Thunderball (1965) – Terence Young

If every Bond movie is a war between grit and silliness, Thunderball (1965) scores a great victory for nonsense. Here we have a villain with an eye patch, a murder attempt by exercise machine, an opening sequence that pits Bond against a man in a dress that concludes with Bond strapping on a jet pack and flying away. Curiously, this scene shows him stowing the machine once he’s used it but not where he got it from. It has baddies who get plastic surgery to impersonate pilots, frogmen with tritons and, in adjusted dollars, it’s the most profitable Bond movie of all time. You have to like a movie that reveals a giant map behind an enormous mechanically moving painting, revealed for the purpose of a secret briefing, and then the briefing doesn’t take half as long as it took to move the painting.

The evil criminal organization SPECTRE and their faceless leader, Number 1, are at it again, and British Agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is the only man who can stop them. Things at SPECTRE are a little tense. In a secret meeting, Number 1 tightens the screws a bit by punishing an underachieving member by pressing a button that shoots electricity through the man’s chair and kills him. The other members shuffle nervously as they remind themselves, at the next meeting, to elect to stand. After the example is made, Number 1 announces that Largo (Adolfo Celi) has been assigned to take the lead on the most ambitious project the organization has ever taken, a project that, because of Largo’s one uncovered eye, must not require depth perception. No, it’s a plot to steal atomic bombs and ask NATO for 100 million pounds to get them back.

Largo is keeping the bombs underwater near Nassau, which gives Bond plenty of opportunity to drink on the beach and scope the bikini girls, his favorite being Domino (Claudine Auger), who also happens to be Largo’s squeeze. In good time, she switches her allegiances, presumably because unlike the cycloptic Largo, Bond can fully enjoy 3-D movies (its actually because Largo had her brother killed). As SPECTRE’s deadline for NATO to pay approaches, Bond and Domino dive in to save the day.

The movie chugs along behind its own light comic propulsion (there’s perhaps a higher percentage of flippant remarks in the script of Thunderball than in any other Bond), but it’s a very shallow entertainment. Most Bond movies contain a healthy portion of pointless filler, but usually that filler is made up of different exotic locales and daring action sequences. Thunderball takes place mainly in one place and all the important information is established early on so the bulk of the movie is spent with Bond treading water on Nassau while we wait for the big finale (which itself is a bit of a let down for all the waiting we’ve done).

Fortunately, Thunderball’s shield from boredom is its light tone (the similarly aimless From Russian with Love [1963] is doomed because of its humorlessness); its scenes may be inane but they are punched up with an unnecessary but extravagant set flourish or a campy sereptitious hand of a gunman emerging from behind a drape or a shower curtain to keep our interest. Case in point, a sequence when Bond is thrown into a pool of sharks is technically tensionless and consequence free, but it’s saved when Bond commiserates with the unfed sharks after he’s eluded them, perhaps acknowledging how much DNA he and they share.

Although it’s more palatable in a movie that doesn’t want to be taken too seriously, all the same, the series’ casual sexism is exceptionally casual and sexist in Thunderball. Bond has always made patronizing comments to the women around him, but they are usually met with bemused derision and returned with a pithier rejoinder. Here they go unanswered and land like an awkward note that’s missing its partner. Most of these episodes into misogyny have an appropriate level of boyish cheek (my favorite is when a bathing woman asks Bond to hand her something to wear and he smirkingly responds by offering her a pair of heels), but too many of them wander into icky chauvinism. There is a fiery assassin played by Luciana Paluzzi who briefly puts Bond in his place, but she can ultimately do little to even the score. Impossible to swallow is an early moment when Bond slimily blackmails a woman for sex.

Thunderball is mindless but it keeps us engaged enough, though it doesn’t provide more than a relatively pleasant albeit frivolous passing experience. It’s sort of like a longago trip to one of those idyllic islands like the Nassau of the movie. You know you went, but you spent the whole time bumming around and so the details are a little murky, and when presented with the visual evidence, you can hardly believe that’s you in that goofy Hawaiian shirt.

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