Revisiting 1965’s ‘Thunderball’

50 Years of James Bond

With “Goldfinger,” we noted the differences between Connery’s gentleman Bond and the new brutish version introduced in recent years by Daniel Craig, an actor whose interpretation many have seen as a departure from the spy’s elegant origins. With “Thunderball,” we’re reminded that perhaps the two aren’t so different after all, as the star establishes a prototype for ruthless efficiency that would take another 42 years to manifest fully.

By Connery’s fourth outing as 007, the Bond films were coming fast and furious, with a new adventure opening at a rate of one a year, and audiences for “Thunderball” could be expected to have seen at least one of the previous installments — much the way the Harry Potter filmmakers stopped worrying about whether all that Hogwarts hogwash made sense at a certain point and started catering only to the fans.

But just imagine for a moment that “Thunderball” was the first Bond movie you’d seen (as the franchise’s biggest hit in cost-adjusted dollars, surely there were a few newbies in the room): James Bond is kind of a jerk. In the opening scene, he attends the fake funeral for a SPECTRE agent, tracking the cross-dressing deceiver back to his mansion, where he kills the man in cold blood before escaping by jetpack. All told, Bond does a quite a bit more killing this time around, showing a facility with guns, knives, sharks and harpoons (“I think he got the point” — har har), which makes for a more satisfying action movie, even if its hero comes across as a less clever operator.

On the heels of “Goldfinger,” which supplied its villain with a virtual army of henchmen, “Thunderball” features long, dialogue-free sequences of efficient malfeasance, as squads of scuba-diving goons carry out an elaborate plot to steal two nuclear devices from a stolen NATO plane. With its action set in air, land and water, “Thunderball” inspired the best poster of the entire series, in which a stylized “007” was incorporated into a three-panel painting by Frank McCarthy and Robert McGinnis: Look Up! (Bond on his jetpack) Look Down! (Bond underwater) Look Out! (Bond surrounded by his ladies)

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Evidently, this last line serves as fair warning to any female who crosses Bond’s path, including the clearly unwilling physical therapist who scolds our gropey hero, “First time I’ve felt really safe all day,” after strapping his hands and feet into a medieval-looking exercise machine. When she later discovers Bond passed out on “the rack,” the poor girl worries that she might lose her job, and audiences are meant to enjoy the fact that Bond uses this position to extort a steam-room quickie in exchange for his silence.

It’s one thing for Bond to use his sex appeal as one of his most effective weapons, but quite another to go around harassing every woman he crosses. To my teenage eyes, such encounters were titillating, as were the naked gyrations of faceless dancers in the films’ exotic — and admittedly stunning — opening credits sequences. Now, having revisited these early films in a matter of weeks, I’m starting the think the level of Bond’s sexual addiction leaves Michael Fassbender with nothing to be ashamed of. Or, to use the retro-contemporary example of “Mad Men,” he makes even Don Draper’s serial philandering seem tame.

Revisiting 1965's 'Thunderball'

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