Thunder Island (1963)

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An exiled dictator, a professional hitman, and the innocents who’re caught in the middle!
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US / 65 minutes / bw / Associated Producers, Cooperative de Artes Cinematograficas, Producciones del Viejo San Juan, TCF Dir & Pr: Jack Leewood Scr: Don Devlin, Jack Nicholson Cine: John Nickolaus Jr Cast: Gene Nelson, Fay Spain, Brian Kelly, Miriam Colon, Art Bedard, Antonio Torres Martino, Esther Sandoval, José de San Antón, Evelyn Kaufman, Stephanie Rifkinson.

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Vincent Dodge (Kelly) used to be a high-powered ad man on Madison Avenue but, when he couldn’t stand the rat race any longer, he left New York to start up a charter-boat service in San Miguel, Puerto Rico. Most of his customers aboard the Idelda are game fishermen, sightseers or scuba divers, but he also has a regular gig running supplies out to the private island that’s the home of exiled dictator Antonio Perez (de San Antón).

Vincent lives a sort of Travis McGee existence, in short, albeit without the babes, because he still yearns for the wife who refused to come here with him, Helen (Spain), and their nine-year-old daughter Josephine “Jo” (Kaufman).

One day Helen and Jo arrive in San Miguel unannounced. Helen has decided to try to find a reconciliation with Vincent, to see if he might be lured back to the big city and the bustling environment of their friends—or her friends, as he corrects her.

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Conversation is at first strained between Vincent (Brian Kelly) and Helen (Fay Spain).

While it’s obvious they both still love each other—and can hardly keep their hands off each other—Vincent doesn’t see returning to New York as on the cards. Since they’ve tried living together in the city and that didn’t work for him, why not try living together in San Miguel to see if that could work for her? Helen resists—

Helen: “The only thing my father ever did to you was give you a good job and a partnership in a business that he had spent his whole life building. And you took it.”
Vincent: “Yeah. Well, I’ve given it back.”

—but eventually concurs. She’ll give it a go.

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Things begin to thaw between Helen (Fay Spain) and Vincent (Brian Kelly).

Jo, meanwhile, while “helping” her dad and crewman Ramón Alou (Bedard) aboard the Idelda, has been introduced to ex-dictator Perez by Perez’s chief factotum, the surprisingly civilized Colonel Cepeda (Martino), and for once the face of the feared tyrant has cracked into a smile at the sight of a visitor. He would be delighted if Jo could have a holiday on the island, the big attraction being not just the company of his similarly aged daughter Linda (Rifkinson) but his large private zoo, with its big cats and the like.

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Perez’s chief factotum, Colonel Cepeda (Antonio Torres Martino), seems relatively civilized.

But San Miguel has another visitor, the hitman Billy Poole (Nelson), brought here by a group of Perez’s countrymen for the purpose of putting the evil old bastard out of the way for good. Poole, played by Nelson with something of the manner of Jack Nicholson—perhaps unsurprisingly, since Nicholson co-scripted the movie and may have created the character in his own image—is very much the professional. He has no interest at all in the rights and wrongs of the assassination, the reason he’s been brought here—any of that:

Anita: “Is it of no interest to know who it is you’re going to kill?”
Poole: “No. Got any fruit?”

He just wants his money and a safe escape, plus, as part of his fee, access to the body of Anita Chavez (Colon), his contact with the subversive group.

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Anita (Miriam Colon) awaits the arrival of hitman Poole.

Anita is by far the most interesting character in the movie. When we first see her, waiting at the airport for Poole, and for some while thereafter, she’s a tight-faced, determined woman, seemingly so obsessed by her hatred for Perez and her need to see him dead that there’s room for little or nothing else in her life. In a sense, although Poole’s obnoxious, he’s right in indicating to her that, because of her monomania, she’s denying herself not just the luxuries of life but also some of the near-necessities—her apartment lacks not just the aforementioned fruit but booze, fruit juice and any visible form of entertainment. Yet, when Poole’s plan calls for it, Anita can transform herself into a lighthearted—even airheaded—babe who’s on vacation here with her equally vacuous boyfriend, Poole. Colon’s almost too good an actress for the role, because Anita makes the transition between her two personae with the kind of skill you’d expect from a professional actress, not from an austere revolutionary.

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Poole (Gene Nelson) settles in insouciantly.

That plan of Poole’s is for the two of them, as a couple, to get close to Vincent and Helen in order to gain the chance to seize Jo; with Jo as bargaining chip, Vincent will surely agree to take Poole aboard the Idelda right up close to Perez’s island, so that he can scuba dive ashore and make the hit. The fly in the ointment is that, as the conspirators soon discover, Jo’s on the island having fun with Linda and the big cats. So Plan B is to kidnap Helen instead . . .

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Poole (Gene Nelson) and Anita (Miriam Colon) in their guise as a vacationing couple.

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After the kidnap, Helen (Fay Spain) tells Anita (Miriam Colon) she’s making a big mistake.

Overall, Thunder Island has quite a lot to offer, not least being Nickolaus’s cinematography. Shooting in Cinemascope (which can lead to occasional distortions of the image when viewed on DVD), he had the advantage of some splendid Puerto Rican scenery for the location shooting. (The overly protracted chase sequence at the end was done at Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan.) Nickolaus shows a nice eye for framing scenes, but seems to have a little technical difficulty when shooting figures backdropped by sky—what’s obviously clear blue sky is dark and louring, as if immediately before a thunderstorm. My speculation is that the movie was shot in color but printed in black-and-white.

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Poole (Gene Nelson) makes his way underwater to the island . . .

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. . . and lands at the fringe of Perez’s zoo.

As noted, Colon is almost too good for the movie. Nelson delivers a quirky turn that involves a lot of Chuck Norris-style overathleticism—why climb a few steps when you could simply leap five feet in the air and do a somersault on landing? I found myself being by turns interested in and irritated by the character; he did, however, seem plausible as a hitman. Nelson is perhaps better remembered as a TV director today than for his not-negligible onscreen career. Bedard and Martino are fine in support as Ramón and Cepeda, respectively.

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Ramón (Art Bedard), Vincent’s loyal sidekick.

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Poole has Jo (Evelyn Kaufman) in his sights.

As for the rest of the cast, Kelly—who was to star the following year in the TV series Flipper—is profoundly forgettable, while Spain, as the poutily attractive Helen, is little better save for a scene, late on, when she berates Anita for having kidnapped her. Kaufman, as daughter Jo, is less forgettable. Unfortunately. Presumably directed that way, she delivers each line as if demanding an ice cream, right now.

Thunder Island was the first of Nicholson’s six screenwriting credits. In his next one, the action/adventure B-movie Flight to Fury (1964) dir Monte Hellman (who co-wrote), one of the stars was again Fay Spain.

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10 thoughts on “Thunder Island (1963)

    • As always, I hope you enjoy it if you come across it. I wouldn’t say you’re going to think that Nicholson’s acting career was a colossal blow to Hollywood screenwriting, but his work here is serviceable enough.

  1. I might keep an eye out for this. Cheers for mentioning Chuck Norris. I haven’t thought of him in years. I loved his Missing in Action films back in the day.

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