Movie review: ‘Thunderball’

Well, the 007 franchise came out with “Spectre” in 2015 – and, like all the Daniel Craig efforts as “James Bond,” it’s a stinker. Certainly not from an action point (no big-budget film can be bad on that account these days because of computers), but because its “007” is simply incompetent. Although Daniel Craig isn’t as bad as, say, George Lazenby or even Timothy Dalton, he is handicapped by having one on-screen look: A dopey, vacuous stare that makes it appear he’s having a bowel movement. And that’s his BEST acting emotion. So, instead of seeing “Spectre,” just check the cable grid to see if “Thunderball” again or just haul it out of your DVD collection (I’m sure it’s there). “Thunderball” is so much superior to “Spectre” and you don’t have to watch a 007 who looks like he’s sitting on a commode. Craig is no Sean Connery … never has been, never will be and can never be. Connery was simply terrific in “Thunderball” and the epitome of 007 in this big-screen spectacular worth watching, re-watching and re-re-watching.

‘Thunderball’
(1965; 130 minutes; rated R; directed by Terence Young and starring Sean Connery, Claudine Auger and Adolfo Celi)

IT’S ALL HERE: ACTION, PLOT, EXCITEMENT AND BIG SCREEN SPECTACLE

(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion and trivia and the updating of links on March 16, 2020.)

The 007 classic “Thunderball” will always be one of my fond memories. I hadn’t reached double-digits in age but my parents allowed me to see it – remember, at that time in the ‘60s, after “Dr. No,” “From Russia With Love” (didn’t remember that it was second, did you?) and “Goldfinger” (click here for my review) the coolest guy on the planet was “James Bond,” but he was supposed to be for “mature” audiences.

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If you forget “From Russia With Love,” the somewhat trilogy of 007’s “Dr. No,” “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” are arguably the best three Bond films starring the same actor. I’m reviewing “Thunderball” today because this December 22 in 2015 will be the film’s golden anniversary (that’s the 50th in case you’re not up on your Emily Post).

It’s easy to forget how good of motion pictures were the early James Bond efforts. They didn’t just rely on out-of-this-world special effects or stunning action, they actually had sound plots, good writing and solid acting from just about the entire cast. Today? Well, you have Daniel Craig and his “I’m taking a dump” expression. Sigh.

So, let me look at “Thunderball” and, what I believe is its biggest virtue: It takes time to tell the story and let the actors work. It doesn’t use limp dialogue or too-hokey plot “twists” as an excuse to jump from one scene to the next or as just a way to find more action. “Thunderball” is a big-screen spectacle in the old school way and is every bit the wonder audiences found it five decades ago.

In “Thunderball,” the criminal enterprise SPECTRE (the acronym for the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence Terrorism Revenge and Extortion) uses an intricately twisted mission to steal two nuclear weapons from the British and then holds the world hostage. Of course, 007 is on the case and the international game of chess moves across the Atlantic to the Bahamas and “James Bond” saving the girl and the world – in that order, of course.

Along the way, each of the characters is fleshed out to the point of the film not insulting your intelligence by glossing over things to move on to the next stunt. As to the stunts, the action remains sharp today – and outstanding in the mid-1960s – and truly enhances the plot and not the focal point of it. You get an other-worldly jetpack as well as magnificent underwater battle scenes.

Even better is that villains have a somewhat human quality to them (especially Adolfo Celi as “Emilio Largo”) and are not just distant, one-dimensional villains so commonly found in modern adventure efforts.

So, here goes with a rundown of some of the primary cast. You won’t recognize most today, but they did very good work. Here goes …

  • Of course, Oscar winner (not for this one) Connery is truly the benchmark “James Bond.” He’s got it all – the sophistication, intelligence and humor. He’s also tough, ruthless and mission-minded. He doesn’t appear to be acting because he IS the character. You might as well say Bond is Connery instead of the other way around. Again of course, Connery has had a legendary career and won an Oscar with his only nomination for supporting actor in “The Untouchables.” I thought he did a very solid job in the weak “Rising Sun,” “The Hunt for Red October” (click here for my review) and “The Rock,” but his best non-007 role was as the father of “Indiana Jones” in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (by far the single best acting job in that entire franchise).
  • As I already noted, Celi does a wonderful job as “Largo.” However, you don’t hear his real voice – it is dubbed because of Celi’s heavy accent when speaking English. In any case, Celi masterfully has command of his physical acting as it relates to his lines and was an inspired and perfect casting choice. Celi, who died of a heart attack in 1986 at the age of 63, could have had his character challenge the one of main Bond villain “Blofeld” if the producers had thought about an ongoing nemesis for Bond in 1965.
  • Luciana Paluzzi plays “Fiona Volpe” and is as lethal as a viper and as good a Bond villain as any. Paluzzi does a very good job in projecting menace and lethality as well as keeping up with Connery’s work in “Thunderball.” It’s too bad, too, that hers is a doomed character. Paluzzi left acting in 1978 after 87 credits (the last two being the films “The Greek Tycoon” with Anthony Quinn in the little-remembered Onassis-Jackie Kennedy tale; and “Deadly Chase”). Interestingly, she didn’t always go for action or drama, as she was in the Frankie and Annette sun ‘n’ sand flick “Muscle Beach Party.”
  • The main so-called “Bond girl” here is Claudine Auger, who plays “Dominque ‘Domino’ Derval.” She is Celi’s mistress and while the film is back in the day of sexism with most characters (Paluzzi’s was a refreshing change for a woman to be so strong), Auger does manage to breathe life into such a character. Auger, who also had her voiced dubbed for “Thunderball,” had a career of 80 credits with the last being in 1997. Auger died at 78 in 2019.
  • Martine Beswick is the stereotypical Bond girl here – she’s 007’s ally “Paula Caplan” and gets kidnapped. Beswick doesn’t get to do much with her character (it’s a Bond girl, remember) and she is a piece of Bond trivia – Beswick was also in “From Russia with Love” (her first name in those credits was “Martin”). Beswick has also been in films such as “Miami Blues” and she did a ton of well-known TV shows in the 1970s. The year after “Thunderball” she was in the Raquel Welch cult classic “One Million Years B.C.

The character played by numerous actors across the franchise is Bond’s ally in the CIA: “Felix Leiter.” Of course “Hawaii Five-O” TV-superstar-to-be Jack Lord was the first “Felix” in “Dr. No” and was followed by Cec Linder in “Goldfinger;” Rick Van Nutter here in “Thunderball;” Norman Burton played him a longsuffering agent in “Diamonds are Forever” (click here for my review); David Hedison, who did turns with 1973’s “Live and Let Die” (click here for my review) and in 1989’s “License to Kill;” John Terry in “The Living Daylights;” and Jeffrey Wright in “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” Since “Never Say Never Again” isn’t an “official” Bond effort, I can’t mention Bernie Casey as Leiter in that one from 1983.

Also, as with all my 007 film reviews, I haven’t mentioned “James Bond’s” co-workers and boss, such as the incomparable “Miss Moneypenny.” I’ll leave that to other reviewers.

Thunderball” was the third ranked film in 1965 at U.S. theaters with $63.5 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki’s report on box office totals that year. It was an outstanding success not only with moviegoers, but also with investors: it made $141.2 million worldwide on a big-at-the-time budget of $9 million, according to Wiki. “Thunderball” trailed behind the No. 1 film was the incomparable “The Sound of Music” with $163.2 million and “Doctor Zhivago” was second with $111.7 million. The four other films from 1965 that I’ve reviewed are:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Auger was Miss France in 1958.
  • Thunderball” is the final 007 film directed by Terence Young.
  • My how things are different today! In one scene underwater, Connery and Beswick go behind a rock. The script called for her bikini to float up from behind it. However, producers vetoed the detail as being too suggestive. Today? They’d show them in slow-motion … er, well, you get the idea.
  • The bad guys in “Thunderball” were supposed to be Italian crime bosses in the original concept. However, SPECTRE was introduced and Celi kept on as the main villain. Good move by the filmmakers.
  • The name of Celi’s yacht is the “Disco Volante,” which translates to flying saucer.
  • Thunderball” is the first 007 film to be shot in Panavision.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The only Bond film where we get a glimpse of all 00 agents in one shot. They are summoned to M’s briefing and 007 is the last to join in. He sits down in the only available chair – the seventh from the left. Only one of the other 00’s faces are revealed, however, as they are filmed from behind or their faces are hidden, and Bond is seen in close-up.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Peter R. Hunt claims that the scene with a dog urinating in the shot during the Junkanoo (at around 87 mins) was at first left on the cutting room floor, feeling that the footage wasn’t that great. However the producers, who noticed the take as they checked the dailies, enjoyed the shot so much that they demanded it remain in the film. Also, in the parade behind the dog, a group who arrived for filming as part of the parade dressed up wearing ‘007’ on their hats. Filmmakers attempted to edit around the group, but the dog’s impromptu nature call kept the ‘007’ group in the film.”
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page for “Thunderball.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015, 2020.
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