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Published on October 20th, 2015 | by Rob

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Diamonds Are Forever: Bond Goes Gonzo

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The Story

His wife got shot at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and now Bond is PISSED. Or at least he is for the duration of the pre-credits sequence. After catching up with Ernst Stavro Blofeld and (apparently) exacting revenge by drowning him in a pool of boiling mud, the events of the previous film are promptly forgotten.

Diamond smugglers are turning up dead and their wares have gone missing. M suspects a plot to stockpile the diamonds, which can subsequently be dumped in order to crash the market. Bond is promptly dispatched to crack the smuggling ring and find out what’s going on. Disguised as Peter Franks, a professional crook, Bond establishes contact with small time smuggler and large time love interest, Tiffany Case.

Bond and Case embark on a smuggling expedition to the US, which naturally goes pear-shaped, leading Bond on a merry chase across the country, turning up leads and tracking down missing diamonds. Through means too complicated to explain here, Bond winds up infiltrating the luxurious Las Vegas penthouse of reclusive billionaire, Willard Whyte, whom nobody has seen appear in public for years. Only it turns out that Whyte has been replaced by an imposter: Bond’s old nemesis, Blofeld himself. Yeah, surprise, surprise, Blofeld wasn’t really dead after all.

At last, the real danger presents itself: Blofeld wants the diamonds to complete construction of a gigantic space laser, with which he intends to destroy Washington DC and then extort the world. Typically enough, Bond is the only man who can stop him, and the usual race against the clock to save the world from utter disaster ensues.

If that story outline sounded simple to type up, it’s anything but simple in execution. The plot of Diamonds Are Forever feels a lot more labyrinthine than it really needs to be, indulging in numerous twists and asides that serve little purpose other than to disorientate the viewer. After an attempt at a more serious, story based Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service failed to meet with box office expectations, the production team seemingly threw any notion of narrative cohesion straight out the window. The end result is Diamonds Are Forever: the most bizarre and confounding Bond movie released up until that point.

diamonds title credits

Title Sequence & Bond Theme

Shirley Bassey is back on board for the first time since Goldfinger, and she’s definitely welcome. Nobody could tackle a brassy, bombastic John Barry vocal number with the lung-ripping gusto of Bassey, and the result is one of the most iconic of all Bond theme songs. Although it did attract some initial controversy due to the apparent explicitness of its lyrics. Ostensibly, it’s about a woman who can only find satisfaction in her diamonds, but what she’s really singing about is men’s willies. What’s Bond without some gratuitous sexual innuendo?

diamonds blofeld

The Villain And Their Plan

Blofeld was getting a bit played out as the lead villain, so thankfully, this was his last appearance in a Bond film until 1981’s For Your Eyes Only (in which he wasn’t even named – although we all know who it’s supposed to be). And yes, yet another actor is brought in to play the role: Telly Savalas is out; Charles Gray is in. Once again, the new Blofeld looks nothing at all like his predecessor. This time at least, it’s explained away as Blofeld having undergone plastic surgery to alter his appearance. Pretty extensive surgery by the looks of things.

Intriguingly enough, Gray had already made an appearance in the Bond franchise, portraying Australian intelligence officer, Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice. But given that he’s quickly dispatched by enemy agents it’s not so you’d notice, unless you were specifically looking out for him.

Gray’s portrayal is more superficially charming than that of his predecessors. Donald Pleasance was a sinister weirdo, Telly Savalas was a megalomaniacal thug, but Gray is readier with a quip and a smile. He genuinely seems to enjoy the game of one-upmanship he plays with Bond and almost seems to regret the need to do away with him. This is a Blofeld who is very much amused with himself.

As to the EVIL PLAN, it’s pretty much a retread of the same ones used in Dr. No, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, in which the arch villain tries to blackmail world governments by using some sort of space laser or radiation ray to blow up some shit or other. Hey guys! It’s not fucking working! It’s time to come up with some new shit!

diamonds vegas

The Locations

Bond doesn’t half get about in this one. Nine different locations (ten if you want to throw in M’s London office) the most out of any Bond flick. Admittedly, the first four are blasted through in the space of a minute or two as Bond mercilessly tracks down Blofeld in the pre-credits sequence. And because we spend so long in the US, this doesn’t really feel like Bond’s most extensive travelogue.

Diamonds Are Forever is really the Bond in Vegas flick. One might think that such a seasoned cardshark as Bond would be a natural fit for the US gambling capital, but somehow, he never really is. It’s unclear as to whether the production team intended the Vegas setting to be a fitting backdrop to Bond’s high-glamour lifestyle, but it certainly doesn’t come across that way on screen. This is a dirty, ugly, sleazy Vegas; a depressing landscape of stained carpets, garish neon and shattered aspirations. You can practically smell the sweaty desperation in the air as life savings are gambled away and aging call girls struggle to close a deal. While this is all quite interesting as an authentic depiction of Vegas in the seventies, it doesn’t quite tango with Bond’s traditional image as a purveyor of exotic locales.

The Gadgets

Outlandish gadgets are often equated with silliness in the Bond franchise, but while Diamonds Are Forever is a very silly movie, it’s not all that gadget orientated. What gadgets are included here don’t really have a major role to play in the story. Mostly, they are just used for asides and sight gags.

Blofeld uses a trick elevator to gas and incapacitate anybody who attempts to infiltrate Willard Whyte’s apartment, along with a voice altering device to fake Whyte’s voice. Q devises an electro-magnetic ring to rig the slot machines in Vegas. But perhaps the most memorable gadget is an exploding cake, which is used in an attempt to assassinate Bond.

diamonds wint and kidd

Most Inappropriate / Politically Incorrect Moment

The obvious one here is the choice of secondary villain(s): Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, the psychotic homosexual thugs. Homosexuality has always gotten something of a short shrift in the James Bond universe. Ian Fleming writes in Goldfinger:

“Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterton was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and ‘sex equality.’ As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits–barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.”

Remarkably, Fleming manages to be grossly offensive with respect to both gay tolerance and gender equality within the span of one brief passage here. I suppose we might allow that the novel was published in 1959, and that Fleming’s views were hardly untypical of the era. But it’s rather sobering to consider just how reactionary James Bond can get at times. The early Bond movies are sometimes seen as emblematic of the newfound sexual liberation of the sixties, but that liberation only extends to straight, white, male privilege. Women are either submissive or psychotic, while gays and lesbians are perverted lunatics. Says Felix Leiter in the novel of Diamonds Are Forever:

“Kidd’s a pretty body. His friends call him “Boofy”. Probably shacks up with Wint. Some of these homos make the worst killers”.

Thankfully, such explicitly stated prejudice is largely absent from Bond on film, but it lingers through implication nonetheless.

Leaving aside the inappropriateness of the characters for the moment, Mr Wint and Mr Kidd are effective as villains, and even quite fun. They get the lion’s share of the best one liners in the movie, and it’s difficult not to find them amusing. They try to take out Bond with an explosive cake for God’s sake. On film at least, Wint and Kidd are far too tongue-in-cheek to cause serious offence.

diamonds moon

Weirdest Moment

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to Diamonds Are Forever. The entire movie feels like it was shot under the hazy influence of low grade LSD. What is Bond doing pretending to kiss himself in order to infiltrate a girl’s apartment, for example? Or how about Bambi and Thumper, the statuesque acrobats who attempt to murder Bond with gymnastics?

But ultimately, you’ve got to give the biscuit to Bond’s infiltration of Willard Whyte’s research facility. The lab looks like something from a dodgy fifties sci-fi B movie for starters. But how about when Bond crashes through a recreation of the Apollo moon landing, and an astronaut chases after him in slow motion, as if he was actually running in low gravity? (Bond of course is still able to run at full speed). And when Bond makes his escape across the Nevada desert, he does so in a moon buggy, complete with robotic arms flapping crazily through the air. For many observers, this was the moment when Bond jumped the shark.

Best One-Liner

James Bond: Weren’t you a blonde when I came in?

Tiffany Case: Could be.

James Bond: I tend to notice little things like that – whether a girl is a blonde or a brunette.

Tiffany Case: Which do you prefer?

James Bond: Well, as long as the collar and cuffs match…

 diamonds car chase

How Good Is It Really?

As a direct sequel – of sorts – to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; the first time in which a Bond movie followed on directly from the events of its predecessor, Diamonds Are Forever could’ve been so much more. Lazenby should’ve reprised his role, and the harder, grittier edge of OHMSS should’ve been pushed even further, with an increasingly dangerous, unhinged Bond obsessively pursuing bloody vengeance for the murder of his wife.

What we actually got couldn’t have been more markedly different. Lazenby declined the chance to do another Bond, which effectively killed Diamonds Are Forever as a direct sequel right out of the gate. Acting on some of the worst advice provided by an agent ever, Lazenby decided that there wasn’t any future in James Bond, before promptly sinking into obscurity. These days, Lazenby isn’t much more than the answer to a trivia question. The producers tested several potential replacements, but none of them panned out for one reason or another. So they went back to Connery, offering him a then record deal to reprise the role he had made iconic.

Bringing Connery back on board changed the conception of the next Bond movie completely. For one thing, there wasn’t much emotional resonance in Connery’s Bond seeking revenge against a villain who himself had been recast. It was if the events of the previous movie had involved different people altogether. So the established history is largely buried and Bond’s murdered wife is barely even referenced. After the comparatively low box office returns of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Connery’s return offered the opportunity to repeat the same kind of formula that had made Goldfinger such a massive success, and a high water mark for the franchise in general. To that end, Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton was also brought back on board, and a conscious effort was made to amp up the gags, stunts and spectacle. The problem being that this was really a case of trying to recapture lightning in a bottle. In straining after the effortless sense of adventure conveyed by Goldfinger, the production delved too far into outlandish silliness.

If you were ever in any doubt that Connery came back solely for the pay cheque, then his performance here would quickly set you to rights. Connery had always underplayed the character, effectively conveying Bond’s emotional detachment. But here he simply appears bored. Perhaps Connery’s indifference can be read as a Meta commentary on the character of Bond himself. The life style of an international super spy must begin to pall eventually. All this saving the world business and the endless bedding of glamorous women. What’s it all for? Bond is just going through the motions. He can do it all without really trying.

After just a four year absence from the series, it’s remarkable how much Connery appears to have aged. While he always managed to carry his years with more grace than Roger Moore, the bad toupee and pronounced paunch he sports in Diamonds Are Forever are not doing anybody any favours. One senses the increasing irritability of the actor through the character. In the pre-credits sequence, Bond interrogates some random poolside bikini model as to Blofeld’s whereabouts. When her answer isn’t forthcoming quickly enough, Bond slaps her resoundingly in the chops.

If On Her Majesty’s Secret Service dared you to identify with Bond as an actual human being, Diamonds Are Forever mocks you for caring. Did Bond ever really grieve for the unfortunate Mrs. Bond? Or was she just a temporary diversion in an endless carousel of amusements? Bond soon finds forgetfulness in his debauchery. But it’s striking how little genuine allure there is in his adventures time around. Bond comes off like an aging lounge lizard, shuffling through one surreal episode to the next. Even Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) his latest love interest, comes off like a struggling Vegas showgirl who turns tricks to get by, in marked contrast to the exotic high glamour of previous Bond girls.

Is there anything salvageable in all of this? Well there’s the Vegas car chase, which has justly earned praise as one of the best vehicular action sequences in the entire Bond canon. The influence of Bullitt, released a few years previously, with its heart-in-mouth muscle car pursuit through the vertiginous backstreets of San Francisco, is clearly evident. Here the Vegas setting is utilised to its fullest, all tight handbrake turns and squealing tyres through the neon blanketed streets. By contrast the “climactic” showdown on Willard Whyte’s Baha oil platform is disappointingly pedestrian, apparently hampered by budget and location issues.

Diamonds are Forever is not – by any stretch of the imagination – vintage Bond. It set the table for the ever increasing camp outlandishness of the Roger Moore era, and much of it is simply uninspired. But that doesn’t necessarily make it an uninteresting movie. In fact, it’s interesting precisely because of all the ways in which it goes wrong. It’s Bond as viewed through the distorting lens of a grotesque funhouse mirror. If Connery’s early Bond encapsulated the modishness and zest of the mid-sixties, then Diamonds Are Forever is the perfect Bond to usher in the seventies, when the party had carried on too long, the mood came crashing down, and the guests had long since outstayed their welcome.

Rob

Rob

Movie and music obsessive, world traveller and frustrated writer. Rob can speak over 36 languages when drunk and is completely incapable of growing a beard.
Rob
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