It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
OK, OK, it's a cliche, but I'm otherwise at a loss of how to open this review. As James Bond entered the 1970's, the franchise was very much in transition. Decisions were being made, styles were being set, and much of what we would see on screen for the next two decades was being set in front of our eyes.
After On Her Majesty's Secret Service was viewed as a relative box office disappointment, Broccoli and Saltzman drew two lessons. First, they decided that the franchise needed a real lead actor--no more inexperienced models (yay!). They had actually signed American actor John Gavin to take the role, when United Artists president David Picker stepped in and offered Sean Connery the then-record sum of $1.4 million plus perks to take on the role one more time. We would never see an amateur take the lead again.
The second lesson they deduced was, "serious" Bond movies don't do as well (boo!). Less straight spy film, more adventurous romp, was to be the order of the day from here on out. Less From Russia With Love, more Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice. For people like me, who are huge fans of the straight spy films, this was a sad day. I can't say they were 100% wrong--every time they tried to downplay the gadgets and the camp (OHMSS, For Your Eyes Only, Licence to Kill), the box office would take a dip--although Casino Royale (2006) would seem to disprove the theory. Regardless, we were about to undergo a long series of less serious films.
The best of times was personified by having Sean Connery return to the fold one last time (for now) to play 007. Watching the films week by week as I have been, it is a little shocking how much he seems to have aged since YOLT. Not that he looks old...just not as much the lean, hungry presence he used to bring to the role.
Not that he doesn't excel in the role, even at this late date. As the film begins the turn towards jokiness and smirk, Connery keeps his performance rock solid, not playing to the comedy. No double takes, no camp--he lets the humor of the situation speak for itself. He (and director Guy Hamilton) realized that it was the contrast between the serious super agent and the ridiculous situations (riding atop the elevator, climbing out of the desert pipeline) that made the humor work.
We start with a fairly disappointing teaser, as Bond treks the world to hunt down Blofeld. Now, I know the series has never been about continuity, and probably shouldn't be. But would it have killed him to make even the tiniest reference to Tracy, that he was getting revenge for the murder of his wife? If you're a hardcore Bond fan, you knew what was up. But if you're a casual fan who hadn't seen OHMSS, well, all you see is an obsessed Bond. No name check for Tracy, no phone call to Draco saying, "I got him." Sigh...
Anyway, the teaser is mostly just the fists of Bond beating the crap out of people. Connery makes his million-dollar reappearance, strangling an ingenue with her own bikini top (which Sean does masterfully...as always, you believe this man can be the vicious killer Fleming envisioned). He tracks Blofeld to a facility where plastic surgery is being used to produce doubles of Blofeld (and where, apparently, immersion in mud is an important part of plastic surgery--who knew?). Bond buries a Blofeld in mud, discovers it's a double, is confronted by the "real" Blofeld, drowns him in hot mud. Not a lot of great action, pretty "meh" as teasers go. Not a good sign.
The Fleming novel Diamonds Are Forever was solely concerned with shutting down a smuggling ring, which mainly involved Bond killing an awful lot of 1950's American gangsters. No threats to world order, just at threat to the security of one of the Empire's biggest financial pies. But, with the new Bond paradigm in force, we can't stop at something real world: the movie makes the diamond smuggling really a plot to put together a devastating laser satellite to blackmail the world's governments. So, goodbye to the Blofeld of OHMSS who was looking to retire with amnesty and a small title of nobility. Nope, we're 100% back into Dr. Evil territory here.
The screenplay, by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz, is also the best of times/worst of times. Generally speaking, the dialogue is sharp, and the characterizations well-drawn. But the plot, well, the plot is far more confusing than it needs to be, and the final act of the film just crashes and burns in terms of making sense.
The...colorful hitmen, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kid, are shutting down the diamond smuggling pipeline, and killing everybody who was involved. Why, I'm not sure...it was the murders that prompted the government to get MI-6 involved, so if they don't kill everyone, it's unlikely anyone could trace the network to Blofeld in time to prevent the satellite. Even with Bond on the case, Blofeld only had to advance the launch 24 hours. If you just take the diamonds from the dentist, and take them straight to Vegas without the rigmarole, your plan is underway much sooner, you don't attract the attention, and you can go back and kill people at your leisure after you rule the world.
Plus, the killers are pretty poor at their job. Twice, they kill people (or attempt to kill them) before the diamonds are actually passed along. Oops!! And then they kill the wrong person, thinking she was Tiffany. Oops again! And then they try to kill Bond in the most patently ridiculously way possible (so no one on the construction crew sees Bond, or checks the pipe before they bury it? Is this the fastest constructed pipeline in history? A death trap with an exit hatch, that workers have to check "twice a day?" This was supposed to kill Bond how?). Sigh...like a said above, it's not a serious spy series anymore, so I shouldn't expect too much.
So the lack of clarity over who is being killed and why, coupled with the interminable "where are the real diamonds" back and forth, make for a more muddled plot then was necessary. A lot of stuff is happening, but it's not really advancing the story...it's just marking time. There's often no sense of why one scene is following another. Combine that with some very odd plot construction, and you have a lot of fun, but no real direction. As Churchill said, the pudding has no theme.
Odd plot construction? How about how we have the long, boring moon buggy chase followed immediately by the long up and down Fremont Street chase sequence? That's a huge chunk of the middle of your movie tied up on pointless car chases. How about having the interesting henchmen Wint and Kid vanish from the movie for almost 45 minutes? After they attempt to bury Bond in the dessert, they aren't seen again until the finale. How about having Tiffany Case vanish from your movie for almost as long (and having Bond not even notice that she's missing)? After Bond heads up to Whyte's penthouse, except for the brief scene with Q, we don't see her again until Bond reaches the oil platform.
And the whole general plot speaks to a particular lack of imagination. I understand that you want to expand it beyond diamond smuggling...but again with the Blofeld?!? When Maibaum made S.P.E.C.T.R.E. the secret bad guy in From Russia With Love instead of SMERSH, it was inspired. This time, it's just laziness. It's glaringly obvious in the light of watching these movies back to back, but even to contemporary observers with 2 years between the films it must have been annoying--3 straight movies with Blofeld as the main bad guy?? The 4th in a row where Blofeld or S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is threatening the world with WMDs?? Second of the last 3 with a space-based weapon? Was there a compelling reason to make this Blofeld again? Especially since you were going to have a different actor playing Blofeld for the 3rd straight movie!! Why not use to opportunity to at least come up with a new villain, if not a new plot?!?!
That being said, I like Charles Gray just fine as Blofeld. People like to throw about the terms "effete" and "effeminate" in criticizing his performance (hell, I've done it, too). But he's hardly effeminate--he does dress in drag, but only to avoid detection (just like S.P.E.C.T.R.E. #6 in Thunderball), and besides--he's British, they just do that sort of thing. Yes, he's snotty, arrogant, patrician--but he's a criminal mastermind, not the henchman. No, he probably couldn't win a hand-to-hand combat with 007, but neither could Max Von Sydow or Donald Pleasence. Yes, he's camping it up, but in case you haven't noticed, the whole movie is camp. What's key is that he and Connery play well off another, and that Gray is able to project the menace that Blofeld should have.
Plus, his basic scheme is fairly clever--take the place of the reclusive billionaire, and use his assets to implement your evil scheme. Bravo!! And I give Blofeld some extra credit points for FINALLY learning not to give too long a deadline. He give the U.S. and Russia until "tomorrow at noon" to pay off--probably about 18 hours.
Unfortunately, there are no good supporting characters for Bond to play off of (aside from Tiffany). No Kerim Bay, no Tanaka, no Draco...just a boring humorless bunch. Norman Burton is the latest in a line of boring and not particularly useful Felix Leiters (more on that this weekend). The gangsters who figure so prominently in the novel are around for a few minutes, but never as more than cardboard cut-outs. Bond doesn't meet Wint and Kid until the final 2 minutes of the movie. Jimmy Dean brings some spark, but it's too little, too late.
Jill St. John as Tiffany Case is...well, she's freaking stunning. Aside from her obvious physical attributes, her emotional (and physical) chemistry with Sean Connery is palpable. Her ability to slide back and forth between ordering Peter Franks around and seducing him (whichever to better get her way) makes her quite the memorable femme fatale. You believe she's a tough and effective smuggler, used to getting her way, able to get out of most situations.
But...things start to go south in the last half of the movie. Yes, when people start trying to kill her and she's facing prison, she shifts to more vulnerable and demure. That's in character. But they take it waaaay too far. After a lengthy absence, I think the character completely falls apart (like pretty much everything else does in the horrific final act). She's worse than useless against Blofeld, both switching out the wrong tape and then failing to re-switch it. Even Bond calls her a "stupid twit". Then, of course, there's the unforgivable bit with the machine gun.
You'd think that Case, as a career criminal, would know at least some minimal amount about how to handle a weapon. But far from covering Bond, she manages to shoot herself off the oil platform in a way that would embarrass Abbot & Costello.
Then comes the finale, aboard the cruise ship. She and Bond are being menaced by two assassins. Bond is being strangled by one. Does Tiffany case grab a knife from dinner service? Does she grab a bottle to conk Mr. Wint with? No, and no. What does she do?
Oh, yes, she throws a cake at him. And misses. Well done, Team Bond...you turned Tiffany Case from a capable and self--assured woman into a useless git. Congratulations!!
What else is wrong with the final act? Oy, let's see: The good guys have a tight deadline to respond to Blofeld's blackmail. Apparently, they spent that 18 hours doing essentially nothing (except perhaps hopping down to K-Mart to buy a cassette tape). Seriously, what is Bond's bold stratagem for getting into Blofeld's fortress? How about, just walk up to it. In plain sight. No subterfuge, no guile. With 15 minutes to go. In a big inflatable ball (Ladies and gentleman, we are now firmly in the camp zone...please leave any expectations of the slightest bit of realism checked at the front desk for the next decade. Thank you). And hope they don't search you. Or that if they search you, and do find the fake tape, that Blofeld will just leave it laying atop his desk, and you can somehow snatch it back. Or hope that Tiffany (whom Bond doesn't even know has been captured) will still be on your side and manage to get the tape back to you, even though she can't possibly know about the tape (she didn't enter the room until after the tape was discussed) and even though the guards are looking right out you. Absolutely foolproof. And it only took them 17 hours to come up with that plan...
And then, don't even have a specific signal planned ahead of time with Leiter to launch the attack...Bond releases a weather balloon, and Leiter says, "That must be the signal!" So what, exactly, would James have done if no weather balloon were handy? Whistled?? (And consider Leiter, who knows for a fact that "there isn't a low pressure area within 200 miles of here!" So Felix is a waaay too dedicated amateur meteorologist? Or are all CIA agents so perfectly briefed on the exact locations of all weather systems??)
Oh, but we're not done yet. Consider, if you will, the end of Blofeld. He tries to flee in his "bathosub", but Bond commandeers the crane, and proceeds to pommel the control room with the bathosub. Yes, this is the final link in Bond's brilliant plan--stop the destruction of Washington D.C. by hoping there's some large object hanging from a crane that he can use to batter the control room with. That Blofeld was in it was a huge bonus, of course. But why doesn't he finish off Blofeld?!? The very last shot we see, the bathosub is 100% intact. Some people have written that it blows up, but it very clearly does not, unless it's off screen somewhere. Nope, despite all Bond's earlier sturm und drang about killing Blofeld, he just leaves him hanging there, almost certain to escape. If we're meant to think Blofeld is killed, the director sure does a craptacular job of portraying it.
Seriously, the movie is an enjoyable, if imperfect, lark up until this point. But it's as if Maibaum and Mankeiwiecz forget to finish the script, and couldn't be found, so the producers rushed in some old writers from the Matt Helm movies, got 'em liquored up, and chained them to typewriters and said, "Go." The final 20 minutes becomes an amateur backyard panto (editor's note: snell is over-reacting. Please forgive him).
Back to the good things. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fun turn by Jimmy Dean as Willard Whyte. Good energy, fun performance, great sausage, and I ALWAYS crack up like an idiot when he yells, "Baja?!?!". I do have one real problem with his performance, though. For someone who was supposedly such a recluse that he hadn't been seen in public for 5 years, Whyte displays no signs of neuroses, paranoia, lack of social ability, nothing. No indication of why he let himself vanish for so long. It's as if, once the real Whyte show up, the writers kind of forgot that he was based on Howard Hughes.
I freely confess that all my whining above makes me sound much more negative about Diamonds Are Forever than I really am. It's never boring, like YOLT. Things keep moving, and are always interesting, even when non-sensical. I actually like the damned movie. But I just get very frustrated by the fact that, given the chaos of the end of the movie, the team for the first time seemed more concerned with getting done than getting it done right. The earlier Bond movies had set a much higher standard.
So, the best of times, the worst of times. A fun movie, mostly enjoyable. A fitting last hurrah for Sean. But it firmly points the franchise in a direction I'm not fond of, and that future creative teams will not execute nearly so well. Welcome to the 1970's, 007.
SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
**Shirley Bassey is the first return artist, the first to get another theme song. And while this one isn't nearly so good as "Goldfinger," it is a much underrated tune. Sliding and sinuous, you're never certain where it's going, and Bassey's vocals turn what could have been a dull, droning chorus into a sleek and sexy title song.
**If you LOOOOVE Las Vegas as much as I do, it's fun to see what the town looked liked back in ye olde days. Fremont Street unblocked and uncovered, no theme resorts...take a look at this shot of the Dunes, and how empty the surrounding area is.
This is where the Bellagio is today, and every square inch is now crammed with resorts, retail, condos, and more construction projects every day. And check out the list of hotels thanked in the credits:
Half of those are no longer with us...And isn't about time Bond return to Vegas??
**Speaking of 70's Vegas, ladies and gentleman: Shady Tree!! The worst act ever, or THE WORST ACT EVER?? Saxby is upset when Wint and Kid kill him prematurely--"We need Tree-alive!!" Uhh, you do? Why, exactly? The diamonds got passed along just fine without him...
**A LOT of things that don't make sense in this movie, due to poor editing, poor filming, or just general screw-ups. Everyone knows about the famous "car balanced on the wrong side" fiasco. But how about this scene, where Bond is on the phone with Q.
Bond then takes off in a hurry, but you can still hear Q's voice talking to him.
Except, of course, the phone is hung up. Sloppy, sloppy.
**I dissed the fight scenes in Guy Hamilton's last Bond film, Goldfinger. So I'd better praise this one, specifically the elevator fight scene with Peter Franks. It's not quite the train car fight from From Russia With Love, but it makes a nice substitute. Intense and well filmed.
**After Bond kills Franks in that fight, he switches wallets with him, so Case will believe that it's James Bond who is dead. WAIT A MINUTE!! While on an undercover mission, 007 still carries his own wallet, with cards (including a Playboy Club membership!) identifying him as Bond?!? No wonder M's always pissed at him...
**The fact that Tiffany Case recognizes the name James Bond, and regards him with awe, is of course terrible. Bond is supposed to be a super secret spy, but common jewel smugglers know who he is? Again, we're camping it up here. This coy, fourth-wall breaking self-referentialism will keep on going during the Moore era, until the whole series nearly collapses under its own smug weight (I'm looking at you, View To a Kill).
**But we're not fully given in to terrible sight gags and self reference yet. Maibaum's dialogue still truly sparkles in places, particularly the double entendres as Bond undresses for Tiffany, and also this exchange, representing the best lines of dialogue in the history of motion pictures:
Plenty: Hi, I'm Plenty!
Bond (glancing at her...ahem...dress): But of course you are.
Plenty: Plenty O'Toole.
Bond (smirking): Named after your father, perhaps?
They don't write 'em like that anymore. Poor, poor Plenty.
**OK, so "Peter Franks" had to come up with an original way to get the diamonds into the country, and uses the convenient corpse. But...Mr. Slumber's funeral outfit was all set up for diamond smuggling already!?! Was the whole set-up built just in case somebody smuggled jewels in a corpse someday?!? What if Bond had smuggled the diamonds some other way?
**More inconsistencies: The first time we see Blofeld talk to Saxby and Metz on the phone, he's using the voice changer to pretend that he's Willard Whyte. The next time for both, he doesn't use it. But why stop pretending to be White with them, unless they already knew?? So who knew he was Blofeld all along, and who didn't? Or did they just get bored and sloppy?
**Saxby shows up at Whyte's summer place to shoot him. But wait a minute--Blofeld never gave that order to Saxby--he gave it to Bond pretending to be Saxby!! So was Saxby acting on his own? Did he call Blofeld, and they found out that Bond had fooled them? No explanation...just more sloppy stuff, things happening for no particular reason.
**Oh, and then there's the cassette tape. First it's at the aerospace lab, just laying around so Bond could notice it. Then, apparently just because, it's in Blofeld's office, again just laying around so Bond could notice it. A MacGuffin is one thing...a MacGuffin that just appears in random places where it shouldn't be solely to give the hero a clue is lazy writing.
**So Tiffany sees Blofled, in drag, leaving the casino, and realizes it's him. Uh, how? Not only had she never met Blofeld before, Bond hadn't even so much as spoken to her since he discovered that Blofeld was the villain. He leaves to visit Willard Whyte's penthouse, not knowing Blofeld is alive, and they don't even see each other until he gets to the oil platform at the end. There must have been an off screen scene where he fills her in or something, or else she recognizes a man she's never even heard of when he's in disguise. Again, sloppy editing, or sloppy storytelling, or both.
**Bond's victory over Bambi and Thumper is completely unbelievable (and unearned). They're kicking his butt all over the place, he barely gets a blow in, but when they get to the pool, all of a sudden he just reaches out and dunks them, fight over. What, is he Aquaman??
**Ladies and gentlemen: a Las Vegas suite as designed by Ken Adam:
**Bond Score: 1. That's right. Just one. Although he had a close call with Plenty, the only intimacy Bond enjoys in this film is with Tiffany Case. Cumulative Bond Score: 24.
And, as always,
Get ready to enter a brave new world, people.