Bonding Before Spectre : Thunderball at 50

The latest Bond extravaganza will be upon us in just a few weeks. Following on the massive commercial and critical success of the 50th anniversary Bond film, 2012's Skyfall, the new film promises to tie the previous three films of the Daniel Craig incarnation of the timeless British superspy into the sort of continuity seldom seen in the venerable franchise.

Spectre's final trailer focuses on the nefarious organization first introduced in the Ian Fleming novel Thunderball.

As the new trailer makes relatively clear, how it will do that seems inherent in the name of the new film, Spectre. After being almost entirely absent since its 1960s heyday bedeviling Sean Connery's 007, the rogue nemesis organization will be back in a big way this time out with two-time Oscar winner Christophe Waltz (Inglourious Basterds and Django In Chains) evidently at the helm.

So it seems fitting that this is also the 50th anniversary year of Thunderball. For it was in the Thunderball novel that author Ian Fleming, who generally employed a defunct Soviet Russian assassination bureau as the bureaucratic big bad of the Bond novels, first introduced the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terror, Revenge, and Extortion. And it was in the movie of Thunderball, released in late 1965, that SPECTRE was seen in its most full-fledged glory, as it were, orchestrating the hijacking of an advanced NATO bomber and its nuclear weapons from Britain to the Bahamas as part of a plot to wreak global havoc if its ransom demands are not met.

The idea of SPECTRE, an international consortium of elite crooks -- mostly bent intelligence bosses and mob leaders -- is a clever one, a good way round cliched demonization of the Russians while taking full advantage of the Cold War atmospherics. But it was Thunderball that brought SPECTRE deliciously to the fore.

Dr. No mentioned that its title character was part of the nefarious organization, which came more sharply into focus in From Russia With Love. Goldfinger skipped SPECTRE altogether, with its titular villain aligned with the American mob and, er, the Red Chinese.

But in Thunderball the conspiracy of highly-placed crooks reaches delirious heights of inspired lunacy with the plot's action officer an international playboy operating out of the Bahamas with an exotic European mistress and an even more exotic yacht, the amusingly titled (in Italian, of course) Flying Saucer.

With four memorable Bond Girls to the novel's two -- more than in Goldfinger! -- the movie proved to be the biggest Bond film of the '60s, building a bit on the worldwide blockbuster breakthrough that was Goldfinger.

But today it doesn't have quite the impact. It certainly doesn't lack for flavorful elements, or effort.

Tom Jones with his less than subtle theme song over the opening titles of Thunderball.

The full introduction of SPECTRE is strong, though not as strong and detailed as in the novel, where it is made clear the organization lurks amidst international relief agencies and others in Paris. The idea is genius. Making the big bad a consortium of profit-seekers rather than the Communists and Russians is one of the things that kept the franchise from dating too badly. There's also the likelihood that Old Etonian Tory Fleming had a certain liking for the Russians and thought the Cold War overdone. (Fleming did, as a London columnist, strongly attack McCarthyism and promote electric cars.)

The pre-titles sequence is nasty fun, with Bond attacking what seems to be a grieving woman, then making his getaway after dispatching the villain via jetpack. Take that, Aston Martin ejector seat! The heist and hijacking are exciting and well-executed, with an appropriately mordant sting.

The introduction of a new element, the bad Bond Girl, who's not in the novel, is deft and well-cast. It compensates for the good Bond Girl -- who closes out the practice of dubbed international beauties as Bond's leading lady -- being very beautiful but rather colorless and weaker than her depiction in the novel. The villains are suitably energetic and odd, though Bond ally Felix Leiter is lighter than earlier incarnations. (The joke of always having a new actor play Bond's helpful CIA colleague, which began after future Hawaii 5-0 star Jack Lord in Dr. No proved a bit too commanding a presence and demanding a figure, gets extended here into franchise shtick.)

The Caribbean locations are gorgeous and compelling. Connery himself is quite fit and in top quipsmanship form as Bond. John Barry contributes another spirited and evocative score.

The film even has a wonderful early sequence of 007 being trotted off to a health resort, with MI 6 chief M alarmed by Bond's unhealthy ways. The 70 cigarettes a day and all that drinking don't seem to be doing him a bit of good. Thought it is even funnier and more pointed in the novel -- which has Bond discovering that he's far more energetic and clearer thinking when his body is not narcotized by nicotine and alcohol -- the film version is clever enough. (And of course brings Bond into the plot.) The whole thing stems from Fleming's own experience as he struggled with the addictions which caused his untimely death in 1964 at age 56. Sadly, just three years after publication of the novel and a year before the movie version took his early '50s end-of-Empire creation to even greater global heights.

The original Thunderball trailer, in vintage '60s trailer form.

The Bond of the novels, incidentally, just like Fleming himself, is very different from the "shaken not stirred" martini snob of the movies. He will, and does, drink practically everything alcoholic. If he has a favorite drink, it's not the martini, which pal Felix Leiter makes a fuss over, it's bourbon.

If Thunderball tries too hard to be the compleat action-adventure espionage thriller, it does hit most of its marks. Where it mostly falls flat today is in sequences which thrilled audiences 50 years ago. I'm referring to the extended underwater searches and fight scenes, which today play like the Enterprise making its way ever so painstakingly through the V'ger cloud in the interminable first Star Trek film.

The undersea world was new and exotic for audiences in the '60s. But today it's a bit of old hat, like showing long sequences of people walking in a first for the sake of looking at trees.

The undersea world was a particular favorite of Fleming's, a friend of legendary undersea explorer/environmentalist Jacques Cousteau. He was constantly in the water off his Jamaica home "GoldenEye," which later provided the name for another very notable Bond film with its own 20th anniversary later this year. But even Fleming's underwater sequences in the novel were mercifully briefer.

In the end, it may be that Thunderball just tries too hard to top the more easily achieved cool techno-thrills of Goldfinger. In that regard, the film is probably best typified by its title song, in which Tom Jones goes toe-to-toe with Shirley Bassey's towering version of Goldfinger only to, as legend has it, pass out at the end of his final sustained note.

"He looks at this world and wants it all, then he strikes like Thunderball!"

Indeed. Huh? Dramatic but ... what does that even mean?

In 2008's Quantum of Solace, Bond confronts the shadowy Quantum organization which is holding a meeting during an elegant Austrian presentation of the Puccini opera Tosca. Is Quantum part of SPECTRE?

And what is that odd name Thunderball about, anyway? It comes from American nuclear testing.

The name would live on in military circles. The original name for one of the history's greatest feats of arms -- the Israeli Raid on Entebbe of July 4, 1976, in which Israeli commandos secretly struck from over 2500 miles away to successfully rescue hostages taken by terrorists -- was Operation Thunderball. Just like the code name in the Bond film.

The film even lived on in another cinematic incarnation, 1983's Never Say Never Again.

Thunderball was to have the first Bond film, with Fleming working with producer Kevin McClory on a story not found in his novels. But that deal fell through, and Fleming went on to use the screen treatment for his novel Thunderball, the ninth in the Bond series.

When ultimate Bond film producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman selected Thunderball as the follow-up to Goldfinger, McClory was contractually involved. Indeed, he won the right to remake Thunderball as Never Say Never Again, with Sean Connery returning to the role as an older 007 and the young Kim Basinger making a big early impression as the entangled Domino. Not a great film, but it has more than it share of moments, especially on the humorous side, even if the underwater sequences do again run on.

As, with Skyfall and Goldfinger, one of the three biggest Bond films of all time, adjusted for box office inflation, Thunderball is unfortunately the least and most labored of the three. But it's still awfully strong and its direct legacy lives on 50 years later in the forthcoming Spectre.

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