While two generations separated us, one thing my Grandfather and I bonded over was our love of movies, namely Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy and Sean Connery James Bond movies. With the latter, he was old enough to have seen them when they first came out – their brand of ruthless violence and beautiful women appealed to him. He came from a time when men were men and women in spy movies were kittens in distress. I think he also admired Connery’s style and particular brand of machismo. Of course at my young age, I had no idea about any of this; all I knew was that he (a man of few words) and I (equally so) could enjoy those movies together, which is why the Connery Bond movies will always have a special place in my heart, Thunderball (1965) being my favorite. Conventional wisdom says that Goldfinger (1964) is the best movie of the Connery era but I love the ambition of Thunderball. It has the best action sequence and Bond girl from this period.
The movie’s opening prologue sets the tone right away as Bond confronts a widow that turns out to be a male enemy agent. They engage in battle that is quite intense – Bond finally kills him by breaking his neck with a fireplace poker. He proceeds to escape the scene with the aid of a jetpack! This segues into one of the most striking opening credits sequences, complete with beautiful women swimming underwater alongside men armed with spear guns, foreshadowing the movie’s exciting climax, all the while Tom Jones belting out the theme song with his trademark gusto. Maurice Bender uses color masterfully in this sequence, mixing a saturated palate of dark purples and blues with red, giving them a distinctive look.
SPECTRE are at it again. After eliminating a duplicitous agent, the organization gets down to business as their Number Two a.k.a. Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) has devised a plan to steal a NATO bomber carrying two nuclear warheads, then ransom them for $280 million. The British government has seven days to come up with the money or SPECTRE will bomb either a British city or an American one. I like that we only see the head of SPECTRE from the shoulders down. Remember when mastermind villains had an air of mystery to them? I’m always amused by the casual indifference Largo shows after one of his contemporaries is fried by the boss. Business as usual.
By sheer coincidence, Bond stumbles across this plot while recuperating, which mainly involves bedding the lovely female staff member (Molly Peters) there, at a spa in England, where he’s nearly killed for his troubles. This sequence features awkwardly blatant sexism as Bond initially forces himself on said staff member…then blackmails her into having sex, in lieu of not telling her superiors about a mishap that almost resulted in his demise. Bond’s attitude towards women is certainly the most problematic element of both the movie and the franchise. It is the aspect that has dated the movie the most.
Thunderball features one of the most exotic and gorgeous Bond girls – Dominique “Domino” Derval (Claudine Auger) – whose brother (Paul Stassino) was killed by SPECTRE and replaced by an imposter. Her “guardian” is none other than Largo, which gives Bond access to him. She doesn’t immediately give in to the spy’s charms, or fall into bed with him, either. She plays hard to get or, rather, she is the property of another man. That doesn’t last long once Bond enters the mix. Early on, he recognizes that Domino is different, telling her at one point that she swims like a man to which she cheekily replies, “So do you.” Claudine Auger plays Domino as someone candid and self-aware enough to admit that she’s a kept woman but one gets the sense that she’s biding her time. Domino uses Bond to help her escape from Largo – and then later as an instrument for revenge. It is an interesting relationship, to say the least. Auger conveys a wonderful vulnerability in the role, shedding tears when Bond informs her of her brother’s death. She isn’t an aloof socialite. She becomes determined to kill Largo and make him pay for what he did to her brother.
With his eye patch, Largo is one of the more distinctive Bond villains. He oozes confidence and power but is not afraid to get his hands dirty, exemplified early on when he kills an operative who has outlived their usefulness. He’s also not above feeding another to a swimming pool of sharks. He owns a yacht with the coolest name – Disco Volante, which would go on to become the name of Mr. Bungle’s second album (they’ve also covered “Thunderball” in concert). Largo’s finest moment is when he invites Bond to his estate. They trade thinly-veiled insults in a rather sophisticated dick-measuring contest, Largo casually threatening Bond with a shotgun while they shoot some skeet. Largo takes the first shot, nails it and says to Bond, “What could be easier?” Bond smiles and says, “Seems terribly difficult” before effortlessly nailing his shot: “No, it isn’t, is it?”
Bond, however, meets his match with Largo’s female enforcer Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). She has no qualms about torturing his female assistant (Martine Beswick) then bedding him, proving to be just as aggressive as he is in the sack. She’s fully aware of Bond’s reputation and even calls him on it: “James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts hearing heavenly choirs sing. She repents, then immediately returns to the side of right and virtue,” which pretty much nails Bond’s relationship with women. She’s the most dangerous person in the movie, perhaps even more than Largo, and comes the closest to trapping and killing Bond in the movie, with one of her men managing to wound him.
The movie climaxes with a thrilling underwater battle of Largo and his men versus Bond and his, with dangerous sharks thrown into the mix. One of the frequent complaints leveled at Thunderball is that there are too many underwater sequences. While, the crashing landing and subsequent salvaging of the NATO bomber does drag on for too long, you’ve got the underwater meet-cute between Bond and Domino, Bond photographing Largo’s yacht, and Bond having sex with Domino in the ocean. Then there is the aforementioned underwater battle. Its critics say the sequence drags on too long but I love every minute of it. I like that Largo isn’t afraid to lead his men into battle. He’s not a criminal mastermind that lets others do the killing. He leads by example. This leads to a kinetic fist fight with Bond aboard the Disco Volante as Largo tries to escape, only for Domino to save the spy’s life and get her much deserved revenge as she delivers the killing blow – a rarity in the franchise. She is the first Bond girl to directly save Bond and the first one to kill the main baddie.
Thunderball ends in typical cheeky Bond fashion as he rides off into the sunset with the girl living to fight another day, in another installment. This marks the fourth and last of the truly essential Connery Bond movies that has it all: cool gadgetry (the yacht that can detach its rear half to make a speedy getaway), sharks, a nasty villain sporting an eyepatch, beautiful women (three of them!), and just the right mix of well-timed levity, and visceral action.