Thunderball’s 45th anniversary conclusion: legacy

Thunderball, which had its world premier on Dec. 9, 1965, was a winning bet. It certainly was for Eon Productions showmen Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, becoming their biggest hit to date (and still the biggest on an inflation-adjusted basis); for Kevin McClory, who held the film rights and talked Broccoli and Saltzman into making him a partner for the one film; and for Bond enthusiasts in general — it was *their* time and the 007 phenomenon would never reach these heights.

In a way, Thunderball’s mind-set — “the biggest Bond of all!” — was a well-timed bet. Spies were now populating television on a growing scale and new spy movie series (Matt Helm at Columbia and Derek Flint at 20th Century Fox) were in the works. Thunderball with its huge scale provided something 007’s competitors couldn’t.

If Thunderball had a long-term problem, it may have been it caused Broccoli and Saltzman to believe they could do no wrong.

In the Ian Fleming canon, Thunderball was part of a trilogy followed by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. Broccoli and Saltzman initiially intended to film OHMSS next but switched gears and did Twice instead — tossing out the novel’s plot entirely and, in effect, doing another Thunderball only on a still-bigger scale. There would be no true Blofeld trilogy on film.

Who was around to argue? Not Ian Fleming, who died in August 1964 and hadn’t been too vocal about other major changes Eon made in adapting his novels. Not United Artists. The money was coming in and Eon’s decision making was a safe investment. Want to build a set (Blofeld’s volcano headquarters in Twice) that cost as much as Dr. No? No problem. The fans? Fans of the novels might complain but Bond was now bigger than them and, let’s face it, they’d still show up to see a 007 film anyway.

Still, Thunderball was, and is, a major part of the Bond film series. It’s not ranked as the best in the series, but often comes in toward the top. There are some fans who still still obsess over it. There’s enough interest in Thunderball that artist Robert McGinnis, who did some of the original promotional artwork for the film, still does art based on the 007 adventure (including some samples that are not safe for work).

All in all, not a bad legacy.

Thunderball’s 45th anniversary part V: Peter Hunt fights with the film

Peter Hunt, lead film editor on the first five 007 movies, said in the documentary Inside From Russia With Love that the film “wasn’t beautifully storyboarded” and that sometimes “you have to fight with the film” to make the story work. If From Russia With Love was a fight between editor and film, Thunderball must have been all-out war.

From urinating dogs to wounds shifting from one leg to the other to disappearing pants, Thunderball didn’t enjoy tight continuity.

The fourth 007 film was the most sprawling to date. It had a $9 million budget, according to the Numbers.com Web site, a huge amount for 1965 and nine times as expensive as the series’ first entry, Dr. No. There was extensive location shooting in the Bahamas and underwater sequences done on an enormous scale — and all being done on tight deadlines to ensure a release for Christmas 1965.

It was up to Peter Hunt to make it work. Hunt had a new spiffy title, supervising editor, and he had help from editor Ernest Hosler and assembly editor Ben Rayner. But Hunt ultimately had to battle with the film shot by director Terence Young. Hunt, at an appearance in at a 1994 007 fan convention in Los Angeles, told attendees the editor knows the flaws of a film better than anyone. The way Hunt described it, the editor’s job was to speed the audience through those flaws so they wouldn’t notice (at least on the first viewing).

Hunt & Co. had a number of flaws to deal with. Here’s a YouTube video that looks at some of just one major sequence, where we meet the aforementioned dog (Hunt in one telling, had actually spotted and removed it but it got reinserted because producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman thought it was funny), locals wearing 007 hats (and here we thought he was a secret agent) and a bullet wound that changes location on Bond’s body:

Meanwhile, at the Thunderball Obessional Web site, there’s a page that includes even more of the continuity issues with Thunderball, including how CIA agent Felix Leiter’s pants disappear and reappear in the same sequence.

Despite trimming by Hunt and his editors (also detailed on the Thunderball Obsessional page with the continuity errors), Thunderball also was the longest of the first four 007 film adventures at 2 hours and 10 minutes. In the end, despite the challenges, Hunt did speed the audience through the mammoth adventure and once again showed he was a valuable 007 contributor to the series’ early years.

Thunderball’s 45th anniversary part IV: John Barry’s challenge

For John Barry, scoring Thunderball, the fourth James Bond movie, couldn’t have been easy. Deadlines were tight to make the film’s December 1965 release dates. Barry had to re-do the title song. And the film had a lot of underwater footage, with no dialogue which would need the composer’s music to bring it to life.

Thunderball may not be the best of Barry’s 11 007 scores. He himself has called On Her Majesty’s Secret Service his “most Bondian.” Still, Barry was more than up to the challenges presented by Thunderball. He ended up writing two title songs, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with Leslie Bricusse and, in a last-minute change, Thunderball with Don Black.

Barry, either by dramatic choice or to save precious time, used the 007 theme, a piece he originally wrote for two action sequences in From Russia With Love, in Thunderball. Bringing back 007 reinforced the idea that the composition was a second theme for Bond, a backup to The James Bond Theme. Barry would bring back 007 three more times, in You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker.

First, Barry’s score for the sequence where Bond escapes Fiona Volpe and her SPECTRE henchmen, during a street carnival in Nassau:

Barry then slows down the same basic music for the big underwater showdown between SPECTRE frogmen led by Emilo Largo who are carrying an atomic bomb and a U.S. force (with Bond, of course, joining in). Barry then speeds the music up for a sequence shortly thereafter where Bond confronts Largo on his hydrofoil as the villain tries to escape:

Barry’s bosses, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, sent Barry scurrying after deciding they’d prefer a song that actually had the word “Thunderball” in it. So Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was scrapped. But the Barry-Black team came through, with Tom Jones performing the song.

Thunderball’s 45th anniversary part III: Luciana Paluzzi’s femme fatale

Luciana Paluzzi was only the fourth billed member of Thunderball’s cast (after Sean Connery, Claudine Auger and Adolfo Celi), but her Fiona Volpe character lived on (only figuratively, of course) in ways that would affect the 007 film series.

Dr. No, the first film in the series, had a femme fatale in Miss Taro, a secretary at Government House who really worked for the film’s title character. Fiona Volpe, apparently one of SPECTRE’s top executioners and operatives, had a much larger impact on Thunderball’s story. Fiona plays a key role in SPECTRE’s theft of two atomic bombs (seducing and helping to set up the murder of the pilot of the NATO aircraft); kills SPECTRE operative Count Lippe, whose performance has displeased the organization’s chief, Ernst Stavro Blofeld; and not only goes to bed with Bond but refuses to go over “to the side of right and virtue.”

Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi has been on record as saying she was up for the female lead role of Domino, but didn’t get it and got the Fiona part instead. In a way, that’s understandable. Thunderball wasn’t the first time she had been a femme fatle. Here she is in the trailer for To Trap A Spy, the theatrical movie version of the pilot of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The footage seen here wasn’t in the TV version of the pilot. Instead, it showed up in another U.N.C.L.E. first-season episode, The Four-Steps Affair, that had an entirely different plot. Anyway, she made an impression in both versions:

When it was time to begin promoting Thunderball, several of Paluzzi’s were included in the trailer. Here’s the U.K. version:

When Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman produced their next 007 film, the Fiona character may have been on their minds. You Only Live Twice featured another SPECTRE woman assassin, Helga Brandt. Actress Karin Dor colored her hair and Helga looks like she could have been a relative of Fiona.

The series couldn’t help but revisit the notion of the sexy women killer, including Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me and Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye. But Fiona, and the actress who brought the character to life, holds a special place in the series.

Irvin Kershner, Never Say Never Again director, dies at 87

Irvin Kershner, best known for directing The Empire Strikes Back as well as the “unofficial” 007 film Never Say Never Again, has died at 87, according to an obituary on the entertainment Web site The Wrap. (UPDATE: For a more detailed obit, you can read The New York Times’s account of Kershner’s career BY CLICKING HERE.)

NSNA had a complicated history. It’s a remake of Thunderball (whose 45th anniversary we’ve been writing about). The original book the subject of a court fight between Kevin McClory and Ian Fleming after Fleming did a novel based on scripts of an abandoned film project. Eventually, McClory, having been a partner in the 1965 original film, began efforts to start his own 007 movie based on his Thunderball rights. After years of effort, that film was NSNA, which would bring back Sean Connery as Bond. Kershner drew the directing assignment and it probably didn’t hurt that he had directed the star in A Fine Madness.

The movie generates a mixed reaction among Bond fans. Some just won’t accept anything that’s not part of Eon Productions’ official series. Others love NSNA because Sean Connery came back for one last outing as 007.

One of the memorable scenes in NSNA where Bond dances a tango with Domino (Kim Basinger taking up the role originally played by Claudine Auger). In one sense, it’s typical of NSNA. Fans either love it or hate it, there’s little middle ground.

Thunderball’s 45th anniversary part II: a star talks about moving on

Advertisements proclaimed that with Thunderball, “Here Comes the Biggest Bond of All!” For Sean Connery, things had already gotten too big and he sounded as if he was already looking forward to his post-007 career.

Connery detailed his views about James Bond IN AN INTERVIEW WITH PLAYBOY MAGAZINE. The exchange wasn’t like the quick promotional “interviews” now seen on television and on the Internet, where hordes of interviewers are brought in, each one given a few minutes each. Playboy also asked the star questions about his non-Bond movies and he talked enthusiastically about the military drama The Hill, which also came out in 1965.

Connery in his interview comments talked like a man looking forward to ending his Bondage. The interview was a warning sign to 007 fans that big changes were ahead.

PLAYBOY: In any case, Dr. No turned out to be a hit, and you found yourself under contract for a series—exactly what you said you wanted to avoid.
CONNERY: Yes—but it allows me to make other films, and I have only two more Bonds to do.

PLAYBOY: Which ones?
CONNERY: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and possibly You Only Live Twice. They would like to start On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in Switzerland in January, but I’m not sure I’ll be free in time and I don’t want to rush it, although they say the snow will be at its best then. I’m not going to rush anything anymore.

At this point, Connery still left the door open for future Bond films after his contract ended — while indicating his price would go up. “But as far as this series is concerned,” he told Playboy, referring to the Bond movies, “after the next two, the only condition for making any more would be $1 million plus a percentage of the gross.” Connery told Playboy he only got 6,000 British pounds, or $16,800 at the time, to play 007 in Dr. No. When asked by Playboy’s interviewer if $500,000 was “off the mark” for his Thunderball salary, Connery replied, “No, not really.”

The star also told the magazine that “with Thunderball we’ve reached the limit as far as size and gimmicks are concerned…. What is needed now is a change of course—more attention to character and better dialog.”

Producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman adjusted Connery’s contract so he’d be free after the next Bond film, 1967’s You Only Live Twice (deciding to delay OHMSS). In the interim, Connery unsuccessfully sought to be made a partner after watching Dean Martin make more money than the Scotsman did because of such a parternship arrangement with the Matt Helm movies.

Broccoli and Saltzman threw out the plot of Ian Fleming’s Twice novel to try and outdo Thunderball in terms of spectacle and not the change of course that Connery was seeking.

The duo were unable to entice Connery back for Majesty’s — a film that would have provided Connery the chance to get more into characterization as Bond.

Thunderball’s 45th anniversary part I: Bondmania peaks

December is the 45th anniversary of the fourth James Bond film, Thunderball. In some ways, it’s a bittersweet anniversary for 007 fans. Bondmania hit its peak with Thunderball for the general public and it would never make it back to those levels.

Obviously the series has remained popular, generating 18 installments over the next 43 years. But it wouldn’t be the entertainment phenomenon it was in 1964 and 1965.

Thunderball grossed about $63.6 million in the U.S. Adjusted for inflaton, assuming an averge ticket price of $7.95, that translates to almost $595 million in 2010 dollars, according to information compiled by Box Office Mojo Website. On the adjusted gross basis, Thunderball is No. 27 all time and outranks Spider-Man, some (but not all) of the Star Wars series, Forrest Gump and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King among others.

Again, the Box Office Mojo list is U.S.only. Thunderball had a worldwide gross of $141.2 million, according to a list of unadjusted grosses compiled by Numbers.com Assuming a similar adjustment for 2010 (as in the Box Office Mojo U.S. list), you’re looking at an adjusted gross of more than $1 billion for Thunderball.

However, on the adjusted U.S. list, the only other 007 film is 1964’s Goldfinger at No. 41 ($51 million actual U.S. gross, $527 million adjusted for 2010 dollars). In the bottom 10 of the adjusted list, you’ll see the likes of Seargeant York, House of Wax and Toy Story 2. You won’t find Quantum of Solace, the most recent 007 film that had the highest actual U.S. gross in the Bond series of $169.4 million.

Bond, of course, is popular outside of the U.S. Still, if you assume Thunderball has an adjusted gross of $1 billion or better worldwide, then the top unadjusted worldwide grossing Bond film — 2006’s Casino Royale at $596.4 million — isn’t nearly as popuar as the 1965 film was.

Earlier this year, on message boards of Bond fan Web sites, fans argued that adjusted grosses were the true measure of Bond’s popularity. This came in response to stories LIKE THIS ONE that the Harry Potter series had passed 007 in total unadjusted grosses.

But if adjusted is the real standard, then Bond’s *biggest* days are behind him. That doesn’t mean that 007 isn’t popular. And yes, comparing financial performance of movies from different eras is actually more complicated because there are more revenue sources now than in previous decades. Still, it doesn’t change the fact the Thunderball anniversary is also the anniversary of an end of an era, an era that seems unlikely to return.