Welcome to James Bond Revisited, a series where I watch and review every James Bond film leading up to the 25th film in the franchise No Time To Die, set to release this November. Today, we examine 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever.
As the world entered the 1970s, producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli found themselves at a crossroads. For the second time in as many years, the series which began in 1962, found itself without a 007.
While On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stands out today, the film received mixed reviews. Audiences were unwilling to accept George Lazenby as the new James Bond and the actor left the series.
Why did Lazenby exit? The historical record is unclear. Some say Lazenby left following the advice of his agent who said James Bond was old news. Others say it was the Studio that gave him the boot. Whichever way you slice it, Lazenby was out, turning down a seven-film contract. To this day, he remains the only actor in the official series to play James Bond only once.
The producers cast a wide net, offering the role to Michael Gambon, but even auditioning American stars like John Gavin, Burt Reynolds, and Adam West. However, the studio insisted that Sean Connery return, and return he did, making a record-breaking $1.25 million salary, which he donated to a charity for Scottish workers.
The paycheck turned out to be worth it, with the film earning $116 million on a $7.2 million budget but was it really worth dragging Connery back for one final hurrah? Let’s find out as we review Diamonds are Forever.
James Bond Revisited: Diamonds Are Forever
The film opens with James Bond pursuing and brutally torturing SPECTRE agents in an attempt to find Blofeld (Charles Gray) and avenge the death of Tracy from the previous film. Bond catches up to Blofeld who is caught trying to make decoys of himself. Bond defeats Blofeld’s goons and kills Blofeld.
Later, Bond is tasked with uncovering a diamond smuggling ring. Meanwhile, two assassins/lovers named Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (Bruce Glover and Putter Smith) are assassinating diamond smugglers around the world. Bond travels to Amsterdam where he poses as a smuggler named Peter Franks and meets with one of the diamond smugglers, Tiffany Case (Jill St. John). However, the real Peter Franks shows up and Bond is forced to kill him in an elevator. He swaps IDs and Tiffany concludes that he just killed James Bond (who I guess is now a famous spy?).
Bond and Tiffany smuggle the diamonds into Las Vegas by hiding them in the corpse offscreen. Mr. Bond heads to a crematorium where he retrieves the diamonds and gives them to a smuggler/standup comic named Shady Tree. Bond is attacked by Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd and almost cremated alive but fortunately, he is saved by Shady Tree who discovers that the diamonds were fake!
Bond heads to a Las Vegas casino where he meets a gambler named Plenty O’Toole (Lana Wood) and invites her to his bedroom where they are ambushed and Plenty is thrown out a window, landing in the pool below. Bond tells Tiffany to retrieve the real diamonds from the Circus Circus Casino and to meet him back at the hotel. Tiffany retrieves the diamonds but decides to run and hands them off to the next smuggler. However, she has a change of heart when she learns that Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd have killed Plenty, thinking she was Tiffany. She agrees to help James and takes him to meet the smuggler, Professor Metz.
Bond learns that Professor Metz is a laser refraction specialist and that he is actually building a satellite for a billionaire hotel owner, Willard Whyte. Mr. Bond is caught but escapes on a moon buggy of all things.
Bond confronts Whyte only to find two Blofeld’s. It turns out Blofeld has been making look-alikes and has also been impersonating Willard Whyte. Bond kicks Blofeld’s white cat to see who it runs to and assassinates Blofeld, only to discover that even the cat has body doubles and that he merely killed the decoy. Bond is subdued by Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd and left to die in a pipeline.
Bond escapes and with a little help from Q, tracks down the kidnapped billionaire. Mr. Bond saves Whyte but learns that Tiffany has been abducted by Blofeld in the meantime.
Bond and Whyte deduce that Blofeld is creating a laser satellite using the smuggled diamonds. But they’re too late! The satellite is already in orbit and after destroying nuclear weapons in China, Russia, and the US, Blofeld holds the entire world to ransom!
Whyte and Bond figure out that Blofeld is operating from an oil rig. Bond must get to the oil rig and switch out a cassette with control codes. Bond finds Tiffany playing submissive to win Blofeld’s favor. She helps Bond swap the cassette and the CIA launches an attack on Blofeld, who attempts to flee, leaving all his compatriots to perish.
Blofeld escapes in a tiny submarine but Bond captures him with a crane, swinging him into the control room and destroying the base in the process.
Bond and Tiffany board a cruise ship to England. They are attacked by Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd posing as waiters but Bond kills them first.
An Attempt to Recapture the Glory Days
Diamonds Are Forever reeks of desperation. Terrified that audiences and critics would abandon 007, the producers played it safe, deliberately attempting to recapture the magic of Goldfinger. Indeed, Diamonds Are Forever is such a retread, the film brings back not only Sean Connery but Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton and Goldfinger singer, Shirley Bassey. At one point, the plot even had Gert Fröbe returning as Auric Goldfinger’s twin brother!
Even though Goldfinger was merely six years old at the time, everyone involved feels positively ancient. The film lacks the spark and humor of Goldfinger. Gone are the memorable villains and unexpected plots, and more tragically, so is any sense of danger or suspense. Diamonds Are Forever intends to be a lark and ends up being a dud.
If the series has shown us (and will continue to show us) one thing time and time again, it is that rigidly adhering to a formula is hardly a guarantee of merit.
Diamonds Are Forever marks a return to “safe ground” following On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but that ground is swamp grass, and Connery’s last effort sinks in it.
The Bond Song/Title Sequence
“Diamonds never lie to me. For when love’s gone, they luster on.”
‘Diamonds Are Forever’ opens with a striking chord before sliding into an elegant melody orchestrated by Bond alumni John Barry.
The lyrics were provided once again by Don Black, however, one can’t help but wish that the lyrics had a little more to do with the plot. True, diamonds are used in Blofeld’s satellite but the song is not from Blofeld’s point of view. Don Black had previously written ‘Thunderball’, recorded by Tom Jones, and in a logical world, Bassey and Jones would have switched songs since Tom Jones is a staple of the Las Vegas scene.
Admittedly, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is a good song well sung. While it doesn’t achieve quite the legendary status of ‘Goldfinger’, the song is often cited as one of the very best Bond songs, and Bassey’s last, long note proves that she still had it.
Rumor has it that Saltzman disapproved of the song and the innuendo in the lyrics. Boy, can you imagine how he must have felt listening to ‘The Man With The Golden Gun‘?
The visuals, on the other hand, are a different issue entirely. Watching these films in chronological order, patterns begin to emerge. In this case, the opening credits tend to be an accurate precursor of what’s to come. For example, the honor of the first “true” Bond credits sequence belongs to Goldfinger, which is also the first film to perfect the Bond Formula. Casino Royale drops most of the said formula in favor of radical, new energy and it’s opening credits are completely animated and doesn’t include a single naked woman!
In this case, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ warns the audience that they are about to sit through a tiring slog. The visuals are lazy and uninspired, showing women wearing diamond jewelry over black backgrounds. The credits lack any of the elegance or glamour that the title suggests. The sequence can’t even muster up the strength to match the sleaze of Las Vegas, the closest we get is Blofeld’s “pussy” between a woman’s legs.
It is less of an opening title sequence and more a harbinger of doom.
Sean Connery: Too Old to Spy
As mentioned above, Sean Connery was paid a staggering $1.25 million dollars to return, signing a two-picture deal, though only one materialized. Ultimately, this was for the best.
From the moment he appears onscreen, it is apparent that Sean Connery is too old for the part. With his lethargic attitude and broad figure, he looks more like a used-car salesman than an international spy. Connery was only 40 years old at the time of filming, but a bad toupee and leather face age him uncomfortably. With his youth and vitality gone, so goes the fantasy. The films are not willing to acknowledge Connery’s age and suddenly the movie less a fantasy for the audience and more a fantasy for middle-aged men.
If you thought Connery didn’t care while filming You Only Live Twice, prepare yourself for a performance that becomes the picture definition of the word ‘flaccid.’ Connery is widely regarded as the best Bond not because he was the first, but because he played the part with glee. He pulled a sly smirk when he outsmarts a baddie, with a glint of confidence in his eye and he portrayed the sudden violence inherent in the character with an honest intensity. Watching Connery go from jovial to threatening sends shivers down your spine. But nine years on, and it is clear that Connery is simply done playing James Bond. His own lavish lifestyle had surpassed the character.
However, unlike You Only Live Twice, where Connery was less engaged in an otherwise engaging movie, in Diamonds Are Forever, the entire crew seems to be asleep at the wheel.
A Wheezy Finale
Guy Hamilton directs Diamonds Are Forever with a been-there-done-that attitude. Just about every scene feels as though it was figured out on the set the day of filming.
However, there is one glorious sequence, and it is at the very beginning. The film almost explodes with energy in its first minute, as Bond pursues Blofeld with laser focus. We begin with an appropriately sparkly gunbarrel sequence before we radial out to Japan. The movie opens with vim as Bond throws a criminal through a door. Then, it’s on to Cairo, where a gambler in a fez says “hit me” before Bond spins him around and fulfills his request. The baddie flies backward onto a roulette wheel which takes his fez off and spins it around the table. Bond then interrogates a woman sunbathing. Bond choking a woman with her own bikini saying, “speak up, darling. I can’t hear you” as she gasps for breath is twisted, violent, and 100% James Bond.
This beginning is ALIVE! It MOVES! It has energy, determination, and INTENT. Then it’s all over. One minute and thirty-four seconds into a 125-minute movie and we’ve already reached the peak of what this film is capable of.
From there on, clumsy wide shots are the name of the game. Connery has a “are we done?” look and I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me they had ten minutes to capture every shot. The only scenes that sparkle are the scenes without him, save one fight scene in an elevator about halfway through the film.
The producers have failed to recognize a truism of the Bond series which will continue to dog it for decades to come; as much as Bond is known for its extravagant set pieces, it’s most tense fights tend to be it’s most intimate.
Diamonds Are Forever may be a flop, but to its credit, the film provides two game actresses, both of whom are ready to play.
The first woman introduced is Plenty O’Toole, played by Lana Wood whose name already sounds like a Bond Girl. Wood was cast after appearing in Playboy. Unfortunately, and probably because of her modeling background, she is subjected to the most lecherous writing the series has yet seen. She is man-handled wearing only panties, and the camera lingers on her drowned corpse and seethrough top.
Despite this, Wood is engaging and her performance shows that she’s more than just a body. She’s engaged with the material, which is more than you can say for most of the cast.
Plenty is a thankless character, a sacrificial lamb. Only unlike other women who are fridged to motivate men, here her death serves the purpose to motivate the real Bond Girl of the movie, Tiffany Case.
Tiffany Case is an oasis in the Diamonds Are Forever desert. Apart from having a great name, she has a unique energy that the series has yet to see or since duplicate. She has an American arrogance which allows her to tell Bond to shove it and tell a little boy “go blow up your pants!” Jill St. John (the first actor in this series whose real name is more fun to say than that of her character) is a true scene-stealer. She has real Reba Mcintyre energy and I would argue she is one of the only actors in the movie who knows the tone of the movie she’s in.
She is appropriately fiery and out of her depths and silly when the scenes call for it. Tiffany Case may be afraid but Jill St. John is not.
In recent years, there has been a tendency for Bond Girls to look back on their roles with a twinge of embarrassment. Not so for Jill St. John. She gets that these movies are all meant to be in good fun, and whether or not you agree with her philosophy, it is hard to deny that she is having fun with the part.
The only other shining light in the film belongs to Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd, the lover/assassins. As Bond receives his assignment from M, we intercut with footage of the diamond smuggling operation, as everyone who handles the diamonds is systematically and brutally murdered by a pair of creepy killers. Individually, they are unsettling, especially Mr. Kidd and his absurd hair, but put them together, and you have yourself a winning formula. These two are unnerving on-sight without seeming threatening which allows them to get the drop on their prey.
Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd are also the first characters in the series to be coded gay. You might think this would be the kind of thing to date the movie poorly. On the contrary, their relationship is handled with tact. The movie never implies that these killers are bad because they are gay, merely that they are gay and bad.
However, they are not the only double team in the movie. There is also the inexplicably named Bambi & Thumper, a pair of bikini-clad gymnastic bodyguards. Among the James Bond superfans, these ladies have a favorable reputation, but I can only assume it is because the image of half-naked women doing backflips in a Bond film is titillating. Their scene is poorly edited with no score to speak of, and the way they are dispatched leaves much to be desired. Their fight combined with Connery and that stupid pink tie represent Diamonds at peak dad-fantasy.
But Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd and Bambi & Thumper are small potatoes compared to the main baddie. Unfortunately, he gets his own chapter.
Blofeld? More like BLOW-feld!
While Connery may have returned to the franchise, Donald Pleasance did not. Instead, we have Charles Gray, our third Blofeld in the franchise. To put it plainly, Gray is the campy Blofeld. He’s simultaneously classy and flamboyant. He demands dignity and respect but is not above dawning drag to escape in a crowded casino. He is the Frasier of Blofelds. What is particularly interesting is that Gray was already a Bond alumnus having played Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice.
Blofeld is often credited as Bond’s nemesis; the Joker to his Batman, the Moriarty to his Sherlock. The only reason this is the case is that he has shown up over several films. There are many Bond Baddies with more iconic looks, schemes, and henchmen, but somehow Blofeld is the top of the villain heap. Heck, Blofeld isn’t the person to kill Tracy in the last film, Irma Bunt was!
Gray is a suitable Blofeld. His cocked eyebrow and near-constant sneer are fun, but there’s no denying that he is a disappointment considering this is Blofeld’s final official appearance until Spectre in 2015. For Connery’s final outing as 007, the audience thirsts for the last great adventure. They want Bond to go off against his greatest foe yet! Instead, we get a feckless thug who gets jerked around in a little submarine.
Final Thoughts on Diamonds Are Forever
Connery’s last official adventure as James Bond is a real bummer, but it did teach us one thing, we can’t be too precious about our James Bonds. Not a single actor has gotten to ride off into the sunset on a high note knowing they would never play the role again.
Every single actor has been cut off after a disastrous final outing (Connery, Moore, and Brosnan), or had their future films swept out from under them (Lazenby and Dalton). Daniel Craig is unique in that he knew going into No Time To Die that it was going to be his final farewell. Whether or not its any good has yet to be seen.
Diamonds Are Forever was a box office smash but it was still only the third highest-grossing film of 1971. Audience reactions were decidedly mixed. America was still at war with Vietnam and darker, grittier films with cynical anti-heroes like The French Connection, Chinatown, and Death Wish were about to rise to prominence. You’d think a brooding misogynist like James Bond would thrive in that environment, which makes Eon Productions’ decision to go silly all the more baffling.
Connery’s final performance closes the book on this incarnation of James Bond, and a legal dispute between Broccoli & Saltzman and Kevin McClory prevented future Bond films from using Blofeld or SPECTRE for decades. Diamonds Are Forever effectively ended the Connery era for good. But when God closes a door, he opens a window.
The producers set about finding a new Bond, and this time, the new guy would stick.
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