14 July 2012

ON THE REBOND

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Written by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz
Premiered 14 December, 1971

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
In Japan, some poor SPECTRE functionary is thrown right the hell through a paper door, as a pointedly unseen but audibly familiar Cmdr. James Bond, Agent 007 on Her Majesty's secret service (Sean Connery) demands to know where Ernst Stavro Blofeld is. By the way, terrible first Bond movie, if it is 1971 and you are just now deciding that this whole "James Bond" moment in history is something you'd like to take part in. The film expects that you know precisely who this Ernst Stavro Blofeld is, and why Bond is so voracious for his blood (because SPOILERS, BUT COME ON NOW, REALLY Blofeld killed Bond's wife on their very wedding day in the last film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service).

Bond follows the trail from Japan to Egypt, where a pretty girl - he strangles her with her bikini top, because he is a charming and debonair gentleman spy - finally tells him where to find Blofeld (played by Charles Gray this time around). He's in an underground spa facility of some kind, and at first it seems like he's undergoing plastic surgery to disguise his face, but actually he's having a double made in his exact image. Bond kills this double and then straps Blofeld to a gurney, sending his arch-nemesis to die in a pit of hot, bubbling mud.

It is certainly a guns-blazing way to start out an action-adventure, and sufficiently manic and mean to let us know that the stakes-raising in the last movie isn't just going away (until it does, after the credits). It's also tremendously short and doesn't build any real momentum, and the killing of Blofeld - what ought to be a grand, epic gesture - feels callow and tossed-off. There is eventually a good story reason for this, sort of, but it speaks more to the tone of the movie to follow, which is much heavier on garish incident than real drama. And in this regard the sort of dull feeling this whole sequence leaves on with is a sad precognition.

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Rating: 2 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
Only one person sang more than one Bond theme, and it is appropriate and good that it should be Shirley Bassey, whose performance of the raging title song to Goldfinger is the series' musical highlight. Plainly, she wasn't about to hit that level again, but she sings the John Barry-Don Black tune with glamorously filthy sexuality (it is said that series co-producer Harry Saltzman opposed, strongly, to the raunchiness of the song), and while it's not one of the more musically compelling entries in the Bond themes canon, I cannot bring myself to wholly or even partially dislike a song that is, ultimately, about giving blow jobs to a diamond.

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Rating: 4 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
Let us honor Maurice Binder for his intentions here, and shed a tear for the shockingly lousy execution. In a lot of ways, this sequence is exactly the same as You Only Live Twice: stills of women's silhouettes zooming in and out, with imagery in the background, but the idea of it hangs together here: for the vaguely Asian-style graphics of that film have been replaced by diamond shapes and glittery silver surfaces representing diamonds, and the colors (deep blues and purples contrasted with white and silver) are far more harmonious. It's simple and it could be lovely, except, that the footage is pieced together shamefully, with cuts and dissolves in places they absolutely should not exist - in one particularly hideous example, footage of Blofeld's evil cat is seen to visibly stutter, for a couple of seconds anyway, in what is clearly an attempt to make just a few frames of cat footage last for several times its normal length by running it backwards and forwards quickly. Feels like a visually gifted film student turning in an editing project that he ran out of time to complete properly.

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Rating: 2.5 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
You Only Live Twice ushered in the new world of Bond movies that look vaguely like their source material, and no more than that; Diamonds Are Forever is the first one where you really have to squint to see the relationship. And that is important for reasons I shall reveal in a moment.

Bond, returning from assassinating Blofeld, is informed by a delightfully surly M (Bernard Lee) that with his personal vendetta resolved, Agent 007 might want to start attending to his job again. And his job, now, is to figure out what's going on with diamonds: for apparently large quantities of diamonds have been disappearing from South Africa of late, and as they are not showing up on the black market, nobody can quite figure out what's happening. As Sir Donald Munger (Laurence Naismith) lays out this situation - which has certain Goldfingerish overtones to it, and the new film does not benefit from the comparison - something rather interesting and unprecedented in the Bond franchise happens: the film cuts from the diamond lecture to scenes in Africa, as we watch the nefarious Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover) and Mr. Kidd (Putter Smith) smuggle a cache of jewels to Holland, killing their associates along the way, over the course of several days. This cross-cutting between chronologically discontinuous scenes, and this exposition-by-showing, are both entirely new things for the Bond series, and this is the most effective stylistic choice director Guy Hamilton makes in the entire project. It's a genuinely intriguing sequence, undone only by Mr. Wint and Mr.Kidd- but I shall get to them in turn.

Bond assumes the identity of the smuggler who was to bring the diamonds from Holland to the United States; this requires him to make the acquaintance of one Tiffany Case (Jill St. John), a shady but beautiful con artist. Bond travels to Las Vegas ahead of Tiffany, bringing the jewels inside the body of the real Peter Franks (Joe Robinson), the smuggler who has been misidentified as none other than James Bond. In Vegas, Bond tracks all of this nefarious doing to reclusive billionaire and casino owner William Whyte, eventually learning that the real Whyte (Jimmy Dean) has been kidnapped and his business is now being run by Blofeld himself - for it was yet another double Bond killed. And why is Blofeld amassing so many diamonds, why to build a space laser, of course, which he will use to hold the world ransom, if Bond and the halfway-reformed Tiffany can't stop him.

A few things leap to mind about all of this: first is that after a taut, driven first quarter, basically everything up to Bond's arrival in Las Vegas, this is pretty good, if slightly disposable Bond adventure. Then we hit the wall; and for what feels like several days, the plot jiggles this way, and then jiggles that, and Bond gets captured twice and knocked out twice and left for dead twice; he breaks into Whyte's headquarters and doesn't learn much of anything but escapes on a moon buggy sitting around for some reason. In short, despite being the last Bond film for over two decades to clock in under two hours (a feat it manages by fewer than 30 seconds, mind you), Diamonds Are Forever doesn't have enough content for its running time, and has to set Bond down and watch him flail doing nothing for damn near a full third of the movie.

The other thing is wait, what, space laser? Aye: You Only Live Twice might have introduced science-fiction to the franchise in earnest, but this is where out-and-out fantasy comes along and makes itself known: silly comic-book threats rather than anything that even slightly resembles real-world terrorism or Cold Warring. Ian Fleming's James Bond adventures were hardly realism, but they were at least sane; it is not promising that the point where the filmmakers have to start largely inventing plot material, they go for such ridiculous heights. And of course, hindsight is helping me out here, for this was to be the manner of the franchise until its gritty reboot in the 2000s. Sometimes this clowning about worked, and sometimes it did not; it mostly did not in this case, but at least it's not reprehensibly dumb like a lot of the films in the future would be.

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Rating: 2 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
Of the three actors to play proper, on-screen Blofelds, Charles Gray is my least favorite. This is at least partially for two reasons wholly unrelated to his performance or the way the character is written: one of which is that he played a small but memorable part as an MI6 agent in You Only Live Twice, where he got killed in a singularly zesty way, and it's hard, frankly, to separate that character out from this. The other is that he has hair. And yes, that is a horrible reason to throw out a performance; but Blofeld is bald, goddammit. It is part of his irreducible essence.

Getting past those two entirely dumb objections, Gray's performance stands out as certainly above-part in the series, and arguably the single strongest element of the movie that holds it. We have three distinct Blofelds at this point: Donald Pleasance's violent sociopath, Telly Savalas's self-amused immoral thug, and with Gray, perhaps the most "appropriate" take on the character yet: the Smart Blofeld. Put it another way, his is the only iteration of the character that actually feels like he could be at the head of the largest crime organisation in the world, guiding things with clear purpose and brutal efficiency. For me, he doesn't linger in the imagination quite as much for partially this reason - the colorful ones are the most memorable - but he's the only Blofeld who ever really feels that he can outwit Bond, and that is a threatening thing too often absent from the franchise. On the other hand, he's also the Blofeld who passes up the most tremendously obvious opportunities to straight-up kill Bond, so maybe he's not that smart, after all.

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Rating: 3.5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
I am of two minds. On the one hand, there is the Tiffany Case - a vanishingly rare example of a Bond Girl whose name is a pun that's not sexual, and this fact is discussed at entirely too much length by the characters themselves - who is smart, capable, sly, sardonic, and an honest-to-God jewel thief all on her own. This is an interesting, active character, and St. John (who is by no means my favorite actress nor is she exactly to my tastes, eye-candy-wise) does good things with her whip-smart attitude.

This Tiffany Case is present, mostly, in two scenes; without warning, she becomes the Tiffany Case who is a bobble-headed girly twit who can't do anything but fall over her own feet without asking for help. I do not even precisely object to this change in character on narrative grounds: rare indeed is the Bond film that presents a heroine capable of extricating herself from danger without any help from Our James, thanks so much, and plenty of the good ones are ultimately just damsels in distress. But holy hell, does this second, weaker, stupider Tiffany put St. John in a horrible place: given a character who can be played like a ditzy sitcom character that screams a lot, the actress is thrilled to indulge. It's like if, instead of just getting defanged over the course of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marion abruptly turned into the simpering moron played by Kate Capshaw in Temple of Doom. The memory of those early scenes colors the rest of our time spent with the character, but there's a lot to dislike.

Do note, please, that Ms. Case is the first in a small population of American Bond Girls.

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Rating: 2.5 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMAN
When I accused Blofeld of giving up too many chances to kill Bond, I am mostly referring to his spectacularly incompetent henchmen Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, giggling idiots who always, always refer to one another by name in really contrived ways, and if the film came out 25 years later, you would assume they were a terrible screenwriter's worst attempt at copying Pulp Fiction. Also, they are quietly but unambiguously represented as being lovers, and in a better film that might bother me; but here, their giggling and mincing and effeminate whispered threats don't read as "homophobic representation of gay men" as much as "fucking awful screenwriting by people who have no idea how to write cold-blooded killers". Mr. Wint, I will admit, gets a few decent moments of Evil Crazy, but they are a small comfort for two characters who represent an already silly film's worst descent in ditziness.

I am compelled to mention, for completeness's sake, that these two effeminate henchmen are complimented by two burly butch henchwomen (though the film gives us no reason to assume they're lesbians): Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks), whose function is to show up in one scene, beat up Bond, and have absolutely no personality other than their names.

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Rating: 1.5 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Tiffany Case, I said, is a nice, rare example of a punning name that isn't sexual? Well, allow me to introduce you to her opposite number, Plenty O'Toole (Lana Wood). "Named after your father, perhaps?" quips Bond. It is, I am inclined to say, the second-lewdest character name in the series (we haven't met #1 yet, but I look forward to pointing her out), and easily the most forced and fake (even Pussy Galore sounds more plausible - fuck, even Alotta Fagina does).

And what does our Miss O'Toole do in the movie? She coos over Bond while he wins lots of money at craps, leaning way over towards the camera in a purple dress with a plunging decolletage (and it must be conceded that Wood - Natalie's sister! - has a spectacular body); then she returns with him to his hotel room to not have sex before she ends up dead offscreen and only barely mentioned in the scene where her body is found. When the main function of the Secondary Bond Girl is to get c-blocked by the actual Bond Girl, it's pretty damn obvious that her presence in the film is the result of a screenwriter who thought up the name "Plenty O'Toole" in a weak moment and couldn't bear to let it go.

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Rating: 1 Golden Corpse


ACTION SEQUENCES
I will start with the extremely good part: there is a fight between Bond and Peter Franks in an Amsterdam elevator that is one of the very best fistfights in the entire franchise; sure, it's basically copying the "brutal pummeling in a tiny space" notion from the train car scene in From Russia with Love, but when a thing works...

Then comes the awfully good part: there is a car chase through the Las Vegas Strip (and the franchise's first full-own car chase it is, to)o, that holds up extremely well, with one of the first signature car stunts in the franchise as Bond gets his Mustang up on two wheels to tear ass through an alley. It's so tightly edited that I can't even tell you, and it's the only place in the movie where the Vegas location photography really pays off, as the neon lights of the Strip create a mosaic of colors on the car. And yet... you did notice when I said Bond has a "Mustang", yes? I know that I'm being a petty little shit, but Bond drives an Aston Martin, and any time he so conspicuously does not as is the case here, I grow grumpy.

I led with those two because they are real highlights, along with Blofeld the best reason to see the movie, and the rest of the action in the movie frankly sucks. The notorious moon buggy chase scene is a start, in which the goofy, unstable vehicle is chased by goofy, unstable 3-wheel ATVs - the moon buggy losing not just a hubcap but an whole damn tire in one shot - and especially as it precedes the much better Strip chase by only about five minutes, the whole thing is just too ludicrous for words.

Worse yet: the climactic finale, in which the expected army storming Blofeld's lair consists of some helicopters hovering over an oil rig as incomparably bad visual effects explode all over (it's genuinely shocking that a movie in such a prestigious franchise, with such a big budget, as Diamonds Are Forever could have such awful effects work, in the climax and everywhere else). It's small in scope, there's no apparent connection from one moment to the next, and I am singularly eager not to even discuss the childishly silly thing that happens between Bond and Blofeld at the end, a moment that would seem out of place for its wackiness even in the most cartoonish of the Roger Moore pictures.

So, some of the best action in the franchise, and some of the worst - let us call it an even draw.

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Rating: 3 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
None. Bond has not a single gadget. Unless you count the inflatable ball he uses to get to Blofeld's lair.

But that's not to say that gadgets are totally absent: at one point, Q (Desmond Llewelyn) hooks up a device to hide Bond's voice over the phone, and in one hugely charming scene, he uses a magic ring to cheat at slots, and is having such a grand time proving his invention works that he doesn't even bother to collect his ill-gotten gains. Being as I am a huge fan of the character and Llewelyn's cheeky performance of him, I am sufficiently entranced by this moment to give a whole extra point to a movie that in fairness deserves a squat, fat, 1 in this category.

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Rating: 2 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
A total disappointment - Ken Adam returns after a film off, but the script offers him no opportunities for his imaginative grandeur, and other than the hidey hole where Blofeld has stashed Whyte, not a single one of the sets has any kind of spark or style at all (for the most part, the film looks pretty much like Vegas; that, and a secret lab like every other secret lab in every sci-fi film for twenty years in either direction). Of all the films in the Bond franchise's outlandishly decadent era - an era that begins, I contend, with this very film - I can't think of any that's less interesting to look at than this one.

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Rating: 1 Volcano Fortress


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
What a difference a Bond makes - after only one George Lazenby performance, it's shocking to see how much Connery has to work at making the bon vivant lifestyle seem effortless. But he does rock plenty of white tuxedos, and he's dazzling standing at the craps table and winning piles of money like it's nothing at all, and in one fantastic moment, he idly chats about sherry in the most blithely pretentious way possible. Immediately hereafter, M learns to his delight that Bond is not an expert in diamonds, and this does, certainly, not seem like a very sleek or gentlemanly thing to know nothing about, but his lack of caring is certainly very cool.

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Rating: 3 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
When approaching that same ill-fated pretty girl in the opening sequence, he announces his identity in the first shot of the movie to reveal Connery's face.
Forced or Badass? Pretty much forced, for the same reason as it was in the last film: it practically shrieks, "See, everything is okay and normal! Look, it's Connery! As Bond! LOVE ME!"

During his time impersonating the smuggler, Bond twice calls himself "Franks. Peter Franks", and that is even more forced.


BEST QUIP
"That's quite a nice little nothing you're almost wearing. I approve."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
A perilous moment for James Bond: the coming of the 1970s. Among the many rumored reasons for George Lazenby's inglorious departure from the franchise, one of them is that he openly discussed his belief that 007 could not survive into a new decade, and while we can look at the volume of movies made over the decades since an irate Cubby Broccoli cancelled his contract, in a sense I think he was right; Bond films there were in abundance, but virtually all of them were in search of an identity. Depending on your perspective, it wasn't until 2006's Casino Royale that James Bond found a vehicle which unlocked the key to using him as a hero for the present day; further depending on your perspective, that key consisted of ripping of Jason Bourne lock, stock, and barrel, and thus doesn't count.

But for right now, we will stay in 1971. There is, undoubtedly, something conspicuously '60s about Bond, certainly Connery's Bond; in 1964, he snorted about hating the Beatles, and nothing about Connery's performance makes us think that he would have changed his mind in the interim. For there's a post-war squareness to Bond. His libertine ways are those of robust patriarchy, not rebellious free love; it's hard to imagine him encountering a hippie, much less interacting with one. And while this applies equally to 1969 and On Her Majesty's Secret Service the disorienting effect of seeing Lazenby's souful Bond stepping in for Connery's efficiently cruel Bond is such that we're not so aware of how out-of-date he is.

Jumping to a brand new decade, typified by things like the wildly out of place Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, or Jill St. John, or the vision of Las Vegas that is clearly starting to grow out of its Rat Pack youth (there's an old-school comic who puts in a small appearance; his contemptibly musty shtick is so out-of-date that even the piped-in laughter on the soundtrack sound like it's not convinced).

This is part of the problem Diamonds Are Forever faces: a character who is palpably old-fashioned. This can be survived; the Pierce Brosnan Bond films are obsessed to the point of dysfunction with the question of "Why Bond now?", and they never resolve this question satisfactorily, but at their best they simply ignore it and muscle through and get some really top-notch Bond moments. Whereas Diamonds Are Forever makes the disastrous, franchise-altering decision to underscore how fusty Bond is by diving right into campiness; this completely ineffective decision is abetted by a simply indecent Connery performance that doesn't even try to hide the actor's amazement that he was able to, essentially, throw a temper tantrum all the way to a record-setting $1.25 million payout; there's a constantly amused "I cannot believe this shit, can you?" tone to his acting, and if Connery cannot take his character seriously, we can hardly be bothered to do it, either.

If the first phase of Bond films was marked by a slightly fantastic, wish-fulfillment approach to masculinity and action, the second phase is marked (though not exclusively) by the inability to take those things seriously. That trend starts here; it starts, in fact, at exactly the 47 minute-mark, when for no reason whatsoever, we are treated to an insert of an elephant in the Circus Circus casino pulling the arm on a slot machine with its trunk and winning a small fortune; the is silly, but the really terrible part is when the elephant has, as God is my witness, an "Oh my God, I just won!" reaction shot. The film, prior to the Circus Circus sequence, is generally straight and reasonably tense; afterwards, it's indulgent and far too eager to stop for comic moments that aren't funny.

I do not object to camp in my Bond films; I will have cause to defend it at numerous points in the Roger Moore leg of this marathon. But it has to be done with delicacy, and a large part of what makes it work when it does is that Moore has a blobby English jollity to him that makes those moments feel like an extension of his Bond; Connery, lacking any such sensibility, just comes off as smarmy and insincere, and he carries the film with him. It is the thin line separating the Bond films that are male fantasies with an action thriller wrapped around them and the Bond films that are merely pointless froth. It is no accident, I suspect, that Diamonds Are Forever was directed Guy Hamilton, whose work on Goldfinger is what turned the franchise from generally realistic to generally romantic spy fictions; having brought the franchise to a new height of levity once, it makes sense he'd do it a second time. The first was successful, the second was clumsy. It's certainly the case that good and even great Bond films were to follow, but there was a real purity to those Connery-era films that was crushed in this film, and all the gritty reboots in the world can't bring it back. Do I hate Diamonds Are Forever? No, for it has a solid villain and some terrific action. But it disappoints me, fiercely.


OVERALL SCORE
28/60

9 comments:

Rick said...

For my own Bond retrospective, I said it before and I'll say it again when it comes to Diamonds Are Forever: Blofeld is at the very least the UGLIEST Bond Girl.

Mysterious F. said...

Connery said that he filmed the movie during the day, gambled all night, got very little sleep during the weekdays, and completely crashed during the weekends. This probably has a lot to do with why his performance kind of sucks. Also, the effects and art-direction are probably lackluster because much of the money that usually goes to them were given to Connery's massive paycheck.

Also, for the record, Moore is my least favorite Bond and has three movies in my bottom five of the series (one of which is the very next entry). You'll have to pull extra duty to convince me why you like him.

Matthew Kitsell said...

Hi Tim,

I've been enjoying these Bond reviews immensely and find them among the best - and most amusing - I've read on the net.

I'm with you every step of the way with this one. Diamonds is disappointing, especially considering what came before it, and yet... there is a kind of dreamy, surreal atmosphere to the scenes filmed around Las Vegas that really makes the film stand out for me. The scene in which Bond scales the top of the Whyte House, then jumps into thin air over the bright lights of Las Vegas attached to just his safety harness is breathtaking, aided by John Barry's atmospheric music.

Looking forward to the Roger Moore reviews!

Cheers,


Matt

Tim said...

Rick- I don't know, he has better hair than Maude Adams...

Mysterious F- I have absolutely no reason to doubt that story at all. Honestly, I'm surprised there wasn't more of that in the making of these films, though I suppose Vegas is hardly the same as whatever the neighborhood around Pinewood is called.

Also, while I look forward to blowing your mind with my Roger Moore defense, you shouldn't expect it to happen right away - the next film happens to be in my bottom 5 as well... along with two other Moore films. I suspect they might even be the same two as yours, given that one is awfully close to the consensus pick for all-time worst Bond picture.

Matthew- Thanks for the compliment! I'm having a hell of a good time writing them, too. And agreed: some of the best stuff in the movie involves the Vegas location photography, of which there is not nearly enough.

Mysterious F. said...

I'll just go ahead and ask what the other one is, since you made it clear that Live and Let Die and A View to a Kill are two of the three. You don't have to answer since you still have the rest of the retrospective. My three are those two and Moonraker, which is the worst of all of the Bonds as far as I am concerned. I've seen all 22 Eon Bonds, and I ranked theme here:

http://mubi.com/lists/james-bond-ranked--4

Coincidentally, Live and Let Die and For Your Eyes Only were on TV today. The former was even worse this time, and the latter even greater.

Tim said...

I'm holding off on looking at your list, but yep, that's the three. I just wasn't sure if you were a Man with the Golden Gun hater or not.

Mysterious F. said...

Not necessarily, but I don't like it. The Man with the Golden Gun could have been so, so much better than it is, and it has one of the messiest plots, a very bad Bond Girl, some of the weakest humor, and the series' all-time worst henchman. Still, it has its perks, especially Christopher Lee, so I'll settle with calling it a merely mediocre entry that falls short of the bottom five, if just barely.

Also, my Bond ranking is considered weird. Very, very weird. A lot of people go "WTF?!" when they see my #2.

jjjonatron said...

Diamonds Are Forever is definitely, in my opinion, one of the very worst Bond films.

redwood said...

Wow, what a complete antithesis to where the franchise had been heading, slowly building to a high point with OHMSS (however rickety that road had already been). I could just land into all the issues with this one, like how much I even disliked the car on two wheels, but there is one simple fact that condenses everything into a nutshell: the film's just plain boring, impotent, insignificant, cheap looking, drab, unsophisticated ... etc etc etc. The end. I'll have to see how close it gets to being my least favorite (I have the feeling it will be topped on that measure), as I take on a marathon of my own.