Diamonds Are Forever is a strange, quirky film in the Bond series. I found it satisfying in some ways, and annoyed by it in others. It’s frustrating because, as my old high school math teacher used to say, “If you’re going to do something, Mr. Meyers, do it first-class”. Nevertheless, there are enough good elements to have provided an enjoyable but not compelling viewing — some twenty or more years since I last saw it in its entirety.
Connery. Sean Connery. Again
We begin as we always do, with 007 himself. After George Lazenby allegedly took the bad advice of his agent following a totally satisfying outing as 007, Mr. Connery was persuaded to return. The script was a significant improvement over You Only Live Twice, and perhaps that (and the equivalent of $16 million in today’s dollars) is why Mr. Connery jumped back in.
Mr. Connery’s re-emergence is, not surprisingly, engaging. He appears to have filled out a bit, and feels to be just the right age (40 at the time) for the role. Of course, we associate Mr. Connery with James Bond’s most masculine features — a brawler, womanizer, a powerful man with tremendous physical presence and confidence. None of that has changed at this point, and in many ways, Mr. Connery feels like he’s reached a peak as Bond in this film in those aspects. We are treated, for example, to some terrific fisticuffs in the combined space of an elevator in Tiffany Case’s building. This is a great fight scene that is wonderfully inventive, well-choreographed, and Bond really has his hands full with his opponent.
I can’t quibble much as this point regarding Bond’s character. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service remains an anomaly in the series from a character point-of-view, but otherwise, the truth is that, outside of the pre-credit sequence in which he plows through people to exact revenge on Blofeld, Bond’s character generally isn’t supposed to develop from one film to the next. In fact, his apparent dispatch of Blofeld isn’t delivered with the emotion we either expect or hope for, given the reason behind it. Otherwise, there is a nice moment in this film where he is obviously impatient and disgruntled with taking on a silly diamond smuggling operation, and M reminds him that he’d spent far too much time chasing Blofeld and now it was time for him to do some “good honest work”. Meanwhile, despite other flaws in the script and a more contained adventure, Mr. Connery remains the star attraction who is always, always worth watching. How can you not love the moment where he kicks Blofeld’s cat, tipping him off as to which the real Blofeld is…only to discover there are cat doubles, as well.
Diamonds As Metaphor for the Film Itself
Diamonds are inherently valueless. They aren’t particularly scarce or precious. Those interested in the sordid tale of how DeBeers brilliantly (no pun intended) managed to create a monopoly over hundreds of years through restricted supply can find plenty to read about, and the resulting real-life civil war tragedies in Western Africa could themselves be the fodder of a long-running film, TV, or documentary series. However, these conflicts had not yet arisen in 1970. Instead, we get a plot involving diamond smuggling that takes up the first half of the film, and it’s just not terribly interesting. Even Bond’s own dialogue portends this in his scene with M and Sir Donald.
Alas, diamonds are all about marketing, and so was this Bond film. It’s a bright shiny object with lots of interesting sparkles but at its core, it’s not a great film. Much of this has to do with the script. Despite the return of the reliable Richard Maibaum — who was involved on all but three of the films from 1962 to 1989 — the film is low-rent Bond. There are no real exotic locations, much of the film takes place in Las Vegas, and after the great ski sequence of OHMSS, we don’t get treated to very much action this time around. Diamond smuggling itself doesn’t lend itself to some of the action we saw in other movies. That the big chase scene involves Bond in a moon buggy also shows the series begin its slow spiral into silliness. On the one hand, I appreciated that it wasn’t some bloated miscue like You Only Live Twice. The compact nature of the adventure does allow Mr. Connery to do plenty of fun character moments involving deception, prowling about, and bedding Tiffany Case. The scene in the crematorium is terrific — we really don’t know how Bond is going to escape that coffin. Yet these scenes lack the suspense and intrigue that another trimmed down entry, From Russia With Love, contained.
But I’m not trashing the film. In truth, there are some great characters this time around, led by the gay assassins Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, and a fully formed and engaging performance from Charles Gray as Blofeld.
I love Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. They are iconic Bond to me. Strange, quirky, sadistic assassins who really just adore killing people. I remember first viewing the film when ABC showed Bond films on Sunday nights, and these guys stuck with me. You get freaked out as a 12-year-old when a guy drops a scorpion down another guy’s back. Plus, John Barry has this weird clarinet theme for them that is simultaneously whimsical and creepy. In my first viewings, I totally missed the bit where they hold hands after taking out the dentist and helicopter pilot. Their appearance on the cruise ship at the conclusion, the way Bond figures out who they are, and how they come to their respective ends, are just great.
I’ve always enjoyed the late Charles Gray as an actor. Although he’s likely to be most remembered for this role and as The Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he was a talented character actor who appeared in a lot of movies and television. He brings an upper-class sophistication to Blofeld, and the most fully realized characterization of Blofeld to date. Readers know I thought Telly Savalas was terrific in OHMSS, but the little mannerisms Mr. Gray brings to the role give us yet another intriguing interpretation. Mind you, the constantly changing interpretations and presentations of Blofeld make understanding him completely impossible. I understand Dr. No as a character far better than I will ever understand Blofeld. OHMSS presented both Bond and Blofeld as pragmatic individuals, neither afraid to get their hands dirty, and the only mano-a-mano climax between them. In this film, Blofeld appears more as a reflection of Bond, in regards to upper-class British sophistication – complete with cigarette holder, refined accent, and crisp movements. Regrettably, though, the story does not tease these similarities out in the way Dr. No presented their differences.
I know a lot of people like Jill St. John as the first American Bond girl, but I wasn’t wowed by her. Beautiful, yes. Busty, yes. I felt like her acting chops weren’t fully formed yet, and she has the bad luck of following the very capable character of Tracy (and actress Diana Rigg) from OHMSS. Bambi and Thumper are unexpected attackers, and the classic fight scene holds up as being entertaining, if perhaps unbelievable. If anything, Bond overcomes them far too easily once they hit the pool. Still, it was a nice double twist to characters like Fiona Volpe.
Felix Leiter has a comparatively huge role this time, and he’s played by the late Norman Burton. Mr. Burton does a fine job, but I would’ve liked to have seen Jack Lord return. Felix is instrumental to the story this time, and despite Mr. Burton’s extensive experience as an actor, you can kind of feel that they wanted to cast someone bland so as not to detract from the star.
As For The Rest…
I had no idea whether or not Ken Adam was the production designer on this film or not, but I guessed that he was from the pre-credit sequence where Bond dispatches Blofeld’s doubles. It’s been said that writers and directors have signature styles, but having seen so many Bond films at this point, it’s clear that Ken Adam was a visionary with his own style. He designed complete sets — most notably utilizing ceilings in ways few designers ever have. He use of shape and contrast are hallmarks of all his work. Willard Whyte’s house in the desert has a minimalist 70’s feel to it, which makes the strange sculptures stand out in the room where Bond battles Bambi and Thumper. Mr. Adam did not design the house — that honor went to architect John Lautner who designed the Elrod House that Mr. Adam merely decorated. Still, that’s the point of a great production designer. He knows what to put in a set that exists.
John Barry’s score is serviceable, though not particularly memorable. He had a tough act to follow after the transcendent score of OHMSS, though.
The climax is fairly exciting as Blofeld’s fortress is bombed, but there’s yet another character and plot hole. It’s great to see Bond sling Blofeld’s escape capsule around, slamming him every which-way. But you’d think, given the rage he must have for Blofeld and the failed opportunities to kill him, that he’d make absolutely certain Blofeld was dead. And, of course, we have Blofeld needlessly keeping Bond alive during the climax when he should’ve shot him dead on the spot. Then again, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd’s sadism — while arguably extending to great lengths — seems to take a back seat to poor screenwriting when they merely dump Bond in a metal tube and walk away. At least with the crematorium scene, Bond is rescued by bad guys who are pissed about the missing diamonds.
Overall, the film was engaging. It’s not a classic, but it was fun to watch again.
Before I turn my attention to the Roger Moore films, I’ll post a brief recap of the Connery/Lazenby era, and highlight some of the best elements from those films. After that…
James Bond will return in Live and Let Die