Monday, January 19, 2009

James Bond review: Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

CUT TO THE CHASE: A very Vegas Bond.

BOND, JAMES BOND: Lazenby leaves. Poor schmuck. The producers lure Connery back for one last fling.

The pre-title sequence makes much of this, but in a puzzling way. It’s sort of a montage of Bond chasing Blofeld through a number of exotic locales and luckless informants. The first of these encounters is in Japan, which immediately puts us in mind of You Only Live Twice – are we meant to assume OHMSS never happened? Possibly, although the fury with which Bond is chasing Blofeld now seems to imply that Bond harbors a personal grudge stemming from the events in OHMSS. Regardless, we’re not given enough to establish any real continuity, which is probably a good thing. In any case, the point here is that we don’t see Bond’s face during the first couple of these encounters – it’s all point-of-view shots until we reach the third informant, Marie. She’s lounging in the sun in a bikini. She looks up at the camera approaching, says, “Who are you?” And then we see Connery walking toward us, saying, “My name is Bond – James Bond.” They’re reintroducing him, as if he were a new actor in the role, but of course he’s not, so this becomes a big applause line.

Hell, I’ll bite. As much as I love George, I can’t argue with the chance to see Connery once again display his inimitable charm.

He looks considerably older here than he did his last time out – older than four years should be able to explain. And some of the details of his look are wacky. Sideburns? A great look, but not for Bond. Brown suits and pink ties? Not a great look, but Connery pulls it off. Some of the other looks, the leisure suits and open-necked shirts? Not so much.

But it doesn’t matter. ‘Cause it’s Vegas, baby. This should be a problem. I’ll have more to say about when Bond movies adopt other idioms: I think they get mixed results at best. And I also tend not to like it when Bond goes to America – see my review of Goldfinger. This film is the exception that proves the rule, and it’s because they figured out how Bond deals with Vegas and all its crassness. He saunters through it, in the full knowledge that he’s above it. It’s the Bond equivalent of a Sinatra show at the Sands, where the singer’s aesthetic is to make it look like he’s not trying to hard. Casual, loose, ‘cause what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, baby. And ‘cause all that charm is even more charming when you see, or think you see, that he doesn’t have to work for it. It’s all natural. Baby.

This looseness makes this one of the less coherent Bonds, but at the same time it allows Connery’s performance to be one of his most enjoyable. Again, Sinatra at the Sands: you’ve won a big wad, you’ve got a sexy dame on your arm and a martini in your hand, and Old Blue Eyes is on stage. Does it really matter what he’s singing?

What Makes Bond Bond: He’s an expert craps player, but he doesn’t mind letting the lady roll for him. And doesn’t seem to care when she loses. But he takes the rest of the rolls himself. And wins.

What Makes Sean Connery Sean Connery: When he finally decides he’s tired of waiting for an appointment to see Willard Whyte, Bond, in a tuxedo, strolls out onto his balcony and steps onto the roof of the outdoor elevator, riding it up to the penthouse. The camera slowly pulls back to show us Bond standing on this elevator hundred of feet above the ground. He looks utterly casual about it. But what makes the moment is the way he sniffs the flower in his lapel as he steps onto the elevator.

BAD GUYS: Charles Gray plays Blofeld this time, and he’s utterly bad. He has no dignity – gone is the sense that Blofeld must be classy enough and together enough to make a worthy enemy for Bond. He has no menace either. And of course no neck.

He is fun to watch, however. He’s nothing but a big neckless trapezoid in a Nehru jacket, but he struts around like he owns the joint. And when he appears in drag – well, I defy you to find a more sublimely ridiculous moment this side of Monty Python.

His Nefarious Scheme is to make a killer satellite and use it to hold the world to ransom; it must have been a great idea, because they recycled it for Goldeneye. Here, though, it has holes you could drive a truck through, or at least a moon buggy. Like, I suppose I can buy the conceit that he needs diamonds to construct it, but if he’s trying to keep it secret, why kill everybody who comes in contact with the diamonds? ‘Cause nothing throws the authorities off the scent like a string of murders across three continents.

We’re back to the formula with a vengeance in the Evil Henchman department. Messrs. Wint and Kidd, the assassins who just happen to be gay, are among the most memorable baddies ever to grace a Bond film. Their droll banter, their odd look (Kidd’s hair!), their impeccable timing. All hail Putter Smith and Bruce Glover.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Jill St. John as Tiffany Case knows what it means to be a Bond girl. It means prancing around your apartment in your almost-altogether, and sneering that you don’t dress for the hired help. It means engaging in some very skeevy double entendres (and she gets almost as many good lines as Bond).

Lana Wood knows what it means to be a Bond girl, too. It means leaning precariously over the craps table while wearing an expression that just couldn’t be any more unassuming. And setting Bond up for undoubtedly the skeeviest double entendre of the series so far. Drum roll, please… “Named after your father, perhaps?”

Both are sexy in an overripe way that sets them apart from both the International Supermodel look of the Thunderball girls and the Natural Look that would prevail for the rest of the decade’s Bond girls. Hey, this is Vegas: hubba-hubba, and all that. Between St. John and Wood we have almost more lusciousness than we know what to do with.

Or than Bond knows what to do with, evidently, because for all that, the film ends up with a GS quotient of only 1. Frustrating – but that’s Vegas for you.

AND VIOLENCE: The fight on the elevator in Amsterdam is one of the best action sequences in the series so far. It was evidently quite a trick to film it in such a close space, which makes it a technical innovation, but with uncharacteristic subtlety: onscreen it just looks like two guys throwing punches at each other. But it’s taut, visceral, exciting.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Another Q field trip, to Vegas this time. The gadgets themselves in this film are fairly understated – some prosthetic fingertips here, a belt-rigged climbing cable there. But Q’s slot-machine joy buzzer is memorable.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: After brief stops in Japan, Cairo, and elsewhere, the movie takes us (but not Bond) to South Africa before settling in Amsterdam, then Las Vegas. See above.

ETC.: Again, not a great title sequence; gauzy, glittery, but not especially sexy. Bringing Shirley Bassey back for the theme song, more than anything, was begging the audience to forgive any of the previous film’s indiscretions. But who’s complaining? It’s another sultry vocal performance on a great song given a surprisingly forward-looking, almost dance-floor ready, arrangement… Casting country star Jimmy Dean in this film could have been overwhelmingly kitschy, but strangely enough it works; he brings a confidence and energy to the role that stands in sharp contrast to Charles Gray’s odd Blofeld. Plus, they had the wisdom not to let him sing the theme song. If only they’d shown the same restraint when they cast Madonna in Die Another Day… Okay, so far in the series Bond has driven cars (assorted Aston Martins, Bentleys, and other makes), boats, a rocket backpack, a miniature helicopter, skis, a bobsled, jet-propelled scuba gear, and now a moon buggy. We’ve barely scratched the surface… In the next couple of films we’ll slam head-on into the phenomenon of Bond imitating other genres of action film; here it’s not quite doing that, but look at the movie’s depiction of American gangsters and then imagine a parody version of, say, The Godfather (“I got a bruddah”). That film wouldn’t be released until 1972, but it was shooting at more or less the same time as Diamonds, and of course the novel had been a bestseller since 1969. A connection? Maybe not, but the gangsters are definitely a little more wiseguyish here than they were in Goldfinger

RATING: 005.

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