Friday, March 18, 2011


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

“It’s a damned good sequence for a comic strip, but these things don’t happen in real life!”

“Planes with atom bombs don’t get stolen in real life… Don’t give me that crap about real life. There ain’t no such animal.”--James Bond first, Felix Leiter second, in THUNDERBALL (1961)

Umberto Eco once labeled the James Bond films “science fiction.” Despite the films’ use of extraordinary gadgets (much less pronounced in the books), most SF-fans would probably not rush to place the Bond mythos in that category. However, even if one were to dismiss the super-gadgets to which Eco perhaps referred, both the books and films of Bond do qualify for my category of the metaphenomenal. THUNDERBALL is ideal for showing how different fantasy-tropes can appear in a world that looks much like our own, while the characters in that world assiduously deny the existence of an animal called “real life.”

In Ian Fleming’s 1961 book THUNDERBALL, almost all of the gadgets and weaponry used by heroes and villains are purely conventional, including the atom bombs stolen by chief villain Emilio Largo. The only exception is a gadget used by Largo’s boss, SPECTRE-mastermind Blofeld, to terminate a subordinate’s employment; Blofeld “fires” the man with an electric chair. This is not the only source of metaphenomenality in the book, but if it were, I would judge the book within the category of “the uncanny” for its use of the trope “outré outfits, skills, and weapons.” Atom bombs themselves are not “outré,” though the act of stealing them may be, but a criminal who knocks off another criminal with an electric chair is definitely beyond the pale of rational convention.

The 1965 film, in contrast to the more marvelous elements of 1964’s GOLDFINGER (like the Aston-Martin supercar), has more gadgets than the book but they too are merely somewhat unconventional and hence “uncanny.” For instance, while in the book a minor villain is killed with a simple grenade, in the movie Largo’s henchwoman Fiona executes her target with miniature rocket-launchers mounted on the front of a motorcycle. Like Blofeld’s electric-charged chair, such a device is not impossible to make, but it is improbable enough to edge its way into the domain of the aforementioned trope.

But I specified earlier that one DID NOT need the gadgets to view the Bond mythos as metaphenomenal, and THUNDERBALL makes a good example of another fantasy-trope on which I’ve not yet expatiated: the “bizarre crime.” All crimes are transgressions of some social order, of course. However, certain crimes—ranging from the hijacking of atom bombs to (say) the Marquis deSade’s more inventive tortures—go beyond not just the order of human custom but the order of the rational.

In passing I should note that if the earlier-reviewed film MADAME SIN did not have an element of the marvelous, as laid out in this review, it too would qualify as “uncanny” through the same sort of “bizarre crime,” since the villain in that telefilm plots a very THUNDERBALL-like coup: heisting an atomic submarine.

In addition, the Fleming books contain yet another trope that most of the films usually do not. I haven’t yet devoted any space to the trope I call “freakish flesh,” but I must note that Fleming’s books also distance themselves from “real life” by making the villains into grotesques out of Chester Gould. In THUNDERBALL the book, Blofeld has eyes like those of a doll, “totally surrounded… by very clear whites,” and while print-Largo lacks the piratical eyepatch given Adolfo Celi, print-Largo’s ears look “almost pointed” while his mouth belongs “to a satyr.” I’ll explore this trope in more detail in future film-analyses.

Returning to the THUNDERBALL film: this was the fourth in the series, in which director Terence Young, who helmed the first and second films, returned following Guy Hamilton’s GOLDFINGER. Yet THUNDERBALL doesn’t attain the mythic and kinetic heights of either GOLDFINGER or Young’s own DOCTOR NO. One weakness is Largo, who despite his daring crime is not very interesting in print or film. The various underwater combat-scenes read well on the page, but don’t translate effectively to the big screen.

The film’s largest deficit may be its handling of the romantic relationship of Bond and Domino Vitali, who begins as Largo’s mistress but who turns against the villain when Bond reveals that Largo had Domino’s brother killed. (In book and movie, Largo never knows of a connection between his mistress and the murdered man; clearly the writers’ god “Coincidence” reigns supreme here.)

No one should mistake Ian Fleming for a feminist. He wrote “blood and thunder” pulp fiction to an audience dominated by men, and often reflected the more sexist attitudes of his time. Nevertheless, his female characters are on occasion quite formidable, and the book makes clear that Domino is not merely a “kept woman,” but a Venus who gives her favors as she pleases. For instance, in the book she pretends that she needs Bond’s aid when she steps on the spines of a sea-creature, and later tells him that she could have helped herself, but feigned helplessness so that he would seduce her. This revelation doesn’t appear in the movie, and actress Claudine Auger isn’t able to convey Domino’s Italian fire on her own talents.

Further, while in both works Domino does revenge herself on Largo by shooting him with a harpoon, thereby saving Bond’s life, film-Domino is not nearly as formidable as print-Domino. In the book Largo tortures Domino when he learns she’s helping Bond, and though the torture isn’t depicted in detail on the page, the method— applying alternating heat (a cigar) and cold (ice cubes) to the skin-- is described prior to the act. However, in the film Largo is interrupted before the torture can begin, possibly in deference to sensitive mainstream audiences. Moreover, after print-Domino is tortured, she frees herself from her prison and despite her burn-wounds swims a considerable distance to the site where Bond is on the verge of being choked to death by Largo, and then kills Largo. Film-Domino doesn’t even get loose from her ropes without help. Certainly Felix Leiter would never say of this character: “I swear I’ll never call a girl a ‘frail’ again --not an Italian girl, anyway!”

The film’s only interesting invention is henchwoman Fiona. One presumes she was created primarily to increase the movie’s babe-quotient, but the scripters give Fiona one scene in which she’s clearly envious of Domino’s relationship with Largo. Thus the slight Oedipal pattern of the book (younger man wins young woman from older man) is supplemented with a new element. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Fiona seduces Bond to set him up for capture, and then mocks him for his inability to sway her with his legendary lovemaking. One might interpret this sequence as the “loyal daughter” refusing to turn against the father as the “disloyal daughter” does. Then again, it may just be that Young and his people were having metatextual fun with Bond’s ladykiller rep, which in GOLDFINGER extends to his being able to “de-gay” lesbian Pussy Galore.

A minor sociological myth-theme is suggested by the idea of criminals entering the “nuclear brinkmanship” game played by rival nations; here Bond can rout the atomic blackmailers of SPECTRE without worrying about going to war with their sponsors. But this too is stronger in the book.

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