James Bond Retrospective: Diamonds Are Forever

So On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) ended on a tragic, serious note. The entire film was a departure from the Bond sensibilities, and the audience of the time did not like it. Eager to reclaim some of their glory and missing ticket sales, the producers decided to completely abandon everything that was good about Lazenby’s only adventure and try to make another Connery schlockfest. So we get one of the worst films in the franchise:

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

Okay, this is my last chance to make fun of Sean. Yet I’m strangely compelled to comment on the tie.

Out of the sixties and into the hellfire that is the seventies. The new decade could have promised more of a change for Bond, but it didn’t. The fear of alienating the giant, international audience of the first few films meant another On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (we’re just going to call it OHMSS for short now) was not going to be in the cards any time soon. If you don’t want to read too much into this review, basically: it’s another comedy, every previous cliché is not forgotten, and people need to be careful what they wish for.

The Plot

The end of OHMSS is mostly ignored, but Bond is nevertheless hellbent on finding Blofeld. He tracks him down in a facility dedicated to creating Blofeld doppelgängers and drowns him in weird molding goo. Save the thought you just had for later.

Someone is stockpiling South African diamonds and Britain wants to know how. They put Bond on the case and send him to Amsterdam. He meets smuggler Tiffany Case under the guise of professional smuggler and assassin Peter Franks. They sneak the diamonds onto the real Franks’s body (whom Case thinks is Bond) and go to Vegas for delivery.

There’s a lot of diamond drama. Two henchmen named Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd kill diamond smugglers and take their diamonds, and Bond escapes death and gets ambushed multiple times because the CIA has given him fake diamonds.  We’re going to ignore all that and just say eventually Case figures out Franks is really Bond and joins his side to cooperate with the investigation and not go to prison or die. The focal building in all this is the Whytehouse, which is a casino owned and operated by a reclusive Howard Hughes analog named Willard Whyte.

I prefer all my clones to wear human skin suits that look like me

Bond follows the Whytehouse’s manager Bert Saxby to a secret lab owned by Whyte. There’s a laser that utilizes diamond refraction, and Bond escapes a chase via moon buggy. Yes, you read that right. Bond goes back to Vegas to speak with Whyte only to discover Blofeld is actually impersonating Whyte. Not only that, but there are two Blofelds. Blofeld didn’t die in the opening, it was an impostor! WHAAAAAAA-

Bond kills the other doppelgänger and is then gassed and kidnapped by Wint and Kidd, and into another deathtrap. He gets out, tracks down the real Whyte, and discovers the evil plan. Blofeld has used the diamond laser in a satellite to destroy every nation’s nuclear stockpile and is going to sell his personal stash to the highest bidder for nuclear supremacy. Whyte helps Bond by telling him that the Baja oil platform is Blofeld’s likely headquarters.

Oh, and Q is in this too.

It is, but Case is kidnapped and Blofeld seems to hold all the cards. When Bond gets there, he switches the activation tape out but Case screws that up. The CIA and Whyte attack the base with helicopters and eventually Blofeld is on the run. Bond takes a crane and throws Blofeld’s escape pod around for fun.

Finally, Bond and Case are on a cruise to go back to Britain. They’re attacked by Wint and Kidd one more time, but Bond kills them. Another joke about diamonds, end credits.

A Closer Look

So ranking this movie makes or breaks a Bond opinion. To many, this is definitively the worst Connery Bond. We’ve seen some bad ones, and the contenders here are Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967).  I think the big problem with Thunderball was it was really boring. YOLT was actually really exciting but had bad dialogue and questionable racial themes. Diamonds isn’t boring and I don’t think it’s necessarily more offensive than a standard Bond film. I think You Only Live Twice had stronger pacing, but my verdict is going to have to be this is better than Thunderball, but not by much.

Plenty O’Toole is probably the most unfortunate name for anyone ever. Pussy Galore is more dignified than that.

This is a film that really fails in its script. I talked it over with one of my Double-O pals and he thought Vegas was an inappropriate setting for Bond. The American gambling capital may have glitz and glamor, but Bond was meant to be classier than the phony opulence of Nevada. I don’t think this is true. Vegas works with Bond. Maybe Mr. Fleming writes a stronger gentleman, but the Bond we see on film has the snobbery of class but all of the crooked smiles of anybody playing craps. This Bond appeals to us sleazy Americans, and that’s good enough to build a setting around.

No, this film is in conflict with itself. The initial diamond plot is grounded and not at all what we are used to seeing Bond do in these films. The Blofeld plot, meanwhile, is at the other end of the bonkers spectrum with fake Blofelds and diamond laser satellites. Blofeld dresses in drag and has his own cat doppelgängers because I guess the Blofeld clones would get lonely? It’s the right kind of funny for me, but the problem is it’s not cohesive. Commitment is really important here, and when Diamonds doesn’t commit to whatever it’s trying to do it comes off as mediocre. The worst thing a Bond movie can be is boring; the second worst thing a Bond movie can be is mediocre. Die Another Day (2002) will do both. Spoiler alert.

What’s Good?

So the other reason this movie is way better than Thunderball is it probably has the best theme song in a Bond film. It’s an absolute banger. Shirley Bassey came back to sing and she’s the undisputed queen of Bond. It’s got the soulful voice, introspective and ominous lyrics, and a bombastic horn section and underlying orchestral score that carries throughout the film. The score throughout this film is really something to praise.

I’m looking at Connery one last time, and honestly? I think he’s trying harder here. The giant amount of money and studio favors thrown his way probably motivated him a bit more than in the previous two. This film’s Bond isn’t demanding, however, so really he’s just able to land his quips properly. His hair also feels more natural, at the cost of showing distinct age. You can see the gray.

Connery’s about to get to the age where his damsels will escort him back to his retirement home.

M, Moneypenny, and Q get some of their best screen time and moments here. Moneypenny less so; her scene was done at the tail end of production and the two weren’t even together for it. Q in particular was the best I’ve seen him so far. I tend to love M because he seems to be the only guy that gets annoyed by Bond. Good moments. Charles Gray is Blofeld this time around. He was already a guy in You Only Live Twice, but screw continuity. Gray isn’t trying too hard and is really just hamming it up. It works for the material given, but it’s the most underwhelming Blofeld performance. I’m not gonna insult the guy for it.

What’s Bad?

These guys.

I hate Kidd and Wint. They’re awful. They’re about as whimsical and third-rate as a pair of television henchmen without any sort of physicality or personality. Creepy doesn’t sell a henchmen. A human walrus and Crispin Glover’s dad are not good henchmen. Who is responsible for this? Didn’t they have test audiences back then or something? They suck the life out of every scene they’re in.

To extend beyond them, the death traps are underwhelming. Bond death traps are only good if there’s a clear visual threat and he is able to escape via wit or something and not the good graces of the plot. Being stuck in a coffin as it’s being cremated? Sounds great on paper, but it’s hard to stage on the screen and he’s saved because the bad guys assumed he still had the real diamonds somewhere. The underground tunnel? Funny, but again, hard to really feel a sense of impending danger or brilliance for Bond escaping when a guy just opens the hatch.

The supporting cast other than the Bond crew are also pretty bad. Tiffany, Plenty, and Felix are fine enough, but Whyte’s crew is really where the Vegas setting fails. Bambi and Thumper are bad in a confusing way, and anyone that’s old or speaks with a Southern accent here are void of anything worth seeing. These sound like small complaints, but they add up.

Looking Forward

We are now done with two actors. We have four more to go. Moore is going to dominate my future with a whopping seven films. At least Connery had a break. I think Moore is going to be interesting, though, because they’re my least visited Bonds, but also because they vary wildly in quality. It’s not even in a consistent decline like Connery. Sometimes they feel like making a completely different movie. After that will be Dalton, but I’m only saying that now so I have something to look forward to.

Bambi and Thumper aren’t very intimidating names for bodyguards. Gymnastics is also not intimidating. Who wrote this again?

What I Drank

I drank the first of many vodka martinis. I drank a gin martini during Dr. No (1962) because I tend to like gin more than vodka, but I had to do this at some point, right? You combine vodka, dry vermouth, and ice in a shaker, shake it, and pour it in a chilled martini glass. Top with an olive for now; we’ll do other garnishes and flavors another time. Vodka in a martini isn’t like vodka in juice or something; flavor really does matter. I’d recommend something triple distilled. Distillation matters, but any more than that and it’s usually a cheap brand trying to mask its taste. You want it to almost taste like nothing. If you’re having trouble putting it down, it’s not worth putting in that glass.

And yes, we shake it. Shaking it breaks the ice up and waters down your drink, but first of all, if you’re making it at home, you shouldn’t worry about how watered down your own drink is. Secondly, we’re in a Bond article. Slave to tradition.

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