James Bond Declassified: File #4 – ‘Thunderball’ is the first series stumble

File #4: “Thunderball”

This series will trace the cinema history of James Bond, while also examining Ian Fleming’s original novels as source material and examining how faithful (or not) the films have been to his work.

Directed by Terence Young
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins and Jack Whittingham
Story by Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham and Ian Fleming
Produced by Kevin McClory and Stanley Sopel


James Bond / Sean Connery
Domino Derval / Claudine Auger
Largo / Adolfo Celi
Fiona / Luciana Paluzzi
Felix Leiter / Rik Van Nutter
Count Lippe / Guy Doleman
Patricia / Molly Peters
Paula / Martine Beswick
“M” / Bernard Lee
“Q” / Desmond Llewelyn
Moneypenny / Lois Maxwell
Foreign Secretary / Roland Culver
Francois Derval/Angelo Palazzi / Paul Stassino
Pinder / Earl Cameron


Starting with that monogrammed “JB” on the side of a casket is a nice touch.

Bond’s at the funeral of a man he wanted to kill, and he’s upset he missed his opportunity.  He watches the family drive away.  But… wait… turns out the dude is posing as his own widow, and James follows him to the family home, then beats the ever-lovin’ snot out of him.  It’s a vicious fight, ending with Bond strangling the guy to death with a fireplace poker.  Bond makes his escape via jetpack in one of the great practical gags from the film series, and, using a car that appears to have been through Q branch, sprays down the guards chasing him, which leads into the underwater opening credit sequence, complete with Tom Jones theme song.

While I don’t really care for the theme song, I think the Maurice Binder title sequence is a great one, and there is something that, no matter how old I get and no matter how much hardcore sexual imagery I see in my life, will always remain deeply charged about the silhouettes in these title sequences.  It is effective and, yes, erotic, and I’m always amazed how graphic they seem considering all the early Bond films carry a PG rating.

Then there’s that produced by credit.  Kevin McClory all by himself.  Obviously Saltzman and Broccoli were still there and involved, but the legal troubles surrounding the film earned McClory a sole credit, and it’s strange to see one of the official films in the series with nary a mention of Broccoli.


The film picks up with SPECTRE holding a board meeting, with Largo showing up a little late.  We learn that he is Number Two, and that the man Bond killed in the opening was Number Six.  Blofeld runs the meeting without mercy, and when he dispatches the embezzler, it is hard not to flash on the way “Austin Powers” totally roasted this sequence.  It’s particularly hilarious how the seat that Number Nine was in comes rising back into place, still smoking from his electrocution, as Blofeld mentions, “We will now move on to new business.”

Largo starts to outline their plan to hold NATO for ransom for $280 million, which was £100 million at the time.  He says that the plan is already underway, with their man Count Lippe already in place at a health clinic near a NATO airbase.

Then we’re at the health clinic, Lippe’s showing up for a massage, and James Bond is already there, on a table, getting his back worked on.  It’s a strange transition, and a big jump right into the story.  Bond notices the symbol on Lippe’s wrist, then calls it in.  Basically, the film has to barrel through the exposition here, even if it only sort of makes sense the way it’s laid out.  Bond is almost discovered in Lippe’s room by a mysterious figure in bandages, and gets spotted as he leaves the room.

Patricia puts Bond in traction after he makes an unwelcome pass, and she tells him about Mr. Angelo, the man with the bandaged face, allegedly recovering from a car accident.  While I understand the theoretical danger of the traction table once Count Lippe cranks it up, the way it’s shot is sort of ridiculous, and it doesn’t really work on film.  You’ve got to give it up for Bond, though, taking a near-fatal accident and turning it into an excuse to coerce sex out of a physical therapist.

Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe is Bond Girl heaven, a dollop of Euro-hottie who is introduced in a sequence that might as well be called “My boobs will trap you.”  She’s with Derval, a pilot who is about to leave on a military mission, and when he opens the door, he is greeted by himself.  It’s actually Mr. Angelo, the bandaged man from earlier, his plastic surgeries complete now so he looks exactly like Derval.  As soon as the pilot’s out of the way, with Fiona’s help, Angelo reveals that he wants more money.  He knows what he’s worth, and that they can’t just go out and quickly come up with an exact double of the pilot.

It’s a very strange Bond film overall, and for this whole first section, Bond really doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on.  Even his quick encounter with Count Lippe at the health spa and his revenge on him by locking him into the steam cabinet is so disjointed from everything else that’s happening that it seems odd.  Bond’s drawn back in, mid-boink, when he hears an ambulance show back up with someone on board, and at that point, it starts to become a more recognizable version of a Bond film.

It’s over forty minutes into the movie before Bond is really even assigned to do anything.  Up until then, it’s sort of random chance that he bumps into the events that unfold, which is why it feels like he’s sort of inert as a lead character at first.  It takes that long for the movie to get all the chess pieces into place.  And time and again, Bond happens to witness things like the way Fiona takes care of Angelo.  Not because he’s doing the legwork or because he’s a good spy, but just because he happens to be driving right there when it happens.

SPECTRE did come up with a fairly good plan this time, though.  They manage to get their hands on the bombs with very little fuss, and the notion of launching a strike against the UK or the USA with no warning where it’s coming from must have been terrifying at the time.  Bond just happens to be the guy who figures things out because of his accidental encounter, and that bothers me.  I don’t like movies where the hero stumbles into a position to win, especially not a spy as good as Bond.

Then the film settles into this slow, leisurely stretch as Bond tries to get close to Largo via Domino, who turns out to be the sister of the now-deceased Derval.  It’s good Connery stuff, and they make great use of Nassau, but for me, the film doesn’t really come to life until Bond starts acting like a tough sonofabitch and stops playing coy.  We’re introduced to the third Felix Leiter of the series, and as Bond starts to really dig in and let Largo know that he’s on the case, we see how SPECTRE is putting the screws to NATO behind closed doors.

The underwater combat stuff is beautifully photographed, especially considering when it was done, but there’s something about underwater fights that just doesn’t read on film.  It’s more exciting watching Fiona drive James to his hotel than it is to watch the underwater fight sequence that precedes it, and that seems like a weird miscalculation that wasn’t really possible to fix after they started on the film.

There’s a lot I like.  I think the scene where Q comes to Nassau to help Bond is pretty great.  I always loved Llewellyn’s portrayal of Q, and even more than the fact that his scenes always sort of served as a preview of what was ahead, I just thought he had great chemistry with each of the Bonds.  I am very curious to see how they handle the introduction of a new Q to the Daniel Craig films in “Skyfall,” and I’m happy the Q branch is being reintroduced. 

I also like the way SPECTRE is being built by this point in the series, and the way they’re becoming increasingly aware of Bond and agitated by him.  I also greatly enjoy the way Bond is just an overt dick to Largo in every exchange they have.  It’s wildly enjoyable to watch Connery goad a bad guy without any hesitation.  There’s a very good sequence as Bond sneaks around Largo’s home at night that culminates in a few reality shots involving sharks that are well-staged, and once the film actually reaches the big underwater sequence at the end, it’s an impressive bit of real-world staging that must have been a nightmare to pull off.  Bond’s pretty much responsible for killing about 500 dudes in that last scene, most with his bare hands, which is enough to redeem the film in general.  I like it when Bond is dangerous on a large scale. Give me Mass Murderer James Bond any day, especially when Connery’s playing him.

And the John Barry score?  Awesome.  He was starting to really get the hang of this character, this world, the particular stylistic flourishes that made this series stand apart.  His contributions to the series are impossible to calculate, and even today, whoever does the score for the various Bond films is doing so in the shadow of what Barry established.

Still, overall, I’d say the biggest issue I have with the film is that director Terence Young just feels like he’s off his game this time.  This was his last Bond film, and he directed three of the first four, but there are things that just don’t work that well for me in this film.  Some of the staging, his use of some of the locations… it’s strange, because he’s so obviously a key part of having built the template for Bond films overall.  Considering the timetable and the ticking clock and the nuclear threat, this should be a much tenser movie, but the entire thing feels slack.  It’s a case of the film never really imparting that urgency to us.

By the time Largo and his men suit up for the big final underwater sequence in the film, there’s still something like 30 minutes to go, and it really feels like the film’s played all its narrative cards already.  The first three Bond films are all driven by fairly solid plots, well paced, and with a pretty serious sense of economy.  “Thunderball” dawdles, and for the first time in the series, I find myself impatient with one of the films.  There’s a good 20 minutes or so that feels like “Let’s go do this thing!” in slow-motion, a whole lot of logistics with very little drama.

Things end on a personal, if anti-climactic note, and the ending with Bond and Domino getting skyhooked out of Nassau is a strange one, just in terms of the particular tone it strikes.  All told, “Thunderball” may still be the biggest Bond film of all time at the box-office if you adjust for inflation, but I think that’s because the three films before it earned major goodwill with audiences, and for the first time, I’d call this particular mission for Bond a bit of a bust.


I have no idea, since the MGM/UA DVD release of the film cuts off the end of the credits.  What jackass okayed that?


I’ll bet if there were any book Ian Fleming could go back and unwrite, this would be the one.

It’s interesting how the book opens with Bond in the grips of inertia.  I guess you can’t do that with the films, but it’s interesting because it shows how hard it is for a secret agent between assignments.  These are men who are trained for action, and when they’re not in use, they tend to go a little crazy, overcompensating with drinking and smoking and gambling and sex.  Bond’s starting to go just the slightest bit soft as a result of his downtime, and that’s a pretty great place to start the story.  The film opens with a typical “fight the bad guy and do some crazy stunt and then deliver the perfect punch-line” scene, but I far prefer the choice that Fleming made with the book.

While the book also hinges on coincidence, it is a well-built series of coincidences that brings Bond and Count Lippe together, and the book just plain sets things in motion the right way, while the film flounders, trying to figure out how to jam a ton of story into a quick set-up.  This was the ninth book in the series, and Fleming’s writing of the character and the world had a real confidence by this point.  Unfortunately, this was the only time Fleming was reverse-engineering a Bond story, and it’s the reason he ended up losing some of the rights to his signature character.

They started trying to figure out how to bring James Bond to the big screen in the late ’50s, and a friend of Fleming’s named Ivar Bryce was the one who put him together with Kevin McClory in the first place.  They started a production company with a fourth partner, and they started working to figure out a story for a film.  They spend the summer of 1959 creating a total of ten different storylines, some of them sharing elements, some of them radically different.  McClory was the one who was determined to work in underwater elements, and when Fleming moved on to other projects, McClory hired Jack Whittingham to draft a script.  That script served as the general outline for “Thunderball” and while Fleming worked to help get the film made, he also adapted the script into the novel.  McClory flipped when he found out and sued Fleming, ending their working relationship, and permanently complicating the rights to certain elements that were present in “Thunderball.”  The controversy about whether it was Fleming or McClory who created SPECTRE, for example, still continues now.  Fleming’s health was failing during the various trials that resulted over the book, even as he kept writing further novels.

Character names are different in the book, and Felix Leiter has a pretty major role here, although readers of the Fleming novels know that Leiter had suffered some pretty serious damage in the earlier novel “Live And Let Die,” and that’s reflected in his role here.  SPECTRE emerges in this book as a very separate type of threat from SMERSH, which was tied more to Cold War anti-Soviet sentiment, while SPECTRE reflected the fear of commercialized terrorism that was emerging at the time.

Reading the book if you’re familiar with the movie is a strange experience because you can see so many of the same ideas in both versions, but the book executes them far better, and with greater depth.  James Bond is starting to show some real wear and tear by this point in the series, mirroring Fleming’s own increasing awareness of his mortality.  As much as I really don’t like the movie, I think the book’s a pretty great read, lean and mean, and with a Bond that comes very close to being my ideal version of the character.

James Bond will return…
In the meantime, catch up with our series:

“Dr. No”
“From Russia With Love”