James Bond Retrospective: Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Following the departure of George Lazenby after just one, producers were left wondering if the success and popularity of the series so far had been down to just one man, Sean Connery.
To mark the 50th Anniversary of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time and as James Bond prepares for his 23rd official outing in Skyfall later this year, I have been tasked with taking a retrospective look at the films that turned author Ian Fleming’s creation into one of the most recognised and iconic characters in film history.
Following the departure of George Lazenby after just one film in the lead role, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were left wondering if the success and popularity of the series so far had been down to just one man, Sean Connery. While Lazenby had made a good impression as Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service his performance was essentially a reinterpretation of Connery rather than a reinvention of the role itself. With the producers keen to cast a new lead they set to work auditioning actors for the part, among them John Gavin (Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus), Adam West (TV’s Batman) and Michael Gambon (at the time best known for the BBC TV series The Borderers).
Gavin was eventually chosen for the role and a contract was signed which would have made him the first American Bond, however David Picker, head of United Artists, with whom Broccoli and Saltzman had released all previous Bond films, demanded that there should be no other choice for the role than Connery and that money was no object if he could be convinced to return. When Connery was approached he was offered the astronomical fee of $1.25 million to return with the additional sweetener of a contract to payroll two more films of his choice for the studio. With Connery back on board, Gavin’s contract was cancelled but Broccoli still honoured the promised salary for the role by way of an apology.
Looking to recapture the formula and standard set by Goldfinger the producers rehired the director responsible for making the third film such a success, Guy Hamilton. Writer Richard Maibaum also returned and this time was joined by young screen writer Tom Mankiewicz who would go on to not only co-write a number of Bond’s future adventures but was also responsible for bringing Superman to the big screen in 1978. Production designer Ken Adam was also invited back to join the crew after his absence from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. With a budget of just over $7 million and Connery back in the lead role, EON productions were all set to take Bond into the 1970s.
While his return to the role was motivated more by money than a fondness for the character, Connery’s performance in Diamonds Are Forever is a lot better than in You Only Live Twice. Whereas before he was clearly jaded after playing the part five times in as many years, he seems to be offering a revised take on the character this time around. Obviously refreshed from a four year break, the confidence and swagger that defined his earlier performances return as he reclaims the character as his own.
Despite Connery approaching middle-age he still pulls off the look of Bond and handles the action just as well as before. With the film’s emphasis on comedy, the one-liners are delivered with ease even if some of them seem like rejects from Carry On films. Even though the overall film is slightly less satisfying than some of his earlier appearances, Connery is faultless and Diamonds Are Forever offers a far more fitting swansong than was offered with You Only Live Twice.
Felix Leiter: I give up. I know the diamonds are in the body, but where?
James Bond: Alimentary, Dr. Leiter….
Pre-Credits & Theme Song
The opening scenes of the film see Bond trying to determine the whereabouts of Ersnt Stavro Blofeld. Following the death of his wife at the end of the previous film, Bond is out for revenge and a neat montage of Bond getting information from a number of Blofeld’s associates is deftly edited beginning the film in style.
After strangling a girl with her own bikini top he finally locates Blofeld in an underground lair where he is creating a number of lookalikes using plastic surgery. Bond kills one of the doubles before finally facing off against Blofeld. Following a brief tussle Blofeld ends up drowned in a pool of boiling hot mud.
The opening is effectively a re-run of the kind of shock opening that worked so well in You Only Live Twice. We are led to believe that a main character has been killed before the opening credits setting up a not all that surprising twist later in the film. It sets the scene perfectly and is also a great re-introduction to Connery’s Bond.
Bond composer John Barry provides the film’s score once again and following the producers’ request to take inspiration from the Goldfinger model for this film, singer Shirley Bassey returns for her second time to perform the theme song. As with Goldfinger, the combination of Barry’s music and Bassey’s vocals, the song benefits from the classic Bond sound and provides the perfect accompaniment to Maurice Binder’s opening titles.
After a series of murders in South Africa linked to diamond smuggling, British secret agent James Bond is sent to Amsterdam to intercept the smuggling ring to determine the whereabouts of a number of missing diamonds. Bond’s investigation leads him to Las Vegas where a reclusive billionaire Willard Whyte is using diamonds to build a satellite in a top secret laboratory.
When Bond breaks into Whyte’s penthouse suite on the top floor of his Vegas hotel he discovers his arch enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld has kidnapped Whyte and assumed his identity to run his latest operation, the launching of the satellite capable of destroying nuclear weapons in a bid to force the nuclear powers into a battle for global supremacy. With the help of CIA operative Felix Leiter and Tiffany Case, a diamond smuggler, Bond sets about bringing an end to Blofeld’s plans.
Right from the start the tone and pace of Diamonds Are Forever differ greatly from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There is the immediate feel of a return to the excesses of previous adventures and a larger than life approach to the characters and situations. Returning production designer Ken Adam’s sets, while not on the same scale as the volcano lair from You Only Live Twice, still have an almost sci-fi ambition with big ceilings and glass floors housing elaborate models.
While the overall plot may not be one of the strongest entries in the series it does find time for a number of well executed set pieces. A fight scene in an Amsterdam lift makes great use of the confined space, Bond’s escape through the desert in a moon buggy is an unusual twist and proves to be a great contrast to the excellent car chase through the streets of Las Vegas culminating with Bond driving a red Ford Mustang Mach I on two wheels through a narrow side alley. As a result of having such good action sequences throughout the running time, the film’s climax is rather underwhelming taking place on board a Californian oil rig which also houses Blofeld’s secret headquarters. The final battle is just a repeat of the final assaults in all the films from Goldfinger to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and is nowhere near as engaging as those that have come before.
Series favourite Felix Leiter returns after an absence of two films, this time played by Norman Burton. In this instance while still Bond’s ally, Leiter is portrayed as a cantankerous man who does not seem to get along with Bond to any real degree. The evolution of the character is quite unusual, not just the fact that he is played by a number of different actors with varying looks and age range but on each separate occasion he appears have a completely different personality. While I can understand the lack of continuity by using different actors but to completely change the characteristics of the role to such a degree just seems bizarre.
The change of tone from the more serious real world aesthetic of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to the slightly more camp, comedic style of Diamonds Are Forever marks a real change of pace for the series however it never descends into self parody, it still retains the founding elements of the series and a respect for the source material. As Bond moves into a new decade it was inevitable that he would need to change with the times and as the first film of the seventies it establishes a style that would develop further over the next ten years.
After Connery’s tired performance in You Only Live Twice he returns to the role with aplomb. There is a laid back familiarity about Diamonds Are Forever that can be attributed to returning director Hamilton and his approach to the Bond formula and while the film is not without its faults it still provides a fitting end to the Connery era.
The Bond Villain
Initially the villain in Diamonds Are Forever was to be Auric Goldfinger’s twin brother and would have been played by Gert Frobe but the idea was soon dropped in favour of continuing the on-going story of the head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. For the fourth time in as many films a new actor was required for the role with the producers choosing British actor Charles Gray, who had already made a brief appearance in the series as Bond’s ally Henderson in You Only Live Twice.
Gray’s performance is probably the least effective of all previous Blofelds. While Donald Pleasance was slightly feeble, he still had an unhinged quality and air of mystery, Telly Savalas played the role as more of a thug and proved to be a more equal match for Bond. Gray on the other hand, portrays Blofeld as a rather effeminate egomaniac and this is no more evident than in the scene where he dons women’s clothing to escape his casino. Having been dispatched far too easily during the opening scenes the big reveal that Willard Whyte is actually Blofeld is far from surprising and by this stage the character is beginning to become tiresome not living up to the expectations set by the stylish build up afforded the character since Dr. No.
Thankfully to make up for the disappointing main villain Diamonds Are Forever features two of the series’ best henchmen, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, Blofeld’s homosexual assassins. Played by jazz musician Putter Smith and Bruce Glover (father of Crispin), the two unlikely hit-men are delightfully eccentric, taking pleasure in the business of killing with terrific dialogue and perfectly timed looks and peculiarities.
Mr. Wint: The scorpion
Mr. Kidd: One of nature’s finest killers, Mr. Wint.
Mr. Wint. One is never too old to learn from a master, Mr. Kidd
Another pairing determined to stand in the way of Bond are Bambi and Thumper, an acrobatic double act guarding Willard Whyte’s desert home. Played by Lola Larson and Trina Parks, a stuntwoman and dancer respectively, they are another unusual couple in that they give Bond quite a beating before he eventually manages to subdue them by holding their heads underwater. Although their scene is brief it still proves to be one of the more memorable scenes from the movie.
The Bond Girl
During a casting call that included Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda, the lead Bond girl role went to Jill St. John. Originally cast in a secondary role, St. John impressed director Hamilton so much he recast her in the lead as diamond smuggler Tiffany Case. As the first all-American Bond girl she is far removed from the earlier European girls of the past. Starting out as an independent strong-willed woman, her character slowly develops into an irritating stereotype by the end of the film which is a shame as she genuinely offers something new and fresh in her earlier scenes.
James Bond: Weren’t you a blonde when I came in?
Tiffany Case: Could be.
James Bond: I tend to notice little things like that – whether a girl is a blonde or a brunette.
Tiffany Case: Which do you prefer?
James Bond: Well, as long as the collar and cuffs match…
Lana Wood, who made her big screen debut in John Ford’s classic western The Searchers before going on to star in long running television series Peyton Place, makes an appearance in a small supporting role as the superbly named Plenty O’Toole. Originally she was to have a larger role after her introduction to Bond in the casino. A deleted scene sees them share dinner before heading back to Bond’s room in the hotel. Following the scene where she is unceremoniously thrown from a balcony into the swimming pool below, there is a further deleted scene that sees her return to Bond’s room only to find him in bed with Tiffany Case. After going through Tiffany’s belongings she finds out where she is staying which leads her straight into the hands of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd who drown her thinking she is Tiffany. Sadly as most of her scenes were cut she is given little chance to make much of an impression which is a real shame as her sub-plot would have in turn led to more screen time for Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd as well.
Plenty O’ Toole: Hi I’m Plenty.
James Bond: But of course you are.
Plenty O’ Toole: Plenty O’ Toole
James Bond: Named after your father perhaps?
Considering that Goldfinger was this film’s inspiration, it is surprisingly light on gadgets. After On Her Majesty’s Secret Service eschewed gadgets in favour of realism the tools of Bond’s trade in this film are more subtle than in previous adventures. Among the gadgets Bond uses on this mission are a pocket finger trap to disable an assailant attempting to search Bond’s pockets, a fake fingerprint to convince Tiffany Case of his false identity and a pair of braces that double as a grappling hook cord assisting his ascent to the restricted access of the top floor of Willard Whyte’s hotel.
James Bond Will Return…..
Diamonds Are Forever proved to be a return to form at the box-office taking over $100 million easily beating On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Audiences had voted with their feet to prove that Connery was the Bond they wanted to see but with his financial demands setting records and making him the highest paid actor at the time could the producers keep him interested enough to return for a seventh time?……
To catch up on previous installments of the James Bond Retrospective click here: