Largo: I demand $100 million dollars.  Bond: Ah shit, now what.

WHO IS JAMES BOND?  For the purposes of Thunderball, this is the $64,000 question.  Bond has undergone a personality change.  For three movies he attacked his job with the same mischievious, adventurous spirit.  There was a glint in his eye and a spring in his step.  If he got pissy it was because some innocent person (usually a bird) was dragging him down while he was trying to do his job.  Once the job was over, he went back to existing in what he considers man’s natural state: drinking, smoking and screwing on an indefinite timetable.  But something has changed in Thunderball: Bond starts the movie grumpy and out of sorts, and never comes out of his mood.  He can still charm the birds and he can still play Baccarat, but he doesn’t seem to get any joy out of it any more.  In Dr. No, he postpones his trip to Jamaica to have sex with Sylvia the Lady Gambler; in Thunderball he interrupts his massaging of his nurse companion with a mink glove in order to go investigate a mysterious delivery in a spa.  Work used to take a distant second to pleasure in Bond’s world, now it seems like he can’t pass up the women fast enough to get back to work, even inventing work if he has to to get the ladies off his back.

What happened?  Was it the Kennedy assassination?  Bond was, after all, even though British, the movie version of Kennedy’s personality — sexy, optimistic, yet tough on foreign policy and willing to do whatever it took to beat the Russkies, even if that meant screwing every woman who crossed his path.  Kennedy died, and something seems to have died within Bond as well.  He looks bored and impatient with every new curve thrown at him, whether it belongs to a woman or the bad guy’s devious plan.  (It’s also worth noting that Ian Fleming also died while the movie was in production.)

Or maybe it’s just Connery.  Maybe he was getting bored and impatient with what was quickly becoming the Bond “formula.” (Perhaps the line in the song, “his needs are more so he gives less,” was inspired by Connery’s movie-star demands and resulting performance.)  When Q shows up unexpectedly in Nassau to hand over Bond’s new gadgets, Bond spends the whole scene looking ready to punch him.  Christ, Bond, the guy just flew half-way around the world to bring you toys (apropos of nothing, I might add), you might offer him a drink.

The weight of expectation seems to drag him down; his reputation precedes him everywhere he goes in this movie, usually with people using it against him as a result.  Is it really a good idea for a secret agent to world-famous?

Or maybe Bond just got a new toupee, and has realized too late that it looks like crap.  Which would put anyone in a sour mood, I suppose.

WHAT DOES THE BAD GUY WANT?  SPECTRE’s faceless, cat-laden “Number 1” has a plan to steal two nuclear warheads and sell them back to the western world for $100,000,000 in diamonds.  No more plans for world domination mentioned — he’s apparently scaled back his plans since From Russia With Love.  What will he do with $100,000,000?  For starters, he probably has to pay rent and maintenance on his gigantic, Ken Adam-designed boardroom, which is the size of a cricket-pitch and outfitted with posh electric chairs.  The nuclear-bomb theft he has entrusted to one Emilio Largo, whose surname (“long”) serves as a descriptive adjective for the movie.

We spend a lot of time with the bad guys and their plan to hijack the jet that carries the bombs that will hold the world hostage.  These scenes are joyless and plodding and kill a lot of the forward momentum in the movie, especially since we don’t know who these people are or what they’re trying to do.

WHAT DOES BOND ACTUALLY DO TO SAVE THE WORLD?  For the first time, a lot, almost everything.  And the movie suffers for it.  Bond is overworked in this movie — between saving the world, bedding assassins and finding the bombs he has some real juggling to do and he doesn’t have time for people trying to kill him.  He seems bitter and resentful of the whole enterprise.

More damaging, however, is the structure of the detective story.  Bond spends the first act of Thunderball stomping angrily around a spa, where, after suffering through an uninspired assassination attempt (a faceless man tries to kill him via a brilliant plan of adjusting his massage table) he stumbles upon — no, wait, doesn’t stumble upon, seeks out, acting like freaking Freddy from Scooby-Doo (“I sense — a mystery!”) — a mysterious dead body.  The dead body, we find out eventually, is a clue to Largo’s nefarious scheme.  Bond asks M for permission to travel to Nassau to track down the sister of the dead man, a plan no one thinks will yield any results (and yet Q, bowing to formula, shows up to deliver the gadgets soon after).  Bond finds the sister, the sister leads to Largo, Largo leads to his super-yacht, the Disco Volante (the “Flying Dance Music,” a terrifying sobriquet for an instrument of mass destruction, almost as horrifying as The Enola Gay), and the Disco Volante is where the bombs are.  The coincidental nature of Bond’s involvement in the case is contrived and uninspired, which may be another reason Bond looks so unhappy throughout.

Bond meets Largo at 50:00, and the first actual clue is discovered at 1:09:00 — that’s a long time for a detective story to get moving, and another reason Goldfinger is a far better script.

We also get our third Felix Leiter — not Jack Lord Felix, not Dumpy Older Felix, but Prematurely Gray Surfer Dude Felix.  “Felix Leiter,” obviously, is not name but a designation.  As one Felix dies (or retires), another is promoted to the office.  Or perhaps “Felix Leiter” is a pseudonym used by every CIA agent.  In any case, this Felix is a clueless, baffled Captain Obvious, a lazy, defeatist grump who stands around and gripes while Bond goes and gets the job done.

HOW COOL IS THE BAD GUY?  I find Largo uninteresting.  There’s something tired and grouchy about him, a mood that spreads to Bond and throughout the movie.  Goldfinger is grouchy and tired too, but also colorful, interesting and a brilliant improviser.  Goldfinger has a genuine love (for gold) that inspires and moves him to acts of grand, inspired ambition; Largo spends the movie looking like he’d rather be doing something else.  1 point for inaugurating the Bond Villain Shark Tank(tm), 1 point for the boat-within-a-boat super yacht, 1 point for turning the stolen jet-fighter into an underwater Christo sculpture, -10 points for his crappy attitude.

Second Villain Fiona Volpe is pretty cool, a female assassin with her own gadgets and methods of working on Bond; once Bond contrives to get her shot in the middle of a street festival a good measure of positive energy goes out of the movie.

NOTES: In spite of having an enormous budget, there is something coarse, ugly and shoddy about the production.  The photography is markedly less glossy, the sets look rushed, everyone behind the camera seems to have been as grumpy and put out as the star.  And yet the movie was, mysteriously, a colossal hit, the biggest hit of the series up to that point, and in terms of adjusted-for-inflation dollars, still the biggest hit.

The climactic undersea battle between Largo’s men and (I think) the CIA is spectacularly and inventingly staged, but it is also brutal, violent and unpleasant, and mostly involves people we’ve never met and don’t care about.  It also takes place underwater, which slows everything down and probably accounts for pushing this movie over two hours.  Once the action moves above the water line, the filmmakers overcompensate by undercranking every shot remaining in the movie, until it starts to feel like an episode of Benny Hill

The US Navy gets demerited for having its battleship fire upon a yacht they know is carrying two nuclear bombs.
hit counter html code


16 Responses to “Thunderball”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    This is actually my most recently watched full Bond movie (last year).

    mostly involves people we’ve never met and don’t care about

    What really got me about this fight scene (and most like it) is that not only do we not care about these people, most of the time it’s hard to tell which side is which. “Uh, that guy stabbed the other guy — yay?”

  2. ratmmjess says:

    I’ve been waiting for you to reach the point where you suggested that “Felix Leither” is a pseudonym.

    See, there was this Norwegian writer, Ovre Richter Frich, who between 1911 and 1935 wrote twenty-one novels about Dr. Jonas Fjeld, a blond Norwegian giant who sallies forth from his Uranienborg fortress to do battle against Tsarist agents, the International Communist Conspiracy, and various South American crime lords. Fjeld is described as being a combination of James Bond and Indiana Jones, and uses a variety of gadgets as well as a high-tech submarine.

    The reason I bring this up is that Fjeld is assisted by an American Pinkerton agent who loses an arm and a leg while helping Fjeld.

    The Pinkerton agent’s name?

    “Felix Leiter.” (I kid you not).

    Did Fleming read the Frich novels? I have no idea, but I sorta doubt it. Frich was very popular in Scandinavia before WW2, and Fjeld was imitated by Danish and Swedish authors, but Frich’s fascist views fell out of favor after 1945, and he’s never (as far as I can find) been translated into English.

    So the naming must be coincidental…and, *obviously*, “Felix Leiter” was a popular pseudonym for active Pinkerton agents before it was used by CIA agents.

  3. curt_holman says:

    “Felix Leiter,” obviously, is not name but a designation.

    Genius! It makes so much sense.

    To be a completist, you really must do this one:

    • Todd says:

      Wow! That looks worse than Casino Royale!

      • Operation Kid Brother

        Yes and no. Not as “good” a movie (if you can use that in relation to the 60s Casino Royale), but it’s a helluva lot more charming, has a great score by Ennio Morricone, and it’s fun to see Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee slumming in Italy for a while (and Lee sounds drunk in his dubbing) along with other actors from the first Bond films.

        They did it on – and most people, like myself, know it from – Mystery Science Theater 3000. Pretty good episode.

        “Ugh, now I know why Thunderball was a hit – you never saw him with his shirt off!”
        -Crow T. Robot, on Adolfo Celi’s more revealing scene in O.K. Connery

      • curt_holman says:

        Operation Double 007

        “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” did it and it’s mind-boggling. The fact that it has Sean Connery’s brother alongside a bunch of Bond veterans is absolutely surreal. There’s a great MST3K clip when one of the bad guys is about to kill Neil Connery, and one of the robots says “Prepare to meet Kali’s brother!”

  4. black13 says:

    Minor quibble: “Disco Volante” means “Flying Saucer.”

    But now, after reading this, I can’t help but see John Travolta in the Emilio Largo role.

    (Are you going to do Never Say Never Again?)

    And the “name as designation” has already been done for Bond in the second Casino Royale movie (the one with Niven as Bond, not the one with Nelson).

    If it works for MI6, why not for CIA?

  5. planettom says:

    The Felix Leiter of THUNDERBALL always reminds me of that big dumb gangster-sidekick dog in one of the Warner Brothers cartoons, the one who’s always saying, “Duh, what do we do now, George?” Because Felix seems to be saying, “Duh, what do we do now, James?” through the whole movie.

    In the John Gardner 007 novels, the author seems to be trying to do the impossible: keeping a continuity between both the novels and the movies. At one point in his novelization of LICENSE TO KILL, Felix gets partially eaten by a shark (again, since this also happened in the novel, but not the movie, of LIVE AND LET DIE) and Bond laments, “Why does this keep happening?!”

    In a previous Gardner novel, we meet Felix Leiter’s daughter, Cedar Leiter. Whom Bond promptly and repeatedly goes deep undercover with.

    Somewhat surprisingly, Felix Leiter doesn’t show up at Bond’s hotel room to beat him senseless with his prosthetic leg and hand-hook.

    • Todd says:

      I wish Felix smoked — then his nickname could be “Cigarette Leiter.”

      • planettom says:

        Well, there is that part in LIVE AND LET DIE where Bond’s car has a radio link in the cigarette lighter, and Felix’s voice is coming out of it. Bond looks at it, and muses “Genuine Felix lighter!”

  6. vertamae says:

    (I was linked here by – I added you so I’ll remember to read your Bond posts – hope you don’t mind)

  7. teamwak says:


    It is one of the lesser Bonds, in my opinion; but it does have a kick-ass boat chase, and the movie also has the fantastic Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as a secondary tune.

    They were going to use it as an alternative theme tune, but changed it at the last minute.