role, his charisma and presence is still prevalent makes this film work. I like his relationship with Domino-their dance scene together is tender and reveals how much Domino wants to escape from her relationship with Largo-and I like how she says that Bond is a better man than Largo. I just wish the film explored the relationship between Largo and Domino a little more, especially when she discovers that Largo killed her brother. Claudine Auger is likable but Domino doesn't really the presence of Pussy Galore. SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) is the most dynamic Bond woman in this film. She's more evil than Pussy and seems to scoff at women like Pussy when she says to 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." Unlike Pussy, she's not going to help Bond save the day. Fiona meets her demise during a dance with Bond after he's tried to escape from her and her men. Someone is going to shoot Bond but he turns Fiona in to the line of fire. Sitting her down at table, he tells the others seated, "Do you miind if my friend sits this one out? She's just dead." The line is a return to the black humour from Dr. No and hits the mark pretty well. The editing leading up to Fiona being shot is expertly suspenseful as well.

For the first time since Dr. No, I don't have too much to say. Terence Young, directing his last Bond film, handles the larger scale very well. Along with editor Peter Hunt, who would go on to direct the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, they create action sequences that are sharply and frantically edited without being incomphrensible. I like the skyhook save at the end as well. Traditionally it would end with Bond and Domino making out in that liferaft, so it's a nice change of pace, and matches the scale of the film. Domino kill killing Largo before he kills Bond is a great payoff to her character arc and provides a pretty humourous exchange between Bond and Domino: "I'm glad I killed him"/"You're glad?"  

While not as bombastic as most modern action films-Thunderball is energetic and enjoyable. The series would of course become even more outlandish by the next film and become a genre in and of itself. James Bond will return in: You Only Live Twice.

P.S:  I have to hand it to Tom Jones. He takes a song that doesn't make a lot of sense and really sells it.

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