Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

"What, me worry?"
“What, me worry?”

Never say never. Connery shouted it from every rooftop he could find during and after the production of You Only Live Twice. When Eon came begging him back he took a page from SPECTRE’s playbook and extorted the largest amount of money anyone had ever received for a lead role up to that time, officially beginning our modern Lead Actor Salary Arms Race. The number 1.25 million is thrown around a lot in the attendant literature, though I’ve heard conflicting reports as to whether that’s in pounds or dollars.

Either way, it was a healthy chunk of change at a time of worldwide economic upheival. Connery, to his credit, used that cash to establish The Scottish International Education Trust, which still puts money in the hands of artistic Scots to this very day. He also got United Artists to back his friend Sidney Lumet’s movie The Offense, which everyone should go out and see. It’s unquestionably better than Diamonds Are Forever.

Which is not to say this film’s a complete dog – gods, no – but after the emotional highs and lows of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds had a tough row to hoe and it…chose not to. This is the Bond Series attempting to recapture bygone days of yore and win back that most crucial and picky of audiences: Americans. So Goldfinger‘s director, Guy Hamilton, and theme song-singer Shirley Bassey both return for this go-round, even as Bond returns to America – the important country – from another supervillain plot.

"Hell" in this case, will be played by early-70s Las Vegas.
“Hell” in this case, will be played by early-70s Las Vegas.

But first…we see a rare pre-credit sequence that ties into the rest of the film, even if it’s meant as another fake-out. I choose to celebrate it as a rare bit of series continuity, with Bond tracking down and killing Ernst Stavro Blofeld (now played by Charles Gray), nominally avenging the death of his wife in the last film. (Spoiler alert.) I mean…it’s not like Tracy’s  mentioned or anything…fact is, she’s not even obliquely referenced…but what else could be going through Bond’s head? I know what I’d be thinking while murdering my wife’s killer, and Connery’s “Welcome to Hell, Blofeld,” as he dunks SPECTRE #1 in bubbling mud is a decent, PG approximation.

On the other hand…if I stayed the hell away from OHMSS out of some misplaced sense of Connery Loyalty…this could pass for a direct sequel to You Only Live Twice. On the other other hand, there’s the refrain of the title song

I don’t need love/For what good will love do me?/Diamonds never lie to me/For when love’s gone/They luster on.

continuing the theme Fleming set up in his novel: cold immortality weighed against impermanent emotions and the all-too-fragile people who inspire them. Like beloved wives. It could work either way, and that’s part of why Diamonds does not piss me off like it does some. Those fools at IGN labeled it the Third Worst Bond Film of All Time back in 2006, saying

In DAF, Connery’s Bond acts as if the worst thing Blofeld ever did to him was to steal his parking space.

"Yep, it's been twenty minutes. Time for an action sequence."
“Yep, it’s been twenty minutes. Time for an action sequence.”

which is true, but I’d ask the IGN Staff of that era just what they expected out of Connery? His suave, unflappable attitude made Bond an icon. He’s not going to start showing human emotions now. We’re seven movies into this, and this is Connery’s sixth. I’m amazed he showed up at all…though I suspect his plans for the Institute put a little swagger back in his step. His performance certainly seems more energized. It’s nowhere near Goldfinger levels, but nothing in the film quite is…no matter how desperately it tries. And the desperation shows, even if you don’t know the original plot revolved around Auric Goldfinger’s twin brother and his Quest for Revenge.

[Insert David Hasslehoff Nick Fury clip here. “I always heard living well was the best revenge.”]

Thankfully, that plan died somewhere between Richard Maibaum’s original draft and Tom Mankiewicz’s rewrites. Still, like Goldfinger, Diamonds-proper opens with M (still Bernard Lee) and Bond visiting some other random government official for the Usual Briefing Scene. With Blofeld “dead” Bond’s tasked with infiltrating a smuggling ring and finding a cache of diamonds the Fashion Industrial Complex fears someone is hoarding somewhere, preparing to either flood the market or just blackmail everyone with the threat.

After three movies worth of SPECTRE plots, this is meant as a return to the Good Old Days, not just of Goldfinger, but also of From Russia with Love. Here we have Bond, alone and undercover, stalking through a foreign city, doing spy stuff. It won’t dare last the whole film, but it’s nice to pretend it might. Impersonating the smuggler named Peter Franks, Bond goes to Amsterdam and hooks up with smuggling middlewoman Tiffany Case (Jill St. John). Things are almost ruined when the real Peter Franks escapes custody, but Bond’s able to intercept the man thanks to a phone call from Q (still Desmond Llewelyn) and a fist fight in an elevator. Trapped in tight quarters, with nothing but glass and wrought iron and no room for fancy tactics, the fight recalls that one with Red Grant, only longer and rougher, with more coverage. It’s honestly the best fight we’ve seen since the opening of Thunderball. Would that this were the only time Diamonds reminded me of its precursor.

It's nice to see a couple working so well together.
It’s always nice to see relationships built on a foundation of shared mutual interests. Like cold blooded murder.

Switching identities with Peter Franks (and I do love Jill St. John’s astonished reading of the line, “You killed James Bond!” As if he’d knocked Ali out with one punch), Bond and Tiffany smuggle a load of South African ice into the U.S. inside Franks’ body. With a little help through customs from The Fourth Felix Leiter (Norman Burton), Bond ships the diamonds to a mortuary/crematorium…where he’s promptly knocked out by the international assassins Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover) and Mr. Kidd (Putter Smith). I like these two better than any SPECTRE assassin we’ve seen since Red Grant. They’ve got a quiet but jovial menace about them, seeming to love their job way more than sane people should. If only they had more to do in the film than stalk Bond until the very end. Following right after the great Ilse Steppat as Irma Bunt, the two just don’t have the screen time to rise to the intimidating standards of past secondary villains.

Escaping cremation (which isn’t quite as horrific as being slowly bisected by a “laser,” but close) Bond tracks the smuggling ring to that most American of cities: Las Vegas. Specifically, it’s the Vegas that gave Hunter S. Thompson the Fear, laid out before Bond fans in the fullness of its decadence. With half the town owned by the mob, and the other half owned by a codeine-ravaged madman obsessed with the film Ice Station Zebra, there was plenty of nightmare fuel floating around. Those neon lights, shitty comedians, live circus acts, old carny cons and young elephants (who gamble!) are enough to drive any sane man to a drug binge. Dedicated historians of Gonzo Journalism need to keep a look out for the actual Mint Hotel during the film’s car chase through the Strip. Sadly, the Mint 400 is not shown.

Plenty O’Toole (Lana Wood), on the other hand, gets to show off plenty (har-har) thanks to the plunging-est neckline and sheerest pair of panties in the series. Fitting (pun intended) for the most thankless role in the history of Bond Girl-dom. Not only is her actress dubbed (poorly), most of her scenes were cut, underlining just how superfluous the “one woman has to die” clause of The Bond Formula really is if these deaths don’t have any effect on Our Hero. Don’t feed me that old line about it giving Bond a “personal stake in the action.” Not after OHMSS gave him the greatest personal stake a married secret agent can possibly have.

"They picked me out of Playboy, you know."
“They picked me out of Playboy, you know? Would you ever have guessed?”

Besides, in this case that bullshit’s even more transparent than usual. After a grand total of one scene, Plenty’s discovered tied to the bottom of Tiffany Case’s pool and never mentioned again. At best Bond added her name to the bottom of the long list of people he’s failed to save and moved on. There’s a job that needs doing, diamonds to track down and still-living women to smack information out of.

After doing just that to Tiffany, Bond tracks the diamonds to a heavily-guarded research facility just outside of town, owned by the reclusive billionaire Howard Stark Mr. Osato Howard Hughes Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean…yes that one, only two years after founding his sausage factory). There Bond discovers the Truth: the moon landing was totally faked! And it was all Willard Whyte’s fault. Damn those casino-buying billionaires! Why can’t they just dress up in capes and fight crime like normal people? Who knows – if they start pretending to have fun they might actually have some by accident. Oh yeah, and those diamonds are being used to build a giant satellite laser.

Speaking of “fun”: Bond escapes the facility in a purposefully over-designed moon buggy, leading to the least-interesting car chase in the franchise. Continuing the “if it looks dumb, you know it’s real” tradition begun with Little Nelly, the Buggy was apparently fully functional…even road-worthy…not that we get to see that. The lunar landscape of southern Nevada does lend itself to some choice shots, but it seems Guy Hamilton wasn’t prepared  to use the desert for anything other than a backdrop. Clouds of dust obscure the action. The terrain makes high speeds impossible and/or dangerous. And no matter how many wheelies the stunt driver’s pop, their desert tricycles aren’t going to look cool.

It's all a conspiracy, you see?
It’s all a conspiracy, you see? Fucking British spies and their reptilian royal masters, messing with everything…

That’s Diamonds in a nutshell: interesting ideas made stale when plugged into a stale formula by sweating movie-makers, jealous of their franchise’s position as King Turd of Shithill. I love the idea of someone kidnapping Howard Hughes – who would even know he’d gone missing until it was too late? I start out liking Tiffany Case, but by the end her naivete and uselessness in a fight are played for laughs, even as Blofeld’s threatening to fry Washington DC from orbit. Bond’s confrontation with Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks) combines several of my favorite fetishes and brings them to life, even if seeing Sean beat up women half his age is a little creepy…So while I don’t hate the movie I do find parts of it (like the Moon Buggy chase) wearying. I hate watching anything devolve.

But just as I’m ready to condemn the film, it hits me with something authentically cool. Like the car chase through the Vegas strip, which is exactly the kind of car chase that should pad out Bond films. Even if it does contain the most glaring continuity error in the entire franchise (the two-wheeled stunt – you’ll know it when you see it) it’s still yards above the Lewis Gilbert’s work in You Only Live Twice…if only it’d matched the New Wave craziness of Peter Hunt and OHMSS‘ chase through the race.

Every aspect of this film encourages me to compare it to one of its predecessors. Every time I do that I can’t help find Diamonds severely want in the Tension, Stakes and Emotional Impact Departments. It’s best scene comes not in a car chase, or during the Climactic Battle between SPECTRE’s henchmen and Bond’s Good Guy Army…but with Bond scaling the outside of a massive hotel with nothing between him and death but a few grappling hooks. Once Bond discovers Blofeld alive and masterminding a plan to blackmail the nuclear powers with his diamond-tipped space laser, you can rest assured things really are going to work out exactly the way they did last decade. It’s like Connery never left! Exactly as its producers intended.

"That spot of death in Japan was just a minor inconvenience...wait...who am I again?"
“That spot of death in Japan was just a minor inconvenience.”

From their perspective, Diamonds Are Forever was a resounding success. From any other, it’s a continued sign of decline as, rather than thinking about the future, producers marched proudly back into the past. Tiffany Case is a poor substitute for the string of superwomen (two Japanese secret agents/ninjas and the heir to Europe’s largest crime syndicate) Bond’s fallen for in the last two movies. Blofeld’s plan fulfills all the SPECTRE staples, but it’s hard to take him seriously now that his last four plans have failed so spectacularly. This is the the third hideout he’s lost to Bond in as many films. How does this man still control his international criminal organization? Oh, right – through ruthlessly killing subordinates who displease him. I forgot…because I think that’s the one piece of Bond Cannon this film omits. Because that’s a bold risk. Next thing you know, they’ll make a movie without a piece of Playboy product placement.

Nah, I’m just kidding. With this, they made a movie that outgrossed OHMSS ($82 vs. $116 million) on basically the same $7 million budget, which was the only real goal from the start. It proved James Bond could compete – hell, succeed – in the decade of Dirty Harry and Willard. All the extra money went to Connery, leaving the film with a low-tech feel that aids its retro atmosphere…while depressing this anti-retro critic. I see the appeal, but through a forest of weaknesses. In that, Diamonds Are Forever is a worthy sequel to You Only Live Twice. Every time I watch it all I can see is a franchise in desperate need of course correction…before self-cannibalism destroys whatever joy’s left to be had. Which is one of the many, many reasons I’m glad our next film is Live and Let Die. If nothing else, at least it’s different from this.

GGHalf-G

I can think of worse ways to go.
I can think of worse ways to go.
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18 thoughts on “Diamonds Are Forever (1971)”

  1. Nice review, as always. I think a big part of the let down here, for me at least, is that we’re basically watching a production team try to keep beating a horse that died two movies ago. Now, I enjoy the first set of Connery Bonds, all of them, even the ones that aren’t that great (yes, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, I’m talking to you. After great first three films, Thunderball has a few things I can’t completely let go of. Luciana Paluzzi’s absolutely wonderful bad girl, my favorite “bad girl that sleeps with Bond” period; the ending underwater battle (I know, I know, I can’t explain it either); the shark pool; the campy ridiculousness of the henchman who “does not drink, does not smoke, does not make love”. You Only Live Twice has a ton of liabilities, but, hey, still, gyro-copter battle, Bond’s initial love interest rocks, Tiger Tanaka is awesome, death by CH-47 and a magnet, the Pleasance, volcano base, space, ninjas with gyrojets, I could go on. It’s way, way too much, yes, and it’s not a very good movie, but it’s still fun.

    Maybe they didn’t realize it, but it was completely unsustainable. As a climax, the last hurrah for Blofeld, that kind of overreaching, ludicrous plan and utter, humiliating defeat could have worked. It could have been the end of SPECTRE, or at least of Blofeld. They didn’t stop it. I think in spite of themselves, and with the aid of the personnel change, they were able to make OHMS stand out. They made changes. Bond gets a second dimension, Blofeld becomes action Kojak Blofeld, which is enough of a difference that you can seem him in a new, better (?) light.

    Then this film. It’s right back to You Only Live Twice only it feels instantly dated. The worst tendencies of the franchise are front and center, everything becomes a parody of what was already a parody. I could forgive them bringing back Blofeld for the first time, because it was good; but Gray here is back to Pleasence’s version of the character, complete with Nehru jacket. It’s 1971 but it’s trying to act like it’s still the Swinging Sixties, and, quite frankly, it’s just not very good. I’m not a big Roger Moore fan, but at least they tried to update things a bit for the 70s. Maybe that wasn’t a good thing, but what they tried here was worse.

    Final note: I think I’m the only person who abhors Kidd and Wynt. I find them to be some of the least threatening, least amusing Bond foes in the series.

    1. And then Blofeld had to “return” one last time for a stupid in joke that no one got in the pre credit sequence of For Your Eyes Only.

    2. I wouldn’t say I hated Kidd and Wynt, but I agree that they’re several rungs down on the Henchman-O-Meter. Somewhere between Xenia Onatopp (just hit her in the face repeatedly until she gets Offatopp) and Jaws (just give him enough steel pipe and he’ll tie himself up in it).

      Speaking of Kidd and Wynt: You couldn’t pay me to believe that they’re not gay, or really damn close to it. Maybe they’re not Baron Vladimir Harkonnen-class gay psychopaths, but they’re about as close as 1970’s sensibilities could allude, I think. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. [I mean with being gay, of course. Being psychopathic…that’s a problem.])

  2. Can you believe Michael “Death Wish” Winner almost directed this film ? He turned it down but I think that would have been something to see. Winner made a name for himself directing two sharply written comedy films, The Jokers and I’ll Never Forget What’s name.

    As for the film itself, I have grown to love it over time. Tom Mankiewicz, despite being totally unable to write a coherent plot for a thriller with any sort of tension, had a knack for dialogue and here he proves himself worthy of his reputation. I’d say the only painful flaw was the end of this film because you couldn’t incorporate humor into a grand scheme of terrorism. As a result, Tiffany Case was forced to be a comic relief after being such a strong character for a majority of the film. Also, Bond didn’t even need to be on the oil rig because it didn’t matter if the master control tape was in the computer or not because the army blasted the shit out of everything before the countdown was over.

    1. But how could we not give Our Hero a personal confrontation with his Arch Rival? Not that they really did that or anything…unless you count the whole tape-fu sequence.

      1. There was actually suppose to be a chase sequence in which Bond chances Blofeld into a salt mine and it ends with ole Ernst falling into a salt granulator but the producers couldn’t get the permission to use the mine.

        1. I’ve seen three of those-Chato’s Land, The Stone Killer, and The Mechanic. I was mainly thinking of the abysmal Land when I commented-the others aren’t bad. It would be an interesting Bond film to see, in any case, though now I’m imagining a Bond film with Charlie Bronson in the lead and…God damn would that be weird.

          1. I love The Mechanic but I never saw Chato’s Land and I hated The Stone Killer. The Jokers was really good.

            As for Bronson, yeah, that would be weird.

  3. “interesting ideas made stale when plugged into a stale formula by sweating movie-makers”

    This would continue for years in the Bond series. The Brosnan era especially had some great ideas like a media mogul starting a war and a rogue Bond trying to find out who set him up. Many of the great ideas in the future Bond films would be muddled by weak dialogue, excessive action sequences, and generally uninteresting villains played by good actors who should have known better.

      1. I think the most heart breaking is Christopher Walken as Max Zorin because the character was a total non-entity; He was merely meant to be a Goldfinger stand-in.

        1. We’ll get to Zorin…oh, will we ever get to Zorin…but they’ll be much, much more for me to complain about in View to a Kill.

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