Diamonds are Forever
In conception, Diamonds are Forever was a retreat to safer ground for the series following the “failure” of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the end, it proved to be a significant break in tone and humour from what had gone before. More playfulness was evident in the heightened characterisations and settings, but simultaneously more boundaries were pushed in terms of sex and violence. Las Vegas lends the film a tarnished, glitterball quality that would quite accurately predict the excess and decadence of the coming decade. And presiding over the proceedings was a greying Bond, somewhat gone to seed and looking noticeably older than the near-decade it was since his first appearance. Somehow, the result is as sparkling and vital as the diamonds of the title, but it is understandably a curate’s egg. In many respects it bears more resemblance to the camp affectations, eccentricities and quirks of the television series The Avengers than the more straightforward heroics seen in previous Bond films (and replete with character names like Morton Slumber, which could have been plucked straight from an Avengers script).
Goldfinger became a touchstone for what the series should aspire to, and as such director Guy Hamilton was brought on board to bring some of that magic. Writer Richard Maibaum initially drafted a script featuring Goldfinger’s brother as the villain. This entrenchment came with the understanding that Bond would yet again be recast and, indeed, Psycho (American) actor John Gavin was signed up for the role (another concern of the producers was that the series should appeal consciously more to the US market). United Artists still wanted Connery back, though, and when the reluctant Broccoli and Saltzman (reluctant, as they did not wish to persuade Connery to do something if he really didn’t want to) gave the actor an offer he couldn’t refuse Gavin was nixed. Meanwhile, script problems had resulted in Tom Mankiewicz being brought in to rework it. An American writer might have been expected not to “get” Bond, but Mankiewicz recognised its absurdities and fully embraced them.
It has been suggested that, due to Connery’s (then) enormous fee ($1.25m, about $7m in today’s money) the effects budget was scaled back. This may explain why a fight between Blofeld and Bond in a diamond mine was excised from the climax, left unfilmed. Certainly, the action is noticeably less extravagant than the last couple of Connery pictures; a car chase set piece along the Vegas Strip and the oilrig climax, and that’s about it. Instead of action we’re treated to stylisation and eccentricity. Larger than life characters abound, from gay assassins Mr Wint and Mr Kidd to hit women Bambi and Thumper to Howard Hughes by-another-name Willard Whyte.
DAF was adapted from the fourth Fleming Bond novel, which did not feature Blofeld as the villain. Notably, Connery was a big fan Mankiewicz’s work on the script; he can be seen discussing it at the time, observing that it was the best one yet. He commented that the plot was very strong, but maybe he was also thinking of the campy, humourous tone, which came in for much criticism at the time. As such, it may be the most Marmite of Bond films. Either you love it or it’s near the bottom of your series ranking.
The plot that Connery considered so strong really isn’t all that, basically a plan by Blofeld to hold the world to ransom under threat of destruction with his laser satellite (constructed using the all-important diamonds). What is undoubtedly in the script’s favour, and more than making up for the slightly mundane quest for global domination, is that almost every scene in the film is memorable; for it’s dialogue, characterisation and distinct purpose. Even the gangster caricatures make a strong impression (“I didn’t know there was a pool down there”, one opines after throwing Plenty O’Toole from a hotel window.
With that tone came a more cavalier approach to the trademark sex and violence that Bond engages in. This is the first film in the series to show bare breasts, in a scene where 007 is at his most sadistic, threatening a woman with strangulation (“There is something I’d like you to get off your chest”). Later, a double of Blofeld is shot in the head (we are privileged to see the bullet hole).
Tellingly there is no attempt to provide continuity with OHMSS, unless one assumes that Bond’s desire to get Blofeld as the film opens is a result of Tracy’s demise at the end of the previous film. The opening echoes the pre-credits sequence in From Russia with Love, where a Bond double is killed by Red Grant. This time it is 007 shooting a Blofeld double.
The American setting was reportedly fixed on as a sop to the US audience who had been less embracing of OHMSS, and what is most surprising – largely down to Mankiewicz – is that it doesn’t feel like a forced choice. The American Bond girl, Tiffany Case, runs the biggest risk (of being a caricature loudmouthed American). And, to be honest, that’s exactly who Jill St John plays her as. But she also plays her immensely likeably, and the result is one of the most resourceful of Bond girls (sometimes too resourceful, as in the tape-swapping scene). St John also looks fantastic in a bikini, which doesn’t hurt her “case”.
One is left with the impression that Connery isn’t trying too hard to summon up the Bond of old. He’s almost too relaxed, but he does appear to be having fun. He’s also blessed with some of the series’ best one-liners. Upon first catching sight of Tiffany he comments, “Well, that’s quite a nice little nothing you’re almost wearing”. As if to emphasise the point, Tiffany’s arse-crack is showing. This is also the film where 007 notes that he doesn’t mind what colour Tiffany’s hair is, “as long as the collars and cuffs match”. DAF has little time for notions of elegance or etiquette. And Bond never looks particularly dapper in his ‘70s-cut tuxedo. Nevertheless, the film as a whole is blessed with fantastically quotable, such as 007’s classic exchange with Lana Wood’s Bond girl.
Plenty: Hi, I’m Plenty.
James Bond: But of course you are.
Plenty: Plenty O’Toole.
James Bond: Named after your father, perhaps?
Later, on being accosted by heavies in Plenty’s bedroom, he observes,
James Bond: Well, I’m afraid you’ve caught me with more than my hands up.
Even Blofeld turns lecherous in DAF. After noticing the cassette tape containing the satellite control codes nestling amid Tiffany’s buttocks, he has her placed under guard. And then waxes lyrical.
Blofeld: What a pity, such nice cheeks too. If only they were brains.
At other times, the revelling in absurdity is more akin to Connery’s successor. Bond emerges from an oil pipe at one point, much to the surprise of the workers who open the hatch.
James Bond: Thank you very much. I was just out walking my rat and seem to have lost my way…
This, after holding a conversation with said rat.
James Bond: Well, one of us smells like a tart’s handkerchief. (sniffs) I’m afraid it’s me. Sorry, old boy.
Mr Wynn and Mr Kidd make two of the series’ wittiest henchman. Their man-love is barely referred to, but it’s revealed obliquely through the performances of Putter Smith and, particularly, Bruce Glover. In their first scene, after killing several diamond smugglers, they disappear into the desert hand-in-hand. Later, Glover’s Mr Wint shoots Mr Kidd a most unimpressed look when he comments on how attractive Tiffany is (“for a lady”). Mainly, though, it is their in-tandem repartee that makes them so memorable. On sending Bond to be cremated, they eulogise.
Mr Wint: Very moving.
Mr Kidd: Heartwarming, Mr Wint.
Mr Wint: A glowing tribute, Mr Kidd.
Their presence on the periphery of the main action recalls Red Grant shadowing Bond in From Russia with Love. But in a more surreal, cartoonish form.
It isn’t just Wint and Kidd that display playfulness with ideas of gender and sexuality. Blofeld dons drag at one point, while Bambie and Thumper are deadly fighters who nearly best Bond using only their bodies as weapons.
I commented in my OHMSS review that I was unsure who was my favourite Blofeld, but it’s definitely Charles Gray. He’s just having so much fun, and he’s so witty too.
Blofeld: Well go on, go on, it’s merely a lift. Or should I say elevator?
In contrast, there’s little to say about M, Moneypenny or Q this time round. M gets sniffy with Bond over his identification of the vintage of sherry and delights in his lack of knowledge of diamonds. Felix Leiter is back to being a rather dull pen pusher, this time played by Norman Burton; it’s curious how nondescript most of the Felixs have been.
One of the most appealing characters is Willard Whyte, played with an “Aw, shucks” affability by country music singer Jimmy Dean. The (rare) likable tycoon persona would later re-emerge with Jon Glover’s performance as Daniel Clamp in Gremlins 2.
In a sense, DAF does bear comparison with Goldfinger; it isn’t the action scenes that make it such a strong entry in the canon. There are a couple of solid ones, nevertheless. The brutal, close-quarters fight between Bond and Peter Franks in a cramped elevator isn’t quite as proficient as the scrap that most likely inspired it, between Red Grand and Bond in FRWL, but it’s thrillingly messy. And it’s a nice touch that it’s initiated when Bond makes a mistake, drawing back his elbow and breaking the glass behind him.
Perhaps most famous is the fake Moon landing sequence. Bond, exploring Whyte’s research laboratory, stumbles across astronauts filming on a Moon set before fleeing his pursuers in a rover. It’s quite surprising to see such a satirical set piece in a series of films not exactly known for such elements. It’s clearly a commentary on the conspiratorial rumblings that the Moon landing of two years previously had been filmed in a television studio. The book Dark Moon: Apollo and the Whistle-Blowers even devotes several pages to dissecting the exchanges preceding the scene (the focus on radiation levels and shields; the lack of protection against harmful radiation is one of the arguments presented by conspiracy theorists that the Moon landing couldn’t have been real). Connery obviously relishes the dialogue, posing as Klaus Hergerscheimer
Elsewhere there are further strange, surreal moments thrown in. An elephant playing, and winning at, slot machines (Q also proves highly adept). A stage act where a woman transforms into a gorilla. The design of the Moon buggy Bond escapes into the Nevada Desert in, arms flailing uselessly at its sides.
A word for John Barry’s score. If OHMSS is his most elegantly classic Bond work, DAF sees him at his loosest and most freewheeling. From the wonderful funeral music at Slumber Inc to the catchy casino muzak to maybe the best Bond song, creatively he’s on fire.
Diamonds are Forever looks set to remain one of the most divisive Bond films, ironically as it was envisaged as a sure thing, a safe bet to get viewers back on side following the perceived failing of OHMSS. It was a bigger hit than Lazenby’s solo mission but fell considerably short of Connery’s three previous runs (in inflation-adjusted terms). I rate it as one of the best in the series, possibly only second to OHMSS. Perhaps I’m the wrong sort of Bond aficionado, as I tend to consider the more idiosyncratic entries to be the best ones. DAF saw Connery go out on a high. Maybe he wasn’t giving it his very best, but this remains one of his most enjoyable performances; much different to the all-round going-through-the-motions that crippled You Only Live Twice.
The man with one raised eyebrow was waiting in the wings, and for the rest of the ‘70s Bond would be a safe, known and immensely popular quantity. But Moore’s Bond would, after a couple of films, receive mounting brickbats from purists enraged at the mockery he was making of their beloved spy series. They should have looked to DAF, which is arguably where the “rot” set in.