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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.