Thursday, March 21, 2013
James Bond's nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, leader of SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) is often cited as the prototype for the master-villain, the faceless brain behind mass conspiracies of villainy. For his first two appearances in Bond films, he was more or less depicted solely as an arm before finally being revealed in You Only Live Twice (1967) played by the bald, scarred-eye, Nehru-collared form of Donald Pleasance...an image used and reused both seriously and for parody in countless movies and TV programs since. Though he's in six of the canon Bond films, he's only in three of Fleming's original novels: Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice, otherwise known as the Blofeld trilogy. Having been given a copy of Majesty's, I found myself having to track down Thunderball to get started.
After all, it seems strange when he's revealed if you haven't seen the movies in order...so I figured it'd be just as strange if not stranger to read the books out of order.
The book opens with James Bond in sorry shape. He's been drinking and smoking a little too much after having been beaten up a bit too much by his work. So M, on a health kick, sends him to a spa in the English countryside. There, a brusque brush-up with one of the other spa visitors ends up tying into a conspiracy that involves the theft of an RAF plane and it's payload of two nuclear weapons, which are then used to try and blackmail $100, 000, 000 ransom from the world governments.
Naturally, this is the work of Blofeld and SPECTRE. Blofeld, who came up through government bureaucracy was immersed in the world of espionage during the second World War and has since used his ability to buy and sell information to form a dangerous network of spies and criminals into a global conspiracy. No one knows where the plane went. No one knows where the bombs are. And Bond is dispatched into the field to try and stop this plot. So...on M's hunch, Bond is sent to Nassau in the Bahamas where he meets the "treasure-hunter" Emilio Largo and his kept woman, the lovely Domino. With the help of Felix Leiter, Bond begins to assemble clues that point to Largo as the man behind hi-jacking the plane and stealing the bombs.
In all, Fleming's novel moves at a pretty good clip and Blofeld is introduced in grand style with a well-built background for evil. Largo, too, is an enjoyable antagonist: the rich playboy, who is, in fact, a total scumbag who knows how to torture with a cigar and some ice. Bond is, well Bond, and benefits from the presence of the ever plucky Leiter (who is always whole in the movies, but after events in the book Live and Let Die, is missing an arm). And Domino, for the books, is one of Bond's more remarkable conquests, although she leads Fleming into one of the most hilarious sexist rants about women-drivers I've ever read. Domino, of course, is a great driver, and the sole exception to the diatribe.
I did, however, have a couple of problems with how the book played out. For one, though the events and resutls of the time at the health spa are amusing, they meander for a bit too long, and are tied into the main plot by only the flimsiest of threads. So inevitably they end up eating up a fair bit of time, as does many of Fleming's various asides about a variety of topics from technology to a dinner menu. Detail often brings a world to life, but in several cases in this book (and in other Bond novels I've read) it just seems like an oddly placed editorial. It's not as off-putting as some of the pages and pages of technical jargon in modern spy/military thrillers, but it does throw off the plotting. And finally, too much of the initial part of the main plot rely on hunches and coincidences (ie. With no idea who or where SPECTRE is, Bond just happens to end up in the right place at the right time for no real good reason but happenstance.) Still and all, these aren't documentaries on spying but meant as entertainment, and on that score, Thunderball was largely successful despite these distractions.
Of course, one can't address Thunderball without addressing the controversy over the book that lead to a decades long legal dispute. Before Albert Broccoli and Sean Connery made a little movie called Dr. No (1962), Fleming and his friend Ivar Bryce teamed up with an Irish filmmaker, Kevin McClory, to form a production company to produce a Bond film, whose plot elements eventually became Thunderball. While that movie was never made, Fleming adapted certain characters and elements from what had been fleshed out for the film project into the novel which later became its own movie and so on without McClory receiving any credit. While I don't seek to settle what all transpired between these men, suffice it to say that McClory's legal pursuit of restitution from Fleming and his estate led to the loophole that allowed for a remake of Thunderball, which saw the return of Connery to the role that he made famous and that made him a star in this here...