Wednesday, May 23, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Diamonds Are Forever

‘Diamonds Are Forever’: in which the director of ‘Goldfinger’ is back at the helm, Sean Connery is back in the lead role, God is in His heaven and all is right with the world. Carlsberg don’t do movie reviews …

Joking apart, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is – it has to be said – a frustrating and ultimately pretty mediocre outing for 007. It’s a film of two halves: part one is basically How The Diamond Smuggling Operation Works, while part two is What The Diamonds Are Used For. Part one is moderately entertaining with some touches of mordant humour (the funeral parlour and the straight-out-of-central-casting mob guys raise a smile) but lacks the scale and spectacle expected of a Bond movie. Part two delivers the world domination shenanigans, the villain’s fully kitted out secret base and the requisite explosions, but pads out the action with a ridiculously over-egged sequence involving a cassette tape and Jill St John in a harlequin bikini that plays like something out of ‘The Benny Hill Show’.

It’s worlds apart from the character-driven approach to ‘OHMSS’ and that, apparently, is how the producers wanted it. Although Peter Hunt was offered directorial duties, scheduling conflicts with another film put him out of the running and Broccoli and Saltzman re-engaged the services of Guy Hamilton, the man who’d pretty much defined the Bond formula with ‘Goldfinger’. Indeed, an early draft of the script had Auric Goldfinger’s vengeful brother as antagonist. With George Lazenby exiting the role, the producers consider Michael Gambon and – unbelievably – Adam West, before signing John Gavin. At this point, United Artists pulled rank, put their foot down and demanded Sean Connery back as Bond.

This put Connery in a pretty awesome bargaining position and as well as bagging a then record-breaking $1.25million fee – which he used philanthropically to establish the Scottish International Education Trust – he got backing for two non-Bond projects. Only one of these – Sidney Lumet’s intense and uncomfortable ‘The Offence’ – came to fruition. The other, an all-Scottish adaptation of ‘Macbeth’, fell through after Polanski’s version made it into production first. Meanwhile John Gavin, technically still under contract, was paid in full.

The film opens with what seems, for about the first two thirds, like a narratively pointless prelude. In this prelude … now, how do I describe it without sounding blunt … Bond beats the shit out of a couple of guys then rips the bikini top off a sunbathing beauty and threatens to strangle her with it, and in like manner ascertains the whereabouts of one Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Grey), fugitive from justice. And here we must pause while I rant about something that pisses me right off every time I watch what is otherwise a no-brainer low-to-mid-level slab of 007 escapism. 

This vengeful hit-people-strangle-people-find-Blofeld-kill-the-motherfucker business seems a lot like the filmmakers’ atonement for daring to end ‘OHMSS’ on a downer, Bond’s best girl dead the agent himself shattered. Only … the Bond’s first port of call in the aforementioned investigative continuity is quite obviously Japan, suggesting ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ as a direct follow-on from ‘You Only Live Twice’. While this is a logical step in one respect (it reintroduces Connery’s Bond from that actor’s last appearance), it makes utterly no sense in another, since a Connery-only continuity disallows for the death of Tracey di Vincenzo – indeed, it disallows for Bond to ever have been married at all – and even allowing for the fact the Blofeld had the temerity to escape at the end of ‘You Only Live Twice’, Bond’s obsessive pursuit of him at the start of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ seems OTT. Unless Bond was out for revenge for the death of his wife, which he doesn’t seem to be because of … well, see above.

In short, it’s all a bit too meta. And things just get worse with the appearance of Blofeld. Bearing in mind that the very first scene of the movie contrives to bring to mind ‘You Only Live Twice’, in which Charles Grey plays an ally of Bond’s who is murdered by SPECTRE agents, where I ask you is the sense in casting that selfsame gentleman as the SPECTRE-commanding Blofeld himself? No matter how good Grey is in the role – and he’s very good indeed; it’s difficult to pick a definitive Blofeld from the quartet of Anthony Dawson, Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas and Charles Grey – the close proximity of his appearances in the Bond chronology, accentuated by the diametrically different characters, just plain bugs me.

So: Bond tracks down Blofeld, seemingly dispatches him, Shirley Bassey belts out the theme song, and some naked women gyrate in silhouette. (I really ought to spend some time during this retrospective discussing the work of Maurice Binder, but I’m not sure I have sufficient command of the English language to explicate “naked chicks gyrating in silhouette” beyond, oh I don’t know, five words.) Next up, M (Bernard Lee) is delivering some expository dialogue about diamonds and Bond’s off to Amsterdam to infiltrate a smuggling operation.

All of which is fairly low-key stuff for a Bond movie. Hamilton keeps the pace up, though, and Bond is rewarded by the charms of Tiffany Case (St John). And here we pause for another rant. Jill St John is a looker plus VAT; beyond that, she has real screen presence and a mischievous charm; beyond that her IQ of 162 speaks for itself. In the first half of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, the script allows her to play Tiffany Case – and she relishes the performance – as a brassy, smart-talking dame, full of sass, sarcasm and self-interest, and anyone watching the movie for the first time might be tempted, during this section, to earmark her as “all-time best Bond girl”. But ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, as noted earlier, is a film of two halves. And it’s second half unforgivably reimagines Tiffany Case as a shrill, simpering bimbo, robbed of juicy dialogue and reduced upping the cleavage quota. (Not that it needed upping after Lana Wood’s gravity defying appearance as the unsubtly named Plenty O’Toole. “Named after your father, perhaps?” Bond muses.)

And while I’m in rant mode, one further point of contention. ‘OHMSS’, for all its flaws, at least set out to present a human Bond. A Bond without gadgets who is required to use his wits, his charm and – whisper it softly – his intelligence. He connects with a woman, but realises he has to be the smooth-talker, the seducer, to get information out of other women (there’s a telling scene where he dallies with two of Blofeld’s potential brainwash victims, one after the other, and uses exactly the same dialogue to win them over … the second time, he’s not even putting any effort into it). ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is an incredibly reductive film, not only returning Bond to the status of sex-as-a-fringe-benefit misogynist, but upping the ante on Fleming’s homophobia. Where the screenplay for ‘Goldfinger’ had the good grace to gloss over Pussy Galore’s Sapphic preferences and Bond, ahem, straightening her out, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ just wades right in there and gives us the despicable characterisations of narratively unnecessary henchmen Mr Kidd (Putter Smith) and Mr Wint (Bruce Glover).

So, yeah, plenty of good reasons not to like ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ very much. Except that it’s often stupidly entertaining. Prime example: the utterly bonkers scene where Bond smashes into a fake moon landing, steals a moon buggy and kicks off a high speed chase through the Nevada desert, a piece of what-the-fuckery so magnificently deranged it’s as if Alejandro Jodorowsky had shown up at United Artists and convinced them to give him a shot at making a blockbuster. There are plenty of other moments like this, some sifted in as grace notes – Q (Desmond Llewellyn) cheating at the slot machines and blithely leaving his winnings behind, chuffed above mere monetary rewards that his latest prototype works so well – and others as set-pieces, that leave you in no doubt that the film was one big wheeze, a deliberate means to slap some fun back into the formula.

Many have criticised Connery’s performance – uninterested, phoned-in – but I quite enjoy his casually ironic delivery and slightly aloof presence. He suggests all the snobbery of Bond from the first two films but smoothed with a touch of self-deprecation. If ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is the Bond movie as elaborate joke, then Connery was definitely in on it. And it certainly made the transition to a new Bond easier when the next instalment took Roger Moore to Harlem and Caribbean in ‘Live and Let Die’, an opus as unapologetically racist as ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is homophobic. There were changes ahead for the franchise, but political correctness wasn’t one of them.


johnny said...

I love DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER! It's the James Bond equivalence of a Fred Williamson opus. It stars Jimmy Dean! His amazing house is worth the ticket price itself, and his Amazon bodyguards? Hoy! I read that this movie was conceived by Gerry Anderson, of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and UFO fame. I believed it as soon as I heard it. The moon buggy escape, the puppet like characters, the sets, everything about it screams Supermarionation! Plus, we get the added bonus of a primo Mustang Mach 1 muscle car being substituted for some british roadster. I do agree on the casting of Charles Grey. That confused me when I was a kid and does me no favors now.

Michael Grover said...
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Michael Grover said...

This has long been one of my favorite Bond films, despite the fact that many consider it the nadir of the Connery Bonds, if not the series as a whole. There's just something about it that I find strangely hypnotic. Perhaps it's the surreal Vegas atmosphere coupled with John Barry's dreamy score. I love the music, and I was actually humming the tune "007 and Counting" from this film in the shower the day Barry died. Your comment on the film's homophobia is duly noted, but I actually find the characters of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd as portrayed by Bruce Glover and Putter Smith to be quite charming. They're certainly nowhere near as offensive as caricatures like Sharon Stone's character in Basic Instinct, and they're another big part of what I like about the film.

Tim said...

We make a terrifyingly similar number of the same arguments in our two reviews of this one. A sign, perhaps, of how extremely stiff and obvious the whole movie is.

Neil Fulwood said...

Re-reading your review, Tim, it's scary how many parallels there are. I think the one thing that saves it for me is Lana Wood pandering to my obsession with brunettes.