After two Fleming-faithful Terence Young helmed pictures, director Guy Hamilton took over for 1964’s Goldfinger; which is perhaps the most acclaimed, and certainly the most influential, 007 film of all-time. With a substantially larger budget and director change, Goldfinger shaved away some of the harder thriller elements of Young’s films in favor of blockbuster spectacle, and under Hamilton’s direction Bond himself became more playful, winking, aloof – his cunning and lethality lessened. The “cinematic James Bond” was born, distancing himself (although not completely abandoning) from the “Fleming James Bond” of old. In short, the franchise became its own beast, no longer adapting the novels, but rather using them as a beginning template to then bounce off of.
Detailing this shift is necessary in order to fully understand Thunderball‘s greatness and uniqueness in the Bond canon. In 1965 Terence Young returned to the series for his third and final time, and after the success of Goldfinger, its $3 million budget was tripled – more than 50 years later, Thunderball still stands as a marvel of blockbuster filmmaking. Set in Nassau, the plot revolves around Bond probing into the disappearance of a nuclear warhead bomber (being held, of course, for ransom by the organization SPECTRE). Its size and scope rivals any in the franchise, and Young proved himself as adept at the blockbuster as he was at the tight thriller. Thunderball‘s underwater action sequences and lush, earthy cinematography hold up half a century later.
It is the film’s hybridity, though, that makes it the greatest James Bond film. Young’s harsher sensibilities as a director, and his understanding of Fleming’s character, remain intact. Connery maintains the overwhelming charisma and charm that he affected in Goldfinger, but Young brings out the cunning, dangerous Bond from Fleming’s novels in his performance. Unlike its predecessor, dangers loom much closer, and Bond’s presence is like a shadow of death passing over the gorgeously filmed beaches of Nassau. Henchmen are fed to sharks in swimming pools, the camera sunk way down in the reddening water gazing up at the antagonist kissing his ring. Underwater scenes are filmed with a close-up urgency, unflinching and unmoving, the threat of death (both from Bond’s opponent, and lack of oxygen) present at all times. Thunderball brings back Bond’s lethality and nastiness.
Thunderball is also the most sexual of the Bond films, making it the most potent combination of sex, death, and escapist exoticism in the entire series. Connery himself here is at his most virile, the warm weather an excuse for Bond to wear less than usual, and he exudes sexual magnetism. In one of the film’s primary villains, Fiona Volpe, Bond finds his sexual equal. She’s as sexually powerful and in command as Bond himself. Her introductory scene shows lazing lustily on a bed with a soon-to-be-victim post-sex. The ravenous way she and Bond entice one another (with her ultimately getting the better of him, and seducing him into a trap rather than the other way around) is more overt than in other films. Even the lush, fertile locations are sexual in a way – everyone in the film is perpetually dressed to swim, or soaking wet, standing next to a swimming pool or beach filled with sharks, primed for sex or death or both.
Furthermore, I should mention that Thunderball excels in ways that don’t include atmosphere as well. The script is the sharpest of all the films, bested only perhaps by Diamonds are Forever in terms of its razor wit (Bond’s banter with various characters has never been easier to relish). John Barry’s score is bombastic and appropriate for the scale and tone – large, dangerous, threatening, and the great composer somehow manages to evoke the feeling of being underwater (or falling underwater) with many of the score’s cues.
Young finds the Fleming amidst the big moments of blockbuster grandeur – such as the underwater finale – a wide-shot battle that features underwater cinematography still unparalleled to this day, a booming John Barry cue accompanying the fight. But as the fight nears its end, the camera lingers on dead bodies, wisps of blood floating upward in the water and past the rippling seaweed in which the dead have fallen. It cuts to two sharks viciously fighting while the paratroopers and henchman stab each other to death with harpoons and Bond himself races over the fight, lending a hand when needed, like another layer of death passing over a soon-to-be-graveyard.