Friday, April 08, 2011

Shipwreck in black and white: Thunderball and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Now I know how he felt.

It's 2011. I've watched Thunderball, and I'm angry, upset and confused that I've put myself and my fiancee through this. What have I done? How will I ever get those two hours back? And what the hell was that?

Once the shock of the disappointment had died away, I began to realise that Thunderball is not about water or sharks or nefarious schemes captained by portly gentlemen with eyepatches. It's about the failure of hope, as symbolised through failed flight. Whether it's Bond being attacked by a bouncing transvestite, a Vulcan bomber going missing, or a spectacularly lame balloon, Thunderball is testament to the fact that what goes up, must come down. So let's begin again:

It's 1965. Following the giddy heights of Goldfinger, Cubby Broccoli tries to give the public what they want, assuming that is more of the same. So instead of raping Pussy Galore in a stable, Bond gets to knock the crap out of a woman just home from a funeral.

Ok, this turns out to be a man in disguise, but that doesn't really help Bond's case. Perhaps he's not a violent misogynist. Perhaps he just hates Louis XVIII-style furnishings. But on the evidence to date, if you've got a pair of X chromosones, you should reconsider hanging out with JB.

We know Connery was growing tired with Bond and wanted out. Maybe so tired that instead of doing a runner from the scene of the crime, he'd strap on a rocket pack and fly away. I wasn't impressed. I wasn't amused. I was sitting there baffled by the logistics of sneaking in an enormous and quite dangerous propulsion device, made of empty squash bottles and silver foil, when it would surely have been easier to just walk in, do the deed and walk out again. Or are French villas stuffed full of surplus rocket packs?

Roll credits. In which Tom Jones bellows nonsense whilst women are shot with harpoons. Subtext, anyone?

The rest of the film is uniformly terrible. It feels like it was constructed by a committee (maybe convening around the same table as Spectre?) who tried to figure out what was so good about the previous films?

  1. Dr No was in the Caribbean, Goldfinger in Miami, people like sunshine, let's shoot it in Nassau. 
  2. People like fish, let's keep showing them the same stock footage of fish swimming over a coral reef.
  3. Both the Masterson sisters died in Goldfinger, let's shoot lots of women.
  4. The Chinese are up to something. Again.1
  5. Auric Goldfinger was quite chubby - let's get another fat bloke to be the villain.
  6. One liners! Yes, these were well received last time. Let's have some more. Only don't bother with something that makes sense after a car explodes, like 'traffic was murder'. Let's have Bond say something unidiomatic, like 'some drivers get heated'.
And so on...

There's really too many things going wrong in this trainwreck of a film to single out any one of them.

Do you get annoyed at the oh-so-frightening-death-by-wobble-board Bond only narrowly escapes?2 It's hardly up to the standard set by Goldfinger's testicle-searing industrial laser, now is it?

Do you get annoyed by the rubbish assassination by a special effect in the bed and breakfast?3

Are you impressed that they could film people getting into actual Vulcan bombers, or are you just bored when a bomber is in a crash dive out of radar visibility, the camera depicts it calmly cruising along above some clouds. Couldn't they have tilted the camera, at least?

Can anyone explain why Largo is keeping the girlfriend of a bloke who he hired an imposter to kill? Was that just designed to make our heads hurt? How bad can a Bond film be that you're reduced to complaining it's not realistic?

Steady on grandad, you're driving the boat too fast

Or do you take issue with the drop in the quality of villains? No man is threatening when jammed into a wetsuit that's a size too small. Particularly when he looks like somebody's grandad who lost an eye in the war.

Talking of wetsuits ... well, I'd rather not. Clive James once compared Arnold Schwarzenegger to some walnuts stuffed in a condom. Poor old Sean looks more like a sausage stuck in a tube of toothpaste.

The whole underwater part of the film is very, very odd. We have a rubbish looking submarine, we have the exploration of a shark-infested nuclear bomber that is inexplicably dull and boring rather than claustrophobic and terrifying, and then ... then we have this:

Just stop it.  You're embarassing yourselves.

You weren't looking forward to Moonraker? Guess what, if you were a Connery fan and you thought Moore was the one who presided over the most embarassing set-pieces of the Bond series, then you're watching yourself being proven wrong. Very wrong.

And look - there's everyone's favourite Scotsman, farting yellow paint through the ocean. What was going through people's minds when they saw this?

Things were no better back in London - having a big budget evidently meant they thought they should squander some on an enormous map that is unveiled and then never looked at again:

Where's that important map?

Ah,there's that important map. Carry on again, chaps.

We knew from the start that Bond hates French furniture, but as extraneous furnishing decisions go, this is a doozie - a three storey map, just so a bloke can say "nothing to see here". No wonder Britain was on the verge of economic collapse in the 70s - they'd spunked everything in the 60s on shiiiit.  And that's before we mention Q's Shop Of Horrors.

No, I'm not going to talk about Q's gadgets. Or his Hawaiian shirt.  It's just too, too awful.

Stop staring at her chest, you insufferable forrin scientist type

When the whole thing ends, Bond sails off into the sky attached to a weather balloon, which strangely gets ripped off paid homage to by Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight, probably because he reckoned nobody would notice as Thunderball had been (mercifully) deleted from our collective memories.

As an antidote, I watched The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the 1965 partner to Thunderball.  Whilst Thunderball is all garish and badly put together, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is gloomy black and white, a painful trap that inexorably closes around its cast.

And look! It's also got Bernard Lee in it, trying to atone for the sins he'd visited upon us in Thunderball. Which he does, by being slapped around a few times by a drunken Richard Burton, who then goes off to Wormwood Scrubs. There's no justice in this world.

Could this be the least glamourous example of product placement in the history of the Western world?
The only trouble is, although The Spy Who ... oh, forget it, TSWCIFTC is the better film, it's not much more enjoyable, because it's so unbearably grim. Instead of champagne and oysters, there's a bottle of wine that Leamas' girlfriend has been saving since she was given it for Christmas. There's a strip bar in Soho where everyone looks like they're having a miserable time, and every character apart from Leamas' girlfriend takes the opportunity to hurt somebody else.

Well, this looks like everyone's enjoying themselves.

Still, at least they have some fun things to say:
"Is your handwriting legible?"
"Except on weekends."
"Aren't you?"
"No, I didn't have any drink with my dinner."
"I didn't have any dinner with my drink."

But despite the dialogue that's often a lot funnier than anything Bond has to say in Thunderball, there's a palpable sense of people being crushed by larger forces. When Leamas is interrogated by Mundt, the faces of his guards are invisible; they're just part of a larger, faceless machine. At the same time, Leamas is a tiny man, dwarfed by everything around him, even (or especially) the signs at the Berlin border crossing.

So the trouble is that we're stuck between two irreconcible, painful forces here - the paranoid misery of le Carre, where everyone always ends up getting screwed over by somebody else, and the febrile middle-England wank fantasies of Fleming, where Bond ends up screwing somebody or other. It's hard to know where to turn at this point. Connery would get out of this after the next film. We're going to plough on. I'll leave you with two alternate career paths, demonstrated by the medium of film.

First, the Bond girl:

Look darling, there goes your acting career!

And second, the Russian premier:

Putin had an early role in cinema, long since forgotten

See you next month for You Only Live Twice!

Oops - almost forgot to summarise what Thunderball has taught us:

When romancing flame haired temptresses, always check before you open your bedroom door. If you spot a twin brother you never knew you had, don't let him in.
The British government had a massive budget for maps in the 1960s. Massive maps.
Don't defraud major criminal organisations. Nothing much to say here. If you do feel brave enough to do it, you'll need a pair of rubber underpants and boots to survive.
Perhaps contrary to that last piece of advice, under no circumstances let some American ponce flying a helicopter persuade you that a bright red latex jacket is a good look.
The 1960s were very, very depressing if you weren't a double-oh agent. Or if you're trapped watching a double-oh agent muck about in Nassau.

1 It's like the US Senate being paranoid about Chinese imports ruining American industry, just thirty-five years early. Bond reveals himself to be a master spy early on in the health farm debacle, when he recognises a secret tattoo. That happens to be the Chinese symbol for 'middle'. As in 'Middle Kingdom', as in 'China'. For one thing, that's not a very secretive symbol, rich in occult and obscure meaning. For another, that's about as subtle as having the first half of the stars and stripes tattooed on your wrist if you're a Yank. But that's about the only sign that the Chinese Are Evil, after Goldfinger's extravaganza of malign Koreans/Cantonese/anyone else from east of Bombay that they could shoehorn into a flick.
2Escapes by lying there until somebody switches it off. Go James!
3Maybe you should. If fifteen years later somebody had the gumption to finish a Bruce Lee film by filming the back of somebody's head, wouldn't it have been in the wherewithal of the Bond producers to do something similar, rather than the laughably bad special effects they employ to show a man being shot by himself?
One interesting departure here is that while Bond and women in vehicles is inevitably fatal, women in stationary objects like hotel rooms can also be a lethal combination.


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