It’s the 50th birthday of Diamonds Are Forever this year – and it’s a James Bond 007 movie that deserves a bit more love.
The seventh film in Eon Productions’ James Bond movie series, Diamonds Are Forever celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this year. Critically praised at the time of release, time has not been kind to Sean Connery’s second (but not final) swansong as 007. It regularly flirts with relegation on the multitude of ‘Bond films ranked’ lists on the internet, and lies in 17th place on the Rotten Tomatoes list of 007’s films, below all of its predecessors. However, with little joy to be currently had in the world outside of our screens, now may be the time to reappraise this glitzy, glamorous, witty spectacle and embrace it as the joyous romp it is.
Diamonds Are Forever was unfortunate for a start to follow arguably the best film in the series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There was some disappointment with the direction the series took after the ‘back to basics’ love story featuring George Lazenby.
Initial treatments for the film that followed by Richard Maibaum featured Bond on a revenge mission following the death of his wife – Tracey – at the hands of Blofeld. However, Lazenby’s departure and a disappointing (but not disastrous) box office return saw a rethink.
Hollywood, and United Artists (UA) in particular, was facing a financial crisis, and needed the film that became Diamonds Are Forever to be a success. UA as such took a much more hands-on approach in the guise of David Picker, the firm’s president of production.
The budget was cut to $7.2m, the lowest for a Bond movie since Goldfinger seven years previously, and key decisions taken. There would be a greater alignment to the cinematic formula, with less reliance on Ian Fleming’s source material, and more humour too. Guy Hamilton, director of Goldfinger, returned to the series, and early drafts of the script even had Gert Frobe returning as Goldfinger’s brother.
Due to the budgetary constraints, and the Las Vegas setting in Fleming’s novel, the film would be largely made in the USA, a decision which also had the welcome consequence of reversing the fall in Bond’s domestic US takings (Majesty’s took virtually half the receipts of the earlier You Only Live Twice). Finally, despite the American actor John Gavin already being under contract to play Bond, every effort was made to bring Sean Connery back.
US screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz was hired to rework Maibaum’s screen play on the recommendation of Picker, who had been impressed with his work on the musical Georgy. His CV also included writing the TV special Nancy Sinatra: Movin’ With Nancy, featuring Vegas stalwarts Dean Martin (nephew of Leonard Barr, who plays ‘Shady Tree’ in Diamonds Are Forever), Sammy Davis Jr. (who filmed a discarded cameo for Diamonds which can be found on the special edition DVD) and her father Frank. John Cork and Bruce Scivally allude to the “sense of pop poetry” brought to the film by Mankiewicz, and the film is arguably the wittiest of the entire series.
Connery was certainly impressed with the revised script, calling it “the best they’ve had.” He was even more impressed with the world record fee on offer for his return, made possible by the use of the Eady Levy (a tax on UK cinema tickets, which was then returned to qualifying films. It persuaded him to renege on his vow of ‘never again’ for the first time.
The finished film may not hit the heights of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but I’d argue it’s fantastic entertainment. It captures the mood of a 1960’s ‘romp’ (Makiewicz’s word) considerably more successfully than Casino Royale four years earlier.
Connery delivers a mature performance as 007 here. Despite being noticeably heavier than in the earlier films, he’s still effective in the action scenes and it matters little due to the overall tone of the film. His Bond is a ‘superman’ – indestructible and unflappable.
The nonchalant manner in which he puts his hands up when captured by Blofeld in the pre-title sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film, and he consistently delivers the ubiquitous one liners with panache. Roger Moore, attending the London premiere with Connery, was obviously taking notes.
Tiffany Case, portrayed by Jill St John, is the streetwise heroine of the piece. She’s engaged in a game of cat and mouse with Bond until the sea air appears to affect her in the final act, and St John resorts to the lightweight comedy with which she made her name. This was not lost on the filmmakers, who appear to have based the entire role of Britt Ekland’s Mary Goodnight in The Man With The Golden Gun on this aspect of her performance.
Lana Wood plays Plenty O’Toole, who is left with little to do after most of her role ended up on the cutting room floor. Despite this, her presence adds a considerable amount of glamour to the film. Her casting as Jill St John’s love rival adds some retrospective coincidence to proceedings. Lana is sister to Natalie, who drowned in 1981 in mysterious circumstances whilst aboard then-husband Robert Wagner’s yacht. Wagner and St John married in 1990.
Then it’s villain time. Charles Gray takes a jump to the left as a droll, witty Blofeld (“if we destroy Kansas the world may not hear about it for years.”) A sense of high camp pervades throughout, epitomised by the film’s highlight, the killers Messrs Wint & Kidd. Emulating Bond with a witticism after every kill, they bring a sinister air to proceedings, aided by John Barry’s haunting theme.
Blofeld exceeds all our camp expectations too by dragging it up when a hat and dark glasses would have sufficed. The setting of Vegas and the outrageous fashions of the era bring a colourful and yet seedy feel to the film. However, perhaps the location – Vegas and the US in particular – is the film’s biggest drawback. We miss the beautiful photography of the expansive mountains in Japan and Switzerland of the two previous films in the series, which is replaced by an American TV series feel at times.
There are plenty of ‘in jokes’ to enjoy. Connery’s absence for Majesty’s is obliquely referenced during the briefing with M, it’s implied that Blofeld is behind the false moon landing, and the sign on Bert Saxby’s desk reads ‘Albert R Saxby’ in a reference to producer Albert R Broccoli. That, and Bond’s marriage proposal to Tracey is spoofed in the final scene when Tiffany teases him before asking how to retrieve the diamonds.
Even the ‘bloopers’ are funny: Sir Donald Monger can’t get too many dinner party invites with his propensity to repeat huge chunks of dialogue during his briefing of Bond (listen carefully), and the wheel coming off the Moon Buggy and bouncing back into shot is priceless. The film’s editors, Bert Bates and John Holmes, favour pace over narrative cohesion, inviting you to sit back and enjoy the ride, untroubled by plot holes.
John Barry follows his superlative score for Majesty’s with a musical tour de force too, evocatively capturing the mood of Las Vegas. Shirley Bassey’s haunting, slow burning theme song is arguably the best of the series. According to John Burlingame, author of The Music Of James Bond, the “score contained a broader range of musical material than any Bond film to date…and one of the greatest title songs yet.” The jazz, lounge and tense music combine to make it one of the standout soundtracks in a series replete with outstanding work.
Two of the best scenes take place in a lift (or, in the words of Blofeld: “perhaps I should say elevator?”). Bond’s audacious ascent to Willard Whyte’s penthouse in Las Vegas is a great set piece. In Amsterdam, the fight between Bond and Peter Franks is a real high too, evoking the close quarters train fight with Grant in From Russia With Love. At the end of the fight the dialogue between Bond and Tiffany provides a great pay off, and the whole sequence proves to his detractors that Hamilton can direct tense action as well as lighter comedy. A further highlight is Bond’s encounter with Blofeld’s accomplices Bambi and Thumper in the architecturally-inspiring Elrod House in Palm Springs.
True, if you love car chases then you’re probably better served watching The French Connection or Bullitt, but the chase through the streets of Vegas we get here is entertaining enough, with predictable carnage and great stunts (including Bond driving his Mustang on two wheels through a narrow alley, only to exit on the other two wheels).
The fun continues right up to the finale, set rather prosaically on an oil rig. In truth, it was probably set there to get Jill St John to don a bikini for the last part of the film. On the flip side, the rig is replete with safety signs such as “If in doubt ASK,” which always makes me consider what the health and safety branch of SPECTRE has to go through.
Diamonds Are Forever premiered in December 1971 and was met with critical acclaim, swelled by the return of Connery.
More importantly for its producers – and for UA – the box office take eclipsed that of its predecessor. Tom Mankiewicz was invited back, credited or otherwise, to contribute to the script for the next four films, two of which were directed by Guy Hamilton. And of course Roger Moore continued the dominant mood of humour.
The future tone of one of cinema’s most successful series had been set. Diamonds was thus a further turning point for 007. Perhaps abandoning a more ambitious path that its predecessor had hinted at, but still hitting a sweet spot between critical response and box office. Happy 50th…
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