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Dr. No (1962) launched the James Bond cinema franchise, From Russia with Love (1963) is embraced by many fans as the best of the series, and Goldfinger (1964) is still the iconic 007 film of the 1960s. But Thunderball (1965), the biggest, most lavish, and longest Bond film at that time, was the most popular of its day. After the huge success of Goldfinger, producers Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman spared no expense in Sean Connery's fourth turn as the suave super spy. The movies had transformed Ian Fleming's debonair but ruthless British agent into a brawny cold warrior battling international supervillains and Sean Connery was the key ingredient in this new Bond. He straddled high class sophistication and working class grit, bringing a mix of charm, arrogance, elegance and rough-and-tumble toughness to the role. By Thunderball he had the character down pat from the cocky grin to the steely confidence that told men and women alike that he could handle anything.
This fourth outing sends Bond to retrieve a Vulcan Vindicator with nuclear weapons that has been hijacked by the international criminal organization SPECTRE and hidden in the waters of the Bahamas. Adolfo Celi plays his nemesis Emilio Largo, the number two man at SPECTRE (Blofeld is hidden behind a screen, with only his bulk and his hand stroking his signature white Persian cat visible). Celi's Largo is equal parts mafia godfather, stylish pirate (the patch on his eye is a great touch) and barrel-chested society gent. The mastermind behind the hijacking and the multi-million dollar ransom, he's a man with rarified tastes and impeccable fashion who still likes to get personally involved in his schemes and this one is no different. Largo threatens to launch an atomic bomb on a major city if the ransom is not met. To get to Largo, who is living it up in Nassau in the guise of a millionaire playboy, Bond seduces his beautiful mistress, Domino (former Miss France Claudine Auger).
The pre-credits action sequence had become a convention of the series and Thunderball offers a classic: Bond straps himself to a real-life rocket pack to escape an assassination attempt. The finale is the most ambitious of the series to date: an underwater battle with armies of scuba warriors zipping through the surf with underwater scooters, grappling in hand-to-hand combat and fighting with spear guns, knives and explosives. In between, Bond races a motorcycle firing missiles at his Aston Martin, plays baccarat with Largo, and romances every beauty in the film (a true master of seduction, he makes out with Domino underwater behind the colorful reefs of the Nassau waters).
Almost a quarter of Thunderball takes place beneath the surf, which was the biggest challenge faced by the production. The producers turned to Lamar Boren, a veteran of Seahunt and one of the most experienced underwater cameramen in the world, to assemble and supervise the underwater photography crew. The threat of sharks was not limited to the exotic Nassau ocean. Largo keeps a school of tiger sharks as pets in his swimming pool, which becomes a handy way of dispatching a failed henchman. (The stuntman who leapt on top of one of the sharks demanded hazard pay for the stunt.) And of course, Largo attempts to get rid of Bond in his pool of sharks. There were stuntmen and doubles for many of the shots, but in other sequences it really is Connery swimming with sharks. Set designer Ken Adams, whose magnificent sets helped set the style and scope of the series, built underwater sets and props for the film, and designed Largo's luxury yacht Disco Volante, which concealed the villain's getaway craft, a sleek, super-fast, weapon-enhanced hydrofoil.
The search for the film's defining Bond girl was extensive. Julie Christie and Faye Dunaway had tested for the role of Domino and Raquel Welch was initially cast in the part but was released to Twentieth Century Fox for Fantastic Voyage (1966). Claudine Auger, an up-and-coming ingnue in French cinema, ultimately won the role. Luciana Paluzzi plays SPECTRE assassin and Largo's chief agent Fiona Volpe and other featured Bond babes include Molly Peters as a health clinic attendant (Bond's first conquest in the film) and Martine Beswick (a veteran of From Russia with Love) as fellow agent Paula Caplan. Rik Van Nutter takes over the role of CIA agent and Bond buddy Felix Leiter this time around.
The regular Bond team returned in front of the camera for Thunderball Bernard Lee as 007's MI-6 boss M, Desmond Llewellyn as weapons man and gadgeteer Q and Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny and behind it production designer Ken Adam, editor Peter Hunt, stunt director Bob Simmons and composer John Barry, to name a few. Screenwriter Richard Maibaum had scripted the three previous Bond features and Terence Young, who directed the first two Bond features, returned for his third and final Bond film. And of course, the distinctive credits sequence was again created by Maurice Binder, whose designs had a defining influence that the series has maintained through every incarnation. Tom Jones delivers the theme song in grand style, but the song was a last minute addition to the film; a song called "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," sung by Dionne Warwick, was originally recorded but discarded when the producers decided they needed the film's title in the song.
The most interesting production story occurred before shooting even began. Though the film was based on a novel written and published by Ian Fleming, the author had based his book on an original screenplay treatment that he had co-written with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham years earlier, before the first Bond feature, Dr. No, was produced. McClory sued Fleming and settled out of court in a deal that gave him story credit and film and TV rights to the novel. Broccoli and Saltzman didn't want to risk a competing Bond film diluting their franchise so they made a deal with McClory, which gave him an added producer credit. Years later, McClory exercised his film rights again with the 1983 remake Never Say Never Again, one of only two Bond feature films made outside of the established series (the other was the 1967 spoof Casino Royale). It marked Connery's return and final farewell to the role he defined.
Thunderball is not the tightest of Bond films. According to Bond historian Steven Jay Rubin, director Terence Young grew disenchanted with the film during the final weeks of shooting and left it in the hands of editor Peter Hunt, who supervised the post-production and tried to make sense of the climactic action while rushing to meet a Christmas 1965 release. Hunt has acknowledged that Thunderball has numerous continuity errors (spotting them has become something of a sport among Bond fans) but most are hardly noticeable in the momentum and spectacle. And the fans, hungry for the next James Bond cinema spectacle, didn't seem concerned. The film was a smash hit, playing in theaters round the clock in the U.S. to meet audience demand, and it became the top-grossing film of 1966 and the biggest grossing Bond film of the sixties. It was also a merchandising bonanza, spawning 007 toys and games and the first James Bond action figure. It even won an Oscar® for its visual effects: the first Bond film to earn an Academy Award.
Producer: Kevin McClory; Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman (both uncredited)
Director: Terence Young
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum, John Hopkins; Jack Whittingham (original screenplay and story); Kevin McClory, Ian Fleming (story)
Cinematography: Ted Moore
Art Direction: Peter Murton
Music: John Barry
Film Editing: Peter R. Hunt
Cast: Sean Connery (James Bond), Claudine Auger (Dominique 'Domino' Derval), Adolfo Celi (Emilio Largo - SPECTRE #2), Luciana Paluzzi (Fiona Volpe), Rik Van Nutter (Felix Leiter), Guy Doleman (Count Lippe), Molly Peters (Patricia Fearing), Martine Beswick (Paula Caplan), Bernard Lee (M), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), Roland Culver (Foreign Secretary), Earl Cameron (Pinder), Paul Stassino(Major Francois Derval/Angelo Palazzi), Rose Alba (Madame Boitier), Philip Locke (Vargas).
by Sean Axmaker