Friday, 6 June 2014

From crusty old diamonds to grubby golden guns

Between the years 1971 and 1974, director Guy Hamilton and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz collaborated on three James Bond films which, in my view, form something of a loose trilogy given their similarities in tone and style, in addition to sharing the same writer and director. They represent a transitional period for the Bond films, with the torch being passed from one Bond to another, and the series moving increasingly further away from the tone and content of Ian Fleming's original novels.

The first, 1971's DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, bears the distinction of being the last of the official Bond films to feature Sean Connery in the role of 007. (Of course, he later reprised the role in the not very good 1983 curio NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN.) Connery, who had departed the role following 1967's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, was lured back with the promise of an inflated pay-cheque following George Lazenby's one-off outing as the character in the impressive ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, but it's abundantly clear that his heart isn't in it. His shtick feels tired and pedestrian, his permanent look of disdain less that of an aloof secret agent and more that of an actor treating the material with contempt.

And to be fair, the material IS contemptible (though you'd think, given the amount of money he was being paid, he could have made more of an effort). After the more serious tone of OHMSS, which gave us a more human Bond capable of such emotions as love and grief, DIAMONDS jettisons any such affectations in the opening scene -- a montage of fisticuffs and pratfalls as Bond roughs up an array of villains in his hunt for Ernst Stavro Blofeld (now played by Charles Gray). Blofeld, of course, was last seen speeding off after shooting Bond's wife Tracy dead at the end of OHMSS, but you wouldn't know that from the tone of DIAMONDS' opening scenes. This is not a broken and grieving Bond but a (barely) two-dimensional superhero who jets around the world shooting and shagging. It feels like the series deliberately thumbing its nose at everything the previous film worked so hard to achieve, and it's hard not to feel insulted.

It's often said that GOLDFINGER provided the template for all future Bonds, and that's certainly the case here, albeit only in the most superficial sense. Shirley Bassey title song? Check. American setting? Check. Megalomaniac villain bent on world domination/destruction? Check. DIAMONDS is a tired, paint-by-numbers Bond film with few if any redeeming qualities. It reduces the series to the level of camp self-parody, to the extent that almost renders the AUSTIN POWERS movies, which lampoon the conventions of the Bond movies, an entirely pointless exercise. A change was desperately needed, and it came in the form of a new Bond and a radically different type of thriller.

LIVE AND LET DIE was released in 1973 with Roger Moore taking over the role of 007, and is by a significant margin the best of the three films under discussion here. That may, however, be damning it with faint praise. I must confess to not being particularly enamoured by it the first time I saw it, though this might have had something to do with the fact that the six-film Blu-ray box set I was watched jumped straight from THUNDERBALL -- when Connery was still relatively engaged with the role and the series had yet to plumb the depths to which it would later sink -- to Moore's debut. Viewed back to back with DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, LIVE AND LET DIE suddenly becomes a vastly more impressive film. It possesses a sense of youthful energy and vigour not felt since the first three Bonds, and Moore, while completely lacking the sense of menace and ruthlessness with which Connery imbued the role, seems like he genuinely WANTS to be there, which automatically elevates his performance above that of his predecessor in the last film.

It also helps that LIVE AND LET DIE is completely-off-the-wall-batshit-crazy. Tapping into the popularity of the then nascent Blaxploitation genre, it sees Bond heading off to Harlem, New Orleans and finally the Caribbean to do battle with an array of Afro-Caribbean gangsters and drug dealers, led by arch-dictator Dr. Kananga, a.k.a. Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto). It all looks and sounds a bit politically incorrect now (indeed one fansite, now long gone, jokingly renamed it "All Black-skinned People are Drug Pushers, Pimps, Rapists and Corruptors of Civilised White Society"), but it's unlike anything seen in a Bond film before and rather enjoyable on those grounds alone. The first half of the film is infused with a distinctive air of mysticism and supernatural menace, giving it a rich, otherworldly quality. It also has one of the most brilliantly bizarre subplots in the form of Solitaire, Kananga's mistress and tarot reader, whose clairvoyance rests on her virginity. Bond, cad that he is, of course promptly beds her. The role of Solitaire may not be up there with greats like Pussy Galore or Vesper Lynd, but it's a suitably off-the-wall inclusion in an already off-the-wall film, and it certainly helps that Jane Seymour may well be the most beautiful of all the Bond girls (at least until Eva Green).

It's not an unqualified success, however. Hamilton shoots and stages the film like a TV-movie, and following a solid first hour, things begin to unravel in the second half, falling back on the tired physical comedy and jokiness that sunk DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. This half of the film also introduces one of the singularly most annoying characters in the entire Bond canon -- the loud-mouthed Louisiana sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James). He, and Bond's insufferable (though thankfully short-lived) sidekick Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) are both so bad that they threaten to derail the entire film. There's also the issue of Moore, who will never be Bond in my eyes. Roger Moore is by all accounts one of the nicest human beings on the planet (support for the Tory party notwithstanding), and unfortunately this shines through in his performance, to the extent that he never convinces as a ruthless secret agent.

Whatever good work was done in LIVE AND LET DIE was promptly undone the following year in 1974's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, a film which plumbs depths to which even DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER did not sink. The GOLDFINGER formula returns, but devoid of the sense of scale, scope and wonderment with which the earlier film was infused. After LIVE AND LET DIE's liveliness and verve, GOLDEN GUN already feels tired and pedestrian, plodding from set-piece to set-piece and ticking off the various Bondian clichés.

It really should have been so much more -- James Bond versus Christopher Lee himself, in the role of megalomaniac Francisco Scaramanga, he of the superfluous third nipple. But even Lee, bringing to the part his usual elegance and sense of menace, can't inject any life into the proceedings. There is some amusement to be had in the form of Scaramanga's sidekick, the diminutive Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize), but it all feels irritatingly juvenile, with most of the laughs stemming from the character (and the actor)'s short stature. Britt Ekland is the Bond girl du jour this time round. She gives a weak performance and her character is irritatingly stupid -- a re-tread of Rosie Carver in the previous film, only without the advantage of being killed off at an early stage.

Oh, and J.W. Pepper is back, sightseeing in Thailand and getting in Bond's way. Because that worked so well last time round.

There's little more to be said about this film. Some consider it the worst instalment in the series, and at the moment I'm inclined to agree, though I may end up revising my opinion once I've seen the three films that have eluded me so far -- MOONRAKER, OCTOPUSSY and A VIEW TO A KILL. Following the film's release, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman went their separate ways, with Saltzman selling his stake in the series and Broccoli remaining as the sole Bond producer. Legal issues delayed the next instalment for three years, which may well have been for the best, because when it finally did arrive, in the form of 1977's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, the situation had improved dramatically. But that's a story for another post...


  1. Excellent reviews mate, and I totally agree though perhaps I've always looked a little more favourably on Moore's Bond than you (despite the fact he was saddled with some absolute turkeys like Moonraker, Man With The Golden Gun and A View To A Kill; the rest are OK, with Live and Let Die, Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only being very good examples) I remember reading how Connery looked more like a bored, going to seed and faintly right wing gym teacher in Diamonds than the suave agent he should be, whilst the world almost coming a cropper thanks to Britt's bum in MWTGG is just hilarious and naff in the extreme.

    1. Cheers! I think for me, the trouble is that I just don't see Moore as Bond. He doesn't come across as remotely ruthless, and he always has that twinkle in his eye that makes it hard to take what's going on all that seriously. Still, his best films are far and away superior to Connery's worst, so I've perhaps mellowed towards him a little this time round.

      I've actually now made it through the entirety of Moore's tenure (suffered through A VIEW TO A KILL last night, and my it was awful) and should probably do a write-up or two about them as well. I'm not sure there's much I can constructively say about either AVTAK or MOONRAKER, and OCTOPUSSY is pretty forgettable as well, but I liked both THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, albeit with considerable reservations.

      Ah well, Dalton next, and then on to smarmy Brosnan. At least GOLDENEYE is decent, if memory serves...

  2. I quite like the twinkle, it tips the hat to the audience that what the character is in the middle off or actually undertaking is completely ludicrous and far fetched, which frankly was needed given the excesses the films had at the time. There's just something wonderful about that raised eyebrow as we see Bond deploy his Union Jack parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me that is just perfect I think. It's Moore saying 'look, you know its crap. I know its crap. But we're gonna have a good time'

    I'd be interested to hear your views on For Your Eyes Only as that's a more ruthless Moore Bond I feel. I totally agree that trying to write something about Moonraker or AVTAK would be difficult! The only saving grace of the former is Drax, whilst the latter is probably the Duran Duran score...and when that's the only positive you can think of for a film, you know you're in bother!!

    Moore could do ruthless; his role in The Wild Geese which features him force feeding two thugs a bag full of laced coke at gunpoint proves that.

    Brosnan I feel tried the same thing that Moore did at times, the tongue in cheekness, but as you say it just comes off as smarmy. His was a Bond I wanted to smack, not cheer for. Goldeneye is the best of a bad bunch yeah.