Light Bondage: “Diamonds Are Forever”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

George Lazenby unfortunately decided that being Bond wasn’t for him, and bowed out after one picture. The race was on to find a new Bond, until the studio decided to pursue a more direct approach: push money at the original Bond until he couldn’t say no. One record setting $1.25 million salary later and Connery was back. So was the director of universal success Goldfinger. What could possibly go wrong with this winning team? To be fair, I’m sure there are plenty of people who like Diamonds Are Forever. Hell, I even like a few notable scenes. But it is an aggressively boring film, predicting most of the poor choices that will be made in the next half dozen or so films. This is the beginning of the dark times for James Bond.

It all starts with the intro, that tries to ride on the coattails of the highs hit by the tragic end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by opening with an angry, aggressive Bond beating up and murdering people in his quest to get to Blofeld (which involves strangling one woman with her own bikini top) and ending with him killing his arch-nemesis before the credits start. However, for all the ‘Bond gone dark’ this montage has, it completely forgets to mention that this is all predicated on Blofeld killing his wife on his wedding day. This disregard for the nuanced, interesting choices that were made is indicative of the dark period of Bond at large, that seems utterly terrified of developing their character for fear of losing their audience.

Vegas in this movie. The flatness might as well be a metaphor for the rest of the film.

The story then ignores its purported half-assed resolution of the difficulties of the threads created last film for a story about diamond smuggling. It actually involves some neat spy work at the beginning, but honestly I’m not going to bore you with a plot synopsis. I’ll just say that it manages to meander to the point where I found myself wondering aloud why anything on screen was happening. It never bothered answering most of it.

The bulk of the story takes place in Las Vegas, which I think is a much more interesting thing to talk about. It reveals a similar problem I had with Goldfinger, and that will crop up a time or two again, and that’s simply this: the United States is a boring place for an espionage film. Half of the appeal of Bond is seeing him travel to exotic locations, ancient cities or breathtaking natural landmarks where he engages in cloak and dagger stuff against an unfamiliar and intriguing backdrop. There is none of this in the US. There simply isn’t. The scenery is universally dull and flat, and Vegas itself is cheap and gaudy and stubbornly uninteresting, making Bond look and feel like he’s slumming it just by being there. Hell, they manage to make Circus god damned Circus look boring. I don’t know how you do that!

Blofeld and a sculpt for a future copy. WHICH ONE LOOKS MORE PLASTIC?

Also at play here is a lack of finality to any of the action. Despite his ‘death’ Blofeld (spoilers!) is revealed 2/3 of the way through the film as being the mastermind behind this plot to build an orbital death laser from all these smuggled diamonds and use it to hold the world for ransom. It’s at this point that the Bond movies turn from being okay, maybe sometimes lame and half-assed, to full on cartoon nonsense. Especially Blofeld, who has again been recast and seems more like self-parody of an evil genius than ever, monologuing and dawdling and smoking a cigar in a holder like he’s the Penguin or something. The menace–hard won over several movies–is gone, in it’s place is just a caricature of villainy. You can’t hate it or love it because there simply isn’t enough there to connect with. It is lazy writing to its core.

And yet, as much as I dislike this movie, I’ll admit there’s a few things that work. There are two villainous (not quite the big bads and not seemingly particularly attached to any faction) guys who steal most of the scenes they’re in, looking like child molesters and killing everyone in their path with deadpan bad comedy that is genuinely chilling in just how crazy it seems. I almost wish they played a bigger role, though they work mostly due to being so underwritten.

Bond hanging out in a funeral home. Look at that amazing stained glass window!

There is an amazing scene shortly after Bond gets to the US where he tries to make the hand-off of the diamonds at a mortuary. This mortuary is awash in colored light and weirdly upbeat vocal music, a giant diamond stain glassed window filling up one wall. Bond watches them cremate the body the diamonds are stored in to get across the border, then receives an urn filled with diamonds he’s supposed to store in a mausoleum space to make the trade off. While he’s doing that, he gets hit over the head and ends up in a coffin, waking up as he heads down the chute to a cremation of his own. The whole scene reads far more like an Italian horror movie (one of my favorite subgenres of film) than it does a Bond movie, with weird rich colors and a sense of surrealism that elevates the scene right out of Bond’s typical wheelhouse into five or so minutes of sublime strangeness. Bond is about to spend a whole lot of movies trying various genre mashups to keep relevant, but this moment works better than all of them.

And there’s a moment 2/3 of the way through the movie when Bond meets Blofeld again and learns that Blofeld keeps a small group of impersonators when a 2nd Blofeld walks into the room. It’s a weird moment, both Blofelds speaking as one person as a confused Bond tries to puzzle out which one is his real nemesis. The scene is genuinely unnerving, pitched perfectly to make two Blofelds more jarring that ridiculous. Bond finally decides to scare Blofeld’s trademark cat to suss out the real one, shooting him in the head when the cat runs to him. Alas, the cat was also a double, and the real one walks in from another room and climbs into the lap of its true master. Which is probably actually a really dumb cap to a cool scene, but whatever, I’ll take what bright spots I can get sometimes.

Creepy villains are creepy. Seriously, these guys scream child molester.

The Theme Song/Opening Title:
Shirley Bassey returns to sing this ballad which, as far as the slower songs in Bond theme history go, I actually rather like. It doesn’t hurt that it also is accompanied by one of the better stock naked-lady-silhouette openings, with a greater focus on the juxtaposition of solid colors and lighting and bright diamond gleam. It’s visually interesting, which is really all it needs to be.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
This one is almost more sight gag than actual gadget, but bears mention just due to its low-rent nature compared to most of these gadgets. Bond, held at gunpoint, reaches into his coat pocket to get something. Waved away by the bad guys, one of them reaches in to search for what Bond was going for to prevent him from pulling a weapon. He gets a small mouse-trap looking device clamped onto his hand for his troubles, thus proving that Q branch probably shops at (or is the research subsidiary) of the Acme Corporation.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
There are a few choices for this award, but to be honest all of them suck in this movie, bad roles played by bad actresses who delivery bad performances. I realize this is at its heart a token award, but I have standards. Instead I’ll give it to two henchladies Bond meets near the end of the film named Bambi and Thumper, who show up mostly to do endless cartwheels around the room and beat the hell out of Bond before his nearly drowns both of them in a pool for their troubles. They’re goofy, but they actually have a pretty neat fight scene where the two double team Bond. Cool fights are few and far between, so … this wins an admittedly anemic installment of this award.

Bambi and Thumber, comin' to get ya!

Best Bondickery:
Speaking of poor scenes involving women, Bondickery this time rests firmly on the scene where the main Bond girl (who I dislike enough not to bother to look up) returns to her home only to find Bond sitting poolside reading. She turns to discover that another girl, one who had been snooping around earlier in the film (until she was thrown out a window into a hotel pool below!) had shown up at the house and been killed by the bad guys and left weighted down at the bottom of the pool. James Bond: super spy, ladies man, casual murder scene lounger.

JAMES BOND will return in LIVE AND LET DIE

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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