Diamonds Are Forever has all the ingredients of a classic James Bond adventure. You’ve got Goldfinger’s director (Guy Hamilton) and screenwriter (Richard Maibaum) manning the camera and penning the screenplay, Shirley Bassey handling the title song, Sean Connery back as Bond, a holy-shit car chase down the Las Vegas strip, a Bond girl with a sexually suggestive name (Plenty O’Toole), distinctive henchmen (not-so-secretly gay couple Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint), and the iconic arch-nemesis Blofeld at the center of everything. Plus, it is loosely based on an Ian Fleming novel. So, why is this movie so damn forgettable?
A Salary So Big It Went Straight Into the Guinness Book of World Records
The backstory: When Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli created Eon Productions and declined to make Sean Connery a partner, they gambled that Bond was a character like Hamlet or Tarzan who could endure over the years with different actors. After On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), that gamble didn’t look so wise. Longtime franchise editor-turned-director Peter R. Hunt and George Lazenby – an Australian car salesman/model who’d never really acted before – collaborated to make a more serious Bond picture with a new leading man and a very of-its-time downer ending in the vein of Bonnie & Clyde or The Graduate. Their reward, sadly, was a -26% downturn in worldwide ticket sales from the prior Connery Bond movie, You Only Live Twice (1967).
United Artists, which was newly under serious financial distress, was not pleased. Saltzman and Broccoli got hauled in for an old-fashioned slap on the wrist. Lazenby was out. Same for bottomless budgets and Pinewood Studios. They were going to film in the States on the Universal lot, and the United Artists people were going to keep a closer eye on things. Besides, it would do Bond well to escape the British clubland culture of the 60s, they thought.
The producers brought back the Goldfinger people behind the camera to help recreate the franchise’s past success, but they also wanted a young American writer to join the crew. So, mid-20-something Tom Makiewicz – son to Joseph (All About Eve), nephew of Herman (Citizen Kane) – hopped aboard to inject some youth into Richard Maibaum’s screenplay.
Thus began a two-movie run of Guy Hamilton-directed, Mankiewicz-written, primarily American-set Bond adventures, first with Diamonds Are Forever dropping the Connery Bond into Las Vegas and then with Live and Let Die taking the Roger Moore Bond from Harlem down toward New Orleans. Both films, of course, ended up filming some portions back at Pinewood since that remained Eon’s home, but they were each largely filmed on location in the States.
Given that mandate, however, Eon nearly went with an American Bond. John Gavin, most known for his role as Janet Leigh’s boyfriend Sam Loomis in Psycho, was officially cast to play Bond in Diamonds Are Forever, but United Artists overruled Eon and negotiated directly with Sean Connery’s agent for his return. The actor, who’d made multiple films (Shalako, The Red Tent, The Molly Maguires), none of them notable hits, since You Only Live Twice, played so hard to get that they even sent Dr. No’s Ursula Andress on a plane to greet him and plead on their behalf.
Finally, UA made Connery an offer he couldn’t refuse, and then his agent somehow got them to sweeten the deal even further. The result was a $1.25 million salary (which went into the Guinness Book of Records for the highest payment given to a single actor in film history), 12.5% cut of the profits, a separate 2-picture deal with a guaranteed budget of one million per movie, a tight 18-week shooting schedule with generous additional pay for any overages, and the assurance that he wouldn’t have to talk to either of the producers.
With that, Connery was back for one last official Bond movie. John Gavin, meanwhile, was paid his agreed-upon fee in full and later joined the Reagan Administration as the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico from 1981 to 1986. Connery only ever made one of the two movies promised on his UA deal, the 1973 Sydney Lumet picture The Offence, and he donated his Diamonds Are Forever salary to a trust he’d set up in Scotland to help keep young artists financially supported in exchange for not leaving the country. (No word on what Connery did with his cut of the film’s profits, though.)
He Strangles A Girl With Her Own Bikini Top
That’s how we ended up with a movie all about Bond following a diamond smuggling operation from Amsterdam to Vegas where a Howard Hughes type named William Whyte seems to be the culprit. Before all that, however, Diamonds Are Forever actually opens with the Connery Bond finishing off Lazenby’s story, punching people around the world until someone can direct him to Blofeld. Spoiler, the bastard killed his wife at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Carole Bouquet, you wanna take this one:
Your damn right Bond wants revenge, and he’ll strangle a woman with her own bikini top to get it.
This is a particularly stunning opening for someone like me who just finished watching the seven Roger Moore Bond movies. Despite nearly breaking poor Maud Adams’ arm in The Man With the Golden Gun’s uncomfortable interrogation scene, Moore’s Bond could never open one of his movies punching people, choking a woman, and then ultimately burying Blofeld and his goons in mudbaths. For one thing, oh, all that mud, so unseemly. (In reality, they used mashed potatoes, but it looks like mud in the movie.) For another, why so violent?
As part of this marathon, the thing I’ve most looked forward to the most, but also somewhat dreaded is watching the Sean Connery movies for the first time. He is the iconic Bond, after all, but his films are also the oldest and thus, far more likely to shock through modern eyes. One thing I wasn’t expecting is just how often and casually he slaps women:
That’s him striking Jill St. John’s Tiffany Case, an American jewel smuggler with an any-port-in-a-storm attitude and impressive amount of agency that mostly falls away in the second half of the picture. Similar to the way Britt Eckland’s butt just about ends the world during the climax of Man With the Golden Gun…
…Jill St. John – in her memorable bikini – pulls a similar act when she unknowingly undoes Bond’s little trick that would have caused the big bad’s space laser to malfunction. “You little twit” is his annoyed response. She later has a real Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies moment:
Hold On, “Space Laser”? I Thought This Movie Was About Diamonds?
Yeah, I got ahead of myself there, but Diamonds Are Forever is a fairly crazy movie. Bond poses as the diamond smuggler/assassin Peter Franks to pump the ever-suspicious Tiffany for intel. When the real Franks shows up, however, Bond kills him – inside a tiny elevator! – and quickly switches their IDs to lead Tiffany to say one of the more surreal lines I’ve ever heard in one of these movies: “You know who that is? You just killed James Bond!”
With his cover identity now firmly established, Bond smuggles diamonds into the States inside Franks’ corpse. CIA pal Felix Leiter (this time played by Norman Burton) offers his assistance, and Bond continues following the trail until it leads straight to the Vegas casinos.
This is when Diamonds Are Forever starts to feel a bit like an Oceans 11 movie, but not the Clooney/Pitt ones – the Rat Pack one. (They even shot a Sammy Davis, Jr. cameo that ended up cut from the movie.) With permission from Howard Hughes (who owned half of Vegas) and the cooperation of the mob (who owned the other half), the Diamonds Are Forever crew filmed in the real casinos, shut down the Vegas strip for multiple nights to shoot a car chase sequence, and gained access to various nearby locations, like the Elrod House in Palm Springs.
So, Diamonds Are Forever is a real time capsule of 1971 Vegas and southern California. If you ever wanted to see what the old hotels looked like, how the Vegas strip lit up at night back then, or the stand-up act of an old vaudeville veteran like Leonard Barr aka Dean Martin’s uncle, this is the movie for you. Sadly, however, if you ever wondered what Blofeld would look like in drag, this is also the movie for you.
One Last, Crazy Romp
Perhaps adapting to the extravagance of its real-life Vegas surroundings or simply reaching back to the franchise’s campier glory days, Diamonds Are Forever goes pretty damn big with all of its choices:
A car chase down the Vegas strip ends with Bond and Tiffany’s vehicle on its side and navigating an impossibly tight alleyway. Elsewhere, Bond drives a grotesque dune buggy in the Nevada desert after crashing a secret hanger that was housing a moon landing training area. The primary assassins on his trail – Mr. Kidd (jazz musician/clearly not an actor Putter Smith) and Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover, Crispin’s dad) – are a gay couple who insist on always refering to one another in honorifics. Two other assassins – Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks) – are Olympic-grade gymnasts who would have made short work of Bond if he hadn’t managed to hold their heads underwater in a pool like an especially mean older sibling on a family vacation.
Most glaring of all, however, is Blofeld. The central idea of the script – that an unseen, but insanely powerful recluse like Howard Hughes would make a great Bond villain – gives way to the surprising reveal that Blofeld has kidnapped the real William Whyte and assumed his identity thanks to a voice box. Nice twist, Diamonds Are Forever. Didn’t see that co…
Wait a tic. Bond killed you in the opening scene! Don’t tell us we didn’t see that, movie!
Huh. So, that’s something.
Later, when the real William Whyte appears and is played by a scenery-chewing Jimmy Dean – the southern-voiced musician/sausage spokesman whom Connery called “the noisy American” – and Blofeld is threatening world leaders off-camera with a space laser, you just go with the film’s camp appeal or you don’t.
I was mostly in the latter. There are parts I liked, such as the Vegas strip car chase, the idea of Howard Hughes as Bond villain, the laugh of Bond posing as someone who just killed James Bond, Q using one of his gadgets to master all casino slot machines, and Tiffany Case constantly negotiating how she might manage to get through everything without going to prison. However, as one last Sean Connery Bond romp Diamonds Are Forever is just too crazy for its own good, and Charles Gray’s take on Blofeld is far too sedate for such an insane movie.
The movie would maybe work better for me if Connery didn’t seem so perpetually detached. He actually seems more present in his Never Say Never Again scenes. Diamonds may be forever, but this version of Connery’s Bond is not. Earlier in this marathon, I struggled with Roger Moore’s cool demeanor and wry humor, but I already kind of miss it.
Thoughts on the Bond Women: Tiffany Case, Plenty O’Toole, Thumper, and Bambi. I like the idea of female assassins who are too much for Bond and an American thief whose primary goal is to avoid prison, but Plenty O’Toole is one of the more egregious examples of a female character created just to be killed.
Ian Fleming Connection: Published in 1956, the Diamonds Are Forever novel involves the diamond pipeline from Sierra Leone to Las Vegas. Blofeld is not in it nor is there any business with a space laser or climactic battle atop an oil rig. Maibaum added his own wrinkles in the original script but was apoplectic when he saw all the changes Tom Mankiewicz made when he took over.
Bond Song Thoughts: Though not as iconic as “Goldfinger,” Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” is quite catchy and far more memorable to my ears than her “Moonraker” song nearly a decade later.
Coolest Scene: Driving through Las Vegas on two wheels.
Favorite Line Because It’s the Most Iconic: Plenty: “Hi, I’m Plenty, Plenty O’Toole” / Bond: “Named after your father, perhaps.”
True Favorite Line: Blofeld: “Well, if we destroy Kansas the world may not hear about it for decades.”
Biggest regret: That Connery came back for one final official movie even though his heart clearly wasn’t in it anymore.
Little Known Fact: That, on the right, is a young Cassandra Peterson as a Vegas showgirl.
Who’s Cassandra Peterson? You might know her by a different name.
Prior to becoming Elvira, Peterson was the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas – at 17, she could dance on stage but was not allowed to enter the casino, gamble, or drink. After her Diamonds Are Forever cameo, however, Peterson left Vegas for Italy where she fronted her own rock back and ended up cast in a small role in a Fellini movie. She moved back to the States, where the opportunity to become a movie host in the tradition of Vampira came her way in 1981.
Box Office: $116m worldwide/$735.4m inflation-adjusted, a big rebound from Lazenby’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ($82m worldwide/$573.6m inflation-adjusted)
Sources: Nobody Does it Better, The Ultimate Guide to Bond, Some Kind of Hero, The James Bond Films
TOMORROW: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service