The last great classic Bond before the madness began to set in. Today’s entry is…
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Sean Connery
SETUP: SPECTRE lifts two nuclear bombs from the British by replacing a fighter pilot with a look-alike. In an astounding coincidence, James Bond vacations at a ritzy health spa and stumbles across the plot just as it’s going down. Once the nukes go missing, Bond tracks the pilot’s beautiful sister to Nassau to find out what she knows.
BUT IN REALITY: The sister, Domino, knows nothing, but her lover is a sinister SPECTRE operative named Emilio Largo, who schemes to hold the world hostage for $280 million in ransom. Bond infiltrates Largo’s empire, woos Domino, and finds the nukes. As the British and American coalition close in, Largo transforms his high-tech yacht, the Disco Valante, into a hydrofoil to speed his escape. Bond scuffles with Largo as the yacht races through dangerous waters, but just as Largo gains the upper hand, he takes a spear in the back courtesy of Domino.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Largo opts for that timeless villainous trademark, the eye patch, although no explanation for the missing eye is offered.
Largo, by the way, is known as Number Two in the SPECTRE organization, a name (and eye patch) that Mike Myers happily lifted for Robert Wagner’s character in the Austin Powers spoofs.
THE MUSCLE: Largo prefers the hands-on approach. He employs an army of minions but won’t hesitate to whip out a knife and commit some murders to advance the cause. For special occasions, Largo maintains a swimming pool full of vicious, minion-eating sharks.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: There isn’t much I can say about Domino (Claudine Auger.) She’s attractive but vanilla as the female lead. The more interesting character is the femme fatale, SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe (Lucianna Paluzzi.)
Volpe is the first woman in the series to assert a little backbone when faced with Bond’s charms. Bond sleeps with her, of course, but unlike Pussy Galore or Tatiana Romanova, Volpe doesn’t see sex with Bond as a life-changing experience. On the contrary, she uses the tryst to trap Bond and rob him of his gun, and after he’s figured her out, Volpe taunts him with the knowledge that, yes, she’s still firmly rooted in Team Evil. Bond’s reaction is memorable: “Well, you can’t win them all.”
Unfortunately for Volpe, all of this feminist empowerment doesn’t last long because it’s still, in fact, Bond’s movie. He gets his revenge just a few minutes after the scene when he uses Volpe’s body to take a bullet meant for him.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Bond gadgets began to catch on with the public after Goldfinger, and the trend shows. Q travels to Nassau and equips Bond with a huge assortment of toys, including a Geiger counter watch, an underwater camera, a re-breather, transmitters, and an ingestible homing beacon. The pre-credits sequence also features the famous Aston Martin DB7 and a real, working jet pack on loan from the military.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: After Bond shoots a Largo minion with a spear gun: “I think he got the point.”
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: The same film that saw Fiona Volpe take control of her sexuality sadly also features one of Bond’s creepier come-ons. Bond forces himself on his spa nurse, locking her into a kiss she literally has to fight to escape from. Later, just after a near-death experience on a back stretcher, Bond blackmails the nurse into having sex with him in exchange for his silence about the incident.
WORTH MENTIONING: About the back stretching incident: Why is there always a “death” setting on movie health machines? Shouldn’t the designers leave a safety buffer? Perhaps the highest setting could be “near death” or “white light/tunnel”, but resist moving all the way into a kill setting?… Thunderball was the basis of the lawsuit that eventually split the franchise and killed SPECTRE as a perennial Bond nemesis. More detail on that incident can be found here… This is the only Bond film to win an Oscar for visual effects.
OVERALL: Thunderball arrived while Bond-mania was at its peak, and the producers cashed in. For a long time Thunderball was the most successful Bond picture in terms of box office dollars, even though its a pretty dull ride for the first half. Thankfully, the situation improves as you watch, and the film’s best sequences more than make up for any gaps in the action.
The highlights of the film are (A.) Sean Connery’s easy, charismatic performance in the lead role and (B.) all of the underwater action sequences. Much of the film’s second and third act, featuring murders, double-crosses, sex scenes, rescues, and full-scale warfare, is completely underwater, and the extended, final submerged battle is one of my favorite bits of the entire series.
Still, as I said, there are drawbacks. Largo is a yawn as a villain, especially following Goldfinger’s act, and the plot is mostly Bond-by-numbers with some silly coincidences built in. The half-hour health spa sequence stretches all credibility, as Bond just happens to be in the neighborhood as a vast, well-orchestrated heist takes place. It’s not hard to see why Sean Connery was beginning to chafe at the idea of coming back to the 007 role every year or two and was looking to do something, anything, different. Zardoz different. Neither of his final two Bond films came close to this quality, making this his last, best hurrah as the superspy.
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill