DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971): The 50th Anniversary

50 years ago in December, Diamonds Are Forever was released. The late great Sir Sean Connery, while forever linked to James Bond, wasn’t only about Bond. This was something he was trying to prove throughout his career, including during his time portraying the iconic spy. He starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 Marnie, and Sidney Lumet’s underappreciated 1965 The Hill.

Still, the scripts and offers coming in for non-Bond roles just weren’t coming in for Connery. The actor would make a few other non-Bond films in the mid to late 1960’s; A Fine Madness, released in 1966, and the now cult classic Shalako, released in 1968, and co-starring Brigitte Bardot.

However, these were not star-turning roles by any stretch of the means for the newly minted superstar. Connery was rapidly growing weary of being pigeonholed into playing James Bond for the rest of his career. His lifelong friend and colleague Michael Caine would comment some years later:

“…If you were his friend in these early days you didn’t raise the subject of Bond. He was, and is, a much better actor than just playing James Bond, but he became synonymous with Bond. He’d be walking down the street and people would say, ‘Look, there’s James Bond’. That was particularly upsetting to him…”

By the time Connery began production on his fourth outing as James Bond, 1965’s Oscar winning Thunderball, he was already beginning to express his displeasure and doubts about continuing to appear in the iconic role. Connery would basically state this publicly while doing press junkets for the film.

Connery would repeatedly tell the media that he was concerned about being typecast for for the rest of his career. He also was showing his clear disappointment towards still having two films remaining on his contract.

Once Connery began production on his fifth appearance as James Bond, 1967’s You Only Live Twice, things between the actor and producers, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, started to spiral out of control. 

Although Connery still had a sixth Bond movie left on his contract, an adaptation of the Ian Fleming novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, things boiled over during the production of You Only Live Twice, his fifth film in five years. Connery demanded that ‘Cubby’ Broccoli increase his pay for the toll that being Bond was having on his private life.

Broccoli flatly refused and subsequently, Connery walked. Thereby creating animosity and dislike between the two that would result in a 30-year feud. This feud would only achieve reconciliation shortly before Broccoli’s death in 1996.

Australian model-turned-actor George Lazenby, stepped into the shoes of Commander Bond in 1969. He would star in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The film was a box-office smash, which immediately went to Lazenby’s head. He turned down a lucrative seven movie extension, on poor advice of his agent. Broccoli would later say about his Lazenby:

“I find it incredible that a plum role can’t be respected. We chose George because in his physique and his looks and his walk he was the best of the candidates. He had the masculinity. Looking at the film, to put it in an old Spanish phrase, one could wish he had less cojones and more charm”

With Lazenby suddenly leaving the franchise after just one film, the door was now open again to convince Connery to come back. While United Artists were insistent that Eon Productions bring back Connery, Broccoli and Eon were more than happy to test other actors for the role.

Between 1969 and 1971 Roger Green, John Gavin, Simon Oates, Oliver Reed, and a young Timothy Dalton were all considered for the role of 007. Still, United Artists was bankrolling the latest production, and they wanted Connery back in the role. The studio offered Connery $1.25 million to return. A staggering amount of money at the time.

This payday made Connery one of the highest-paid actors of the time, along with John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and a select few others. Connery agreed to return to the role for his 6th and final “official” outing. The actor reportedly donated his entire salary to create a charity in his hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Production on Diamonds Are Forever kicked off in April 1971. Unlike other 007 productions, filming took place mostly in the United States. It was filmed extensively in Las Vegas and California. Throughout much of the film, it has a distinct “un-Bond” feel to it. Additional filming took place at Pinewood Studios in England, France and Amsterdam.

Regardless of what you thought of the finished product, there’s no denying that there was a significant amount of talent involved in this production. Guy Hamilton (director), Tom Mankiewicz (writer), John Barry (soundtrack) and Ken Adam (production design), all converged to make what can only be described as a colorful and flamboyant film.

Diamonds Are Forever starts off with a solid opening sequence in which Bond hunts down and kills “Ernst Stavro Blofeld” (a wildly over-the-top Charles Gray), head of SPECTRE. Bond drowns him in some super-heated mud; a direct revenge killing for the murder of his new bride “Tracy” (Dame Diana Rigg) from the previous Bond installment On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The Bond franchise, with this official entry into the canon, officially was embracing the “camp” element of James Bond. The over-the-top humor that had been injected into Diamonds Are Forever would become a staple of the franchise. One that would remain in place for the next 35 years.

People think it was the always suave Roger Moore that started this trend. It was actually Sir Sean Connery in his final official outing as 007 that started it. This was quite a sharp contrast from the heartbreaking final image of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where Bond is cradling his dead bride in his arms.

Diamonds are Forever begins to take a comedic turn when Bond hooks up with “Tiffany Case,” played with little emotion or effect by Jill St. John. Her character lacks any real substance, and provides little to the film beside her natural sex appeal. Watching the film again, it seems like it’s two different productions merged into one finished product.

This coincides with the fact that longtime Bond writer Richard Maibaum had clashing opinions and viewpoints with Tom Mankiewicz. Since Mankiewicz’s contributions to the script provided the movie with its lighter moments and were not Maibaum’s style. It seems that UA and Eon favored the lighter direction that Mank was steering the film towards.

Guy Hamilton’s direction was solid. But at times over-the-top, as evidenced by the Moon Buggy and Las Vegas car chase sequences. Also, Charles Gray would have been a welcome entry into the Bond villain Hall of Fame, had he been playing anybody besides Blofeld. However, he’s playing Blofeld and portrays him as a walking quip machine.

Telly Savalas and Donald Pleasence never portrayed Blofeld like this, and it just seems off, as charming as Gray is. This isn’t helped by Gray dressing Blofeld up in drag at one point. “Felix Leiter” is played in this film by Norman Burton, which would continue the trend of casting a different actor as Leiter in every Bond film to date.

While far from a perfect movie, 50 years later, Diamonds Are Forever is still an enjoyable and fun romp. One reason for this is because of the inspired casting of Bruce Glover and Putter Smith as homosexual assassin’s “Mr. Wint” and “Mr. Kidd.” They are on their own planet in this movie.

The casting of country singer and sausage czar Jimmy Dean as “Willard Whyte” adds to the craziness. He portrays a Howard Hughes type reclusive billionaire. With the casting of these characters, the producers announce that they are fully committed to the campy elements of the James Bond franchise.

This is a first for Bond, and Connery looks like he’s having an absolute blast throughout the production. This can be verified and evidenced by all the amusing behind-the-scenes photos that are readily available online. Some of which are in this article.

The constricted elevator fight scene that Connery engages in with British karate and wrestling champion Joe Robinson, is a memorable one. It also is clearly a call back to From Russia With Love and the now-iconic train fight scene that Connery engages in with the late Robert Shaw.

Desmond Llewelyn, Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell are all back and keep the film somewhat grounded. As referenced earlier, Ken Adam’s outrageous sets and John Barry’s score, are amongst the best ever in the Bond franchise.

The plot and eventual climax of Diamonds Are Forever really doesn’t matter and it’s razor-thin at best in terms of coherency. The climax of the film involves helicopters attacking Blofeld’s oil rig, or something to that effect.

Apparently, its central premise centers on Blofeld gathering enough diamonds in order to launch them encrusted in a satellite. This will give the satellite the ability to destroy major cities around the world unless paid a king’s ransom?

None of this really matters as the plot to rob Fort Knox in Goldfinger was WAY more focused and sensible than this. Again, who needs a coherent plot. You can have Blofeld’s acrobatic and sexy female guards “Bambi” and “Thumper” beating the stuffing out of Commander Bond.

As enjoyable as the film is, in the end, this was a pure money grab for Connery. It was also a tactical move to set up his career for the immediate future. On top of the $1.25 million which he received, UA agreed to a clause that gave Connery a $2 million guarantee. He could produce, star, direct and write any two pictures of his choice. Connery would exclaim on the set of Diamonds Are Forever:

“It’s not that I needed the money…I’m a relatively wealthy man. It was the fact that I put in an awful lot of work and energy into the Bond pictures and was not sufficiently rewarded. The producers were getting greedy. I had an awful time getting the money out of them.”

Diamonds Are Forever was #1 at the box office for seven consecutive weeks; something that just doesn’t happen anymore. On a $7.2 million budget, the film grossed over $115 million worldwide. A smash hit, like so many other Bond movies.

Connery had now played Bond in six films and was a top-10 box office superstar. He was also finally being paid like one, after earning only $16,000 in Dr. No nine years earlier. Connery had the juice to finally do the roles where he could be taken seriously as an actor, and not just how he looked in a tuxedo or swimwear.

Connery would have an astonishing career over the next 30+ years – starring in such classics as Murder On The Orient Express, The Wind And The Lion, The Man Who Would Be King, A Bridge Too Far, Highlander, and many many others, culminating in a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar in Brian De Palma’s 1987 The Untouchables.

The actor would return to the James Bond universe, albeit not officially, in 1983, starring in Irvin Kershner’s Never Say Never Again. The film is based on the 1961 Ian Fleming novel (and subsequent Connery film) Thunderball. It was not an EON production and is not considered canon.

While it did well at the box-office, it did not do as well as the competing Roger Moore Bond film Octopussy. Sir Sean Connery died on Halloween 2020 in Nassau, Bahamas at the age of 90. While Diamonds Are Forever is far from his best James Bond film, it marked the end of an era and its 50th anniversary should be celebrated accordingly.

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