Bond-ed for Life ~ Thunderball

The James Bond franchise is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and with the release of Skyfall I wanted to take a look back at the 22 (23 if you count the rogue Never Say Never Again, 24 if you count the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale) films that have come before it.  So sit back, grab your shaken-not-stirred martini and follow me on a trip down Bond memory lane.

The Facts:

Synopsis: James Bond heads to The Bahamas to recover two nuclear warheads stolen by SPECTRE agent Emilio Largo in an international extortion scheme.

Stars: Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celi, Luciana Paluzzi

Director: Terence Young

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:

With three films under his belt, Connery suited up for his fourth go ‘round with Bond and while some people feel like Thunderball is one of the classier films in the James Bond universe, I found the ride a tad bit bumpy and kinda lethargic.  I think that’s just an overall pacing problem with director Young’s style.  Returning to the series after Guy Hamilton’s phenomenal success with Goldfinger, I’m sure Young felt the pressure to deliver another Bond adventure that met those standards.

The problem is when you raise a bar so high it can be difficult for anything after it to live up.  It happens in films still today…as good as The Dark Knight Rises was, it did disappoint slightly when compared to The Dark Knight that came before it.  Both good films but when you hold them both up to the light one just shines a bit brighter.  Same is the case with Thunderball.

With Tom Jones cashing in on the title tune, the film does start off like a thunderball as it propels Bond back into the crosshairs of SPECTRE even as their scheme of stealing nuclear warheads begins to develop.  As main villain Largo, Celi is a hambone of evil sneers and it mostly works.  He’d be parodied in other films over the years but Celi meters his performance just on the edge of reasonable villainy without resorting to moustache twirling.

Our Bond girl here is Domino (Auger, Twitch of the Death Nerve) and she teams with Bond to take down SPECTRE and Largo for reasons of her own.  Along the way Bond also pairs up with one of our first evil Bond girls in the guise of Fiona (flame haired Paluzzi).  Paluzzi and Connery create a bit more spark than Auger can muster up but with both actresses being dubbed, it can be hard to get a sense for any natural chemistry.

That’s another problem these early films presented for me while watching them again.  Especially in the Connery Bond movies (and continuing into the Roger Moore years) many of the European stars that took on the villain or Bond girl roles were dubbed as their heavy accents were deemed too difficult to understand.  One woman ended up dubbing several of the Bond girls over time so it can come across to the ear that you are seeing the same performance over and over again.  Not that deep characterization was on the forefront of anyone’s mind for these classic Bond films, mind you, but it is a challenge at times.

So Thunderball may not land exactly on target but it still showcases some great underwater photography, a few laughably overzealous performances, and continues the trend of Bond winding up in some raft/lifeboat/capsule at the end with whatever woman lived to tell the tale.

*Interesting to note that Connery made a return to Bond and would remake this film as Never Say Never Again in 1983 when two studios were locked in a dispute over the Bond franchise*

31 Days to Scare ~ Twitch of the Death Nerve (Reazione a catena)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An elderly heiress is killed by her husband who wants control of her fortunes. What ensues is an all-out murder spree as relatives and friends attempt to reduce the inheritance playing field.

Stars: Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Claudio Camaso, Laura Betti, Isa Miranda

Director: Mario Bava

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’m sometimes asked what attracts me to certain films.  Is it the stars?  Maybe it’s the genre?  A solid production team?  These are all valid selling points and they all have influenced me in one way or another.  With this early Italian horror film, the title alone had me yanking it off the shelf and bringing it up to the counter for a rent (yes, rent…I’ve been going to my local video store, Filmzilla, for all my horror needs).  Even though it also goes by the name Bay of Blood, Twitch of the Death Nerve just sounds better and may be one of the best horror titles ever.

Now you can’t judge a film by its title alone because that can only go so far.  While Twitch of the Death Nerve doesn’t knock it out of the park it’s still a more than respectable entry into the giallo genre.  For those unfamiliar, giallo is Italian for “yellow” and stems from the origin of the genre in Italy as a series of cheap paperback mystery novels which all had trademark yellow covers.  The giallo genre was a major influence in the development of the modern slasher film…with US films like Psycho being an example of such work.

Italian directors had the market cornered on giallo films through the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s with auteurs such as Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, and the godfather himself Mario Bava making names for themselves almost exclusively with these films.  Around 10 years into the movement he started, Bava directs Twitch of the Death Nerve.  Bava is really the grandfather from which all things flowed so you’re viewing the work of a master craftsman if you a taking in one of his films.

These films all have similar elements and Twitch of the Death Nerve is emblematic of the best work of the era.  Saturated with color, uneven performances and convoluted plot elements, it’s not all about the gore but in tying to fashion a deeper story around the blood.  That sometimes works and for a while the film putters along nicely with several well staged kills but ultimately it starts to fall apart…almost as if Bava handed off directing responsibilities to a second unit director.

For 1971, the make-up and bloodletting are pulled off in a pretty spectacular fashion and I noted more than one killing that was imitated in one of the Friday the 13th sequels.  Make no mistake, this is a violent film with the traditional too-red blood spewing from various wounds but it’s presented to us almost as an art exhibit with each drop in its specific place and each skewering drawn out to maximum effect.

For a short film the body count is high but each killing is given some grander purpose.  It’s clear that Bava didn’t just use his actors as props to dispatch without note…I was surprised that many of the murders committed were filmed with a (gasp) tender edge that showed empathy to the dying victim.  Bava was trying to get across that death can be violent and, bad guy or not, a life is a life and there is sadness involved.  When the camera lingers on the newly deceased, I didn’t take it that Bava was rubbing our noses in the gore but that he wanted for us to take what has just occurred. 

Aside from the grandiosely epic murder sequences, there’s precious little plot to develop so it’s best to just sit back and watch the film for its technical elements.  Though not badly acted, the dubbed actors (including Thunderball Bond Girl Claudine Auger) don’t have a lot to work with and therefore don’t make much of an impression.  While it does have a few nifty twists and surprises, it ultimately falls victim to its own soft set-up and can’t quite justify its bizarre ending.

If you’re new to the Italian horror genre, you may want to go back a few years to a time when the giallo films weren’t quite so bloody (I greatly enjoyed Bava’s Blood and Black Lace from 1965 with its kinky theme and groovy 60’s style).  If you’re well versed in horror and want to see a true master at work, track this down for some nice rewards.  Just don’t read too far into it.