Tuesday, April 24, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Thunderball

The story behind ‘Thunderball’ is arguably more eventful than either the resulting novel or film, so let’s spend a few hundred words on it.

Four years before Saltzman and Broccoli kicked off the movie franchise with ‘Dr No’, Ian Fleming was already looking towards a big-screen incarnation of his protagonist. It was 1958 and Fleming’s friend Ivar Bryce put him in touch with Kevin McClory, a writer/director on the verge of making his debut with a film called ‘The Boy and the Bridge’. Another mutual friend of Fleming’s and Bryce’s – Ernest Cuneo (to whom the novel ‘Thunderball’ is dedicated) – joined the party and the foursome formed a production company, Xanadu Productions.

Taking Xanadu – pace Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the name of Charles Kane’s palatial bolthole in Orson Welles’s ‘Citizen Kane’ – as an elaborate folly, the name couldn’t have been better chosen.

Between the formation of Xanadu Productions and McClory’s ‘The Boy and the Bridge’ opening to public disinterest and meagre box office takings (at which point Fleming’s interest in making a film nosedived), the four men collaborated, to various degrees, on a basic idea involving a stolen plane and underwater action sequences which mutated through about ten different treatments and/or screenplay drafts. In late 1959, with Fleming about to depart on a round-the-world tour for a travelogue commissioned by The Sunday Times, McClory engaged the services of Jack Whittingham, who had two decades’ experience writing for film. With Whittingham on board, a full treatment was completed, followed quickly by a script. Whittingham and McClory’s title was ‘Longitude 78 West’. Fleming approved, albeit with the suggestion that it be retitled ‘Thunderball’.

The script never made it into production. Fleming, who customarily spent two months at his Jamaican house, Goldeneye, where he bashed out that year’s Bond novel working on a 2,000 words per day discipline interrupted only by snorkelling and Martinis, sat down at his typewriter in January 1960 and basically wrote a novelization. When, in 1961, McClory got hold of an advance copy of ‘Thunderball’, to say he was a tad miffed would be putting it mildly. He and Whittingham sued Fleming, initially petitioning to prevent publication. The High Court allowed ‘Thunderball’ to be published, but sanctioned any future action against Fleming by McClory and Whittingham.

Fast forward to 1963, Bond has gone big-screen in a big way, and McClory is suing Fleming for plagiarism. Unwell (the author had only nine months left to live), Fleming acceded to Bryce’s suggestion that he settle out of court. The deal: Fleming retained rights to the novel, subsequent editions to carry the acknowledgement “based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and the Author” (my 2008 centenary edition has this in very small letters); McClory gained the literary and film rights for the screenplay.

This put producers Saltzman and Broccoli in the compromised position of having to bring McClory on board as producer for the film version. The deal they cut him allowed for remake rights, but not until ten years after the release of ‘Thunderball’. In the event, McClory waited almost twenty, producing ‘Never Say Never Again’ (featuring Connery in his unofficial return to the role) in 1983. The script was reworked by Lorenzo Semple Jnr with uncredited additions, on Connery’s insistence, from Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais (the background to ‘Never Say Never Again’ demands its own article); Irvin Kershner directed. ‘The Boy and the Bridge’ would remain McClory’s only directorial outing. McClory spent much of his career trying to kick-start his own rival Bond franchise and in the 90s unsuccessfully pitched a re-remake of ‘Thunderball’, under the frankly rubbish title ‘Warhead 2000’, starring Liam Neeson. It didn’t happen.

The Fleming-McClory/‘Thunderball’-‘Never Say Never Again’-‘Warhead 2000’ saga – spanning one novel, two films, and four decades – yielded enough material for a book of its own, Robert Sellers’s ‘The Battle for Bond’. Almost inevitably, this publication created its own flurry of controversy. The Ian Fleming Will Trust, apparently unhappy at the unapproved use of quotes from Fleming’s private papers, took action against the publisher, resulting in a hastily issued second edition, shorn of the contentious passages and unsubtly marketed as “the book they tried to ban”.

All of which brings us, 700 words into this review, to the film itself. ‘Goldfinger’ had made Bond an icon; ‘Thunderball’ rode its popularity to box office glory. Adjusting its box office take for inflation, ‘Thunderball’ is arguably the most successful entry in the franchise. Marking Terence Young’s return to the director’s chair (albeit for the last time on a 007 production), it establishes a few “firsts” in the oeuvre: the first Bond film to clock in at over two hours, and the first to be shot in Scope (only ‘Live and Let Die’ and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ would revert to 1:85 ratio).

It’s also – at least in my opinion – the first Bond film to feel just a little bit perfunctory. The pre-credits sequence, while reintroducing some of the “modifications” on the Aston Martin DB5 from ‘Goldfinger’ (and seemingly forgetting that it got written off in that film), throws in a jet-pack for good measure, promising all kinds of high-flying fun and games. Yet its mini-story, involving a fake funeral and Bond (Connery)’s revenge on the assassin of his colleagues, plays out in muted colours, without any of the style or urgency of the explosive opening to ‘Goldfinger’, and features a bit of hand-to-hand that’s pretty shoddily staged and edited. This done, it’s on to the plot proper as Bond, convalescing at a health farm, becomes suspicious of a fellow guest. He’s right to be: conspiracy is afoot, and SPECTRE are behind it all. But before Bond can get a handle on things, a meticulously detailed plan is put into operation, an RAF bomber is hijacked, two atomic devices disappear and our old buddy Ernst Stavo Blofield (again unseen, again played by Anthony Dawson) is holding the world to ransom for … one hundred million pounds. (Yeah, take that, Dr Evil!)

The only lead is a French NATO pilot who was onboard the bomber; his sister, Domino (Claudine Auger), is holidaying in Nassau, so Bond convinces M (Bernard Lee) that it’s worth, ahem, checking her out, so it’s off to the Bahamas for a little sun, sea, sand and sex (oh, and a bit of spying, not that you’d notice) while the shadow of atomic destruction hangs over the free world. Unusually for a Bond movie, however, 007 doesn’t get his briefing from M till 45 minutes into the film. Terence Young spends a quite a bit of time setting out his stall, observing the intricacies of the SPECTRE plan – overseen by the suitably villainous Emilio Largo (Aldofo Celi) – with an attention to detail which brings to mind that of, say, John Frankenheimer charting the movements of Von Waldheim and LaBiche’s respective locomotives as if they were pieces on a chessboard in ‘The Train’. It’s easily my favourite part of the film.

When Bond gets to Nassau, commences his dalliance with Domino, starts staking out Largo’s operation and does his best to avoid death at the hands of SPECTRE hitwoman Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), the film settles into a steady plod. It’s never boring, and there are a few scenes which turn the heat up a bit – Bond’s encounter with Largo’s pet sharks; Fiona and her henchmen stalking Bond through a carnival – but there’s no major set-piece, nothing really iconic goes on and everyone just seems to be marking time ready for the big finale: an underwater battle followed by some derring-do on Largo’s hydrofoil yacht. But before we don the snorkel and oxygen tank, let’s cast an eye over the Bond girls.

In the novel, Domino is Italian; the film makes her French in line with Auger’s nationality (she was Miss France 1958, sexism fans). Likewise, Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins’s original draft of the script had Fiona as a flame-haired Irish femme fatale, Fiona Kelly. With Paluzzi delivering the goods in the redhead stakes but not the Gaelic ones, the character’s name was changed to Fiona Volpe, Fiona being – y’know – a traditional Italian girl’s name. In all fairness, though, Paluzzi is pretty awesome and certainly captures the imagination in a way Auger doesn’t.

Adolfo Celi makes for a pretty intimidating villain; he’s ostensibly sophisticated in the way of most Bond nemeses, but Celi’s brooding physicality leaves you in no doubt that, under the surface, Largo is a thug – and a brutally efficient one at that. Speaking of “under the surface”, let’s effect an inelegant segue into the final section of this review (and with another 700 words on the clock since I last hit the word count button, it’s probably high time I started wrapping it up): the sub-aquatic stuff.

Fleming was a big scuba-diving fan and several of his novels feature highly descriptive passages of marine life. ‘Thunderball’ contains a remarkable sequence, sadly not replicated in the film, where Bond swims through the fuselage of a submerged aircraft to find it alive with octopi – “a red-eyed catacomb”. It’s surreal, creepy, and one of the very few moments in the Bond bibliography where the usually unflappable agent seriously loses his cool.

With a budget of $9million – a huge increase compared to the incremental pattern of ‘Dr No’ ($1million), ‘From Russia with Love’ ($2million) and ‘Goldfinger’ ($3million) – the filmmakers invested a hell of a lot in the underwater sequences. Some $90,000 was invested in diving equipment alone, while Largo’s yacht set the production back a cool half million. You know that old saw about how it’s all up there on screen? That’s certainly true of ‘Thunderball’ … perhaps to its detriment. There are five major bits of sub-aquatic shenanigans: the scuppering of the hijacked bomber and its camouflage on the sea bed; Bond’s nocturnal assessment of the yacht; Bond’s escape from Largo’s shark pool; Largo’s transfer of the atomic devices to the yacht; and the harpoons ‘n’ scuba gear free-for-all which occupies most of the last quarter of an hour and seems like a hell of a lot longer. These scenes grow increasingly interminable, as if, having spent so much on them, Young and the producers were damned if they weren’t going edit every goddamn bit of undersea footage into the final cut.

In the climatic battle, Bond and CIA contact Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter)’s American reserves wear red wetsuits; Largo’s bunch of all-purpose bad guys – appropriately enough – wear black. So when you get a shot like this one (he’s a good guy) …

… or this one (he isn’t) …

… things are fine. But there are way too many shots like this one …

… where the screen is full of indistinguishable figures framed in meaningless tableaux. After three or four minutes, it was a case of full fathom five my capacity to give a shit lies. And the appalling speeded-up footage which constitutes Bond’s mano-a-mano smackdown with Largo … let us not speak of it. In fact, let us speak of just two more things:

Early release prints promised that James Bond would return in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, but production difficulties resulted in ‘You Only Live Twice’ being selected as the next instalment and the credit was dropped.

The theme song is by Tom Jones. Johnny Cash actually submitted a song. Johnny Cash. Someone laid it over the opening credits and posted it on YouTube. Here’s the link. If 2,000 words on what isn’t even in my top five favourite Bond movies isn’t enough to make you question your sanity, this just might.

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