Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Diamonds Are Forever: A Review


Oh My Diamond Girl...

Please visit the James Bond Film Retrospective for all the Bond reviews.

After George Lazenby left the James Bond series after just one turn, for our seventh James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever, we go back to the Gold Standard of Bonds.  Sean Connery takes his (official) last bow as 007 in DAF, which is a very important film in the James Bond canon.

It is the first Bond film of the 1970s.  It's main Bond Girl is an attempt to give a shout-out to the growing feminist movement (as much as the Lothario Bond could, but it was a step and we'll get to that in a minute).  It is also the first Bond film that does away with what little sense of continuity the series had starting from the first Bond film. 

The end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service makes barely a dent in Diamonds Are Forever, almost to where it never happened.  Also, rather than have SPECTRE as the source of the mayhem, we have reduced it to one evil genius, Blofeld (Charles Gray, taking over from Telly Savalas in OHMSS, who took over Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice).  Moreover, if one had seen the previous Bond films, having Gray as Blofeld would have made no sense, given he had already appeared in YOLT and been promptly killed in it.  Finally, DAF is the first Bond film that appears to have decided that it was not going to be strictly about espionage and take things seriously.  Instead, there was going to be a strong amount of camp on all sides, but despite that, I rather enjoyed Diamonds Are Forever, even if perhaps from now on the Bond franchise would suffer in reputation. 

In almost every way, DAF decides to ostensibly cut ties to all that came before, but for all intents and purposes now opts to be less a series of films than a case-by-case franchise, where things that occurred before don't really matter all that much now.   However, I'm getting far ahead of myself.

MI6 is suspicious of diamond smuggling where the diamonds are spirited out of South Africa but don't show up on the market, black or otherwise.  For that, they turn to James Bond (Connery) to investigate.  He is to go under the name of Peter Franks, a smuggler they've captured, and get in touch (interpret that any way you like) with his contact, fellow smuggler Tiffany Case (Jill St. John).  Unfortunately for both Bond and Franks, the latter escapes.  Tiffany, believing Bond to be Franks (and that 'Franks' killed Bond), now is desperate to get the diamonds out of The Netherlands and on to America.

It's off to Las Vegas, where the drop is to take place.  While there, we discover that the mobsters bringing in the diamonds have been duped: the rocks are fake.  The mobsters, unfortunately, figure this out, so despite the plans of professional hitmen Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover) and Mr. Wint (Putter Smith) who were thisclose to bumping off Bond, he now has to stay alive to bring the real diamonds.  At the center of this smuggling operation is reclusive billionaire Willard Whyte, owner of the Whyte House Hotel and Casino.  Even the charms of young Plenty O'Toole (Lana Wood) can't stop the mob from going after the diamonds or Tiffany from going after both Bond and the diamonds.  While Tiffany is able to put two and two together about who Bond really is, the mob takes a little longer.  Of course, Tiffany wants nothing but the diamonds and doesn't know or really care about anything else. 

Now Bond wants to find out what exactly Willard Whyte has to do with all this.  As it stands, he doesn't.  It's Blofeld, apparently back from the dead (having apparently been killed in the pre-title scene), aided by a voice modulator to sound less like a fey Englishman and more like a redneck.  Bond escapes, and finds that Blofeld will use the diamonds as part of a superweapon to which to blackmail the world (if anything, Blofeld always thinks big).  He has conned a pacifist scientist to do the work, and Blofeld thinks his henchmen Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd have gotten rid of Bond. 

Ultimately, Bond finds the real Willard Whyte (country star Jimmy Dean) who was unaware of anything going on (apart from having two beautiful and dangerous bodyguards named Bambi and Thumper).  Blofeld makes a daring drag, taking a Tiffany Case with him.  Eventually, Bond tracks Blofeld to a giant oil rig, and an epic battle ensues for the safety of the world. 

As I've said, Diamonds Are Forever is the Bond film where everything that had been built up previous pretty much just went out the window.  I don't think DAF is a bad film.  It's certainly entertaining, moving along so well that one hardly notices that two hours have passed. 

However, as I thought about it more and more I kept thinking that there were a great many elements within DAF that made the whole thing into a joke, always a dangerous sign.  First is director Guy Hamilton's decision to make Blofeld into this bizarre comical foil.  When Blofeld escapes the hotel with his pussy in his hands looking like he's on his way to an audition for La Cage Aux Folles, you've officially left the point of sanity.  You can't take it seriously (especially when you see him in that outfit) and given Gray's performance in DAF, you can't believe he would find much interest in having breakfast at Tiffany's.

In fact, there is a rather odd gay subtext in DAF, not just because of how Blofeld is portrayed.  While never overtly stated, there is a strong suggestion that the henchmen Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint are lovers.  When we first see them, they end their scene by holding hands.  When Mr. Kidd (the bald one) comments that Bond's "lady friend" is attractive, Mr. Wint (the non-bald one), glowers at him, with Mr. Kidd almost sheepishly adding "for a girl".   They are suppose to be ruthless killers, but they do come off (in not come out) as if they are there for laughs (even if the humor between them is rather dark, even gruesome).

The script by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz has a great deal of humor both verbal and visual (the sight of poor Tiffany Case falling off the rig after being overwhelmed with firing the automatic weapon had me laughing).  Too often in the story (already far-fetched even for a Bond film) the story decides to go for the quick laugh, even when trying to be exciting.  There is a chase involving Bond using a lunar car to avoid a group of Whyte/Blofeld's men that is interesting but that also looks funny (intentionally or not). 

Some of the characters also lend themselves for laughs, everyone from the mortician Morton Slumber (seriously) to the bad Borscht Belt comic/diamond smuggler Shady Tree (although having two beautiful assistants he calls his "Acorns" is amusing) right down to the two bodyguards Bambi and Thumper.  Going on to them, one becomes confused as to what exactly the point of Bambi and Thumper were.  It's obvious Whyte knew about them, since he mentions them with pride, but if he's not part of this scheme (just a really exuberant fella who is also a weird Howard Hughes-like recluse), why would he want such lunatics as Bambi and Thumper to guard him?

Furthermore, it might have been a nice nod to popular taste to cast Jimmy Dean as the reclusive Mr. Whyte, but he can't be said to give an actual performance, running through his lines as if they were holding up for something better.  One can't say he was devouring the scenery, but Dean was apparently unaware that DAF is suppose to be an espionage thriller.  Instead, with his flaying and shoutin' all over the place, he comes off like a hick on a rampage. 

Now, there are some entertaining things within DAF that make it if not logical, at least entertaining.  At the top of the list is Jill St. John as the devious and delightful Tiffany Case (granted, it's a curious name, but after Pussy Galore, it's remarkably normal).  I've long argued that when a Bond Girl is a genuine actress, the part is elevated, and St. John is no exception.  Her Tiffany Case is comic but also shrewd and manipulative, knowing full well that her body is just as powerful a weapon as her mind.  Earlier, I mentioned that DAF is an effort to tap into the growing feminist movement.  In many ways, Tiffany Case is almost a comic foil (see when she falls from the oil rig while clumsily trying to blow away the minions).  However, in her own way, Tiffany is nobody's fool. 

She is perfectly willing to use her feminine charms to get her way, and she also a strong woman who is a professional in her illegal line of work.  Moreover, St. John makes the character work by being clever in her smuggling and in how she doesn't flinch from danger, at least at first.  Later on she becomes less a partner and more a frightened passenger, but given that for most of DAF Tiffany Case takes charge and is her own woman, it is a step in the right direction.

I think Connery did well as Bond, returning after dropping out of the role.  He's certainly an older, perhaps more sober Bond, and he has the old Bond charm.  However, at times even he veers off into camp (in particular when dealing with Bambi and Thumper, a scene that adds nothing to whatever the plot of Diamonds Are Forever are). 

Truth be told, the scheme to use diamonds as part of a superweapon does appear rather bizarre, even lunatic (and the fact that this is the second Bond film to use space...the final frontier, as a backdrop doesn't help). 

I'll address that Diamonds Are Forever is a time capsule of what 70s Las Vegas was, especially given how Fremont Street (the center of the best action/chase scene in the film) is now closed to traffic for the Fremont Street Experience.  It will be interesting for future generations to see how Sin City once had traffic flow so freely through somewhat more seedy streets as compared to the remarkably upmarket area the heart of the town is.  Whatever sleaze in Las Vegas today is not where the big casinos (such as the Golden Nugget or Circus Circus, where a major part of DAF takes place), and DAF will give people a taste of what was. 

Diamonds Are Forever has one too many negatives (the campy nature of the villains, the curious homosexual subtext of the henchmen, the ludicrous plot, the antagonist in drag, the comic take on the plot) to be among the best Bond films.  However, I would be lying if I didn't say I enjoyed it.  Let's just say that this film is a Diamond in the Rough...

Certainly the UGLIEST Bond Girl...

Next James Bond Film: Live And Let Die


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