Smarting from the disappointing American box office receipts for “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (although it was a sizeable hit in the rest of the world) and the departure of their leading man after only one movie, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman came down with a severe case of the star-spangled reboots. Hell-bent on winning back the American audience they thought they’d lost, they cast American actor John Gavin to be the new James Bond. The story would retcon much of the background to favour America and follow the “Goldfinger” template as much as possible, including using a United States-set story which was to feature Goldfinger’s twin brother out for revenge.
Broccoli eventually changed this following a dream he had about his good friend Howard Hughes being replaced by an imposter. While veteran Bond writer Richard Maibaum wrote the first draft, loosely basing it on Fleming’s novel “Diamonds Are Forever”, American screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz was brought on board to do a rewrite, principally to bring an authenticity to the bulk of the American-set dialogue and scenes but also to make some changes to support Broccoli’s latest master plan: to bring back Sean Connery.
Connery, of course, did agree to return – for a huge fee of £1.25million (£24million in today’s money) along with a percentage of the gross receipts and a two picture production deal at Universal Artists (who had masterminded the drive to get Connery back).John Gavin, the man who would have been Bond, was paid in full for his contract and sent on his way and the plot was finalised to loosely follow on from the tragic end of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.
Bond is called in to investigate a diamond smuggling racket through which person or persons unknown seem to be stockpiling diamonds for an unknown purpose. Fearing economic blackmail, M sends Bond in to uncover the smuggling ring. The trail takes him from Amsterdam to Las Vegas where Bond discovers the diamonds are to be used for something far more spectacular than mere price fixing and that the man behind it is the last person he’d expect.
The pre-credits sequence of “Diamonds Are Forever” opens with a grimly determined Bond trotting around the globe in search of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. After visiting Japan and Cairo (for one of the weakest puns in Bond history) amongst other locations, he eventually tracks Blofeld down to a secret underground lair where he is demanding his team of plastic surgeons bring forward their plans. Presumably to avoid revenge, Blofeld has had his appearance altered to resemble Bond’s friend Dikko Henderson from “You Only Live Twice”. No, my mistake, it’s simply the same actor, Charles Grey. Recasting parts in Bond movies by now has become par for the course but there’s something about this one that’s always really grated for me. Maybe it’s a combination of the recent nature of his – admittedly brief – cameo in “You Only Live Twice” and the fact he looks so totally different from Donald Pleasance or Telly Savalas that bugs me but every time I watch this movie, Blofeld’s appearance completely snaps me out of the film.
Anyway, Bond has no such problem and after dispatching one of the potential Blofeld duplicates in a Kids’ Choice AwardsTM-style gunging he discovers he’s offed the wrong one and promptly sends a second Blofeld to meet his maker in a superheated pool of mud that resembles three week old nacho cheese sauce. This provokes the ire of a white Persian cat, wearing a sparkling diamond collar which neatly brings us into the opening titles.
As part of the effort to bring back the lightning in a bottle of “Goldfinger”, Shirley Bassey is once again on song duties and this theme, written by John Barry and Don Black, is arguably the best of the three she will do. Musically evocative of the crystallised carbon gemstones of the movie’s title, it’s less strident than “Goldfinger” and all the better for it. Bassey’s voice has matured since she last sang a Bond theme and she is at the height of her powers here. Maurice Binder’s titles also take their cue from diamonds although there are still silhouettes of naked ladies to please the purists. It may also be one of the only Bond films where a cat makes an appearance in the credits.
Unfortunately, as the theme song winds up, it’s pretty much downhill from there. The diamond smuggling plot is needlessly complicated, especially once the action gets Stateside. It’s also pretty dull, all things considered and even then, after a while, the film pivots completely into another plot concerning orbital weapons platforms. Yes, Blofeld’s apparently shelved his retirement/ nobility plans and is back in the business of counterintelligence, terrorism, revenge and extortion although he seems be to operating without SPECTRE once again (henchmen are plentiful but the organisation isn’t mentioned and his lieutenants all have names not numbers). The scheme of kidnapping and replacing a reclusive billionaire is actually a really clever idea but it’s frittered away cheaply in this muddled and incoherent story.
The relatively static setting – the vast majority of the film takes place in and around Las Vegas – and the mundanity of aimlessly following the diamonds around for an hour or so means it just doesn’t feel like a Bond movie. It feels more like a middling heist caper film from the seventies or a lavish episode of “The Man From UNCLE”. For those who complain about the lighter, campier tone of the Roger Moore era, the rot started right here, under Connery’s watch and with his endorsement that he believed it was the finest script he’d ever had for a Bond movie. That’s not to say there aren’t a few good things in it but they’re surrounded by so much dross and bad casting that the movie misses the jackpot in favour of playing craps.
Due to the American setting, the regulars are given short shrift, especially Moneypenny who is reduced to a mere cameo posing as a customs officer in Dover (exotic!). Mind you, given what happened to Bond in the previous film her flirtingly asking 007 to bring her back a ‘diamond…in a ring’ is crass and insensitive in the extreme so it’s probably best she didn’t get more screen time. Desmond Llewellyn’s Q, however, fares a little better and even gets a couple of scenes of his own with Bond girl Tiffany Case. We’re also given another Felix Leiter: Norman Burton (our fourth) who helps move things along whenever the plot hits a dead end or slows down to a crawl.
The Bond girls of “Diamonds Are Forever” represent a massive step backwards from Diana Rigg’s feisty and appealing Contessa. Jill St. John’s Tiffany Case is an accident-prone, in over her head buffoon who has somehow managed to carve out a career as a diamond smuggler. Shrill, whiny and ultimately helpless she adds nothing to the movie apart from giving someone for Bond to condescend to. Lana Wood’s Plenty O’Toole is a bit more fun but only gets a little bit of screen time before she is killed off (off screen) by mistake.
Charles Grey’s Blofeld is a complete departure from the previous portrayals. Haughty, elegant bordering on effeminate, he manages to exude a sort of lightweight menace but up against Connery you simply don’t believe he’s a threat. The fact there are multiples of him is used a total of twice in the film, for the same purpose and to little real effect. It’s also glossed over how these duplicates are created. Physically, it’s through plastic surgery and vocally through a voice chip but memory and mannerisms? Some kind of brain transfer? Who knows? More to the point, who cares? It’s not like it matters a great deal to the plot. When it comes to Blofeld’s henchmen, however, the script takes a Noah’s Ark approach to henchmen as they merrily trot in two by two: the gymnastic Bambi & Thumper, and the progressive pairing of Mr Wint & Mr Kidd. It’s all kind of fun, but feels quite disconnected from the main narrative, especially Wint & Kidd’s killing spree. It’s not even particularly clear who they’re working for at times.
But none of them are the casting that mattered: Bond is back! Well Sean Connery is at least. The trouble is Connery looks old; much older than his 40 years. Old, tired and like he’s been to Terry Wogan’s wig guy (Connery wore a hairpiece for all his Bond movies, fact fans). This Bond seems sluggish and unenthused. There are few fights which require a great deal of effort on his part and much of the action is sub-par. While it may have been something of a triumph for Broccoli & co. to get Connery back into the tuxedo once more, it was a pyrrhic victory at best.
Such was the cost of luring the reluctant star back that cutbacks had to be made in almost every area of the production which is why it looks so cheap compared to any of the others. The effects budget in particular was slashed and the original, more elaborate ending rewritten with the result that the grand finale of the film is anything but. A confused and disjointed showdown on an oil rig, a profoundly stupid MacGuffin of a cassette tape and some special effects which are diabolical by 1970’s standards all conspire to make this one of the weakest Bond films of the entire series. Director Guy Hamilton, returning to the series for the first time since “Goldfinger” manages to inject a few sequences with life but for every Las Vegas two wheeled car chase escape, there’s an embarrassingly unnecessary moon buggy in the desert romp. It underlines the feeling that Bond is redundant in stories set predominantly in America (it’s tricky to see what his jurisdiction was in this case at all – even Blofeld pithily observes: ‘Your pitiful little island hasn’t even been threatened) and proved that trying to Americanise Bond too much can backfire badly (although it wouldn’t stop the producers trying a few more times). Silly and dull and incredibly cheap looking, Connery’s waning star power nevertheless made “Diamonds Are Forever” a sizeable success, at least financially. Artistically, both Hamilton and Mankiewicz would be given the opportunity to redeem themselves in the next Bond film…