Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Definitive Bond marathon: Thunderball (1965)

Following the hijacking of an ultra-modern NATO military aircraft and its nuclear arsenal by the international terrorist organization SPECTRE, the British government was informed that this group demanded a ransom within the next seven days, otherwise a major American or British city would meet annihilation. Working with whatever leads it had, MI6 sent agent 007 to the Bahamas, where the sister of the NATO pilot was residing.
The girl in question, Domino Derval, lived with a member of the local wealthy elite, a certain Emilio Largo. Through his encounters with Derval, 007 grew suspicious of Largo’s true nature. Following his investigative instincts, it became apparent that Largo was in fact a member of SPECTRE, and a high ranking officer at that. Getting to him, however, was not easy, for Largo also believed Bond to be an enemy as well, and was soon dispatching his minions, most notably a SPECTRE assassin, Fiona Volpe.

After a 1 film hiatus, Terence Young returns for one last crap at the whip with Thunderball, a film which tries its best to upstage Goldfinger in a game of one-upmanship. The stakes are far higher this around, with U.S. and British governments holding their collective breaths as 007 and company attempt to unravel a plot which could see an American or British metropolitan area blown to smithereens. This is no race for a decoding machine or the contamination of gold bullion. SPECTRE are upping their game considerably this time around, pulling out all the stops in their never ending quest for....for? Wealth? Political influence on the international stage? Who knows, probably a little bit of both. Maybe they want some coupons for free Big Macs at McDonald’s. At this point, SPECTRE’s ‘raison d’ĂȘtre’ is not to be questioned. They are an organized hierarchical incarnation of evil, with tons of liquidity to fund their dastardly operations. If you’re seriously going to spend time figuring out how the intricacies of how they operate and how such a gig is feasible, sorry, but check out another marathon thread.
After two films in which Bond travelled from one place to the next in rapid succession, I thought it interesting that 007 is essentially sent to the Bahamas and stays there for about 80% of the movie. Of course, one of the reasons behind Bond’s popularity is his privilege of experiencing his many adventures in ‘exotic’ locations, some of which are not easily accessible for just anybody. Travel was not as prevalent back in the early 1960s, Youtube, which allows all of us to intake snippets of life from around the glove, didn’t exist and information didn’t travel as fast. The filmmakers on the Bond films shot in location back in the day, and therefore seeing a Bond film at the cinema was a little bit like going on a trip with 007 himself. This places Thunderball in a strange situation. After all, the majority of the plot transpires in the Bahamas (Nassau, if I remember). Exotic? Yes, in a sense, but also very much of a tourist resort. It isn’t as if Bond interacts with many locals in this instalment, which is absolutely the case with the previous films. For this reason, one may be forgiven for thinking Thunderball to be somewhat of a downgrade when compared with Goldfinger (which many people do, even though they still tend to look upon this film favourably). There is a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ which is lacking here in terms of local culture, exploration and discovery. However, I’d argue that it isn’t all bad. Instead rushing around all over the place, we get to see the mission develop in a single place, hence the audience can grow accustomed to the surroundings. There is also a tongue in cheek aspect to having such gargantuan stakes being fought for at a place where a bunch of privilege, rich white people hang out 365 days a year. The place is beautiful, relaxing, and probably makes for a fantastic one week getaway, from underneath this veneer of tranquility and fun rests an approaching firestorm storm which will destroy the very place the vacationers have come from. I may be reading too much into all of this, but I think the single exotic location of Thunderball has its fair share of positives.

I really like the pacing of the Terence Young Bond films. The director never wants to rush things along, preferring to have 007 make contact with the necessary allies and foes, develop those partnerships and antagonisms in little skirmishes, some clues here and there being dropped as the movie trots along, with everything culminating in a massive climax of explosions and violence. If anything, I’d say Young gave us a trilogy of ‘slow burn’ Bond adventures, where the real spectacular moments occur in the last third of the films, the previous two reserved primarily for little games of cat and mouse. The rivalry between 007 (Connery) and Largo (Adolfo Celi) builds at a solid pace, with some witty banter being thrown between the two, but always with a clear underlying element of animosity. It’s like those standoffs we’ve all seen in our favourite westerns, only this time the two foes are not just doing it with their gazes, but with one liners and poorly camouflaged intensity. Speaking of Largo and the actor who plays him, how’s that for a villain in a movie which occurs in the Caribbean? I mean, the guy has an eye patch? He helps SPECTRE steal hijack a NATO jet and loot its atomic warheads...Eye patch, stealing, Bahamas, get it? On the surface it all sounds rather silly, but personally I think it works fairly well. 007 versus the filthy pirate who pretended to be upper class elite.  Much like with Gert Frobe in Goldfinger, Celi was actually dubbed for the final cut of the film, so it’s a little difficult to assess the actor’s performance, but he does have a pretty imposing presence.
Which brings us of course to Domino Derval, played by French model and actress Claudine Auger. Of all the Bond girls, she’s one of my favourites. I think her character has a solid arc, which isn’t something that we can safely say about many of the Bond girls. At first we only know her as the super hot sister of some NATO pilot who got jacked. We learn that she is somewhat of a prisoner of Largo’s clutches, but that she does have a way about her which belies any initial impression of a docile little girl. There is a bit of playfulness and feistiness about her.  She’s harder to get at than one would think, and upon learning of her brother’s murder, she doesn’t want Bond to vanquish Largo. Instead, she vows to dispatch of the villain herself, even though she will need Bond’s help. I’d have a hard time arguing that Domino does a heck of a lot in the movie, but I think the script and direction treat her character with enough respect for he to be memorable. I also love the fact that, in the end, she does...well, I won’t give it away, but the end of her story is quite fitting.

No discussion of Thunderball can be complete without mention of the climax, which is easily one of may favourites in the series. Most of it takes place underwater, which slows down the pace of the action significantly, but also makes for quite the spectacle. I really feel like the experience allows the viewer to appreciate and revel in all the great little one-on-one fights taking place. There is also something that I find especially uncomfortable about dying underwater, so seeing a bunch of guys get harpooned in the chest or face underwater makes for a rather chilling experience. The cinematography and editing for the ballet of water and blood is very impressive, and makes for a decidedly different climax in a Bond (we honestly don’t see anything quite like this for the remainder of the series). I enjoy every second of this final battle whenever I watch, and, as some of you can imagine, I’ve it plenty of times already.
Wait a minute now. Remember how in my review of Goldfinger review I shared a slight qualm regarding how the film treated Pussy Galore’s change of heart and how I thought the filmmakers made up for it in Thunderball? I’m speaking of course of the bedroom scene between Bond and the unbelievably sexy Fiona Volpe. Shortly after sleeping together, Fiona’s goons surprise Bond and take him hostage. She sort of looks at him in a dastardly way and taunts Bond and his womanizing ways, laughing at how 007 always believes he can get evil girls to turn to the side of light by screwing them. Bond, visibly disappointed, tries to cover up by saying what he did was for Queen and country. Finally admitting that he’s lost this one battle, 007 shrugs ‘Well, you can’t win them all.’ Great stuff.

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