This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.
When George Lazenby refused to come back to do a follow-up to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the producers were left with a bit of a problem. Three actors playing Bond in three films would perhaps be a little bit too much for audiences to grapple with, so an emergency appeal was made to Sean Connery to return to the role which made him iconic. Charging a then-astronomical fee, which he donated entirely to charity, Connery donned the tuxedo once again. Reteaming with Guy Hamilton, the man who directed Goldfinger, once would assume that we were pretty much assured a winner – a return to the good old days. What we got was something of a flash-forward. If I didn’t know better, I would suspect that somebody had pulled a “George Lucas” on us, using wondrous new technology to digitally superimpose Sean Connery into a Roger Moore film.
Adam West was considered to play James Bond in this film. I think that tells us everything we need to know.
Diamonds Are Forever is pure, unadulterated camp. In many ways, it offers a stronger indication of the excess to come than Roger Moore’s first appearance in Live And Let Die (which, admittedly, has its own problems). It feels like this movie is pretty much the Bond archetype that Michael Myers satirised in the Austin Powers series, as ridiculously convoluted plot developments occur which make no sense and serve only to set up awkward jokes that don’t really work. At times it feels like the cast and crew took a whole slew of concepts that they thought might work (“Howard Hughes” and “fake moonlanding” and “giant frickin’ laser” and “Playboy bunny ninja assassins”) and just threw them in a blender together. But we’ll come to each of those elements in turn.
It’s nice to have Sean Connery back. He’s like a security blanket. The movie introduces him where we left him, in Japan after You Only Live Twice, in an attempt to assure the audience that the last movie was just a terrible dream. In fact, though one can imply that the reason for Bond’s aggressive and thuggish pursuit of Blofeld at the start of the film is the death of his wife at the end of the last one, it’s never explicitly stated. If you want to believe he’s on a rampage of revenge, that’s fine, but the movie isn’t too concerned about it. In fact, the movie isn’t too concerned about anything.
Connery is sleep-walking through the movie. There’s very little energy or enthusiasm from the lead, beyond the bare minimum. It’s as if Connery is doing just enough to avoid getting fire. Maybe it’s an age thing – his Bond is older, and more defined. His hair is thinning slightly (especially noticeable in the pool scenes) and the wrinkles are developing. It’s never as painfully obvious as it was with Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, but Connery looks like he should be in Vegas on one of those retirement trips rather than business.
However, Connery isn’t a serious problem with the film. In fact, he adds to its charm. If he were younger or more enthusiastic, the fact that the movie isn’t trying to hard would be even more obvious. As it stands, it seems like the movie is simply keeping pace with its leading man, and we certainly can’t fault it that.
This is Bond in America. Sure, he’s visited the country before, but this film represents Bond’s first feature-length adventure in the home of the brave. Perhaps this also accounts for the excess. To the British, America has always seemed ridiculously over-the-top, fanciful and absurd. It’s a land of fast-talking conman, near-incessant advertising, bright lights and comforts. Particularly coming out of the sixties, the era of sexual liberation and counter-culture, the country must have looked like one big cartoon to the more reserved Britons. Sure, Bond himself was a figure of the sixties and spoke to an audience about sexual liberation, but he also undeniably establishment and upper-class – to an American audience he undoubtedly seemed conservative (speaking to a lost British Empire).
I think that this divide explains a lot of the issues with Diamonds Are Forever. Bond was always a little bit campy and a little bit excessive, even in the more buttoned-down movies. Taking that core concept to Las Vegas, itself something of a camp wonderland, just invited an explosion of excess. The movie ends up tasting like too much cotton candy – it’s just pure sugar. “This is getting out of hand,” the Bond girl herself observes at one point, perhaps speaking for the audience. “When you start stealing moon machines from Willard Whyte, goodbye and good luck!”
The movie is definitely cartoonish. There’s the (in)famous moonbuggy chase sequence, for example, and even the film’s centrepiece – a car chase through Vegas – features a sheriff who must be a distant relation of Sheriff Pepper. “Why you dity ba-“ the sheriff remarks, before the scene awkwardly cuts away. I’ve never like cuts like that except when used for comedy effect – you don’t have the guts to actually use the swear word (because it will drive up your rating and down your profits), so don’t try to pretend you’re cutting edge.
The central car chase itself is actually relatively well handled. I like the way that the cop cars attempt to emulate Bond’s ridiculous stunt driving only to demonstrate what would really happen if somebody attempted that. However, there is one absolutely ridiculous moment which somewhat subtracts from the effect. At one point, Bond goes up on two wheels to skirt through a narrow alleyway. However, he leaves the alleyway with the other two wheels in the air. Rather than leave the goof in the film, we have a little insert inside the car where we see one set go down while the other goes up. It explains how the car drove in one way and out the other, but it makes no sense. There’s also a scene later on where Bond intercepts a phone call from Blofeld to an assassin to figure out where the movie’s Howard-Hughes-stand-in is being kept. However, the assassin then shows up at the house anyway. I know Bond films are traditionally far from water-tight, but still…
Well, at least the movie has some great dialogue. We’ll come to some of Blofeld’s later, but this is the movie which gave us this wonderful introduction to an especially half-hearted second Bond girl, Plenty O’Toole. “Hi, I’m Plenty,” she introduces herself. “But, of course you are,” Bond replies. “No,” she clarifies, “Plenty O’Toole.” Bond quickly suggests, “Named after your father, perhaps?” Jill St. John auditioned for the supporting role of Plenty, but somehow landed the role of leading Bond girl Tiffany Case. As played by St. John, Case is one of the most irritating Bond girls in the history of the franchise (perhaps even more so than some of Roger Moore’s later Bond girls and Denise Richards as Christmas Jones).
In fairness, the camp tone of the movie makes some of the stuff work which wouldn’t otherwise. For example, given how many times the bad guys have Bond at their mercy, in any other movie we’d be asking why they didn’t just shoot him. However, it fits the tone of the movie to somehow build him into a pipeline system. Similarly, Bond strapping a henchman to a bomb (hidden in a dish called “Bombe Surprise”) and throwing him off a ship would seem ridiculous in any other Bond movie, but here it feels almost right at home. Any other time Bond got manhandled by a pair of girls bikinis (named Bambi and Thumper, here) would be nuts, but here it’s some form of karmic payback for slapping Tiffany earlier. And however empowering it might sound to have a woman beat up Bond, don’t get too excited – apparently all it takes is holding their heads under water to defeat them. Water! Women’s true weakness!
However, one element that really doesn’t work is the famous henchmen. Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are all but confirmed to be gay, in the most stereotypically camp fashion possible. After a double homicide, the pair finish each others sentences and walk into the dusk holding hands. “I must say, Ms. Case seems quite attractive,” Mr. Kidd observes at one point, prompting a jealous look from his partner, leading him to clarify, “for a lady.” I know this was the seventies, but is this really the most progressive portrayal that we could go for?
Well, I suppose Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are not particularly ineffective as Bond villains go. They very effectively kill their way through Blofeld’s supply chain. If it wasn’t for that damn showmanship, they’d have killed Bond too. Well, at least the characters seem predisposed to showmanship, making sure not just to shove Bond’s unconscious body into the crematorium, but to go to the effort of playing the music for him as well. In fairness, this renders their ridiculous manner of disposing of Bond by building him into a pipeline seem in character, as they giggle to themselves on the way home.
By the way, note that we never see the pair interact with Blofeld. The closest that they come is picking up Bond unconscious from the elevator and driving him into the desert. My crazy fan theory is that the two aren’t related at all – Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are just carving an incredibly camp path of Anton-Chigurh-esque violence through the film, just randomly intersecting Bond and Blofeld at various points. I know it doesn’t make sense, but… well, have you seen the film?
Charles Gray makes for a camp Blofeld and, to be honest, he’s the best thing about the film – if you can bring yourself to embrace it in all its corny glory. After all, those scenes demonstrating the capacity of destruction of Blofeld’s latest scheme wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Doctor Who episodes of the time, so I don’t think we were meant to take it too seriously. Gray is more sophisticated than Savalas in the role, but nowhere near as menacing as Donald Pleasance. We’re treated in the pre-credits scene to an army of Blofeld clones! Which, in fairness, makes the possibility of accepting that Gray looks nothing like Savalas much easier than the “I cut off my earlobes” excuse for why Savalas looked different from Pleasance.
My pet theory is that – being foiled twice by Bond – Blofeld has gone completely and utterly insane, thus explaining all the ridiculous campness of the film. He’s decided that having a vaguely realistic goal and a reasonable method of achieving it (if you call a spaceship-eating machine reasonable) just isn’t for him. And instead he’s going to go nuts. There’s also the possibility that Bond actually killed the real Blofeld at some point and the man who currently looks like Blofeld was the most mentally unstable of the doubles. Or he’s pretty much figured out that Bond is always going to foil him, and has decided to just go along for the ride (“I do enjoy our little visits, Mr. Bond,” he concedes at one point, acknowledging that the end result is never in his favour). No matter which way you look at it, this iteration of Blofeld is one of the most ridiculous bad guys in the franchise’s long history – he makes Drax from Moonraker seem sane.
Blofeld has really decided to treat himself this time. He literally has an orbital weapon made of bling. Because if you’re going to hold the world to ransom, you might as well do it fabulously. He even has a ready prepared “battle sub”, which looks like something from Flash Gordon. You can tell this version of Blofeld is a pulp science-fiction fan. He also has a wonderful wit – this iteration of the character would certainly make an excellent dinner guest. “This farcical show of force was only to be expected: the great powers flexing their muscles like so many impotent beach boys,” he remarks at one point, as if he’s been waiting to use that one for a while now. When his giant laser ends up orbitting Kansas, he proves that you don’t get to lead an international terrorist organisation by taking yourself too seriously, “Well, if we destroy Kansas the world may not hear about it for years.”
SPECTRE (or whatever they’re calling themselves now) actually seem like a decent place to work again. Much like Blofeld’s considerate eulogy for Number Six in Thunderball, there are signs that Blofeld really does care for his staff. “If in doubt, ask,” one of numerous signs dotted around the control room assure the staff, creating the wonderful image of a friendly workplace. In fact, this seems almost like Blofeld’s nine-to-five job, to the point where there really isn’t too much that can surprise him anymore – his threat is delivered via exposition rather than ominous recording or conference call. Even Willard Whyte, standing in for Howard Hughes, can only muster dull surprise when Blofeld’s plan comes to fruition. “Would you believe that this whole damn country is bein’ held for ransom and we’ve got till noon tomorrow to pay up?” he asks Bond, who (it turns out) would believe it.
That said, there are moments to love buried deeply within the film. Q gets a lot of flack for being the most ridiculous element of the series, but I don’t think that’s fair. The gadgets – if done right – can work well with the film. After all, Q dates back to From Russia With Love, regarded as one of the best of the series. Anyway, the film features one of my favourite Q scenes, as the genius hits Vegas and comes up with a device to win at the slots. Yes, it’s ridiculous and crazy and probably never should have made it to the film, but I love how Q isn’t interested in the money he’s winning at all – just proving his own little theory works to himself. It’s a nice little character moment amid all the heightened camp of the film.
And then there’s the theme song. Reportedly so sexually explicit that producer Harry Saltzman tried to keep it out of the film, it’s a wonderful moment of excess, but it’s catchy and fun too. It’s hardly Goldfinger or (my personal favourites) You Only live Twice or GoldenEye, but it’s a cheeky little number. Apparently composer John Barry instructed singer Shirley Bassey to imagine she was singing about a penis – in case lyrics like “they can stimulate and tease me” and “touch it, stroke it and undress it” sounded ambiguous. On the upside, she gives it plenty.
Okay, so maybe Sean Connery doesn’t depart the series on a high note. Diamonds Are Forever is disappointing as a farewell to the actor in the role, but there are worse Bond films. There is some enjoyment to be had from the ridiculous nature of the plot, but it still feels wholly unsatisfying. Ironically enough, Roger Moore’s arrival in Live And Let Die was a breath of fresh air.
We’ve got full reviews of all of Sean Connery’s Bond films, if you want to check ’em out:
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Filed under: Non-Review Reviews | Tagged: A View to a Kill, art, camp, diamonds are forever, film, George Lazenby, james bond, james bond january, Movies, non-review review, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (film), review, Roger Moore, sean connery |