Diamonds Are Forever Was a Step Backwards for the James Bond Franchise

Sean Connery returns to play James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. It is not 007's finest outing.

A strange offering this one, sandwiched between two considerably more significant films. Undoubtedly a lightweight outing, despite featuring a heavyweight star in more ways than one. The cartoonish tone is sharpened by lashings of violence and a surprisingly high body count. A moribund Connery and garish Las Vegas add to the sense of a series going to seed. Implausibilities abound through Diamonds Are Forever. Yet its dysfunctional parts create a film that, while far from a classic, has a certain battered panache – and a wry smile throughout. I rather like it.

The Villain: Like buses, Blofelds come in threes. After Donald and Telly, here’s Charles – utterly estranged from his predecessors in appearance and manner. This Blofeld has hair, a penchant for crossdressing and a rather winning air of bonhomie. Plus there’s three of him. Diamonds Are Forever marks the arch-villain’s farewell to the franchise, although this is surely about to change (I don’t count For Your Eyes Only). He isn’t explicitly killed off; Blofeld is last sighted being swung into a control room while trapped in an escape pod.

The Girl: Well, the silly name thing is back. And Bond still likes the redheads. Following Tracy was always mission impossible and Tiffany Case is no Ethan Hunt. Just consider the implications if she were. Begins promisingly but swiftly descends into incompetence. Does have a certain wayward charm but her characterisation is all over the place. Is she a tough dame or a ditzy bimbo? The film prevaricates before, depressingly, plumping for the latter.

So let’s dig into the film. And this is the one where Connery makes his first return to James Bond. He sports a paunch, a particularly obvious wig, and the expression of a man concentrating very hard on his new swimming pool.

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But before I start properly, I must rectify a terrible mistake. I keep referring the ‘the producers’ as some kind of faceless collective in these retrospectives. In fact these are perhaps the two most important men in the history of the franchise. Their names were Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Saltzman left after The Man With The Golden Gun; Broccoli continued until the 1990s, when his daughter, Barbara, took up the reigns and holds them to this day. Without Broccoli and Saltzman, the franchise wouldn’t exist. I fear they cannot feature much in these retrospectives but they must be acknowledged, and here is as good a place as any. (How the hell did I mention Nikki van der Zyl in my first article and forget Broccoli and Saltzman until my seventh?) So thanks, guys. We owe you one.

Speaking of Nikki, she’s there in the pre-credits sequence, voicing the woman Bond chokes with her own bikini (less Fifty Shades Of Grey than it sounds.) Poor Nikki. Ever the unseen bridesmaid – did nobody think to get the woman in front of the camera, just this once? The woman she voices is literally in the film for thirty seconds. Couldn’t they have chucked her the part for services rendered?

After the realism of the previous film, we quickly find ourselves in a laboratory that makes Blofelds. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted. One presumes Bond hunts down Blofeld to avenge Tracy but the film never acknowledges this explicitly. Indeed Tracy is mentioned a grand total of zero times. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had an uneasy relationship with its predecessors. Diamonds Are Forever‘s relationship with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is much clearer: totally ignore it.

The franchise seems almost embarrassed by its showcasing real emotion last time out. It overcompensates by making everything that bit more cartoonish here – like a normally jovial uncle who got a bit teary on the whiskies the other night and is now feverishly running through his Monty Python impressions in the hope this banishes the memory. Only with every ‘Come back here, I’ll bite your arm off,’ or Moonbuggy chase, all you hear is the desperate refrain: ‘You never saw me cry! You never saw me cry!’

Most revealing, and depressing, is the early exchange with Moneypenny before Bond travels to Amsterdam. After the standard flirt, he asks if she wants anything from Holland. Her simpering reply? ‘A diamond…? In a ring…?’

Horrified she clasps her mouth, trying to force the words back in, while Bond’s jaw tightens and a look of pained confusion enters his eyes. He slumps desolate onto the steering wheel of the car, just like his dead wife, murdered in front of him at the start of their honeymoon only months ago ….

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Only of course he doesn’t. He grins, makes some quip about a tulip and speeds off. Moneypenny cheerily waves him on his way. This isn’t banishing Tracy’s ghost so much as jumping on her grave.

In fairness, perhaps Diamonds Are Forever had no choice. The recasting of Bond and Blofeld stifles any emotional resonance from the previous film. Could we really buy into a Bond who wasn’t married trying to avenge the death of his wife on a Blofeld who didn’t kill her? Having criticised On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for its uneven handling of Lazenby, it seems a little unfair to slate Diamonds Are Forever for an unwavering decision to be its own film.

But still…. this is the greatest set-up of the entire series and the film squanders it within five minutes. A vendetta story with genuine emotional heft. Both protagonists are established enemies. This isn’t a sequel to the previous film but the culmination of the entire series, ever since Dr. No announced SPECTRE to the world. Even a substandard film, even a weak film, would be bolstered by that premise. Anything halfway decent immediately enters Top 5 territory. That how much credit the payoff of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service bought. And Diamonds Are Forever pissed it up the wall.

Another incongruity is the relentlessly cheery relationship between Bond and Blofeld. Rather than mortal enemies, the pair shoot the breeze like a couple of old muckers. ‘I do so enjoy our little visits, Mr Bond,’ purrs Blofeld at one point and you genuinely believe him.

Viewed through a frame of mutual dependence, the Bond-Blofeld battle actually starts making a lot more sense. Why else would Blofeld repeatedly refuse to eliminate Bond when the latter is at his mercy? How else to explain Bond continually returning the favour? Come on, people – Bond clearly recognised the real Blofeld in Willard Whyte’s apartment! Even aged twelve I remember thinking, ‘it’s the one in the chair!’ Shooting the lookalike is just an excuse for the guys to get some alone time. Initially the obvious comparison seems to be Batman and the Joker – but actually the cartoon violence, the perpetually frustrated schemes and the underlying fondness point in a softer direction. They’re Tom and Jerry.

Charles Grey is my favourite Blofeld. He’s smoother than Des Lynam dripping in melted chocolate and unfailingly courteous – at one point he actually says ‘please’ to a minion. This Blofeld has a deadpan world-weariness that works very well against Connery’s laconic-verging-on-comatose shtick. Playing Blofeld as a bored aristocrat only doing it for the kicks makes far more sense than Donald Pleasance being weird and evil in a volcano. Anyway, if Christoph Waltz is indeed playing Ernst in the upcoming Spectre (as is likely) then the Grey incarnation will probably be the Blofeld Waltz’s most resembles.

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Tiffany Case has the unenviable task of following Tracy. At first she does a decent job, styling herself as a flinty, no bullshit smuggler with frequently changing hair. But either this is a massive act or nobody had the energy to write another quality female lead.

Quickly Tiffany gets dumbed down, either making doe-eyes at Felix – “I’m cooperating Mr Leiter. Really I am” – or getting hysterical whenever somebody is offed. A particular low comes in the climatic attack on Blofeld’s rig. Tiffany picks up a machine gun and, holding the weapon at arm’s length, fires herself off the deck. The real incompetent here isn’t the character but the writers. The Tiffany of the first act would never do that.

Also, note the bikini. My just-devised theory: randomly stuffing the girl into a bikini is the film’s way of compensating for her being a dud. Further evidence: Kissy Suzuki, Mary Goodnight. Honey Rider is the exception that proves the rule.

Alarmingly, Tiffany has heard of James Bond. Now I get old enemies or major international players recognising Bond’s name, but when a smalltime jewel smuggler – based in Amsterdam – quite literally has your number then perhaps you should rethink your role as a ‘secret’ agent. ‘Bond as minor celebrity’ recurs throughout the franchise. The films continually fluctuate between having Bond as an anonymous spy and being the espionage version of Harry Styles.

Messrs Wint and Kidd are divisive. I love them. Mr Wint is superbly sinister, highly camp but ruthlessly effective. Big, shambling Mr Kidd is even better: balding and bespectacled, he looks like a man who knows nothing of murder but a lot about Dungeons And Dragons. And what a moustache! This lethal pair glide through the film, bumping off pretty much every character they come into contact with – apart from Bond, naturally. Granted, Wint and Kidd are very detached from Blofeld, their supposed employer. The trio share no scenes and, once Blofeld reappears, Wint and Kidd basically vanish until the final boat showdown. They are hitmen, not henchmen, and this works in their favour.

Wint and Kidd are the only explicitly gay characters in the Bond franchise. (I think…) Crucially, their competence is never affected by their homosexuality – and in Bond, competence is the true measure of a character. Wint and Kidd are repeatedly deadly and never played for laughs in the manner of Moonraker Jaws or Sheriff Pepper. They are killers who happen to be gay rather than gay killers. The one dubious moment is Wint’s enthusiastic squeal when Bond gives him a wedgie. But – like “fetch my shoes’”– I’m willing to judge the squeal a misstep rather than a total fall from grace.

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Diamonds Are Forever is packed with memorable supporting characters. Willard Whyte, the reclusive billionaire and a slightly less mental version of Howard Hawks. Bambi and Thumper, the two Amazonians who kick the crap out of Bond before foolishly going aquatic. Plenty O’Toole, she of an easy smile and mixed fortune with swimming pools (saved by one, drowned in another). Shady Tree and Mrs Whistler, two smugglers old enough to know better. Few of the ensemble are traditional Bond material; and as such they give Diamonds Are Forever a unique flavour, distinct from any other Bond film.

I find it hard to judge if the Las Vegas setting is a mistake or masterstroke. It certainly heightens, perhaps even creates, the jaded, slightly tawdry atmosphere of Diamonds Are Forever. For once the location de-glamourises: rather than golden beaches or snowy peaks, Vegas is just a load of flashing lights. Much time is spent inside casinos; even Q is seen playing the slots. Rather than sunlight we get neon; hotels replace national landmarks as architectural eye-candy; and the Nevada desert takes the role of exotic climate.

Yet strangely it sort of works. Sending the clearly out-of-shape Connery to Delhi or Rio might well have exacerbated the star’s then-decline and, being brutally honest, wasted a prime location. But stick Sean amidst the craps tables of Sin City and suddenly he looks the part. His steadfast indifference is a fine counterpoint to the noise and junk of Vegas. Bond is an old dog, uninterested in learning new tricks but confident the ones he knows will suffice. In a town obsessed with new tricks, that bestows no small amount of integrity. And where better than Vegas to send a star only doing it for the money?

That isn’t a criticism, quite. Connery’s downbeat performance anchors the film quite nicely. And downbeat is generous: in bed with Tiffany, he genuinely looks on the verge of falling asleep. But just as a virile location would have exposed Connery, so an energetic performance would rip apart the strand of gossamer that passes for the plot.

Speaking of which… giant laser! Blofeld is rather a pioneer as ‘shooting stuff from space’ will become a great favourite of villainy. Indeed Gustav Graves steals the idea completely, diamonds and all. I have a fondness for the very ropey effects showing the destruction of various submarines, nukes, and such like. Everything glows a bright and unconvincing red before exploding in the distance. Blofeld’s random Kansas diss is also highly enjoyable: “If we destroy Kansas, the world may not hear about it for years”. 

The peril, though, feels as real as Acme dynamite. Not even the slightest pretence is made that Bond might bite the bullet. The one vaguely alarming moment is Bond’s near-cremation by Wint and Kidd. The coffin enters the crematory, the flames light up, the music kicks in – and for thirty seconds we almost believe Bond will be barbecued alive. Like the best Bond jeopardies – laser castration, tarantula – the horror of the threat, rather than the likelihood of death, is what chews down the fingernails. Connery looks almost discomforted.

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Then Shady Tree opens the coffin and a relaxed Bond hops out, not remotely discombobulated by what appeared the most horrific ordeal imaginable. Nor is there any acknowledgement to the fortune of Bond’s escape. If Shady doesn’t check the diamonds until he’s nipped to the loo then Bond is streaming up the crematorium chimney.

Two other scenes illustrate the lack of peril – or, conversely, the heightened sense of fun. The first is Bond’s interment in an oil pipeline on Blofeld’s orders. Wint and Kidd drive to a construction site, dump an unconscious Bond in a spare piece of piping, and drive away chuckling. By some miracle, no builder spots Bond when fitting the pipe into the ground. Bond awakes, talks to a rat, vandalises some kind of machine and resurfaces in his tuxedo in front of two bemused workers. Normally, Bond must thwart the villain’s method of execution. Here, the result is exactly what Blofeld planned – Bond in pipeline – yet 007 strolls free without the slightest effort. The payoff line about the rat excuses much.

The second is Bond’s arrival on Blofeld’s base. He drops into the sea in a giant floating ball and is brought onto the oil rig by the guards. It takes a while to realise that Bond has voluntary placed himself in the position he normally must escape from: unarmed and alone in the villain’s lair. What if Blofeld just shoots him? Or simply leaves the giant ball floating in the sea? Who devised that plan: “OK, James, you can pitch up at Blofeld’s gaff – fingers crossed he doesn’t kill you…” 

But of course he won’t – not this Blofeld in this film. Diamonds Are Forever sends Bond down the road that leads to the Moore. It is a road of pitfalls and pratfalls, leading the franchise to a place it doesn’t want to go. That, at least, is the purist opinion. Conversely, you can view Diamonds Are Forever as the film that lightened Bond, allowing him to float over the 70s and into the 80s, by which time the franchise was a true behemoth and could go in any direction it damn well chose. Not that it matters, but I’m in the latter camp.

I’ll probably do Never Say Never Again (even though it doesn’t really count) so the Connery goodbye can wait. We’ll see Sean again. But never in a ‘proper’ Bond film – so farewell for now, Big Guy. You aren’t the best James Bond; you are James Bond. Whether you like it or not.

Best Bit: “Alimentary Doctor Leiter.” Definitely the cleverest line of the series.

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Worst Bit: Everybody mocked Bond when he took those Moon Buggy driving lessons. But now we can endure a really dull chase.

Final Thought: Bond never kisses anyone! (Except Plenty, in heavy shadow, for like a second.) Coincidence or contractual?