Sunday, September 28, 2014

Diamonds are Forever (1971)

For post 400, I present you, dear reader, with the last James Bond film I have yet to give a full review to.  It is also the last Bond related bit of writing I plan on doing until the new film comes out next year.

This is a reworking of an article I did a long time ago, my general opinion on the film remains the same.

The seventh James Bond film is a bit of a flawed gem, it sees Sean Connery returning to the role (for quite a bit of cash, I might add) in a high-spirited, generally enjoyable romp that unfortunately falls apart towards the end.  Let's take a closer look.
  • Solid enough pre-title sequence that reestablishes Connery quite nicely in the role.  He doesn't look that great, yeah, but even an out of shape Sean Connery could probably still kick the head off of anyone who called him on it. Bond remains unseen for the scene in Japan and the following Casino scene in Cairo.
  • While the audience knows Connery is back as Bond, Connery’s return was the primary marketing piece of the film, it makes good story sense to give a decent “movie star” buildup to the actor’s return.  The reveal of Connery is handled very nicely with Marie glancing up and Connery walking down into frame uttering the line “My name is Bond, James Bond.”  He even gets a nicely nasty bit, choking a woman with her bikini.  It's been criticized in some circles but for me, it fits Connery’s Bond and the character in general.  Bond has always been portrayed as a good man but not necessarily a nice man.  Granted there is some subtext that can be found, but I feel it adds to the complexity of the character more than anything else.
  • The sequence in general also works as a covert follow-up to the ending of the previous movie which saw Bond's new bride brutally gunned down in front of him.  It's never stated that Bond is gunning for Blofeld (now played quite nicely by Charles Gray) here for revenge but one can make a reasonable assumption that this is the case.
  • As for the new Blofeld, Gray’s Blofeld casting works just fine.  Gray is a very good actor and plays the role with suave menace.  Whatever faults the character has have more to do with the screenplay than the performance.  Making Blofeld British also makes some sense in terms of story.  It’s fairly clear in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that Blofeld wants to disappear at some point; the usual hefty ransom is replaced by a request for a full pardon and recognition as a Count.  Here, we see he’s using plastic surgery to get doubles, possibly to fake his death if Bond finds him.
  • One interesting aspect of Blofeld in this film as well as the previous one is the lack of SPECTRE being mentioned in any way, shape or form.  This could be because Bond basically smashed the organization in Thunderball and You Only Live Twice and possibly finished off whatever was left between You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret ServiceDiamonds Are Forever is not just significant because of Connery’s return; it also shows the final downfall of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and what is left of SPECTRE.  The touch of Blofeld using plastic surgery on volunteers so he can have doubles is also cool.
  • Connery's performance is strong, even if his physique has slipped a little.  While he’s rather down to earth and laid back for most of the film, Connery plays it rather dark and violent in the pre-title sequence which lends some credence to my theory stated above.  This is Bond out for revenge, calm and methodical with an added brutality, understandable given why he’s looking for Blofeld.  This is in stark contrast to the somewhat out of control Bond we’ll see in Licence to Kill.  Needless to say, I think this one works better.
  • Good main title sequence accompanied by Maurice Binder’s lovely visuals and the title song sung by Shirley Bassey which is low key and very easy on the ears.  The same can be said for John Barry’s score which fits the film perfectly and keeps the low key, relaxed level the film itself carries.
  • The film proper throws us right into the main plot with Bond and M looking over some diamonds.  We see Bond relaxed enough to toy with M a bit and question whether or not the 00-section is really needed for what he calls a “relatively simple smuggling matter”.  The scene with Sir Donald is one of the best in the film and flows with a smoothness that makes the rather large amount of exposition  regarding the smuggling pipeline problem go down quite easily.
  • The scene is also a chance for a bit of humor, Bond’s exchange with M about the sherry.  Its little bits like this that make the script for the film so good, it’s a pity the film doesn’t sustain itself as well towards the end.
  • The exposition itself is also handled brilliantly by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz who takes the words and makes them cinematic, adhering to a big rule of film:  show, don’t tell.  The sequence of scenes is very interesting, the cross-cutting between Bond’s briefing and Wint and Kidd eliminating the links to the pipeline gets a lot of story out of the way in a matter of minutes but still, the plot is very easy to follow.  Like the rest of the screenplay, this is a fine example of good, lean storytelling.  Mankiewicz spends just enough time with exposition to give you the points you need for the moment and moves on.  Same goes for general storytelling as he gives you a fairly complex plot in a brisk manner that still allows for understanding.
  • Within the quick explanation of how the diamond mining’s security precautions work we also get an introduction to the henchmen Wint and Kidd as they kill two contacts and make off with a shipment of diamonds.  This is done in a low key style with the villains being as casual as possible yet still maintaining a menacing quality.  While some might think this is a mistake, I like the fact that unlike most Bond films, this one keeps the pace relatively low key.  Even a broader entry like Moonraker operates at a faster pace due to the over the top style it uses to tell the story.  Diamonds Are Forever is over the top but in a more muted, calm fashion.
  • The characters of Wint and Kidd have been criticized for being too humorous but I think that that element makes them more effective as villains.  And honestly, Bruce Glover and Putter Smith do play the characters as menacing as they can while still staying light and low key which seems to be what director Guy Hamilton wanted.  Their glib remarks about their victims is a nicely dark touch.
  • From this, we get Bond being assigned to impersonate Peter Franks in Holland.  We get a fun transition into the Bond Theme as a hovercraft takes Bond into Amsterdam for his undercover work as Peter Franks who he impersonates.  During this, we come to the introduction of our Bond Girl, Tiffany Case (Jill St. John).  Tiffany is both a high point and a low point in the film.  She starts off very well but unfortunately takes a downward turn in the final quarter of the film.  Despite that, her first scene is an excellent introduction, full of great dialogue and surprises.  From the get-go Tiffany proves to be unpredictable, first appearing to be a blond and then turning out to be a redhead.
  • We get a clear idea of the type of person Case is in her first few seconds on screen.  A cocky, smooth operator who is not fazed by Bond’s flirtations and knows how to take care of herself.  She also seems to be well-funded; the fingerprint scanning gadget in her bedroom is a nice touch to the character and gives an air of professionalism to her.  Bond’s amused reaction to the glass is a nice touch as well as is the payoff to the scene when we learn Bond has actually faked her out with fake fingerprints.  Her professionalism and efficient is a nice change of pace from what the genre usually gives us, sadly it won't last through the entire movie.
  • The scene with Bond and Franks is a great set-piece, starting off with Connery’s humorous fake accent that lulls Franks into a sense of security.  The ensuing fight is wonderfully choreographed and unique with the tight quarters making for a surprisingly brutal fight considering the light tone of the film.  The fight also shows Connery to be fine condition.  Has he put on some pounds?  Yes, but the fight still looks great and Connery seems to enjoy himself throughout the film.  His ensuing scene with Tiffany walks the fine line between effective writing and shameless self awareness.  Still, it makes sense that a diamond smuggler like Tiffany would at least know Bond by reputation, even if her knowledge was restricted to overheard conversations and second-hand information.  The scene also works to get Tiffany in an actual working relationship with Bond, showing him where the diamonds are and tying them in with Mrs. Whistler.
  • The stuff with Bond getting the diamonds into L.A. is a solid sequence that moves with a brisk pace quickly showing the ruse Bond is using and that he and Tiffany are being tailed by Wint and Kidd.  Bond’s arrival in Los Angeles brings us to the only real casting problem the film has as Felix Leiter is introduced posing as a customs agent.  While Norman Burton gives a capable enough performance, the character is a bit too old and lacking in energy, a stark contrast to the character’s previous appearance in Thunderball.
  • The funeral home sequence is another triumph of lean, efficient storytelling.  The opening dialogue with the contact is dead solid perfect, both men know exactly what they’re doing and what they’re talking about but the screenwriter is intelligent enough to not spell it out for the audience, letting the dialogue and story speak for themselves.  The scene also shows us the cremation chamber, a wonderfully gruesome way of getting the diamonds out of Franks’s corpse.  The chamber established, the film quickly lets us know that Wint and Kidd are present and does a fine job of quickly moving the story along as Bond is almost immediately knocked out after getting the envelope of money.
  • The scene with Bond in the coffin is a personal favorite as the screenwriter actually paints himself into a corner, trapping 007 in a coffin that itself is trapped inside a very small space.  His rescue by Shady Tree, whom we have already seen taking the urn of diamonds is fun because it accomplishes two things.  First off, it gives the character of Tree a distinctly memorable introduction and personality so Bond can recognize his face later.  Second, it plays with the audience’s expectations as generally one would not expect an escape from a deathtrap to come in the form of a low rent Don Rickles.  It's a wonderfully insane bit of cheating that works simply because the film is so damn likable.
  • The whole trip from Amsterdam to L.A. might seem pointless after this scene, but I like the feel of unpredictability the twist gives.  It shows that Bond can’t really trust Tiffany and this “relatively simple smuggling matter” should be handled otherwise.  As far as first act twists go, it takes a lot of balls to have the entire first act turn out to be nothing more than an elaborate means to get Bond into Las Vegas.
  • The first part of the Vegas sequence, is a blend of good, quick storytelling: Willard Whyte and Shady Tree are established fluidly in the same shot and casino boss Saxby is introduced along with the fact that Wint and Kidd appear to be working for him and by default, Willard Whyte and classic Bondian style: Bond winning at craps and his introduction to Plenty (Lana Wood).  The fast pace helps cover up a rather glaring flaw in the film, namely that Plenty has practically nothing to do with the rest of the film and only serves as a way to get Bond into a room alone with Tiffany.  Well, at least she's pretty.
  • This brings me to a realization I had about the film.  It plays, especially in the early Vegas parts of the film like a Rat Pack film.  The tone is relaxed and the plot is not really focused on too heavily, in fact the plot seems to be on autopilot for the most part.  One could easily replace Connery with Frank Sinatra and cast Dean Martin as Felix Leiter and end up with a very good Rat Pack caper film.  Quite appropriate given the Sammy Davis Jr. cameo that ended up on the cutting room floor.  This ends up being both a blessing and a curse as we will see.
  • The light, brisk tone continues into the Circus Circus sequence and Tiffany evading Leiter’s men and performing an artful double cross.  I like how the filmmakers subtly show Tiffany spotting the agents and immediately figuring there is some sort of setup.  The scene is carried out quite well with the only dialogue being the usual circus chatter.  The following scene at Tiffany’s house engages in a nice little turnabout as Tiffany and Bond switch positions of power with Bond now in control.  It’s not executed perfectly though, the writing seems a bit rushed, a phenomenon that will reappear later as the film progresses.
  • This brings us to maybe the best sequence in the film, the tracking of the diamonds.  The writing and execution of this is sequence is almost perfect with Tiffany’s distraction and the expository information given prior to it delivered smart and efficiently.  I especially love the music as Dr. Metz enters the underground complex with Bond casually tailing him.  His snooping around and toying with Metz is done wonderfully by Connery.  The ensuing moon buggy scene is something of a mixed bag for me.  While the design is impressive, the music for the chase and the chase itself are somewhat underwhelming. 
  •  Much better is the car chase in Vegas following the moon buggy chase.  The stunts are well done and the action is filmed much better and has a more dynamic feel to it, largely thanks to the Vegas scenery in the background.  Odd since the same second unit was at work in both scenes.  Strange.
  • The chase also gives a rather amusing (your mileage may vary on this) bit of foreshadowing as, like the following two entries in the series, Bond is involved with a rather dumb member of law enforcement.  It's not done as badly here, but it does make one hesitate to watch the next two films right after this one.
  • This leads to my favorite sequence in the entire movie, Bond scaling the Whyte House.  The casualness with which Connery plays the scene is great and perfect for the tone of the film.  It also leads the audience into expecting a confrontation with Whyte.  The subsequent revelation that Blofeld is posing as Whyte is handled rather nicely in my opinion.  While some may complain that Bond doesn’t show much surprise, I feel it’s a perfectly reasonable response on his part.  After all, this is the same man who managed to get out of an exploding volcano and survive an apparent broken neck.  He has very few surprises left for Bond.
  • The dialogue scene is wonderfully written with Gray providing an elegant, suavely menacing version of Blofeld.  This scene is also a fine example of why good screenwriting is so important.  Put bluntly, this scene is basically roughly five minutes of raw exposition.  Gray and Connery are very charming and charismatic and they play the scene in a smooth fluid manner that makes it go by quickly.  The trick with the cat is also a neat touch.
  • For me, the most interesting part of this scene is the fact that for the first time, a Bond villain actually chooses to not spend five minutes explaining his plan to Bond in full detail.  This leads us back to my earlier theory about Blofeld over the course of the film and the two preceding it.  Apart from a passing reference, SPECTRE isn’t mentioned in either this film or the previous two.  I maintain that Blofeld is at this point desperate for money and really doesn’t have that much of a plan to begin with.  Why else would a clearly insane megalomaniac choose to not revel in telling his arch nemesis his plans?
  • The scene with Bond being dumped in the pipeline is also nicely done, a neat little blend of humor and some tension.  I especially enjoy the “Snidely Whiplash” laughing that Wint and Kidd indulge in as they drive away from the pipeline.  The ploy with Bond impersonating Saxby is a wonderful way to get Bond to Whyte’s location.  A small flub is that Saxby turns up later even though Blofeld was talking with Bond, but it’s reasonable to assume that he called Saxby to check on his progress at a later time.
  • The Whyte rescue works well with Bond surprisingly getting beaten up by Bambi and Thumper, Blofeld's female gymnast henchwomen.  The actual rescue is amusingly low key, as is the rest of the film.  This is one place I think the low key tone doesn’t quite work as Whyte seems to be way too laid back considering he’s been kidnapped.
  • Sadly after the rescue, the film goes downhill with the most glaring change being with Tiffany.  For some reason the intelligent, resourceful character in the first ninety minutes is replaced by an annoying idiot.  The less said about Blofeld in drag the better, in fact I try to forget it whenever I see the film.
  • For the life of me I have no idea why the script ended up falling apart in the third act like it ends up doing, but there you go.  It has a very rushed, unsatisfactory feel to it with the lone exception being Bond almost by chance finding Blofeld’s oil rig.  The script also for some reason abandons the sleek, streamlined storytelling in favor of a muddled, unsatisfying resolution.  It's a real bummer and it ends up dragging what was up to that point one of the best films down to the middle of the pack.
  • The buildup to the oil rig is fine but once we get there the story just falls apart.  Too many questions are left unanswered.  Why does Tiffany suddenly appear to be on Blofeld’s side?  Why would Blofeld have had the satellite controls run by a tape that can be accessed as easily as humanly possible?  What exactly is Blofeld’s plan again?  All we get is something about a ransom for him to not melt the world and the ploy of world peace he used to get Dr. Metz on the team but apart from that there’s really isn’t that much.  On the other hand, it does fit with my theory that Blofeld doesn’t really have much of a plan this time out.
  • The countdown and battle aboard the rig is incredibly uninspiring, nothing really noteworthy aside from machine gun fire and some explosions.  The death of Blofeld is also not very well done; he doesn’t even get a moment where he sees he’s about to die.  A last look between him and Bond would have been just fine.  That or the original idea of a boat chase followed by the fight between the two characters.  The third act partially redeems itself with the coda aboard the boat.  The fight with Wint and Kidd is decent and ends the film on a relatively good note.
The film falls apart in the third act.  In actuality, as I noted, for the first hour or so it’s one of the best Bond films ever.  The pacing, writing and performances are great with many great moments and scenes.  For whatever reason, everything that works in the film’s favor works against it as soon as Willard Whyte is rescued.  While the light tone worked at first, I freely admit it kills the ending by making Blofeld’s plan murky and the action uninspired.  That being said, the first three quarters of the film are quite good and as a whole, the film is certainly worth giving a second glance.  The good far outweighs the bad and this was always one of my favorites.  If I were still rating films, this would probably merit a solid 7 due to the third act crapping the bed.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.