The fourth Bond film has a very interesting genesis as it was based on a book that originally started out as a screenplay by Jack Whittingham which was based on an original story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming. To say this led to some very complicated rights issues would be a massive understatement and is the reason that the remake Never Say Never Again even exists, in fact, Thunderball would have been the first of the Bond movies to be made if not for those legal disputes over copyright issues.
Most likely due to Thunderball being originally written as a screenplay the movie adaptation is one of the closer entries to the source material, with but a few additions and changes and deals with SPECTRE obtaining two atomic bombs and blackmailing NATO, you know, standard SPECTRE stuff. Now, the basic premise of Thunderball may be rather simple but the final product was nothing but, and with that many cooks in the kitchen on the writing side of things this is kind of understandable, which resulted in a rather convoluted but still fun mess. SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo’s (Adolfo Celi) plan to ransom a pair of atomic bombs is possibly a little too elaborate to actually work as it involves recruiting a man named Angelo Palazzi (Paul Stassino) to undergo plastic surgery so that he can double and then replace a NATO observer so that while onboard he can kill the crew and make off with the plane and the two nukes onboard.
In the book, the NATO observer was just in the pay of SPECTRE and thus there was no need for elaborate plans revolving around plastic surgery and doubles but both the book and the movie do have James Bond (Sean Connery) stumbling across the villainous plot while recuperating at a health clinic, which one has to chalk up to the “Luck of the Bond.” Sadly, that isn’t the only contrived bit of writing that movie suffers from as we also get Bond requesting he be assigned to Nassau, Bahamas, to contact the sister of the murdered NATO man, the beautiful Domino (Claudine Auger), who just so happens to be Emilio Largo’s mistress. What are the odds? Bond makes the decision to track down Domino simply because in a file provided by “M” (Bernard Lee) he finds a picture of her with her brother but with no other connection to the case at hand. Seriously, that’s all the evidence he has to make that decision, he doesn’t know until he meets her in Nassau that she is dating SPECTRE’s number two operative, and thus the success of this mission relied on a very thin hunch that miraculously pans out.
The character of Domino may be the film’s primary Bond girl but the one who pretty much steals the movie, and with very little screen time to do it in, is that of SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), a deadly assassin from SPECTRE’s executive branch. She is a talented killer who not only seduced and murdered the NATO observer but was called in to kill SPECTRE operative Count Lippe (Guy Doleman) because his actions at the health clinic alerted Bond and jeopardized SPECTRE’s plans. She is also a rare Bond girl who completely resisted our hero’s charms, “I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, then immediately returns to the side of right and virtue.” I’d like to consider this a nice rebuttal to the problematic moment of Pussy Galore not only changing sides but sexuality in Goldfinger. Fiona Volpe may sleep with Bond but her intentions to see him dead never waver, sadly, her accomplices aren’t as talented and she ends up getting shot in the back by one of Largo’s idiot henchmen.
• During a SPECTRE meeting, one of the members is murdered for embezzling from the organization, which one has to admit, is either extremely ballsy or incredibly stupid.
• While recuperating at a health clinic Bond is almost killed while strapped into a device designed to stretch the spine but there are two problems with this scenario, for one a nurse would never leave a patient who is trapped in a medical device – what if there were a fire – and secondly, we have another Bond movie device that, for some reason, has a kill setting.
• Bond extorts sex from the aforementioned nurse, basically threatening to report her if she doesn’t sleep with him, and this is our hero?
• Bond retaliates against his would-be-assassin by locking him in a steam bath which, of course, looks to have a kill setting as well.
• Just prior to the hijacking of the atomic bombs Angelo Palazzi demands more money from SPECTRE to go through with the theft, which one has to admit, is either extremely ballsy or incredibly stupid. Scratch that, it’s just incredibly stupid.
• Bond’s choice of a bright orange wetsuit for nighttime spying is a rather dubious decision and will not win him any espionage awards.
• Both Largo and Fiona Volpe openly wear rings with the SPECTRE emblem which posits the question “Do they not understand that being members of a clandestine criminal organization branding is most likely a bad idea?”
As a Bond film, Thunderball is a solid enough entry as it provides us with the usual beautiful locals and equally beautiful women, not to mention John Barry’s robust and soaring score, and we do get a few fun “Q” provided gadgets as well as a brief return of the Aston Martin DB5, and though Thunderball has some great moments it’s also saddled with not only a rather convoluted plot but an over two-hour running time that just wasn’t necessary. Too much screen time is spent with Bond and CIA operative Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) trying to find the sunken jet bomber, so as to retrieve the missing nukes, but as everyone knows that SPECTRE hijacked the jet and its cargo for blackmail purposes why would anyone think the bombs would still be aboard the sunken plane? Then to compound this squandered screen time a full quarter of the movie takes place underwater and as everyone knows there is nothing that sucks the kinetic energy out of a movie faster than scenes filmed underwater.
Now, I may seem a little critical of this film but this is still a very fun Bond adventure and both Adolfo Celi and Luciana Paluzzi can be included in any top ten list of great Bond antagonists as their portrayals of SPECTRE agents Emilio Largo and Fiona Volpe provided some of the best moments in the film, and if Claudine Auger as Domino was a trifle forgettable as the film’s “Damsel in Distress” she certainly wasn’t hard on the eyes. If Thunderball had been trimmed down to a healthy 110 minutes we could have had a really great Bond film on our hands, sadly, its waterlogged elements sink its already somewhat bloated plot. Not to say this is a bad film but the fact that this one could have easily been so much better made the end result a little disappointing.
Movie Rank - 6/10
Saddled with a two-hour and ten-minute runtime, and an Interminable underwater action sequence, the fourth Bond film had a lot fighting against it but Sean Connery still managed to lead the way into making Thunderball a fun adventure film where our favourite spy is pitted against some truly classic villains.