There was a simple creative brief for 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever: more like Goldfinger – but what was the cost and value of Sean Connery’s return as 007?.

This feature contains minor spoilers for Diamonds Are Forever (Forever… Forever…)

“It appears that you’re holding all the aces…”

When George Lazenby sensationally quit the James Bond franchise after just one film, he projected that the franchise wasn’t going to last much longer than the 1960s had. Half a century later, that seems a little short-sighted, but Diamonds Are Forever, the first Bond film of the 1970s, shows all of the series’ growing pains in a new decade. And the headline has always been one of the biggest reverse-ferrets in film franchise history – Sean Connery’s return as 007.

Released in December 1971, Diamonds Are Forever is a loose adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1956 novel, primarily chosen for its Las Vegas setting. Bond starts this one by killing Blofeld (now played by Charles Gray) and then reports for duty at MI6, where he’s assigned to investigate “a relatively shimple shmuggling matter”.

Diamonds have been going missing in South Africa and 007 goes undercover to get close to double-dealing fence Tiffany Case (Jill St John). On the trail from Amsterdam to America, all the clues point to reclusive billionaire Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean) — look, it’s the third one of these in a row, so even if you’re uninitiated, you can guess who’s still around and back on his bullshit by the end.

At this stage, executives at United Artists (UA) weren’t especially pleased with how the last recasting had gone down and after a few expensive bombs, they needed a Bond-sized hit before the end of 1971. We don’t know how often Vegas is considered a safe financial bet, but it’s not for nothing that this is the first Bond film primarily filmed in the US rather than the UK.

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Beyond the Stateside shift, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli saw Goldfinger as the most successful template for the next Bond film and went so far as to bring back that film’s director, Guy Hamilton, and theme song artist, Shirley Bassey, for Diamonds Are Forever. It was UA that went even further and reinstated its leading man.

But this casting coup came with an eye-watering cost and questionable value in the finished film. The oft-repeated speculation is that a Connery-led On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been perfect, but the very next film feels more blatantly miscast – rather than the intended return to form, it’s a sign of things to come.

 

Sean again

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, more and more people were buying televisions. This just goes to show that the debate about other mediums detracting from cinemas has been going on for decades, but this time, when a few big-budget films started losing money in cinemas, UA was just one of many studios trying to minimise risk and maximise big-ticket appeal. At the start of 1971, the head honchos wanted a new Bond film, and fast.

Back when Eon expected Lazenby to return for sequels, regular screenwriter Richard Maibaum wrote several drafts of a Diamonds Are Forever script about 007 seeking revenge for his wife’s murder at the end of the previous film. When it became clear that they’d need a new leading man, this idea was thrown out, and there’s no mention at all of the late Mrs Bond in subsequent drafts.

Another draft would have called for the return of Gert Fröbe, this time as Auric Goldfinger’s villainous twin brother, but this was excised over various drafts. Despite the finished film’s lack of acknowledgement of his role in the previous film, the villain was changed to Blofeld once again as the script developed. That came courtesy of 25-year-old American screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, whom Broccoli tasked with writing a draft about the villain supplanting a Howard Hughes-like business magnate after the idea came to the producer in a dream.

Bringing Connery back must have seemed like a remote prospect for Saltzman and Broccoli, with whom the star was not on speaking terms after his previous five films with them. After discovering that first choice Roger Moore was contracted to make The Persuaders on telly for the foreseeable future, (we’ll get back to him soon enough!) the producers auditioned American actors such as Robert Wagner (later Number 2 in the Austin Powers movies) and John Gavin, who was officially announced as the third James Bond actor in January 1971.

However, UA president David Picker overrode Eon’s casting choice by approaching the original Bond. Having astutely identified that the star’s antipathy for the franchise was related to its producers, they negotiated directly with Connery and his agent and lured him back on three conditions – that UA would back two film projects of his choosing, the script had to be good, and he didn’t have to interact with Saltzman and Broccoli at all.

And then there was the salary. Planning to spend less than on previous Bond instalments, Picker made it clear that money was no object when it came to getting their star back. The then-unprecedented fee that they offered Connery was a whopping $1.25 million (more than the entire budget of Dr No) and a reported 12.5% of the box-office gross, with sizeable bonuses triggered for every week that the production overran its 18-week schedule.

With all of this agreed, Connery prepared to play James Bond once more, and his return was announced in March 1971. Gavin’s contract was honoured and paid in full, with a promise that he might be up for the part again, next time it was available. American stars Jill St John and Lana Wood were cast as Tiffany and Plenty O’Toole respectively, while You Only Live Twice actor Gray lives up to the title of that film and is promoted from “killed by Blofeld” to plain “Blofeld”.

And as it happened, Connery did enjoy Mankiewicz’s more consciously comedic take on the franchise and the production did manage to wrap up on time in August 1971 – it’s funny what Eon could manage when they were contractually bound to it. But how does it stand up next to his other Bond outings?

 

Good as Goldfinger?

The trailers for Diamonds Are Forever made a big deal out of Connery’s comeback. In the same spirit as Lazenby’s “This never happened to the other fellow”, the script for the film itself makes a couple of meta-jokes about it in the first act too, with M remarking “We do function in your absence, you know” and diamond expert Sir Donald Munger refers to Bond having “been on holiday”.

The film’s reported budget is $7.2m (so, $6m if you don’t count Connery’s salary) and is accordingly more reined in than the visual-effects extravaganzas of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. It adopts the American gangster plot from Fleming’s novel but bolting a more cinematic SPECTRE-level plot onto it, this is still the most grounded Connery outing since Goldfinger, even if that’s not really saying much.

It comes with a more brutal and violent Bond than when we last saw him in the role – the pre-title sequence alone has him take a bikini off SPECTRE liaison Marie and strangle her with it as he interrogates her. Later, there’s the bruising elevator fight with smuggler Peter Franks (Joe Robinson), which is a real highlight of this era of the series. It’s worth observing that as of 2012, Diamonds Are Forever is the first chronological film in the series to rate higher than a PG certificate, with a 12 for “moderate language, violence, and threat.”

But that’s tempered with some of the self-conscious silliness that comes in with the 1970s too. There’s a bit where an elephant plays a casino slot machine with its trunk and wins the jackpot. And then there’s the moon buggy chase, designed to capitalise the space race. And the scene where Bond gets a Ford Mustang down a narrow alley on two wheels but somehow switches to the other side halfway through in a gloriously unforced blooper. Oh, and Blofeld in drag, because reasons.

On the charge of Bond’s notorious invincibility, the film keeps getting him into mortal bother, true to the source material deploying every single dangerous device and escape Fleming still had in reserve.

As for the films, remember how Goldfinger nearly lasers him up the middle? By comparison, this only skirts around actual jeopardy, whether it’s the nightmare of potentially being cremated alive or being buried in a pipeline that’s conveniently being repaired before he’s been down there for long.

Both of these come at the behest of henchmen Mr Wint (Bruce Glover) and Mr Kidd, (Putter Smith) two of the main carryovers from the book and probably the best-remembered aspect of a unforgivingly episodic outing. The decent undercover agent material in the first act doesn’t really cohere with the more typical and generic bits that follow, and the film comes up a bit short on genuine thrills.

Although some retrospective reviews make much fuss over Connery’s appearance in this one, compared to his fitter and more vigorous performances earlier on, it’s more that he’s no longer the right lead for a series in a state of flux.

Aside from the elevator fight, the best match of Connery and the material comes in his initial showdown with two Blofelds. It takes more screen-time than Goldfinger to get a good cut-and-thrust going with its villain, but when the moment comes, it’s a goody. I’d go as far as to say that this underrated exchange, with Bond bantering with Blofeld and his double while musing over which one to kill and feinting how he’s going to do it, is one of Connery’s best scenes as 007 even though it’s not very like his version of the character at all. In its own daft way, it articulates what the dynamic between these two should always be – Bond is clever, but Blofeld is cleverer.

(Gray chews the scenery up nicely, playing a Blofeld who has the boiler-suited private army but not the SPECTRE infrastructure. Still, he’s neither as effective as Telly Savalas nor as iconic as Donald Pleasence, and after all the faff, it’s not even clear that he’s defeated at the end of this. We’ll take him over Christoph Waltz most days, because at least this is intentionally a bit daft.)

Besides, Connery is visibly more engaged in this one than in You Only Live Twice, probably due to the reduced stress of the working conditions and the greatly increased compensation. The star used his fee to establish SIET, (Scottish International Education Trust) a trust dedicated to up-and-coming Scottish acting talent, and his production company Tantallon Films, through which he ultimately made only one of the two films he had set up with UA.

His plan to star in and direct an adaptation of Macbeth was waylaid after Roman Polanski’s version, which hit US cinemas around the same time as Diamonds Are Forever, but he did star in 1972’s The Offence, written by playwright and Thunderball co-writer John Hopkins and directed by Sidney Lumet – we’ve previously written about this fruitful working relationship and the controversy about The Offence elsewhere on the site:

Read more: Revisiting the film collaborations of Sean Connery and Sidney Lumet

Nevertheless, it must have been obvious that Connery wasn’t going to be back for further sequels, even if he spent the next decade or so working on remaking Thunderball with Kevin McClory. Whichever way you slice it, his heavily publicised return could only be a holding pattern for Bond’s first uneasy steps into the 1970s. The marketing value was inarguable, with warm reviews and a $116m take at the global box office – going by that 12.5% gross figure, Connery stood to earn another $14m off of its success.

It’s not a patch on Goldfinger, but Diamonds Are Forever might represent a marginal improvement on the bloat of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice – a tackier, sleazier outing, for sure, but one that defuses the series’ self-destructive formula by scaling things down a little. It’s only truly abysmal as a follow-up to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but then at least by simply not referencing it, it doesn’t sully the superior film either.

All told, this is an inauspicious end to Bond’s first ten years at the movies, failing to recapture the magic of a seven-year-old film but also presenting a rough prototype for the films that followed. As a 1970s Bond movie, it’s only missing the right leading man for a newly emerging style. Fortunately, he’d be along in the very next film…

Diamonds Are Forever is now streaming on Prime Video and will also screen in select VUE and Odeon cinemas nationwide from Friday 27th May.

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