Thursday, February 9, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THUNDERBALL

Ian Fleming

"Don't give me that crap about real life. There ain't no such animal."

James Bond is in a rare state of mind--shameful. He drank to excess the prior night, but that's not the cause of the embarrassment. Rather, his consumption rendered him ineffective at the bridge table, a devastating result for such a cards enthusiast. When M summons him to MI6 HQ, Bond anticipates another ego-boosting assignment to some far-off locale. He is instead derided for poor health and ordered to spend two weeks at a sanitarium to detoxify. While there he sees the man with the wrist tattoo, and the events of Thunderball are set in motion.

007 uses a payphone on the premises to call MI6, confirming the marking indicates a member of a criminal organization called the Red Lightning Tong. The same man overhears Bond's conversation and a few days later, attempts to eliminate the British spy while the latter enjoys the benefits of a "traction table." A nurse arrives in time to save 007 from a Mike Teevee fate, but no one can stop Bond from wandering into the steam bath area and having his revenge.

The man with the wrist tattoo is one Count Lippe, working for SPECTRE. He'd been entrusted to oversee a rogue Air Force pilot named Giuseppe Petacchi, who himself had been entrusted to hijack a NATO bomber with two big boys on board and direct it to the Bahamas. Petacchi did very well, leaving no witnesses and landing in the water like a boss, but he made the grave error of trying to extort more money and for that, he paid with his life. Once that dirty business had been finished, SPECTRE Supreme Commander Emilio Largo took the bombs aboard his yacht, the Disco Volante.

SPECTRE sends a message to the UK Prime Minister, announcing the hijacking and requesting 100 million pounds ransom. If the exact amount is not handed over by such-and-such a date and time, two major cities in the world (likely located within the USA and/or England) will be bombed to bits.

MI6 and the CIA join forces to undertake "Operation Thunderball." M assigns Bond to the Bahamas, believing the "major cities" will be located in America and the missing NATO plane would likely be found in nearby waters. What luck! Driving to the airport, Bond barely escapes an assassination attempt by Count Lippe when Lippe's own car is blown off the road by another SPECTRE assassin. What luck!

In Nassau, Bond meets up with Felix Leiter (at the CIA's beck and call despite Pinkerton's paychecks) and Domino Vitali, but sleeps with only one of them. (I shan't spoil.) Vitali is Emilio Largo's "kept woman" but perhaps more tragically, she is the sister of Italian Air Force pilot Giuseppe Petacchi--and has no idea of her brother's fate.

Posing as men interested in the purchase of Largo's estate, Bond and Leiter (carrying a concealed Geiger counter) pay him a visit aboard the Disco Volante, which Largo is only too happy to show off. Leiter's Geiger picks up nothing. A search for the downed aircraft is likewise fruitless. What Bond needs to do is beat Largo's brains out in the casino and get under his skin, so that is the thing he does.

That night, Bond uses an aqualung to scope out Largo's yacht from underneath. He spies an underwater door. This, along with other circumstantial evidence, might be enough to convince the minds behind "Operation Thunderball" that Largo is involved in SPECTRE's plot.

Bond and Leiter return to the air, defying the odds by one when they locate the wreckage of the bomber. Bond, who has known for some time that Domino's brother was the pilot, breaks the news to her after a roll in the hay. He then takes advantage of her grief by handing over the Geiger counter and securing a vow that she will help to bring down Largo. The plan is simple: be on board the yacht as the deadline specified by SPECTRE approaches. Bond and Leiter will be watching. If she finds evidence that the bombs are on board, Domino is to appear on the ship's deck. If she finds no such evidence, she is to stay off of the deck.

The U.S. nuclear sub Manta and a fighter squadron arrive to assist, and Bond receives word that the Disco Volante has left harbor. Domino did not come onto the deck, which leads Bond to believe the bombs might not yet be on the ship--or, that something unfortunate has happened to Ms. Vitali.

The Manta gives chase, while Bond formulates a plan of attack. He and his men take to the water and descend upon the SPECTRE frogs waiting to receive the bombs from the yacht. Bond and Largo face off in an underwater cave, and it looks like it might be toilet time for tiny town when--thwack! Spear to the bad guy's back, courtesy of one Domino Vitali.

Of all the Bond books, Thunderball has far and away the most contentious origin story. In the late 1950s, Fleming and friend Iver Bryce discussed the possibility of bringing 007 to movie theaters. Bryce then introduced Fleming to writer/director Kevin McClory. By January 1960, a screenplay written by Fleming, McClory and Jack Whittingham had been written, with Fleming promising to take it to MCA, and vouching for McClory as the producer of the future film. Before that could happen, though, Fleming decided to write his next Bond novel, based on the screenplay. McClory and Whittingham caught whiff of an advance copy and took Fleming to court. While 007 #9 hit shelves, the case continued, with all involved parties eventually settling out of court in 1963. The novel rights were awarded to Fleming, while the rights to the film went to McClory. Which is why the book version is officially "based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and The Author."

So what of it? "It" being the finished product, this odd duck "not quite a novelization, not quite an original novel"? In terms of construction, Thunderball is Fleming at top form. Sentences extend like bo staffs, a welcome change from his usual style (indeed, if he'd relied on his standard presentation, the whole book might have been a chore to slog through). The issues with female characters persist, but so do women, and that's all that matters. Thunderball gives us an inhuman villain in Blofeld and the most human James Bond yet, and for that it deserves praise.

Director-Terence Young
Writers-Richard Maibaum & John Hopkins (screenplay); Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham & Ian Fleming (original screenplay)

You might not expect a movie featuring a real-life, honest-to-Allah jetpack to be the first disappointment of the series, in the same way I didn't expect that chocolate-banana latte from Sheetz to be any good.

Once McClory won the film rights to Thunderball, Eon Productions had a minor infarction at the very real possibility of a competing Bond film out in the marketplace. So come on board, Kev!

The story's basically the same as the book, just changed some names and nationalities here and there  (Domino Vitali is now Domino Derval and her brother is now Francois, since no one ever chooses Italy). The underwater battle is also altered, as the action goes from the sea to the ship, Largo pushing his beloved yacht onward with the Royal Navy and U.S. Coast Guard in well-heated pursuit. Bond and Largo have their showdown here, and the end result is the same as the book, right down to the vengeful sister heroics.

Guys, I don't have much of substance to say. The climactic underwater battle is like watching a sedated snail slime its way from one end of a football field to the other. Eon took a chance on "bigger" equalling "better" and got burned. (By water, no less.)

Feeling unsatisfied at the end of a two-hour Bond movie is akin to feeling unsatisfied after Thanksgiving dinner, but it's not my fault the cook forgot to make sweet potatoes. Anyway, audiences in 1965 ate Thunderball up. Which has less to do with quality than the fact it came right after Goldfinger, the movie that put the franchise permanently on the map. (Adjusted for inflation, those two movies are in fact the two biggest worldwide grossers in the series.)

Sean Connery is great--just ask him--and the character of Fiona Volpe really deserved to debut in a better movie.

The plot of Thunderball is not one that sauces my taco. No doubt, Blofeld's master plan is leaps and bounds ahead of making off with bars of gold in broad day, with hundreds of thousands of lives at stake. But the execution drains the drama.

Both book and movie struggle with pacing issues. The culprit is the setting. The novel was penned by a man not known for vague descriptions, and this helps immensely. The film has no such luck, and when the action goes aboard, the footage is sped up, as if to atone for the dreadfully dull fifteen minutes prior. Doesn't quite work.

Books demand imagination, which is why I'll give it to Fleming here. I promise the underwater battle will appear much better in your head, for reasons up to and including the fact that millions of people in this world are color-blind.

Largo didn't strike me as a superlative baddy two-boots in either form. In the book he's a debonair SOB with long sideburns and dark wavy hair. In the film, he's Ted Knight playing Bobby Knight playing a pirate. The latter at least provides him with two v.v. interesting henchpeople: Fiona Volpe, a flaming red Italian assassin whose very presence is probably the highest of all the movie's lights, a stunner of a gunner who blows up cars and dresses down men with enough relish for a foot-long; and Vargas, an asexual mute whose role is somewhat expanded on screen. Basically, he's known for being impaled on a tree but again, that's a far more captivating scene than any of the aquatic shenanigans.

Domino makes a decent Bond girl. Far from frail, a decent pace from docile, she's changed from blonde to brunette for the movie (boon!), which also performs the kindness of leaving her loquacious side between the covers. She makes the major kill not for the sake of feminist-inspired novelty, but because the kill was hers to make.

The film flips the action a bit, beginning with SPECTRE HQ and then switching to the clinic. Result, non-readers have no idea why Bond is at such a decidedly non-Bond joint. A small matter, I suppose, but another check in the book's column.

The pilot's death in the novel is hysterically brutal. Imagine Saturday Night Fever ending with John Travolta's character tripping and smashing face-first onto the sidewalk.

Thunderball is considered the first of the so-called "Blofeld Trilogy." The meat of the book is our introduction to Ernie. Such a diabolical bastard deserves an obscenely-long, undeniably-magnificent introduction, and he certainly receives one.

Felix Leiter certainly deserved better on-screen treatment. In the books, he's a brash Texan with a steel hook for a hand and a steel trap for a mind, a true colleague of Bond's rather than some tolerable helpmate. Shame their relationship was "de-bro'ed" for the adaptation, leading to such desultory dialogue as:

"We haven't got much time."
"You're right, James. We haven't."

I rather adore the novel's conclusion, where we witness a rare glimpse of 007's vulnerability. He is clearly touched by Domino's sacrifice, and the tenderness of their final moments hadn't been seen in Fleming's work since Casino Royale. Sean Connery could not have quite pulled such a scene off, I don't think. His Bond lacked the emotional range. Hell, the scene where he tells Domino her brother's fate is marred by abrupt delivery, awkward presentation and blatant rear projection.

The traction table scene hasn't been set to the Benny Hill theme yet, and I'm at a loss as to why.

Seeing the double-0's seated in one grandiose room is cool, in that "neeerrrrd!" way.

Disco Volante is Italian for "flying saucer." Makers of the original Casino Royale, you're very clever. Unless you aren't.

"Thunderball" is a slang term for the mushroom cloud left by the strike of an atomic bomb.

Burl Ives as Largo? Coulda been, probably shoulda been. Look at this magnificent, malevolent kisser.

When Bond and Leiter initially meet Largo, the former uses his real name while the latter uses an alias. Um?

Yes, Bond with the nurse is a tad rape-y, and that's bad…but is it as bad as a rape-y Tad?

"Red Lightning Tong" rhymes with "dread tightening thong."

I can't describe the big-screen Thunderball as an example of "bigger and better," but it certainly managed to be "bluer and wetter." Which if nothing else is also a fine title for a Smurfs porn.

"Women are often meticulous and safe drivers, but they are seldom first-class."

That's…entirely fair and not inaccurate.

"Four women in a car, he regarded as the highest danger potential, and two were nearly as lethal."

Since, see, females not only talk incessantly, they insist on staring at the person they are talking to/with/at. Mind you, my female bestie and I, over the course of five years, made tracks in her Chevelle SS over nearly every drivable inch of our hometown, not to mention summer jaunts to the Eastern Shore and back, and not a single wreck. Not even a fender bender.

Finally, the book makes sense of what was, for me at least, one of the more inexplicable lines of dialogue in any Bond film. Over the phone, Bond threatens to spank Miss Moneypenny for her insolence. She retorts with, "On yogurt and lemon juice? I can hardly wait." I couldn't figure, was she referencing some mildly kinky sex act? Is the combination of yogurt and lemon juice an aphrodisiac? Turns out, they are part of Bond's extremely limited diet at the health clinic!


*Oh, and for the record…never seen Never Say Never Again, McClory's version of Thunderball with Connery reprising the 007 role at the age of 52. Yippee. I shan't be hitting up Netflix.

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