Friday, March 18, 2016

Beat It Into Submission With My Charm (Diamonds Are Forever)

fig. 1: It's a little-known fact that this film was actually Guy Hamilton's oblique confession that he faked the moon landing.
Diamonds Are Forever marks the midpoint in Sean Connery's long goodbye from the James Bond character, having left the series after 1967's You Only Live Twice due to a contract dispute. He would return twelve years after this film in a little movie I already covered, Never Say Never Again.

There are odd things I remember about each of these movies. Little images that stayed with me, divorced from context., until I rediscovered them in this long retrospective. For Diamonds, they are the scene where Bond pretends to be a couple by using his own hands to make it look as though he's kissing someone, and the scene where Jill St. John's Tiffany Case has one of Blofeld's secret data tapes tucked in her bikini bottom. It's an odd thing to remember. I kept waiting through Never Say Never Again for the same thing to happen to Kim Basinger, but I had the wrong Connery-is-too-old-for-this-shit picture. It's fitting, then, that I might remember this film only in snippets, as a half-remembered dream, because it is one of the most dreamlike, involving funeral home-running gangsters, a clear stand-in for Howard Hughes played by Jimmy Dean, and a face-changing, doppelganging return of that old saw Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Blofeld. Along with Connery, this more or less marks his exit. He'll "appear" again, though not in name, in For Your Eyes Only, and later at the climax of the long reboot that has been the Daniel Craig era. Charles Gray is the latest actor to step through the revolving door of casting for this part, and he does pretty well in his cigarette-holder and Nehru jacket. His latest plan to ransom the world involves an orbital satellite geared up without a million diamonds set up to use lasers to attack the world's cities and nuclear stockpiles.

fig. 2: "Nobody tell Ronald Reagan about this!"

You have to wonder about the henchmen in these films. Diamonds Are Forever introduces two of the series more memorable contract killers, Misters Wint and Kidd, who appear to be in competition for the most baroque ways possible to murder a person. Wint and Kidd are out to kill off everyone connected in the diamond smuggling operation that Blofeld is running to build the reflectors for his diamond lasers. They kill one fella by scorpion bite, someone else by blowing up their helicopter, they drown a poor old lady, and, they make three increasingly byzantine attempts at murdering James Bond.

Their first attempt on Bond's life involves throwing his unconscious body (he gets knocked out a lot in this movie) into a coffin to be cremated, which is interesting in its funerary imagery. Bond shows up at a Nevada funeral home that is part of Blofeld's diamond smuggling outfit, posing as one of the smugglers. He's dressed for a funeral, of course, and gets tossed into that coffin. What's interesting about it to me is it's a direct call back to You Only Live Twice, a movie which opens on Bond's apparent murder and whose plot is largely predicated on his faking his own death. So both of Connery's official departure-pictures are practically elegiac around the edges.

Not that it was necessarily clear here or in '67 that this would be Connery's final picture. They brought him back When he signed on in 1962, he was a relative unknown, cast for his physical presence rather than his recognizability or his acting chops. He continued to be paid more or less as a bit actor being given a break by the producers, as opposed to the headliner of a massively successful movie franchise. When EON refused to pay Connery for what he thought he was worth, he bailed, coming back to this movie for the then-unheard of sum of a million dollars. He later donated the money to a Scottish charity and tried to change his image by starring in Zardoz. He declined a prospective five million dollar paycheck to star in Live and Let Die, and that was that.

Initially, the producers wanted George Lazenby, whom they'd signed to a multi-picture deal, back. Lazenby, who got the memo about the 60's counter-culture a bit too late, was convinced that James Bond as a film franchise and as an idea worth rooting for--this dinner-jacketed Agent of the Man--was on the way out. He was, to say the least, a bit off the mark. Though it seems unthinkable today, the producers were seriously considering an American as his replacement. Somewhere there is a parallel universe where Adam West, who was one of those Americans considered in the early 70's, played James Bond instead of Roger Moore. I would very much like to visit that universe. West turned the part down because he thought the role should be played by a Brit (I happen to agree, but come on, Adam. Get it together), but the producers soldiered on with the idea, eventually settling on American actor John Gavin, going so far as to sign him for the movie. He was, in preproduction, at least, James Bond. That was, until at the last minute, Sean Connery returned.

fig. 3: If nothing else, starring as Bond would have reunited West with Jill St. John

Connery is fairly bored here--though less than his first last picture, You Only Live Twice--which is a shame because I'd forgotten how charming the man can be when he puts his mind to it. Not in his dealings with the fairer sex, of course. One of Diamonds' more memorable bits has Bond relieving a young lady of her bikini top, then half-strangling her with it. Bond's charm--when it comes--comes in his dealings with his antagonists, the occasional bon mot delivered with impeccable unflappability. He is, in the end, one of them. Though his killings rarely have the rococo flair of Wint and Kidd, the fact that he's traditionally remembered as offering some lame pun after each one shows there's less daylight between he and they than the viewer might like to think. That was always Connery's strength. It perhaps gets forgotten in today's endless parade of tortured antiheroes, willing to do/sacrifice whatever it takes to achieve their own morally dubious ends, but James Bond was a figure of subtle menace, even as he worked for the good guys. It's almost refreshing, in a way. No real thinking is given to his interiority as a character. He is, as someone will remark much later on, a blunt instrument.

Back to Wint and Kidd. In one of their "attempts" to kill Bond, they stick him--unconscious again--into an oil pipe ready to be filled. I say "attempts," with quotes. This method is bizarrely involved, something that would be handily parodied in decades to come. TV Tropes has a page for it, "Bond Villain Stupidity," a subheading of "Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?" Wint and Kidd also, in the film's denouement, attempt to kill Bond and his love interest with a bomb in a cake--while they stick around and play at being room service! It's bizarre. By that final scene these two guys are unemployed, too, Blofeld having been killed and his operation shut down. So why bother? That's a heckuva brand loyalty to your sneering supervillain. Maybe they're bored with simply shooting people. Maybe this is the way they get their kicks.

As chained to the past as this film is, Diamonds Are Forever is interesting in what it portends about the future. The film's diamond/sunlight satellite scheme would be reused wholesale thirty years later for Die Another Day, and the general premise, of a James Bond out for revenge (though this film does not explicitly meantion Tracy Bond) would be used for Licence to Kill and Quantum of Solace, and might well be the model for the next Bond movie, now that Blofeld is back. Someone (Vesper Lynd, Teresa di Vicenzo, poor old Plenty O'Toole in this movie) ought to lean in and tell Madeline Swann that things don't always work out so hot for James Bond's girlfriends.

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