Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Eight: Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

By 1970, EON Productions must have been very worried indeed.  The last two films had seen consecutive drops in box office grosses.  From a series high of $141.2 million, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service took around $82 million worldwide, with only $23 million of this at the US box office (against Thunderball‘s c. $63 million).  The leading man had quit the role before the release of the film, and the initial critical reaction to that release had been lukewarm.  After six entries, it looked like James Bond might be reaching the end of the road.

Despite the resignation of George Lazenby, talks continued with him, to see if there was a way to get him to re-commit.  At the same time, the Head of United Artists, David Picker, decreed securing the return of Sean Connery to the role a priority for the studio.  From here on, stories vary, and are plagued by rumours and conflicting accounts.  It is known that the studio cast American actor John Gavin (best known for his role as Sam Loomis in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho).  While a bizarre casting choice (not the last EON would come close to making over the coming decades), it is strongly rumoured that this was, effectively, the same deal offered to Bob Hoskins for Brian De Palma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables.  In that case, filmmakers had wanted Robert De Niro for the role of Al Capone.  When it seemed unlikely that they would secure his participation, they offered Hoskins $250,000 on the basis that they wanted someone else.  If they failed to get that person, Hoskins would play the part: if not, he could keep the money and walk away.  There are stories of a similar arrangement being made here for Gavin: United Artists, more so than EON, wanted Connery or Lazenby – the James Bond, or the most recent James Bond, but Gavin was being hired as a half-a-million-dollar-contingency.

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In the event, Connery agreed to come back, for the then-record $1.25 million.  Much has been made of the fact that he donated this to charity: possibly omitting the fact that he was also granted points for participation – Sean Connery received around $6 million, once box office grosses were taken into account.  This agreement was on the basis that it would be for one film only.  EON were postponing the inevitable.  A long-term replacement would still need to be found, and for as soon as the next film.  For now, their goal must have been to stabilise the fast-dropping financial returns for the series.  At this point, what was needed was a hit, rather than an artistically ambitious film with questionable returns, as was produced last time out.

After the return to Fleming’s source material in adapting On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever moves again – and this time, decisively for the series – in the direction of continuing to use Fleming’s titles, but with varying degrees of distance from the original story.  As with the film, the book was US-based, did deal with diamond smuggling, did have Tiffany Case, Peter Franks, and henchmen Wint and Kidd.  Otherwise, it is a fresh story, re-purposing the Blofeld character (albeit with yet another actor in the role – this time, the decidedly not-bald – or American, as with Telly Savalas – Charles Gray).

In a promising start, James Bond (Sean Connery) is travelling the world, hunting down SPECTRE agents, and demanding to know the location of Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Eventually finding him at a facility where Blofeld is creating lookalikes through plastic surgery, Bond kills Blofeld.  At the same time, Wint and Kidd (Bruce Glover – father of Crispin Glover from Back to the Future – and Putter Smith) are systematically killing off the operatives of a diamond smuggling supply chain.  Bond is sent to meet one of the links in the chain, Tiffany Case (Jill St John), in Amsterdam.  Impersonating the smuggler, Peter Franks, Bond has to kill Franks, when he shows up unexpectedly.  Hiding diamonds in the corpse, Bond accompanies the body to the United States, on the way liaising with the CIA’s Felix Leiter (Norman Burton, in yet another casting change for this character).

With diamonds (eventually found to be fakes) passed on to another link in the chain, stand-up comedian Shady Tree (Leonard Barr), Bond finds himself at The Whyte House, the casino at which Tree performs, and owned by reclusive millionaire, the Howard Hughes-alike Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean).  James’ investigations lead him to find that it is not Whyte residing in the Penthouse, but Blofeld.  Bond had clearly killed one of the many doubles during the earliest section of the film: Bond is met at the penthouse, in fact, by Blofeld and one of the doubles.  Eventually rescuing the real Willard Whyte, Bond and Whyte note that the plans in the now-abandoned penthouse refer to interests off the coast of Baja, California.  As Whyte has no interests there, it becomes clear that this is the base of Blofeld’s operations.  His plan is to utilise a laser satellite he has built using the diamonds he smuggled, the completion of which is the main reason he went ahead and killed off that supply chain.  Already in orbit, the satellite is used by Blofeld to destroy weapons around the world, leaving Blofeld with a strong hand to extort funds from the now weakened nations affected.  Bond must race to an oil platform in Baja, to prevent Blofeld gaining ultimate power over the world’s powers.

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Diamonds Are Forever saw the first contribution to the series of writer Tom Mankiewicz.  Best known as a creative consultant for 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Mankiewicz would go on to write the next two films, along with an early draft of The Spy Who Loved Me.  This was in response to Richard Maibaum’s first draft not being well-received by EON Productions.  That original draft would have seen Gert Frobe return to the series to play Auric Goldfinger’s twin brother.  This is not too surprising when the general parallels in structure to Goldfinger are considered.  This goes for the film generally; it is ‘quippy’, attempts to keep things light, and has none of the ambition and scale of its immediate predecessor.

Diamonds Are Forever is an utter mess, and one of the poorest entries the EON Bond Series ever produced.  Sean Connery appears to be making an effort (contrary to some critical takes on this film), but rarely has James Bond been portrayed as such a misanthrope.  This Bond is simply not in any way likeable: the lines he’s given are not funny; the way he talks to women in the film unpleasant – even given the standards of the time, as Lazenby and even earlier Connery had a much greater degree of charm, friendliness and general approachability to allies than this incarnation.  This isn’t helped by the fact that Connery’s weight fluctuates visibly throughout the film.  It is almost unbelievable that Connery was a mere 40-years of age through the filming of this, and only nine-years on from Dr No.

Supporting players are an extremely mixed bag.  Although popular with some viewers, due to a certain campy charm, this is the weakest incarnation of Blofeld of the three we see in the late-60s and early-70s.  There is no sense of threat, no feel for this being the same man who was so menacing when at Piz Gloria last time out, and a general demeanor around Bond that gives no hint that this is the man that had Tracy killed in the last entry.  Wint and Kidd tend to elicit a Marmite response.  They are distinctive and fun, but definitely part of a film that has no desire to carry on any of the extant plot threads from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  On the latter note, Moneypenny here makes an engagement ring joke to Bond at what amounts to less than 20 minutes in screen time from the death of Bond’s wife.  This film really wants to forget that the previous film ever existed.  Whilst maybe a decent commercial decision, all these years later it leaves an avenue of the series’ history still feeling incomplete.  This is all rounded off by a really weakly-conceived Bond girl.  Tiffany Case begins the film strong and self-assured, and winds up utterly useless at everything she does.  The performance is all bug-eyes in the film’s second-half, and the script leaves her looking as though her sole interest is to get Bond to ensure any criminal charges against her are dropped.  Based on her performance in the first half, actress and character deserved far better.

Design and direction are really poor this time.  Guy Hamilton, returning for the first time since Goldfinger, presides over a film set in a deeply tacky incarnation of Las Vegas.  Someone once described Diamonds Are Forever as looking like it was shot in an ashtray: not a bad way to describe an ugly film.  Action is lazily conceived and shot, as Bond can now knock out assailants by pulling on their arms.  Sloppy errors, such as a car seeming to change which two wheels it was driving on, mid-shot, were made worse by poor attempts to correct this with cheesy character reactions and a half-baked camera flip.  Plot threads often make little sense, such as panic ensuing when Bond and Felix lose Tiffany, only for Bond to appear in her garden in the very next scene.  What was the problem if Bond knows exactly where Case will turn-up?  Any ambiguities arising here, such as who Tiffany liaised with in the period she was out of sight, and where the merchandise she was holding ended up, are resolved instantly.  Characters such as henchwomen Bambi and Thumper, and, indeed Plenty O’Toole (Lana Wood), arrive out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.  It beggars belief that this is the same man who directed Goldfinger.

All of these issues aside, Diamonds Are Forever stopped the bleeding at the box office.  it took $116 million worldwide, with a far-healthier $43 million in the United States.  The band-aid producers had applied by re-hiring Connery had done its job.  The underlying issues remained, however.  The series had yet to prove, conclusively, that it could replace Sean Connery as James Bond.  As the series exited the 1960s – the decade in which James Bond had ruled the world – it faced an uncertain future.  It would take a Saint to take on the role in those circumstances.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Live and Let Die (1973).

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