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What the hell is a Thunderball? Does it allude to the stolen nuclear missiles? The dancing event James Bond visits? Or is it the infusion of two terms that having little to do with anything, but sound really exciting and dangerous? Welcome... to Thunderadeus.
No break for Bond after saving the world's gold supply in Goldfinger. A single year later he's called upon when the secretive organisation Spectre steals a nuclear warhead and holds the world ransom. If you ever wondered where Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery got its inspiration from: look no further. The brain behind this scheme is Emilio Largo, a bedeviling rogue. Coming from Auric Goldfinger, he's sexiness incarnate – trading rotund Bavarian homeliness for Hispanic temperament with an eyepatch to boot. Like all Bond villains, Largo is more than usually flippant with the lives of his henchmen, throwing them to sharks or cutting their oxygen lines to make a point of his dastardliness. He operates from a magnificent yacht called the 'Disco Volante', or flying saucer, since this all does still play like a commercial for luxury lifestyles – making audiences pine since 1962.
In this, the fourth James Bond film, you still notice how the formula is being tested and pushed to see how far it will stretch. The results are both good and bad. It's great to see no obligatory car chase made it into this script. Instead, approximately 20-25 minutes are set completely underwater. The entire climax is. It's a sign of its cinematographic time: filming underwater is always an ordeal, and no less in 1964 when it had rarely been so exhaustively done. We might stifle a laugh at the brightly colored scuba gear and yawn at how overly long these scenes last, but view it from its historical perspective. This was an Achievement. It was the main lure of the film: come see men darting around beneath the surface of the ocean! Forgive them their indulgence, they were rightly proud of what they had accomplished. And, for all its slow motion tediousness at times, it does make this excursion a uniquely memorable one, which can't be said of all of the films, especially once the formula kicked in.
Another delight from early Bond: this is actually a spy film, rather than a violent extravaganza paying mere lip service to Bond's profession. Most of the action is people sneaking about, trying to elude pursuers, trailing a target. When it does come to fisticuffs, in typical Sean Connery fashion it is fast and brutal. But also still somewhat realistic: Bond can be cornered, injured, taken prisoner. There's a more dangerous vibe here than after the character became an impervious action hero. But it's not just these superficial elements that differ. The film feels, on a scene-to-scene level, different. It has a fascination for procedure. We notably see how the military aircraft Largo stole is hidden on the ocean, a score of divers carefully covering it up with camouflage netting and securing it with nails. Then there's a sequence where Bond enters his apartment and figures out where an interloper might be by tracing his steps through an audio recording. The details of these actions are understood to be what makes them interesting, what gives these spy plots flavor.
Let's take an aside to explain why Sean Connery is, objectively, the best James Bond. It's not because he's the first, but the most versatile. Connery might not be the world's best actor, he changes effortlessly between three crucial modes which make his Bond irresistible: there is the suave gentleman spy, seductive and sardonic, immensely capable in any situation, and highly cultured. Then there's the brutal assassin, fighting with full intent. Notice his cold calculation, the lethal efficiency of his moves. But rarest of all, the trick that Connery knew but nobody else since: he can play the naive buffoon with full dramatic intent. These are the best moments, when Bond plays deliberately dumb, with a quizzical glance and too broad a smile. He allows others to think less of him, to underestimate him. The audience knows that Bond knows it's all a game, but he won't let you know. Roger Moore could never pull this off, couldn't resist an ironic pop of the eyebrow to mark his intent. But Connery, no, Connery is absolutely believable in his naiveté. No other Bond exploits this range so well.
~ Most Baffling Thing About Thunderball ~Every James Bond movie has at least one thing that shines in being utterly baffling. Non-sequitur sequences, unnecessary car chases, illogical motivations or plain silliness. In Thunderball it has to be the insanity of Bond's lodgings while in the Bahamas. He takes residency in a hotel in the same area as Largo, along with his secret service cohort Paula. A rather incredulous little dance begins as Bond and Largo take turns harrassing each other. No less than three times the villain sends his agents to the hotelroom to try and assassinate or kidnap Bond, and yet... he stays there until he's finally bested. Shouldn't a double-0 find a new base of operations when his current one is compromised?