The James Bond series was enjoying unprecedented success after its first three films culminating with the best of the series in my opinion GOLDFINGER (1964). The filmmakers would quickly follow-up GOLDFINGER'S triumph with THUNDERBALL (1965) directed by Terence Young who introduced audiences to Agent 007 in DR. NO (1962).
THUNDERBALL is another solid effort by the Bond team but it does begin to reveal a few chinks in the Bond series armor. The villain Largo is not quite as flashy or memorable as Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. Instead of a new exotic location, the filmmakers return to a familiar locale with the Caribbean, this time the Bahamas (DR NO was shot in Jamaica). The screenplay is intelligent but THUNDERBALL drags a bit in the second half, spending too much time underwater. And we don't really learn anything new about James Bond (Sean Connery again) except that he does take a vacation every now and then which is how he stumbles upon SPECTRE'S latest diabolical scheme.
Probably the biggest drama in THUNDERBALL is that Kevin McClory is the producer instead of the usual team of Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. McClory originally developed the original story for THUNDERBALL with screenwriter Jack Whittingham and Bond novelist Ian Fleming before Broccoli and Saltzman bought the rights to the Bond books. But Fleming tired of the screenwriting process. However, Fleming did end up turning the THUNDERBALL idea into a novel. McClory sued Fleming for stealing his idea and ended up acquiring the film rights to THUNDERBALL. Broccoli and Saltzman didn't want a competing Bond film so they made a deal with McClory. McClory got the Producer credit and Broccoli and Saltzman took Executive Producer credits in THUNDERBALL.
The final screenplay was by Bond veteran Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins based on Jack Whittingham's original screenplay based on an original story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming. Because McClory owned the film rights to THUNDERBALL, it would be remade in 1983 as NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN starring (yes) Sean Connery in his last appearance as James Bond. Klaus Marie Brandauer, Kim Basinger, and Barbara Carrera would co-star in the film with the locale changed to the French Rivera.
So the 4th in the series THUNDERBALL begins with one of my favorite Bond pre-credit sequences. Bond (Sean Connery) and Madame LaPorte (Mitsouko) attend the funeral for the nefarious Colonel Jaques Bouvar i.e. SPECTRE #6 (played by Bond stuntman Bob Simmons) who had murdered two of Bond's colleagues. But Bouvar has faked his own death, disguising himself as a female mourner at his own funeral. Bond notices something amiss with the lady when she opens her own car door. He surprises the Colonel at his French chateau. Bond dispatches the skirt wearing Bouvar then escapes via a jet pack (shades of Buck Rogers) strategically placed on the outside terrace. The delicious irony of Ladies Man James Bond punching a woman before we realize it's Col. Bouvar is an inventive start to THUNDERBALL.
With SPECTRE #6 dead, we're introduced to SPECTRE #2 Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) who arrives at SPECTRE headquarters in Paris (the evil organization's lair is fronted by a philanthropic non profit helping displaced people). Largo announces his plan to the cat loving but unseen Ernst Stavro Blofeld (who we will finally lay eyes on in 1967's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) and a cadre of SPECTRE agents. Largo looks like a modern day pirate (he even sports a black eye patch) and his plan would make Blackbeard chuckle. Largo plans to steal two nuclear bombs from a NATO bomber and ransom them for 100 million pounds ($280 millions US dollars) in uncut diamonds. The E in SPECTRE does stand for Extortion.
Bond stumbles upon Largo's plot accidentally while vacationing at an English spa. Largo's right hand man Count Lippe (Guy Doleman) uses plastic surgery to have a SPECTRE agent impersonate NATO pilot Major Francois Derval (Paul Stassino). The real Derval is killed and the imposter Angelo Palazzi (also played by actor Stassino) hijacks the plane and lands it in the waters near the Bahamas where Largo and his underwater team remove and hide the bombs and kill the imposter Derval (never ever trust an organization that has an octopus for its logo).
During a briefing with M (Bernard Lee), Bond notices a photo of Derval with his sister and follows the trail to the Bahamas where he's joined by American CIA Agent Felix Leiter (played by Rik Van Nutter, the third different actor to play Leiter so far in the series) and lovely local agent Paula (Martine Beswick, who appeared previously in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE). Largo has a large compound at the tip of the island called Palmya and a super yacht called the Disco Volante. Largo conveniently keeps company with the dead NATO pilot's sister Dominique "Domino" Derval (Claudine Auger).
As the clock ticks down toward Largo arming the nuclear bombs if the world doesn't pay up, Bond must deal with dangerous Golden Grotto sharks, underwater thugs armed with spear guns, and the volumptous but lethal SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) as he searches the waters around Largo's estate for the missing Vulcan bomber and the nuclear bombs. Using his skills as the World's Greatest Lover, Bond seduces Domino to turn on Largo. Dammit if I didn't believe that SPECTRE would hand over the bombs after they got paid their ransom. Even if the ransom is paid, Largo plans on pointing one of the nuclear bombs at Miami. Bond and Largo fight it out on his runaway super charged yacht as it races toward some exposed rocks.
THUNDERBALL'S Largo is an inferior version of Auric Goldfinger from GOLDFINGER but the two supervillians do share one quality. They both are sexually inadequate with women. Neither man is especially attractive. The only reason they have beautiful women around them is because of their wealth. Bond flaunts his sexuality brazenly in their faces, sleeping with their mistresses or curvy assassins. Largo makes up for his lack of sex appeal by doing what most men do: owning large toys like his giant yacht and his huge oceanside compound to make up for their lack of sex appeal. Largo even humiliates his own henchman Vargas (Philip Locke) in front of Bond. Domino shudders at the things she's had to do with the sadistic Largo who's not beyond cruelty and violence toward her. Domino must feel some pleasure when she impales Largo with a spear gun.
One thing THUNDERBALL reminds audiences is that working or coming in contact with British agent James Bond is a hazardous undertaking. In THUNDERBALL, Bond's local contact, the pretty Paula ends up kidnapped and tortured, committing suicide by cyanide pill rather than reveal secrets to Largo. SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe makes wild, passionate love with Bond but both she and Bond know one of them will have to kill the other soon.
I feel guilty that I consider THUNDERBALL a step down from the first three Bond entries. It was the most expensive 1960's Bond film to make and it also made the most money. It has all the best Bond technicians working on it -- Screenwriter Richard Maibaum, Production Designer Ken Adam, Director of Photography Ted Moore, and Editor Peter Hunt who all turn in their usual spectacular best. Director Terence Young is at the helm once again. Young introduced the sophisticated tone for the Bond films in DR NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. The script is taut with the usual humor to lighten the dramatic moments. But the underwater sequences (beautifully directed by underwater director Ricou Browning who played the Creature in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) are too numerous in the second half of the film. The fight scenes and underwater submersibles are cool but they go on too long.
Once again, the Bond filmmakers continue the tradition of casting the best actor or actress for the role even if that actor or actress's English isn't very good, dubbing their dialogue with a different voice. Ursula Andress (DR NO), Danielle Bianchi (FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE), and Gert Frobe (GOLDFINGER) all had their voices dubbed in post production. THUNDERBALL extends this practice with both Adolfo Celi and Claudine Auger. In an interesting Special Feature on the THUNDERBALL DVD, they show a scene with Celi and Auger at the Baccarat table with the actor's real voices. Celi's Sicillian and Auger French. Their English sounded fine to me but the Bond filmmakers thought otherwise.
Sean Connery is once again stellar as James Bond, still playing the part with vitality and even a bit of goofiness in a few early scenes. He's not mailing his performance in and I'm not sure he ever did. Director Young once again goes for a beauty queen to play Bond's love interest as Claudine Auger was a former Miss France (Danielle Bianchi in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE was a former Miss Italy). Just like when I rewatched Bianchi in RUSSIA, I wasn't crazy about Auger the first few times I watched THUNDERBALL but she too grows on me with repeated viewings, especially in her wet suit.
The rest of the cast is uniformly good, if not a bit underwhelming. Adolfo Celi as Largo does seem a notch down from Goldfinger although Largo is more vicious, throwing his own thugs into his personal shark tank when he receives bad news. There's no amazing second nemesis like Red Grant in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE or Oddjob in GOLDFINGER to antagonize Bond although Luciana Paluzzi has fun in her role as the red-headed SPECTRE villainess Fiona Volpe. Largo's right hand man Vargas looks creepy with his long bald head and fish eyes. Largo tells us Vargas has no vices. "Vargas does not drink, does not smoke, does not make love." Vargas's only hobby is murder but he too will find the wrong end of a spear gun courtesy of Bond.
Some final THUNDERBALL tidbits. THUNDERBALL was the first Bond film shot in widescreen Panavision, ushering in that Bond was big time. THUNDERBALL would be director Terence Young's final Bond film but what a way to go out with the biggest, most lavish Bond film yet. Bond films always have a great opening theme song but the title THUNDERBALL seems like a tough song to write. Originally, the theme song was to be Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang sung by Dionne Warwick (check out the DVD to hear her version on the 2nd commentary track). But at the last minute, the producers felt the theme song should have the title in it and what we hear now is Thunderball sung by Tom Jones. A scene at a restaurant called the Kiss Kiss Club would be the filmmakers way of acknowledging the first song title. Lastly, CASINO ROYALE (2006) returned to the Bahamas where THUNDERBALL was filmed and shot some scenes near some of the original locations.
Ultimately, did too many producers and writers water down THUNDERBALL? The film still maintains the same high standards that the first three Bond films had. THUNDERBALL has a bigger budget, is longer than the previous films with a plot as engaging as ever, and looks fantastic. I think it's biggest drawback is its length and that the second half of the film spends too much time looking for the nuclear bombs. THUNDERBALL still maintains the high standards for the Bond series that would eventually begin to wear thin in the 1980's.