Franchise Rewatch: James Bond – Part 2: ‘Thunderball through Diamonds Are Forever’, or the End of the Beginning

Posted by Matthew on February 10, 2020
Editorial, Movies

Welcome to part two of this year’s franchise rewatch. I’ve watched three good films so far, and this time around I’m going to talk about four more.

I’m on pace to get this done before the April premiere of No Time To Die right now so let’s get right to talking about Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Diamonds Are Forever.

In case you missed it, here is part one of this series. I think these all stand somewhat on their own, but I’m watching in order so it’s probably best to read in order, too.

Thunderball (1965)

How do you follow Goldfinger? Dr. No and From Russia With Love made about $60 Million and $78 Million at the box office respectively (the equivalent of about $450 Million and $540 Million today), but Goldfinger changed things all together with it’s $124 Million take. It was a smashing success and even held the Guinness Record for fastest grossing movie for a time.

It turns out you just make another James Bond movie. Thunderball took in a total of $141 Million when it was released in 1965, the equivalent of nearly $850 Million today. Goldfinger wasn’t an outlier and this franchise was now one of blockbusters.

Thunderball has big shoes to fill and it fills them. It’s not as memorable as Goldfinger or as cool as From Russia With Love, but it’s a perfectly acceptable entry in the franchise, with all the hallmarks in place. An ever-suave Sean Connery, still cool and unflappable, beautiful women (both a damsel to be rescued and a femme fatale to be seduced), and some fun gadgets.

Where Goldfinger really leaned into the fun, cartoony aspects of the franchise Thunderball at least dials it back. Terrence Young, who directed Dr. No and From Russia With Love was brought back and if nothing else his Bond films are all in much better balance between the spy stories these films want to be and the cartoons they could ultimately end up being.

Thunderball has a villain who has an eyepatch but otherwise not a ton of personality in Emilio Largo, but he was never going to stack up to Auric Goldfinger even if he was more boisterous. His henchwoman Fiona Volpe is a seductress and assassin (yes, of course, Bond beds her) who is actually pretty great until she gets a pretty dumb end.

Domino, this films main Bond Girl gets her own little arc which is, for this series, pretty ok. She’s the mistress of Largo until she finds out he killed her brother, then she switches sides to Bond, then she’s tortured by Largo for betraying him, and then ultimately she’s the one who kills him.

Look, I said it was only pretty ok, ok? That’s more than many of the women in these things get.

Of course, the film also has Sean Connery force himself on a woman right after he’s nearly killed by a robot sex-machine at a spa. No, seriously, this shit happens:

The movie can tell me that this is a spinal traction machine all it wants, but it’s clearly fucking James Bond to death. I’d love it to be some kind of foreshadowing but it ends up just being a thing that happens, and then he uses it happening to coerce and intimidate his physiotherapist into sex, which is a little uncomfortable.

(Look I know it’s not really fair to judge old movies by modern standards but this is one I am not going to be able to let go of much because sexual assault was still sexual assault in the 60s and as much as ai like this series it does have a pretty mean streak of misogyny throughout.)

Also, here’s a quick question for the “is James Bond a character or a code name?” crowd: have you noticed that this is our third Felix Leiter? This guy changes face in every movie he has been in so far. I haven’t really talked about Felix much and I don’t have a lot to say now, but Rick Van Nutter is the most laid back of the Leiters so far and I think that really works.

How does it stack up though? It’s fine! It’s mostly good, even. During the climax of the story, there is a large scale underwater fight between Largo’s henchmen and a group of US Navy Divers. I know that this sequence is one that people don’t like, but it works for me. It’s not as slow as I had been led to believe or remembered, and while it does mess with the pacing of the film a little I think that the actual ending is far worse.

Once the fight is over Largo takes off in his yacht, the Disco Volante (which translates to “Flying Saucer”, a detail I love) which turns out to separate into two boats: gunship and a hydrofoil. The ensuing scenes on the hydrofoil appear to be sped up to at least 1.5x, not an uncommon effect to make vehicles look faster, but it looks terrible here. To be clear, I am not just talking about the hydrofoil speeding across the water, I’m talking about the fight scene between Bond and Largo (and his henchmen), too. The whole thing enters that cartoony territory that I’ve come to dislike, which is disappointing because I otherwise like the movie.

And then in the end Bond, Domino, and a scientist jump off the boat and then Bond and Domino are rescued by a passing plane with a skyhook.

I have no idea what happened to the scientist. Maybe he should come back as a villain one day for being left to die in the middle of the ocean. If anyone from EON Productions is reading this, feel free to contact me about writing that story.

You Only Live Twice (1967)

And so we come to what should have been the end of Sean Connery’s run as our intrepid, womanizing hero. You Only Live Twice is a weird movie, one that manages to be fine but only despite itself. They clearly thought that this was the end of Connery’s run and because of that, they decided to dial up the production value and make it as epic as they thought they could.

The problem with these things is when you dial up the good stuff you also end up dialling up the bad stuff.

Let’s start with the production value which is admittedly top-notch. John Barry is back with his fourth score in the series and hot damn what a score. The music has been good so far, but this one adds a certain magnificence to the proceedings.

Combine that with the cinematography and direction, brought to you by Freddie Young (who had already won Academy Awards for Cinematography for Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, and would go on to win another a few years later) and Lewis Gilbert (who had directed a number of films we’d call classics today but was just coming off the Michael Caine hit Alfie). Make no mistake, these guys were stars of their day.

It shows, too. In prior films a foot chase would have been shot with cameras on the ground, cutting from one to another to simulate Bond getting away. In You Only Live Twice there is a foot chase that ends with Bond running away from several goons on a rooftop, and a large portion of it is shot with a huge wide lens from a helicopter, and in fairly long takes.

There are a ton of shots that really accentuate the beauty of Japan as well, big sweeping vistas in the background as the story heads toward Blofeld’s volcano lair.

Oh, and did I mention this thing was written by Ronald Dahl? Yes, that Roald Dahl. Seriously, the whole film is gorgeously shot and directed, the dialogue is snappy, the quips are good, and the feel of the movie really achieves the grander scale they wanted to give Connery’s last outing.

But then there’s a bunch of just… awful stuff. For example, this happens:

No, Bond isn’t going undercover at a Star Trek convention. They decided that for him to fit in undercover in Japan they needed to make him Japanese.

In case you are still wondering: no, this very much does not work. He still sounds exactly like Sean Connery, he just looks like a Vulcan. This goes on for ages, but then also it just sort of goes away at one point later in the film, and no one who might recognize him or be made wary by a European man hanging around is ever around to see him anyway. That is to say: it serves exactly no point. This just kind of happens and it’s pretty awful.

There’s also this films treatment of its Bond Girls, which is a bit… weird. When Bond arrives in Japan he is met by Aki, a Japanese intelligence agent. At about the halfway point she is killed and Bond looks actually distressed about it –for maybe the first time in the series–, but then another woman named Kissy Suzuki shows up and literally takes her place in the plot and the film then proceeds as if nothing had happened.

As ways for writers to get Bond to bed multiple women go, this is not one of the better ones.

Also, I forgot to mention that while he’s in disguise as a Japanese man he is going to be undercover as a married man, and so he actually goes through a Japanese marriage ceremony with Kissy because… reasons. I suppose you could argue that Blofeld has eyes everywhere but also … he doesn’t?

This series treatment of women is going to keep coming up and again, on the one hand, it’s not really fair to judge a piece of media from the 1960s by the standards of 2020 but on the other hand fucking yikes.

Here’s one more stupid thing about this movie which is a little more innocuous. On the beginning MI6 fake Bond’s death. They hold a naval funeral for him and everything. This is ostensibly so that he will be free to operate in secret as his enemies will think he is off the board. You Only Live Twice, indeed. Except that Bond is a secret agent already. He’s only famous to us. That’s just… dumb.

Anyway, let’s end this segment on an up note. There are two more things to talk about, and one of them is the sets. Blofeld’s volcano lair, in particular. This idea that the supervillain would be holed up in a volcano only comes up the one time in the series as far as I remember but it’s instantly iconic.

The images don’t even do it justice, but you can once again tell that this was to be Connery’s last hurrah and they wanted to go out with a bang. It’s massive and gorgeous and I love it. More importantly, You Only Live Twice has the best Blofeld.

Blofeld had to this point hadn’t actually been seen on screen beyond a hand petting a cat or pushing a button to kill a minion but he’s already larger than life. He commands a great empire of evil in Spectre, the group that Bond has been fighting back against in each film so far. What they needed is someone who could believably weird, charismatic, and threatening enough to carry off the idea that this man would have a hollowed-out volcano full of minions doing his bidding, and let me say that Donald Pleasence absolutely delivers.

He’s quiet and calculating and sort of effeminate and weird and malevolent and uncompromising and it really shouldn’t work, but there is a reason that when James Bond is parodied this is the villain they parody: it really works. He’s not just the first archvillain, he’s the best one.

You Only Live Twice is a weird movie. It’s effectively min-maxed with bad things and good things, and the result is fine. I wish that Connery had had a better send-off, but in the end, he came back one more time anyway.

In the meantime, we got our first brand new James Bond.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

It can’t have been easy being the first actor to step into the role of Bond after Sean Connery decided to leave. In many ways, I think George Lazenby was probably doomed from the start. People loved Connery, and he wasn’t Connery. In order to overcome that the film would have to have been an absolute banger, and it, well, isn’t. Or at least it isn’t that kind of movie.

It’s easy, looking back, to see why people didn’t really dig On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s a little melancholy, and it doesn’t have the same air of escapism as the previous entries. There is still tons of sex, but most of the film has Bond surviving on his wits rather than gadgets.

Here’s the thing though: it’s good. Sure, parts of it make no sense, but it has one of the best romances, easily the best Bond Girl so far, and a story and central performance that features Bond as an actual human being. Audiences rejected that in the day, but I think it was ahead of its time. After all, this is exactly the sort of thing that we embraced with Daniel Craig’s version of Bond. That’s getting ahead of myself though.

So let’s get this out of the way: I think George Lazenby is good as Bond. Sure, he’s a little wooden at times doesn’t have the raw magnetism that Connery had, but his performance is thoughtful and charming and different and that’s honestly probably the best thing about it. Imagine if he’d just done a Sean Connery impression. That would have been awful. He was the new Bond and he needed to be different and it was always going to be a dice roll if people would accept it.

Similarly, I think Telly Savalas is totally fine as Blofeld. Like Lazenby, he had a tough act to follow. He doesn’t have the same eccentric madman energy that Pleasence brought to the role, and I have a harder time believing he’d have a base full of minions doing his bidding (and maybe that’s why he basically doesn’t), but he’s fine. You can’t win them all.

So how does the story compare? It’s good! Mostly!

Ok, so there are some issues.

Let’s get another thing out of the way: yes, the moment in the first act where Lazenby breaks the fourth wall to let us know that “This never happened to the other fella.” is kinda bad. I get what they were going for, but it’s bad. And weird. In a bad way.

Next, let’s address the second act of the film. There are two major problems there. The first is that James Bond goes undercover to Blofeld’s base and the two men pretend like they don’t recognize each other for an extended length of time.

Now, sure, this is a new Bond and a new Blofeld but there’s a scene earlier in the film where Bond is looking through his desk and has mementoes of past bond girls and each of the three he looks at gets a brief moment of their music to go with. That is to say, this movie goes out of its way to establish that this is the same James Bond you’ve been watching in five previous movies (I kind of love that scene, too).

But then when Blofeld and Bond come face to face they each just pretend like they don’t know who the other is despite Bond’s disguise effectively being a pair of glasses and Blofeld’s being a heavy jacket, I suppose. It doesn’t make a lot of sense given the very deliberately established continuity.

Does the rest of the main plot hold up? Sure. Blofeld is hypnotizing women into delivering a bioweapon around the world so he can hold the world ransom. Pretty standard stuff, at this point. Ridiculous? Sure, if there’s a line that divides acceptable ridiculousness from the unacceptable, this plan is firmly on the correct side of it.

The second problem with the second act is that Diana Rigg disappears for most of it.

I’m not going to mince words here: Diana Rigg’s Tracy, the Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, is the best Bond girl so far and if my memory doesn’t fail me she’ll be the best Bond girl in the entire series.

The reason for this is that she’s a real person with real agency who stands up to Bond as his intellectual equal. She’s smart and funny and she sees right through Bond’s bullshit. She even gets to drive her own car during the big car chase sequence instead of letting Bond take over.

Yes, she disappears in the second act and her reintroduction is kind of clunky and out of nowhere but who cares, they head right into that car chase and proceed to fall in love.

This was probably one of the reasons that audiences rejected this film. James Bond is about escapism for so many. It’s about shooting people and driving fast cars, using gadgets, and sleeping with every woman there is, and while James Bond does all that in this movie he also falls in love and gets married.

Does it feel out of place in the series? Maybe! Does it feel out of place in the movie? Nope!

Here’s another thing that I love about this movie: the action is excellent. Director Peter Hunt, who was the editor on all five of the previous films, makes much less use of rear projection thankfully, and the editing during all the alpine scene is dynamic and interesting. At least from an action point of view, this might be the best Bond film I’ve watched so far.

How great is it? Well, it inspired the alpine action scenes in later Bond films and in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, to name a couple.

But let’s talk about the ending. Bond, of course, wins the day. He defeats Blofeld and dismantles the evil plan, and gets the girl. As you may remember, he even marries her and they drive away toward their happily ever after.

And then Blofeld and his chief henchwoman drive by and unload a magazine full of bullets at the happy couple, and while Bond survives Tracy is fatally shot, which utterly shatters Bond.

I think this might be the best scene in the movie for Lazenby. He really sells the impact of Tracy’s death, even venturing into denial as the camera pans away and the theme song cuts in (admittedly, too loud and too early). It’s a ballsy ending for a series built on happy endings to have your hero’s happily every after ripped away from him, but let me tell you: it really works for the movie, and for the series.

It lets us know that James Bond will never get the ending he wants, that all the sex and violence his life features may look fun and be an escape, but in reality, it exacts a steep price. That in order for him to be the vessel for our escapism he himself can never actually be happy.

No wonder audiences rejected it. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service made $64 million at the box office which was only a little over half what You Only Live Twice made. I remember hearing all my life that this was one of the weaker films in the series, but revisiting it now has cemented it for me as one of the stronger ones.

I very much wish that Lazenby had come back and brought Peter Hunt with him but that was never going to happen with such a weak response. So what would you do if you were the producer of this series? You’d ask the guy who made the most memorable film in the series so far to come back and do it again, which is how Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton was invited back for the next one.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

Here’s a true fact: when I was watching this movie I took only one note. It was during a scene where Bond is escaping from Blofeld’s facility. He’s driving a prototype moon buggy, which with it’s flailing robotic arms is already ridiculous enough (and way on the wrong side of that line we talked about earlier), but at one point Bond drives this thing over a ridge while being pursued by a car. He drives the buggy out of frame to the left, the pursuing car crashes and rolls down the ridge, and as the car is coming to a stop one of the highly distinctive wheels from the moon buggy bounces back into the frame.

My thesis about Diamonds Are Forever is that no one gave a shit.

The scene is maybe not as famous as the one where Bond drives a car on two wheels into a narrow alley and then drives out on the opposite two wheels, but it’s just as emblematic of the problem that no one could be bothered to get anything right on this film.

I mentioned before that Goldfinger was the film that pushed this series into cartoon territory. Someone must have liked that (or at least the high box office take that it generated) because they brought back director Guy Hamilton to make this one, and they brought back Sean Connery to star again. There are a lot of things to talk about but to extend the metaphor: this movie doesn’t just venture into cartoon territory, it paints a tunnel on a hillside and then runs full speed, face first at it.

I am sure that Guy Hamilton has made some good movies but this is not one of them. He seems to be of the opinion that these movies are silly (which, let’s be fair, they are) but that the silliness is the thing people show up for so it should be dialled up to eleven. This is how you end up with the above-mentioned flailing robot arms on a moon buggy.

Sean Connery was getting older but this time they didn’t bother to cover that up, probably because he doesn’t actually care to be there. They backed a dump truck of cash onto his lawn and threw in a two-movie development deal to get him back, but he’s just going through the motions. He saunters through each scene as if he was unwilling to do more than one take for each.

Neither Hamilton nor Connery seem to have given a shit.

I could talk more about the pair of assassins that follow the MacGuffin through the story killing as they go in the most ridiculous fashion that also happen to be evil homosexual stereotypes. I could talk more about the Bond girl who is conniving and dumb at the same time. I don’t really want to though.

Or I could talk about the worst Blofeld in the series, and how there are multiple versions of him because making exact doubles of himself is part of his evil plan this time.

Charles Grey had already played a part in You Only Live Twice so he was a friend to the production and I know he’s a good actor but his version of Blofeld is just a cartoon, right down to the scene where he escapes Bond and kidnaps the girl by dressing like a lady.

I would like to point out that I understand that they were clearly trying to make something lighter and funnier this time after the huge downer ending last time, but this feels like the laziest possible version of that.

I said before that Goldfinger was the point that the franchise where they became what Austin Powers was parodying. Diamonds Are Forever might as well just be an Austin Powers movie. Except that is unfair to Austin Power movies, which unlike this movie I mostly like.

Conclusion

Seven movies down, seventeen to go! This group is a little less even than the first three, with one of the best I’ve seen so far and what might actually end up being my least favourite entry in the franchise.

It’s a shame that George Lazenby and director Peter Hunt only showed up the one time because they made a good movie. Not a perfect one, but with a solid romance and some great action, on balance it’s one of the better ones in the franchise.

In some ways, it’s starting to feel like the franchise is starting to fall into the trap of always needing to one-up itself in some way, but mostly it feels like the money train had started in earnest and there was no stopping it. Like Marvel today, this franchise didn’t just survive the lows of this period, it went on to keep thriving despite them.

This was the end of the beginning of the franchise and as it moved from Connery to new actors and from the 1960s into the 1970s things were always going to change. That’s just the way things work, but I do wish that Connery had gone out on a better film.

Next, we’re heading into the Roger Moore era, the longest-serving Bond. I’m not 100% sure how I am going to divide them up, but here’s a spoiler for you: I really like Roger Moore. Look for the next instalment in this series soon!

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