Friday, 13 January 2012

Diamonds Are Forever

Although I’ve watched these films many many times, I’ve never sat down and watched them in order, as a series. It’s fascinating enough to watch the slow development of ideas over time, but the sudden unexpected lurches are even better. I wonder if there’s a more staggering shift in direction than the one between OHMSS and Diamonds Are Forever.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that Connery's fast return meant that the Bond franchise was cautiously reaching for the familiar and the trusted after the (failed?) experiment of OHMSS. But this isn't strictly the case. Yes, there was an initial desire to ape past glories, specifically Goldfinger: director Guy Hamilton was asked back and early script ideas held that 007 should battle Auric Goldfinger's twin brother. But there was also a sense that new blood was needed and a search for a new Bond was undertaken. The strange thing is that, although Connery did eventually wind up in front of the cameras, this film is really just as experimental as its predecessor. It might not be immediately obvious now, but DAF dramatically changed the tone of the series. And the change was made so successfully that, apart from the odd deviation here and there, this new direction would come to define what people expected of a Bond film until, well, the arrival of Daniel Craig. Even better, all this was achieved whilst a new James Bond was being sneaked in right under our noses.

Yes, a new James Bond, albeit with Sean Connery’s face. After offering the part to Michael Gambon, the producers settled on American John Gavin to be the next 007. The studio overruled them, ordered them to make a deal with Connery whatever the cost, and paid off Gavin’s contract. But having done all that, we still don’t end up with the Connery Bond that we’ve come to expect. In fact, he plays it completely differently. There’s none of the cold intensity of DRNO or FRWL, none of the sadistic sexuality of Goldfinger or Thunderball and, most importantly, none of the angst of OHMSS. Suddenly the man is playful, funny even, gently undermining the seriousness of the situation with an arch of his eyebrows and his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek. It transforms Bond, making him, at last, charismatic and likeable. Not only is it a complete departure from how Connery portrayed him in the 1960s, it’s also eerily prescient of Roger Moore.

So where does this new Bond come from? I think the credit (or blame, depending on your point of view) sits with two men: the director, Guy Hamilton, and a writer, new to the series, Tom Mankiewicz. Together they would craft the next two Bond films (LALD and TMWTGG), whilst Mankiewicz wouldthen go on to influence the two after that (TSWLM and Moonraker). It seems to me that they had a clear vision for Bond in the ‘70s and that they wanted a fresh direction with a new 007.

Compare the opening moments of DAF and LALD, for example. In DAF, just as in OHMSS, TLD and GoldenEye, we are allowed only glimpses of the new Bond before his first proper reveal – it’s a careful, introductory tease, making the audience wait before seeing the new man. Whereas in LALD, the same director and writer show us Roger Moore with no fanfare whatsoever. He’s not even on a mission but relaxing at home. Yes, I can see how it could be argued that this is merely a clever way to force an audience into accepting a new actor, but I think the film makers felt that their Bond had already had his debut.

How is DAF different then? Quite simply it is the first Bond film that can be described as fun. The Connery movies started as cold spy thrillers and morphed into outlandish Exciting Adventures. But they were never fun. They were pretty much played straight, with an earnest respect for the jeopardy at hand.

That all goes out the window here. The chilling severity that Bernard Lee had previously invested in M is replaced by eye-rolling exasperation in a scene where his new jokey 007 fidgets like a schoolboy. The women (mainly but not exclusively Tiffany Case, played by Jill St. John) are no longer birds with a wing down, but sassy gamblers, conniving and cheeky, up-front and out for themselves. The villains are literally camped up: Wint and Kidd, the homosexual assassins, mince about in a most un-PC manner, whilst Ernst Stavro Blofeld himself (played by Charles Gray) drags up like Dick Emery and lays about him with some very waspish put downs indeed. 

"How disappointing," he tuts, as 007 arrives to thwart his plans. "I was expecting one head of state at the very least. Surely you haven't come to negotiate, Mr Bond? Your pitiful little island hasn't even been threatened."  It's a far cry from the earnest pretensions to relevance that were put forward on Britain's behalf in DRNO, but that's not to say that the series is done flying the flag. When Bond, Leiter and a host of American agents turn up to rescue the kidnapped (Howard Hughes substitute) Willard Whyte, the billionaire peruses the group. 

"FBI?" he asks. "CIA?"

"No," replies Bond, ignoring the muscle on all sides. "British Intelligence."

It's preposterous, bare-faced cheek but it works for a British audience because we loathe our own deluded sense of superiority whilst simultaneously knowing that we really are best, really, on some non-existent scale where wealth, influence, military power and sporting ability are not factors. The new fun Bond template allows us to play with the delusion even whilst we see that it is being torpedoed.

Overall DAF works very well. I certainly was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. There’s the cracking fight with Peter Franks in Amsterdam early on, which even manages to evoke the great Orient Express fight from FRWL. The rest of the film makes good use of its Las Vegas setting: the easy-going brashness of the casinos played against the bleak desert horizon. In fact, Vegas allows John Barry to get really quite jazzy with his score at times - in particular I like the chill lounge version of the Bond theme just before 007 bumps into Bambi and Thumper. There are some lovely smaller roles too – Lana Wood makes a considerable impression in her two minutes as Plenty O’Toole and Ed Bishop is a little ray of sunshine as Klaus Hergerscheimer, from G Section. There are some nice sight gags in the background of scenes - an elephant playing slot machines, or Q Branch boffins struggling to winch a load of missiles into the bonnet of an Aston Martin over Q's shoulder. And the model work for the brief space sequence is even better than it was in YOLT. Throughout,Connery charms and delights, often joking around: whether pretending to be a snogging couple, infuriating Professor Metz by pretending to be the hapless Hergerscheimer or chatting with rats, he manages to do something entirely new with a role he has played five times before.

Of course it’s not without imperfections,but they are slight. There’s a tendency towards silliness here and there (the moon buggy, the ‘comedy’ hoodlums) but it’s mostly kept in check. The script struggles to nail down the diamond smuggling plot in the first half but,really, does it matter? The only major criticism I can make is about the climatic battle aboard an oil rig. It’s rather a mess and slightly cheap-looking, especially compared with YOLT, but my main problem with it is that it ends in confusion and ambiguity with no clear outcome. Bond seems to save Washington DC by gently swinging a small submersible against a wall, like a boy playing conkers by himself, and there’s no attempt to explain whether Blofeld was killed or captured: the finale is literally inconsequential.

But then this is the cleverness of DAF: it is exactly this inconsequential nature to proceedings that ensured the long-term future of the franchise at a time when it was threatening to collapse under the weight of its own continuity.The original six films, like Fleming’s novels, link together to tell a single, internally consistent story – but the books fracture after Tracy’s death in OHMSS, distorted by Bond’s disintegrating mental health. If the films were to try to deal with the fallout from these events, if the Bond universe was going to remain one where events had consequences, then there’s a good chance that audiences might have faded away. DAF makes it clear: from now on these films won’t be serious emotional dramas, or cold-hearted spy thrillers. 

From now on a James Bond movie means fun.

* * *

Pre-Credits Sequence: Bond works through his survivor guilt in record time by punching a Chinaman and an Arab, and molesting a French woman, before offing his nemesis Blofeld into a sulphurous pit. Or so he thinks...

Theme: Like the rest of the score there's a laid back feel to the title song - no need for high energy here. And yes, Dame Shirley is singing about penises, not diamonds, at least in her mind. But presumably this isn't the case all the way through, otherwise the line 'Unlike men, the diamonds linger' would suggest something odd about the way she handles break-ups. The visuals are tame as well. Lots of, you won't believe this, diamonds!   

Deaths: A staggering 163. There are roughly 37 regular on-screen deaths (plus one reported off screen), but we do see a Russian nuclear submarine get destroyed at sea. Difficult not to count them, but I know I'm opening a can of worms. I've assumed a crew of 125.   

Memorable Deaths: Mr Wint gets flambéed. There's a scorpion dropped down a man's shirt, and a little old lady dragged from an Amsterdam canal, but other than that not much.   

Licence to Kill: 7. That's a little below the average so far.

Exploding Helicopters: 3! Huzzah. One at the beginning and two during the final battle, although the later pair are clearly superimposed explosions, tsk, tsk.

Shags: 1. Still in mourning, obviously. 

Crimes Against Women: Bond smacks Tiffany across the face. Plenty gets murdered when hoodlums mistake her for Tiffany because she (Plenty) has dark hair they assume she is wearing one of Tiffany's wigs. In other words all women look the same to them.

Casual Racism: There's the obese American sheriff who doesn't seem too bright, but then all the US law enforcement officers, from Felix downward, seem a bit dim here. However, Bond's comedy Dutchman impression ("I can speak Eeenglish. Who is your floor?") is an insult to all Dutch anglophones.

Out of Time: Some of the men in this have quite shocking hair. The guard who gets mousetrapped by Bond during the PCS has mutton-chops that scream 1971. 

Fashion Disasters: Bond tries to get away with a brown plaid sports jacket and a olive green turtle-neck. Big mistake there. Blofeld, even though he's suave and English now, insists on wearing the same awful beige utility suit as in YOLT. Yuk.

Eh?: Why are Wint and Kidd killing their own couriers? Why wait until Tiffany is in the US to kill her if her part of the chain is in Amsterdam? Why not just have the little old lady fly to Nevada? >> What the hell is the Zambora the Gorilla thing all about? >> What the HELL is the Moon landing film set all about? >> Then there's the guard who sits and waits patiently on his bike for  Connery to run over and kick him off. What does he think he's doing? >> Why are the cops in the car-chase wearing motorcycle helmets? Is that normal? >> Wint & Kidd's plan to kill Bond by having him interred inside a pipeline is just bewilderingly unlikely to succeed. >> How does Saxby know to go to Whyte's house when it was Bond pretending to be Saxby that had the conversation about Whyte with Blofeld? (That sentence will make sense if you watch the film, I promise.) >> Thumper stops mid-fight, with 007 at her mercy, to perform some interpretative dance.   

Worst Line: How does Leiter know Bond needs his help? Because "there isn't a low pressure system within 200 miles of here!". So cool.

Best Line: Here's a joke I never understood until I had been living in the States for three years. Tiffany: "Why are we staying in the Bridal Suite of the Whyte House [Willard Whyte's Vegas hotel]? Bond: "In order to form a more perfect union." Tiffany endearingly calls Q, "Mr Q". Gray as Blofeld gets the best lines. "If we destroy Kansas, the world might not hear about it for years!"

Worst Bond Moment: Bond doesn't salvage much dignity from his encounter with Bambi and Thumper.

Best Bond Moment: Several quite good moments. His clambering up the outside of a skyscraper in black tie is good, but I do love that Klaus Hergerscheimer sequence.   

Overall: Well, I've said it already haven't I, but this is a subtle revolution, turning the angst of OHMSS into something approaching comedy. It's by no means a spoof, but there is a lightness, a playful sense of fun that'll stick around for most of the rest of the series.

James Bond Will Return: ... as Roger Moore! In Live and Let Die.

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