As I promised (or threatened, depending on your perspective) yesterday, this is shaping up to be James Bond Week around here, if for no other reason than I've derived so much pleasure from recent viewings of Thunderball.
This is the movie in which the Bond series officially entered its rock star phase. Though the first two films in the series had been popular enough to continue making more, the public reaction to the third, Goldfinger, was something akin to the reaction to Star Wars in its initial release: It was not only a massive box office success but a huge cultural happening, the source of hundreds of spoofs and knock-offs, and referenced repeatedly in the media of the day.
But despite the reaction after the fact, Goldfinger the movie is actually relatively modest, almost austere. Thunderball would be the first film made in actual reaction to the Bond craze, the first time the producers deliberately set out on a path of bigger and better. And it would set a pattern that would effect the Bond series, mostly negatively, for the next twenty years.
First let me say, I love this movie. It has one of the best teasers in the series, Maurice Binder's titles and John Barry's score rank among their best, the physical settings are stunning and it features two of the hottest Bond babes, Claudine Auger and Luciana Paluzzi. (Both redheads, incidentally.) The action sequences are beautifully staged, the underwater photography is gorgeous, the dialogue is witty--it's a lot of fun to watch.
Though money was clearly spent freely in its production, Thunderball was obviously made rather quickly, to cash in on its pop cultural moment. Things happen to impress us, not because they make any sense: Bond eludes some minor henchmen by donning a jetpack that materializes out of nowhere, MI6 stages a top secret meeting in a hallway with huge open windows so anyone could peek inside. (Though it makes no sense, that set is one of Ken Adam's most memorable creations; it was with this film that his production design officially became the key creative element in the series.)
More distressingly, Bond himself shifts from insouciance to outright boorishness. Though his repeated humiliations of supervillain Largo are fun to watch (particularly his skeet-shooting oneupmanship--that scene makes me laugh out loud every time), they make Bond seem like a smug prick, and fatally weaken Largo's status as a threat. Since it's impossible to seriously believe our hero is in any serious danger at any time, there can be no real suspense.
Some fans feel Thunderball marked the point where Sean Connery started phoning it in, but that's not really true. He does everything that is asked of him quite well, but he has no character to play. If it seems at times as though he's just going through the motions, well, so is Bond himself. He seems to exist primarily to nail beautiful women, punch bad guys and make atrocious puns. He's just a prop, moving through elegant settings, accompanied by incredibly cool music, but there's nothing to him, no life, no depth, nothing.
And that, unfortunately, is how he would continue to be played. Though I dearly love the next entry in the series, You Only Live Twice (it has Barry's most drop-dead gorgeous theme song, among other things), its story makes even less sense than Thunderball's, and the whole thing is even more blatantly a series of Ken Adam's Greatest Hits. After that, a brief reprieve--On Her Majesty's Secret Service, not only my favorite Bond picture but one of my favorite movies, period. For one brief, shining moment, the Bond series returned to solid storytelling, adding a new factor: emotional resonance.
But then it was back to light-hearted foolishness with Diamonds Are Forever, and once Roger Moore took over as Bond, jokiness became the order of the day. True, Moore had his moments, and For Your Eyes Only is mostly excellent (though its teaser is one of the worst things in the Bond canon), but the series seemed destined to play itself out as a series of tired jokes, exotic locations and nonsensical plots.
Fortunately, that would change...