Sunday, August 7, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Diamonds are Forever (1971)

(Directed by Guy Hamilton)
Bond (Sean Connery) returns after some time off from government duty which, while hardly relaxing, was nonetheless ‘most satisfying.’ He and M (Bernard Lee) are invited to discuss with the representative of a significant British diamond mining company operating in South Africa, a Commonwealth country. It appears that the precious jewels are being smuggled by larger portions than ever before, and 007 is tasked with investigating the how and the why. His investigation leads him to Amsterdam and a well known smuggler, Peter Franks, whom he kills and impersonates, as well Franks’ American accomplice, the street wise and sexy Tiffany Case (Jill St. John).

The mysterious diamond trail takes them to one of the most popular and bloated cities in the United States: Las Vegas, As the clues begin to fall into place, 007 discover that rather facing a new foe, the perpetrator behind the smuggling is in fact the nightmarishly familiar figure of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (James Gray), who is using the most state of the art technology by harnessing the potential of the diamonds into a laser satellite powerful enough to destroy the world...

I am a movie fan who, in almost all cases, refuses to live with the ‘what if’ mentality. On the few occasions when I give it a try, it has only led to more frustration and energy needlessly spent. Evaluate the movie on its own terms and nothing more. Notice that I wrote ‘in almost all cases’, because for the occasion of Guy Hamilton’s 1971 Bond flick Diamonds are Forever, we are going to make an exception. What if Diamonds are Forever and its predecessor, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, had been written and produced in our day and age? OHMSS had emotional gravitas and virtually none of the previous instalments provided. It was huge in scope, literally, with much of the movie taking place and shot in the Swiss Alps. The villain’s plot, while certainly sparkling with a bit of the sci-fi and fantastical, was mischievous and subtle at the same time. To top it off, it ended with tragedy. Seriously, what a movie!1969 audiences, unaccustomed to someone else playing 007 and a Bond adventure that does not entirely end well (Bond does win, but he also loses) did not care much for it.

Enter Diamonds are Forever, which is, in so many ways, a joke of a movie. Box office and fan disappointment compelled the producers to immediately return to the formula that made the franchise a rousing success in the early to mid-sixties. In fact, DAF has often been (rightfully) compared to Goldfinger, the biggest and by many accounts the best Bond of them all, both at the time and today still. Goldfinger sees Bond spend most of the film in the U.S, so the same happens in DAF. Goldfinger has at the story’s starting point the smuggling of a precious material (gold), so does DAF (diamonds, duh). Shirley Bassey sung the title song for Goldfinger, and so she is back for DAF. Goldfinger featured a Bond girl who was hard to get at, savy, sophisticated, sexy and worked for the enemy (Pussy Galore), so DAF tries to go for the same with Tiffany Case. The small problem, tiny really, is that almost everything about DAF is worse than what we had in Goldfinger. A whole lot worse.

One can completely understand the worries of a studio and producers when a film which is part of a franchise performs below expectations. The gut instinct is to try to recapture what exactly made said franchise popular in the first place. In makes sense, I get it that part, I honestly do. But in the case of Diamonds are Forever, that decision is so terribly frustrating. OHMSS was so rich in drama and featured a much more mature version of Bond while paying respect to many of the series’ staples, that watching DAF, a movie in which an elephant plays a slot machine in Las Vegas, a man dies in a mud bath, and where the homosexuality of a couple who are assassins is supposed to provide chuckles, can only lead to embitterment and disappointment. I want to apologize in advance people who in 1971 paid to see this movie and enjoyed it, but you’re idiots. Is it highly ironic how time has treated these two films. Today, in 2011, OHMSS is regarded as one of the better chapters in the series and, by a few people, the very best. DAF on the other hand ranks low on almost anybody’s Bond movie list.In fact, if I were to be even more categorical than I already have been thus far in the review, how exactly can it not rank low? It has Connery’s worst performance as 007, a female lead who is written in ridiculously inconsistent fashion, the worst of the Blofelds (the others being the ones from You Only Live Twice and OHMSS), a really uninspiring primary destination in Las Vegas, a super boring villain’s plot and one of the worst ‘big’ climaxes of the entire series. 

First things first, if you are a film producer, director or what have you, you have just have to know that you are playing with fire if you beg an actor, who wants no part of your movie, to be the star. Sean Connery announced while filming You Only Live Twice that he was quitting the role. By the fifth movie, it was growing a bit tiresome and the media publicity was getting on his nerves. But panic got the better of the producers and so they threw bags of money at Connery’s feat. Connery, a smart man if I may write so, finally accepted but donated the entirety of his salary to film society back in his home of Scotland for young actors who were having trouble breaking into the business. While the man’s gesture was nice, it didn’t result in a good performance for the film in question. I mean, it is still Connery, and he can effortlessly pull off so many kinds of cheeky lines that it almost makes the overt silliness of the endeavour forgivable, but not quite in the end. After all, most of his performance is just that, smiling and half-heartedly giving away one-liners. He doesn’t seem too concerned with the fact that Blofeld, the man who murdered his wife is still alive. Oh, you again? A pity... Physically, Connery is clearly in worse shape than back in the 60s. Credit where credit is due though, since there is one short scene in which Bond engages the real Peter Franks in a close quarters brawl within an elevator (or ‘lift’) that works really well. Apart from that, while Connery was still a beast of a man compared to many, he just does not look at good as he did back when. The silly little duck and role he performs during the pre-title sequence, his embarrassingly slow reflexes when confronting two female assassins (Bambi and Thumper! Check out Bill’s Disney marathon!), etc. His previous Bond films were not from all that longer ago by this time, so seeing him like this is a big letdown. I honestly hate writing this, but everything about Connery in this movie smacks of laziness. We might enjoy his charm, and the guy is charming, even in DAF to an extent, but it doesn’t cut it.

Others do not fair much better. Jill St. John, who obviously is a beautiful woman and talented as well, is given a character who is so poorly written. As mentioned previously, it is really the inconsistency of the character which annoys the most. One moment she is calm, cool and collected, the next she behaves like a ditsy bimbo. I like a little bit of strength of character mixed in with some vulnerability, but with Tiffany Case, the writers go overboard in both departments. Charles Gray, who is a fine actor, does not make for an interesting Blodelf. His predecessor, Telly Savalas, had such a sure hand and oozed of confidence in his villainy. Here again, it feels as though the filmmakers are desperately trying to jettison everything memory pertaining to OHMSS. Gray, in the role of Blofeld, is more whiny and too precious. He even impersonates a woman at one point when attempting to flee Las Vegas. Really? Blofeld cross dresses now? Ugh. What is there to be said of the two gay assassins, Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover) and Mr. Kid (Putter Smith). There are moments when the film awkwardly tries to go for some comedy because of their sexual orientation and it never lands. It also does not help that neither was an experienced actor, and it definitely shows in many scenes. Just poor performances overall. 

DAF is littered with other problems. Near the end, when Blofeld tests out his satellite laser, the special effects look horrendous, even by 1971 standards, as if the effects shots were rushed. Even Blofeld’s plot, which is essentially to hold the world ransom while he threatens to destroy entire cities with the use of this new space gun, is boring and useless. Maybe a Bond film based solely on diamond smuggling would feel too small, but what the filmmakers go for here is preposterous. There are also individual action scenes that look terrible. The space buggy chase in the Nevada desert tries to make the viewer think that the vehicles are moving faster than they actually are. The car chase at night in the streets of Las Vega is sloppy in how the cops are utterly pathetic. Finally, there is the climax, which is basically a slow shootout atop an oil rig. The location does not look the least bit interesting (a major problem in a Bond film if your location does is not stimulating to the eyes or mind) and the action itself is plain old unexciting.

There you have it. Diamonds are Forever marks an underwhelming return to the franchise for both Sean Connery and director Guy Hamilton. In the case of Connery, it would be his very final official Bond movie. Guy Hamilton would stick around for a short while longer...



John Gilpatrick said...

Definitely one of the weaker Bond films, especially coming off the heels of OHMSS....

Just came across your blog...great work, keep it up!

edgarchaput said...

@thank you very much.

Dan said...

I'm with you on this one. It's arguably the worst Bond film and easily the at the bottom of the Connery movies. Along with St. John's awful character, Connery looks like he's aged 15 years since You Only Live Twice. Just brutal.

edgarchaput said...

@Dan: It would seem that you and I have very similar Bond sensibilities. You've agreed with almost every review I have published so far!

About 'DAF', it's that older Connery look that just might bug me more than anything in the movie. This came out 4 years after YOLT, and, does he ever look out of shape compared to his 1967 self.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Yes. weren't around at the time of the film's release (sorry if that sounds patronizing—it's not meant to be—but it's easy to dismiss DAF when you see it back to back with OHMSS. Wait two years between them and see if you have the same reaction).

DAF is very much of its times and is the way it is because of the less than enthusiastic reponse OHMSS produced in critics and audiences, and the purpose was to return to the style of cheeky entertainment-romp that Goldfinger represented (Goldfinger's smarter brother was to be the villain for a time). Connery was not in good shape for this film but his performance was (I would argue) far better than his walk-through of You Only Live Twice, and he does some great things with the dialogue by Tom Mankiewicz which shows occasional wit (at times, although the writing for Tiffany Case and other characters is frequently terrible).

Ken Adam's design for the film is mind-blowing.

The special effects were bad for 1971? Only if the only movie you've seen is 2001: A Space Odyssey. For the time, the FX were far above par (you HAVE just seen YOLT and OHMSS, yes?) being handled by Albert Whitlock (Universal's FX specialist) and Wally Veever (who'd sueprevised 2001). The FX were done on a smaller budget, but for the time they were pretty impressive. One needs to be careful when reviewing older films (and certainly series films) that one factors in the times in which they were made, and adjusts one's distain accordingly.

Oh, and the mud burial?...came from Fleming (one of the few things actually taken from the book) as well as a discreet implication that Wint and Kidd were homosexual.