- Year: 1965
- Director: Terence Young
- Series Rank: #5
- Year Rank: #10
- Oscar Nominations: Visual Effects
- Nighthawk Nominations: Editing, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
- Bond Girl: Claudine Auger (Domino Derval), Molly Peters (Patricia Fearing)
- Bond Villain: Adolfo Celi (Emilio Largo), Luciana Paluzzi (Fiona Volpe), Philip Locke (Vargas), Anthony Dawson (Ernst Stavro Blofeld)
- Bond Support: Bernard Lee (M), Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Rik Van Nutter (Felix Leiter)
What you think of Thunderball might depend on what you think of underwater sequences. There are a lot of them. There are, in fact, probably too many of them, at least for a film that extends well beyond the two hour mark as Thunderball does (the most recent issue of Empire says that 20.8% of the running time takes place underwater). It’s part of what keeps it from being a great film (I have it as a mid-range ***.5 film, which, in a weak year like 1965, was good enough for #10, while Goldfinger, a **** film was #10 in the much better year of 1964). But it’s this good because it does have a lot of what makes Bond great – a good pre-credits sequence, some beautiful women, a particularly beautiful and deadly woman, some cool gadgets and a big fight scene to conclude it all. It’s not quite the heights of Goldfinger for pure fun Bond, but it’s pretty high.
Unlike in Goldfinger, we don’t have to wait a long time to figure out what is going on. Early on we know that SPECTRE is involved, we know that they are after something on an important flight (important enough to have the pilot duplicated and then have the duplicate killed) and that they want Bond out of the way. Oh, do they want Bond out of the way. How much? Let us count the ways. First, when he is tied to a device designed to stretch his spine, one agent sets it to maximum (Bond later locks him in a sauna). That agent tries to kill Bond again later, but is dispatched by Fiona Volpe (who at this point is wearing a skin-tight jumpsuit – more on that later) for his earlier failure. When Bond gets to the Bahamas, SPECTRE sends a man to kill him and fails; that man is then fed to the sharks (literally). Bond faces off against the SPECTRE goons, fights one at the villa of Largo (SPECTRE’s #2) and falls into the pool of sharks and fights them again even before we get to the epic end battle. Oh, and before that fight, Volpe tracks him down and tries to have him killed, but he manages to maneuver her into dying in his place. And Vargas, the main SPECTRE assassin tries to kill him but Bond gets the point across to him (yes, a bad pun, because it’s a bad pun in the film). In fact, the movie begins with him not getting killed, in a pre-credits sequence where he fights a SPECTRE agent and escapes from SPECTRE goons thanks to his jetpack, still one of the quintessential Bond moments. All of this is supposedly set against Bond trying to track down stolen nukes, but really, it’s all about watching Bond get the girls while not getting killed.
There are the Bond girls of course, and this film is full of them. The first one really doesn’t count – she’s a French agent who tags along with Bond in the pre-credits sequence. The first real Bond girl in the film is Patricia Fearing, the nurse in the spa where Bond goes to recover – she resists him at first, but it isn’t long before she’s come around to him. The next one is one of those great combo Bond girl / Bond villain women. It’s Fiona Volpe, a deadly assassin. When we first see her she has seduced a pilot (she’s barely staying in her dress), then she betrays him. We next see her in a skintight jumpsuit on a motorcycle chasing down the man who failed to kill Bond; she’s more successful in killing him than he was in killing Bond. Later, we see her in the Bahamas as well. She dispatches Bond’s female sidekick (not really a Bond girl) and he comes upon her in the bath, as she strikes an incredibly awkward pose in order to show as much skin as possible within the Code and yet not show anything she shouldn’t. She plans to kill Bond but he escapes, is caught, escapes again and she catches up to him just in time for him to turn the tables on her and make her fall prey to her own assassination attempt. And she’s not even the main Bond girl – that’s Domino. Domino is played by Claudine Auger, and she’s one of the most beautiful Bond girls, mostly dressed in a variety of bathing suits (always black and white, to emphasize the name). At one point Bond is forced to suck poison out of her foot, but she also lets him know that Vargas is coming and in the end, she kills Largo herself, so she’s a worthwhile Bond girl as well.
But, here comes one of the weaknesses again. Neither Auger nor Adolfo Celi as Largo provide their own voices. The casting crew were still casting people on whether they looked the part and not having enough confidence to cast people who could actually play the part. It’s things like this, like the long underwater sequences (the final battle does take quite a while) and the fact that Veronica keeps pointing out – that Bond and Largo both know who each other are and there’s no reason for them not to just try and kill each other – that keep this from reaching the heights of the previous two installments in the series. Still, this is the last of the great early run. The next film would be a significant drop-off and then Connery would leave the series and it would wander in the wilderness for a while. They would still be entertaining but the quality after this film would definitely diminish.