Musings on Bond at 50: Diamonds Are Forever

Posted: 30 August 2012 in entertainment, film
Tags: , , , ,

Diamonds Are ForeverSean Connery returns in Diamonds Are Forever to test drive a new-style of 007 opus for the next heir to his kingdom.

At the beginning of the 1970s the James Bond franchise was in a chaotic state. The bold experiment of returning to basics with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had failed and EON Productions decided a new direction for a new decade was required. Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman concluded that audiences were not interested in flocking to the adventures of a human and emotionally vulnerable Bond. For Diamonds Are Forever the producers settled upon a return to the larger-than-life glory days of Goldfinger. To that end Guy Hamilton was recruited to helm the new film Ken Adam returned with his grandiose visions, and Shirley Bassey belted out the theme tune.

There was just one small problem: George Lazenby’s resignation during the fraught production of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had left Broccoli and Saltzman without a 007. After the failure of financial overtures to lure Lazenby back the producers finally accepted the inevitable: once again a new James Bond was required – the third in as many films.

With the quest for another new Bond was underway veteran Bond screenwriter Richard Maibum began to develop a script that to all intents and purposes would be Goldfinger 2 as the chief villain of the piece was to be Auric Goldfinger’s twin brother, a Swedish steel magnate intent on revenge upon Bond for the death of his sibling. The idea stalled when Gert Frobe, who had played Auric Goldfinger in the third Bond film, was unable to commit to the proposed filming dates and then finally abandoned when Broccoli proposed a new idea. The producer was inspired by a dream in which his friend billionaire Howard Hughes was kidnapped and replaced without the world being any the wiser due to his reclusive nature. Soon there was a plot in place for American billionaire Willard Whyte to be abducted by SPECTRE and his organisation to be manipulated by Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Most of Ian Fleming’s (admittedly thin) original novel was thrown out by the filmmakers but they did retain the plot element of Bond assuming the identity of a diamond smuggler to infiltrate a diamond smuggling pipeline running into Las Vegas. Also kept in were characters such as leading lady Tiffany Case and scenes such as the finale aboard the liner Queen Elizabeth II.

Diamonds Are Forever - John Gavin (the original 3rd James Bond)With the script in development and the production team starting work, Broccoli and Saltzman informed United Artists that they had found their new James Bond: American actor John Gavin, most famous for a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. United Artists chief David Picker baulked at the choice and made it clear to the producers that no matter what the financial outlay Sean Connery must be enticed back to the role of 007. The eventual cost to lure Connery back into the fold was (for the time) an astronomical fee of £1.25 million, £10,000 a week for any overruns in production and a development deal for two films of the actor’s choosing. In the 21st century deals of that nature are standard for a high profile film actor but in 1971 such an arrangement was unheard of.

Unsurprisingly Connery’s return to the role of James Bond stunned the world in light of his previous very public dissatisfaction with the franchise. He then completely flummoxed everyone by giving his entire fee to charity! The £1.25 million was used to establish the Scottish International Educational Trust, where Scottish artists could apply for funding without needing to leave their homeland to pursue their chosen careers. At the end of the day the deal worked out well for everyone. Desperate times call for desperate measures as David Picker later commented. The general consensus in the industry was that without the next film being a surefire success as the Bond franchise was dead. Sean Connery virtually guaranteed a blockbuster.

After all the behind the scenes negotiations and tensions Diamonds Are Forever is a massive disappointment and the worst of the seven films produced to that point. A poor script, paper-thin characters, flat directing, ponderous action, and dreadful casting decisions. Sean Connery clearly had his tongue buried firmly in his cheek when he described the script as the best yet with a fine beginning, middle and end.

Charles Gray is without doubt the definitive Mycroft Holmes thanks to his magnificent performances in the role in the Granada Sherlock Holmes series of the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately he is probably the most miscast villain in a half century of James Bond films. Wandering around with his cigarette holder this Blofeld comes off like a cad from an English gentleman’s club rather than a global terrorist mastermind. Roderick Spode and his Blackshorts from PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster tales are more terrifying than this fey interpretation of the SPECTRE chief. And the less said about the scene where Blofeld escapes from the CIA in drag…

Diamonds Are Forever - BlofeldAnd what are the CIA doing racing around Las Vegas assisting 007 anyway? The agency is forbidden by law to operate on American soil. In Diamonds Are Forever Felix Leiter assumes his fourth face and an all-time low is reached thanks to the choice of the instantly forgettable Norman Burton and his less than zero onscreen presence and utter lack of chemistry with Sean Connery. It’s as though the producers had viewed the sublime casts of From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and decided to cast the complete opposite of such suitable actors.

Backing up the most dire Bond villain of all time is a dire gallery of secondary villains. In his heyday Sean Connery’s 007 defeated Red Grant and Oddjob in bone crunching battle royales. For this film audiences were expected to believe that he’d even have to break a sweat to deal with the likes of Bambie, Thumper, Mr Wint and Mr Kidd.

As Tiffany Case Jill St John became the first American Bond girl but apart from that accolade, and the fact that she looks good in her revealing outfits, there is nothing about her character to set the film alight. As a diamond smuggler it is ridiculous that Tiffany would be aware of the identity of a suddenly almost superhuman James Bond, whose mere name is enough to worry. So the first stage of the character’s redevelopment from 1960s Cold War warrior to 1970s globetrotting playboy began – complete with shocking wardrobe choices (pink tie?).

Sean Connery is a complete anachronism amongst the camp tone, so-called humour, and insipid characters of Diamonds Are Forever. He is merely laying the foundations of the Roger Moore era. In fact the film would have been a perfect vehicle for the debut of Moore’s lighter “Jimmy Bond”. After all the physicality and shooting involved for Lazenby’s 007 in the previous film there’s not a huge amount for any 007 to undertake in this outing.

Diamonds Are Forever - Bond and TiffanyConnery’s first appearance in Diamonds Are Forever caused audiences across the world to rise to their feet in appreciative applause at the return of the “proper” 007 and without doubt his presence helped to turn a mediocre film into a blockbuster – but he was only back for a one-off. His experience on this film was reportedly more pleasurable than had been the case on You Only Live Twice, including the unwritten rule that he got to play golf once a week, but the truth was that he did not need Bond in his life again full time. It is even reported that he turned down an offer of $5 million to appear in Live And Let Die.

For the moment the James Bond franchise was saved, though it was the star and certainly not the actual production that had done the work. Diamonds Are Forever went grandiose, glitzy and camp whilst other films of that period were dark and conspiratorial anti-government affairs. Rather than embracing Ian Flemings original character and emulating the concepts and narratives of such classics as From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service the early 1970s would see the Bond franchise adopt a light of touch and unthreatening 007 and sink lower and lower into a creative abyss with the likes of Live And Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun

1 From Russia With Love
2 Goldfinger
3 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
4 Thunderball
5 Dr. No
6 You Only Live Twice
7 Diamonds Are Forever

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