Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0017 Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

Let’s continue our journey through the James Bond films with No. 0017 of 0023: Diamonds Are Forever. This is a real disappointment. After quitting the series, Sean Connery returned for this film, only he clearly didn’t care, and the rest of the film just didn’t work. This feels like a low-budget, campy James Bond farce rather than a James Bond film.

Plot Quality: Diamonds Are Forever starts with something that could actually be a solid James-Bond-grade idea: someone has stolen enough diamonds to destabilize the diamond market if they release them all at once. This opens the door to a look at high finance, corporate espionage and the possibility of someone like SPECTRE seizing control of large parts of Africa. That could make a top notch story.
Only, none of that happens. Instead, Bond merely follows some stolen diamonds until the second plot emerges, which involves Blofeld using the diamonds to create a high-powered laser he’ll use to blackmail the nuclear powers “with nuclear supremacy going to the highest bidder.” Not only is this plot far less interesting than the one this film could have had, it struggles with legitimacy and it feels like it was tacked on because the writer didn’t know how to make diamond smuggling interesting and just wanted a big ending.

Unfortunately, this plot is threadbare and it’s made all the worse that Bond simply moves into each part of it rather than doing any actual work to earn it. For example, he’s told to go replace Peter Franks, who is smuggling the diamonds. This causes him to stumble upon the plot because the head bad guy scientist just happens to pick up the diamonds himself and take them right to the lab. From there, Bond goes to see the owner of the lab, who turns out to be Blofeld, who has imprisoned famous billionaire Willard Whyte, who is based on Howard Hughes, so he can use his satellite building facilities and his ties to NASA. Bond then “escapes” when Blofeld’s henchmen don’t bother killing him. He returns to have Blofeld’s number two tell him where to find Willard Whyte. Whyte then tells Bond where Blofeld is after Bond randomly mentions some of Whyte’s properties and Whyte shouts, “Baja?! I don’t have anything in Baja!” Good grief. Bond does no work at all throughout this movie. All of this gives the film a pedestrian, lazy feeling, like Bond is just going through the motions.
The film is beset by other bad choices too. For one thing, this film suffers from poor location choice. South Africa could be exotic, but we never see it. There are no grand vista shots, no cityscapes, no skylines, and not even an industrial shot setting up the mines. It’s just closed sets and one brief shot in a desert environment that could be outside Vegas. Then the film goes to Amsterdam, where we see a few seconds on the famous canal and then just inside sets. Finally, the film goes to Vegas. Only, whereas modern Vegas is amazing, Vegas in 1971 looked like a dirty, small town and this film makes it even worse. Again, you see no cityscapes or skylines. You basically see one block on the strip, a car chase in a parking lot, Bond hugging the side of a blue-screen building, and a few standalone buildings. The place looks like a dump. You also have Bond shooting craps in a casino where he definitely does not belong – he’s the only one in a tux and the locals dun look at him funny when he starts betting more than the $2 table limits. This is not an appropriate setting for jet-setting James Bond, and it feels like the director is mocking the city.

Even worse, as Bond wanders this barren, plotless landscape, he keeps running into people who try to kill him. But unlike prior movies where he saves himself or gets saved by some ally, here Bond is repeatedly saved by the villains themselves. The Slumber Mortuary guys have him dead, but they let him go because the diamonds aren’t real – something the film implies Bond did not know. The mob guys could have killed him too, but they let him go because they just wanted him to sleep with St. John. Blofeld could have shot him, but instead sends him packing in disgrace. But then he double-crosses Bond for no apparent reason except a desperate plea for drama, and he sends Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd to kill him, but they just put him into a construction pipe to sleep. Oddly, Bond doesn’t have Blofeld arrested at that point either. The film is littered with implausible non-killings and non-actions.

Finally, the film devolves into a circus-style ending with a helicopter raid on an oil platform. This comes from out of the blue; it feels like it could be the ending to another movie that was just tacked onto this one. It wasn’t earned.
Bond Quality: This is Connery’s final film, unless you count Never Say Never Again... which I don’t. And while it’s true that Connery at his worst was better than most of the others at their best, this was a little worse than Connery at his worst; this was Connery treating the role with contempt. His behavior swings between indifference and mocking throughout the film. He barely interacts with the other actors, and when he does, it’s usually just to look bemused at the other actor as if he were saying, “Are you’re really taking your role seriously?” At no point do you think he cares about the women he meets. At no point does his job seems to matter. He treats old acquaintances like Q and Felix like annoyances. And you never once feel from Connery that Bond’s life is in danger. As much as I’m willing to be an apologist for Connery, I just can’t here: he sabotaged this film.

The Bond Girl: As with other Bond films, this one has two Bond girls, though one is only in the film very briefly. The short timer is Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole. She’s a gold-digger or a shill for a casino who latches onto Bond when he wins a lot of money in the most boring gambling scene ever in a Bond film. She will then be thrown out the window of his hotel room into the pool below by mobsters so that Bond will spend time with the other Bond girl. She makes a brief reappearance in a nonsensical way as she is found drown in a swimming pool when she apparently came to someone’s house looking for Bond. I suspect a scene hit the cutting room floor that would explain this. But without that, she seemed to know where the bad guys were and went there for reasons unknown, only to be mistakenly killed. That doesn’t make any sense.
The main Bond girl is Jill St. John, who plays Tiffany Case. She’s the Amsterdam connection of the diamond smuggling ring Blofeld uses. She comes with Bond when she thinks he’s a smuggler named Peter Franks and then decides to help Bond to see if she can avoid going to prison. St. John is not a bad choice, though she lacks the class of the prior European Bond girls and she comes across as “the ugly American” because she nags Bond constantly. And truthfully, she doesn’t seem interesting enough that Blofeld would have kept her in the end, where she turns into comic relief. She’s not great.

Villain Quality: Not good. It’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right... right into camp. Charles Gray who is best known for explaining “The Time Warp” in the campy The Rocky Horror Picture Show plays Blofeld. Gray plays the role for camp. Not only is he over-the-top British, but he doesn’t seem to care about his own plan. He just spends time hiding with a double he’s had made through plastic surgery and playing the narcissist; this is Mini Me played seriously. He even does a little pointless cross-dressing. His plan is generic, his means are weak, and almost everything he does is poorly explained and poorly fleshed-out.
Working for Gray, apparently, are Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. They’re camp too. They’re homosexual killers who have been hired to kill off everyone involved in the Rube Goldberg diamond smuggling network. They’re probably the best thing about this film because they are creepy. But like many Bond henchmen, they’re stupid too. Instead of shooting people, they find elaborate ways to kill people, like dropping a scorpion down a shirt or leaving Bond in a sewage pipe to presumably die of boredom. In the end, they try to kill Bond with an exploding cake when they could have just shot him. Some of this comes with the territory, but in this case, it just has the feel or an uncaring director.

In the end, this film has the elements of a Bond film, they’re just used indifferently. You can almost hear the director saying, “Yeah, sure, whatever,” at every idea. And if it wasn’t for the cache Connery brings to the role, this could easily be one of the worst early Bonds ever – I suspect Lazenby in this film could have killed the franchise – but the film is saved by this being the last hurrah of Connery and probably our nostalgia for seeing early Vegas. . . even if you don’t see it here. Is this an acceptable Bond film? Yeah. It’s just not a good one. That’s why this film is No. 0017 of 0023.


tryanmax said...

My primary reaction to Diamonds is that the 70s came along and immediately whapped Bond upside the head. The aesthetic is so amazingly different from the prior films and, dare I say, it is awful!!!

AndrewPrice said...

I agree. If I've been watching the older ones, I always cringe the moment I see Connery's sideburns and unkempt look. And then the fashions are awful, and it has that "the world is running down" aesthetic of the 1970s. Think "Barney Miller"... a funny, but sickly depressing sitcom.

Tennessee Jed said...

I think the reason it came off as a low budget, campy, Bond farce is because it was. This was never my favorite Bond story. It reminds me how much the franchise lost me after, say, the Lazenby film. But the Bond films kind of transformed into a sort of formula, campy, franchise for a long, long time. I am left thinking about how I might have handled them differently, but that is kind of lame. It became what it became. Elements of the some of the films were fun, but .....

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, not only is the chance for a caper involving international finance and SPECTRE* taking over third world countries as a base lost, but how about the chance to take Bond out of his element? He's always around gentlemanly spies or high-stakes political plots. How about, assuming the Vegas angle is necessary, have him deal with the actual American mafia? (The guys in the movie are just Hollywodd rent-a-hoods.) Bond hasn't really met up with criminals who are solely fixed on monetary gain and are absolutely ruthless and unpredictable. No rules, no quasi-chivalry code. OK, maybe I'm thinking too much 'Goodfellas' in the time of 'The Godfather,' but IMHO it's worth pondering. The mafia avoids targeting police, politicians, and journalists because it could bring bad publicity. But Bond works for an organization that officially doesn't exist and wouldn't make the headlines. Sounds like it could be all bets off- mafioso style- to me.

Also, Connery had previously told his wife that he would never play Bond again. When he agreed to this film, (for the money), his wife told him, "never say never again." Thus, a horrible film title was born. Man, this movie's legacy only gets uglier.

*- And Andrew, I don't know if you heard this, but SPECTRE isn't mentioned in the film because of a lawsuit filed by the man who, I've read, co-wrote 'Thunderball' with Ian Fleming. In the eventual settlement, EON had to stop using the name SPECTRE, could only use the character Blofeld again for this film, and the guy got the rights to make his own version/remake of 'Thunderball.'
I'll give three guesses what that abomination was. (Hint: as you say, it's NOT a Bond film!)

(previous post removed due to grammatical problems)

shawn said...

I'll always have a soft spot for this film as it was the very first movie I can remember that my parents to me to see.

Does it hold up to today? Not so much. I still enjoy his fight with Bambi and Thumper however.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, This one certainly does set off an era that is not great for James Bond. In fact, you could argue that the era continues right up through Daniel Craig, though in truth it probably ends with Moonraker. I would definitely say that the films and the books have little to with each other except for the names.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I think it would have been great to see them follow the diamond/financing angle, but they didn't. My guess is that they saw Bond as exactly what Dr. No calls him -- "a stupid policeman" and they didn't know how to mix violence and finance.

On the Goodfellas angle, obviously we're way ahead of their times in terms of style and everything, but I concur. Bond should be a trendsetter. And if you're going to do Vegas from that era, then you should use realistic, tough mobsters to give the story something special. The mobsters here could just as easily have been extras from a Star Trek episode... they're a waste.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Surprisingly, I do enjoy this film a good deal. I like it better than all the Daltons, most of the Moores and most of the Brosnans... but it's not a great film. It's probably best described as my Guilty Pleasure Bond.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Rustbelt, That's exactly what happened with SPECTRE and Blofeld. And in a way it's good they lost him because the series really could have stunk if they wedged him into movie after movie.

Backthrow said...

Good rundown of the film's many flaws, Andrew. Connery certainly gave a phoned-in performance, oozing with contempt. I wonder if he'd have given OHMSS similar bored/contemptuous performance, if he had stayed in it, or would've risen to the more meaty role.

Another letdown in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is the sluggish desert chase scene with Bond in the moon buggy. 007 uses no particular skill in eluding his pursuers, rather he lucks out of danger when those chasing him turn out to be uniformly lousy at riding their big-tired motorbikes. I guess the filmmakers thought it would work because the moon buggy was an 'exotic' mode of transportation, but it just looks flimsy and lame (in keeping with the overall tone of the majority of the film, especially the Las Vegas stuff).

There was indeed a scene filmed that would've had Plenty O'Toole's actions make sense, but why it was removed from the final cut is a mystery.

The film's climax was originally supposed to be an elaborate boat chase on Lake Mead, with Bloeld being pursued by Bond and several gangsters 007 has rallied to his cause, but apparently it would've been both too expensive and silly/fanciful, so it was scrapped. The substituted oil rig climax was also supposed to be more elaborate and action-packed, but also was deemed too expensive to shoot, so it was scaled back.

I do like the music (even though the theme tune with Shirley Bassey is just a variation of 'Goldfinger'), and the scene with Bond scaling the exterior of the hotel building is pretty good, as well as the fight with Franks in Amsterdam. It's a watchable Bond film, but not very good.

In the novel, there is no Blofeld, elaborate plastic surgery, Howard Hughes proxy nor space laser. From this plot synopsis, you can see where it was a lot more about the workings of a smuggling organization, headed by twin brothers, Jack and Seraffimo Spang, and is much more like a James-Bond-meets-GOODFELLAS type of story. A lot of it takes place in New York City and Saratoga, NY. As you can see from the link, the movie uses some basic plot points from the novel, in a skeletal way, but then proceeds to screw them up and/or waste them.

Jill St. John is pretty, but isn't steely enough to be effective as Tiffany Case. In 1971, someone like Faye Dunaway or Elke Sommer would've been a better fit. St. John begins as a halfway-competent operator in Amsterdam, but ends up a silly bimbo on the oil platform; another waste.

Wint and Kidd, in the novel, are scary (gay) mob thugs who wear black hoods (with eye and mouth holes cut in them), carry guns, and stomp 007 nearly to death with cleated football boots. Their boss, Mr. Spang, tells them to "Take him out on the platform. Brooklyn stomping. Eighty percenter, 'kay?". A far cry from the mincing narcissist and his sad sack companion we get in the film.

Backthrow said...

If Lazenby had starred in this same movie, I think it definitely would've killed the series. However, if he hadn't had walked from the role before OHMSS' release (due to his arrogance and bad career advice), Peter Hunt would've continued as director, what was the end sequence in OHMSS would've been the opening sequence in DAF, and the film likely would've had the same tone as OHMSS --which, contrary to popular belief, wasn't at all a bomb at the boxoffice in 1969.

Still, Hunt probably still would've substituted Blofeld for the Spang Bros... unless he'd only figure in the pre-credits, with 007 finally getting his revenge, before moving onto his next mission. Who knows, maybe the series wouldn't have otherwise descended into camp in the 1970s. On the other hand, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman seemed hell-bent on taking the camp route with the series by that point, so it probably wouldn't have made any difference.

We almost got future U.S. ambassador to Mexico, John Gavin, as an American 007 for DAF, but I think that also would've gone over like a lead balloon, especially with the film as it was made with Connery.

The producers won't do it, but I'd like to see a Craig remake of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, hewing closer to the novel. Unlike MOONRAKER, it wouldn't be hard to modernize, and is gritty enough to play to the current series' strengths. Someone like Ali Larter would make a good Tiffany Case, opposite Craig's 007.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, All good points!

St. John was pretty, but she comes across as nagging throughout -- which is not good. And they really shortchange her character from making her a competent, decent smuggler to a bimbo really quickly.

I've heard rumors of the missing scene, but I've never been told what's in it. But there needs to be something because right now Plenty seems to randomly come to a house and get killed with no idea how she knew to come there or why.

The ending really does stink. The boat chase would have been better.

I get the feeling throughout that no one cared about this movie. At every turn, they cut corners and just shrug their shoulders at obvious problems.

Yeah, I think the series was headed into camp no matter what. I'm not sure why, but they clearly had decided that was the way to go.

Wint and Kidd are entertaining, but again, they have lost potential. There's no sense that they are really dangerous to anyone important. Yes, they can kill extras, but leaving Bond to die of boredom and then trying to kill him with a cake is just silly. But it fits the camp spirit they were channeling. The whole film does. Seriously, why in the world does Blofeld cross-dress? He could have just walked out the casino as himself since no one was apparently bother to watch him. It feels like they wanted more camp.

I'm also not at all a fan of the parking lot chase, which strikes me as so choreographed it's unbelievable. And I really don't like the moonbuggy escape either. That feels totally fake. As you note, it's so shaky that you know the bad guys were told not to go near it or it would break. And the only reason he escapes is because they send the three stooges after him. The whole film is like that.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, Has anyone noticed a sense of anti-Americanism in the films at this point? St. John is the ugly American. Vegas is made out as a pit and the locals are slack-jawed hicks who gasp at anyone betting more than a couple bucks. Compare that to how they handled Miami and Kentucky in Goldfinger.

Next we have To Live And Let Die which shows NYC as a ghetto and then goes to New Orleans, where we again don't see the city, but we are instead treated to the worst possible redneck sheriff.... who then appears again as the intensely ugly American in Thialand in Man With the Golden Gun.

For these three pictures, I get a very strong "America is a ghetto and Americans suck" vibe.

Anonymous said...

This is just one Bond film that doesn't click with me and while I usually keep any Bond film on TV as background noise, this is one a few that compels me to search for better programming.

I can't accept Charles Gray as Blofeld... too hammy and he just played a Bond ally two films previously. I like Kidd and Wint but, again, too hammy.

Despite the presence of Ken Adam, the sets aren't anything special (I think there's a cool-looking elevator and that's it). John Barry's score might be the lone highlight.

This is one of three Bond films that was written or co-written by Tom Mankiewicz, who later wrote Superman. They may have wanted an American but in retrospect, he may have been the wrong one. Or perhaps he was simply following Cubby's instructions.

Backthrow said...

That's a good question, Andrew. Other than some Cold War stuff, the series was fairly apolitical overall. I don't know about Harry Saltzman or screenwriter Ricard Maibaum, but I understand Cubby Broccoli and his wife Dana were Republicans, so unless the seeming anti-American touches were just coincidental, my best guess is they might be there as an attempt to connect with the youth audiences of the time.

Given that teen or college-age characters (apart from some of the 'Bond girls') --especially counter-culture types-- weren't going to figure in 007's cinematic world, and that the Bond producers/writers/directors certainly wouldn't do what so many modern filmmakers do, and portray their own hero as some conflicted imperialist monster (or the dupe of same), maybe they thought they could appeal to youthful (and international) ticket-buyers by showing the adult American characters as tacky dopes and everything here basically going to seed.

The other possible explanation was they thought tacky/stupid was funny, and fit with camp aesthetic they were going for. I'm sure it was cheaper to go tacky, too. LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN were lower-budgeted than the previous films (notice, for instance, both are the only ones not shot in wide Panavision). Bond only got some of his popular mojo back when Broccoli went 'big' again, 1960s-style with THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I feel the same way about the Dalton Bonds. I have to force myself to watch.

Gray playing Bond's ally in Japan doesn't help. It's too close, too soon, especially for two prominent roles. It feels cheap, like shows that kept reusing actors for different rules.

It's hard to tell where the blame falls -- director or writer or producer, but I tend to think it's all three unless there's an obvious basis to exclude one of them.

I do like the score and the theme song as well.

Backthrow said...

Oh, here are the two brief scenes that were cut from DAF, which explain Plenty O'Toole's actions and ultimate fate.

Not that they make the overall film any better, but it's a real head-scratcher why they weren't included in the final film, as they weren't going to bloat the overall running time any.

Backthrow said...

Actually, this link is better-quality (not just phone-cammed from a TV screen, which I hate), and also shows an ill-advised scene with a Sammy Davis Jr cameo, plus other stuff cut from the film.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I'm not sure. What's interesting is that it's not like they are saying, "America is evil!" in any outright way, but that is definitely the feel you get from them showing the place as dumpy and full of racists. It could be coincidence, but since they give that portrayal consistently for three films, I think there is something to it. I'm not sure what to make of it.

AndrewPrice said...

Wow, so my first thought is that notice that he keeps slapping around the casino, this time by dismissing the wine in a really condescending way... presumably, it's a wine he ordered too unless we're supposed to believe that the hotel just picked it.

The scene with Plenty getting the address is way out of character and it also leaves you wondering how Bond knows how Plenty found the address since he doesn't see her. I guess he's psychic.

Koshcat said...

This was one of the first Bonds I saw as a kid. It is because of this movie why for the longest time I couldn't understand why people like Connery so much. After that it was a bunch of Roger Moore movies before I saw Gold Finger.

Remember the days when a Bond movie was the ABC Movie of the week?

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I think that added a certain cache to these films that they were always on the ABC Movie of the week. That kind of made them events, at least among the people I knew and everyone would talk about them the next day at school.

I'm a huge Connery fan from his earlier films and for the longest time, I kind of ignored how poor his performance was in this film. But if you watch them all together, you really can't ignore how much contempt he shows for the role in this film and how much of a passenger he is in this film. Also, as you say, this film benefits from being surrounded by a lot of very weak Moore films, so it doesn't feel as egregious as it really is.

Floyd R. Turbo said...

Andrew... first... where do I find mobsters who would force me to sleep with 1971 Jill St. John? Nice mafia that one! LOL

Anti-American... I think if you look at movies like Dirty Harry, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Death Wish, Blaxploitation pics, et al. the vibe that America is falling apart at the seams is pretty consistent (heck even look at TV with Good Times, Barney Miller, All in the Family, Kojak, SWAT, Police Woman, et al.). The 1970s present a very grim view of American urban life. Bond films are part and parcel of that.

OHMSS is my favorite Bond film... Lazenby did fine, Savalas was genius and John Barry's score is genius.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, It's not just the presentation of America as a dump. That's a very 1970s thing. It's the presentation of the American people. You've got hillybilly, racist sheriffs, loud, pushy, stupid bimbos for women, everybody's low class, a casino wine steward who tries to pass off a cheap wine, etc. It's just for this three film run, but it really feels to me like they are trying to say something nasty about Americans.

Dave Olson said...

There's a pattern here: Of the 7 lowest-ranked Bond films, 3 of them feature diamond smuggling as the macguffin. I can only conclude one of two things from this: (1) You hate diamonds, or (2) diamond smuggling makes for a crappy movie plot.

(anti-diamond rant deleted by author.)

Anyway, I would swap rankings for this one with "Living Daylights" because, while they are not very good movies and they both feature diamond smuggling (grrrrrrrrr), there's way too much camp here for a real James Bond film. And it's easily Connery's worst performance of the series. Dalton at least tried to take the role seriously, whereas Connery sonambulates his way from scene to scene with contempt. Maybe he was just pissed that he had donated his entire salary to charity before he'd read the final script. Sometimes he just has a look in his eyes that says "I gave up a million dollars for this shite?"

And yes, I'm including "Never Say Never Again" when I say that this is Connery's worst performance as 007. NSNA wasn't a very good "Bond Movie" either, but if you imagine it as a stand-alone film, it would just need a few minor tweaks here and there to make it a decent cold-war action flick. Consider the high-concept pitch: An MI-6 instructor, who was the top agent of his day, comes out of retirement to foil a terrorist plot to use stolen US cruise missiles for nuclear blackmail. If you keep Klaus Maria Brandauer as the main villain, I'd love to see that movie.

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! Yep. I'm anti-diamond. :P

To me, the difference between this and the Daltons is that the Dalton films never felt like Bond films at all, but this one did. Yes, this one was half-assed and Connery was mocking the role throughout, but it still had the elements of a Bond film. I never felt that with Dalton. Dalton just seemed like an annoyed cop.

NSNA is a good film in principle, but again, it feels really lazy to me.

Anonymous said...

Had Lazenby done this film the production quality would have been much greater. (money saved by not having to pay Connery could have been invested into the movie)

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