Thursday, January 19, 2017



Ian Fleming

"Death is forever. But so are diamonds."

Diamonds Are Forever has mood issues.

Animal Kingdom 101 left me restive yet expectant. Diamonds 101 left me despondent that Ian Fleming had lost his mojo after only three books.

Did not bode well.

Well, "Story Time With M" had a purpose. Bond's latest mission involves the infiltration of a diamond smuggling ring run by "The Spangled Mob," moving goods from Sierra Leone to the United States. Unlike its immediate predecessor, Diamonds Are Forever seeks stamps (and fortunately for readers, 007's tolerate/despise relationship with the States persists).

Assuming the identity of smuggler Peter Franks, 007 meets up with Tiffany Case, a young blonde 'n' blue gangster chick who's blatant about her business and latent about her pleasure. As payment for a job well done, a Spangled mobster semi-amusingly named "Shady Tree" instructs Bond to bet on a horse race in Saratoga, NY that has been rigged for his pleasure. But then Felix Leiter shows up like "nah, son, I paid off the jockey, could you be a sport and deliver the cash?" and that's when we meet Wint and Kidd, a pair of hooded hit men (no honorifics here) who do the dirty work for the Spang Brothers.

Bond still needs to bring down the pipeline, but Shady Tree thinks he's Peter Franks still needing his payment, so he sends him off to Las Vegas. Serrafimo Spang owns a hotel/casino where blackjack dealer Tiffany Case herself will assure Mr. Franks gets all he is owed. Bond being Bond, he refuses to step kindly away from the table, thus blowing his cover.

Serrafimo Spang has 007 captured and taken to "Spectreville," a ghost town restored as a private retreat. Aboard Spang's lavish Highland Light locomotive, Wint and Kidd deliver a vicious beatdown then…leave him to die of old age, I suppose. Tiffany aids in his escape, and what ensues is the greatest chase scene between a train and a pump trolley I have ever read.

(Seriously. Absurd though the scenario seems, the drama is real. Bond must concentrate on not only what is he approaching, but what is approaching him. He must rely on his mental arsenal more than his metal one, oftentimes with no more than a half-second to spare, and when the time does come to put the "k" in "kill," 007 shows why he's MI6's finest.)

Tiffany spills the details on the Spangled Pipeline (rather clever, really) and Bond heads to the Sierra Leone, which marks the beginning of the end.

My initial trepidation turned out to be unwarranted. What flaws mar the text (odd structure, casual racism, a comparatively low-key plot) are forgivable given that Diamonds Are Forever boasts the richest characterization in a Bond book yet, including an utterly disarming peek at Bond's internal governor. Sure it's heavily padded, but so's my butt. And never the day will come that I speak a disparaging word against my butt.

Director-Guy Hamilton
Writers-Tom Mankiewicz & Richard Maibaum

"Right idea, Mr. Bond."
"But wrong pussy."

Christmas 1971 brought us an embarrassment of riches: Space Hoppers! The Partridge Family spend Christmas in an Old West ghost town! The return of the OG James Bond!

On Her Majesty's Secret Service, for all its artistic merit, underperformed at the American box office. The disappointing numbers, in conjunction with George Lazenby's jettisoning of the Bond role, left the folks at Eon Productions some panicky pickles. Fortunately they were able to locate a brown paper bag, stuffed with mad skrilla. This bag, along with a bunch of pleas and promises, was sufficient to entice Sean Connery back for one final go in the role he'd grown oh so weary of, in an adaptation of a book that finds Bond spending a great deal of time snoopin' USA.

You can't burn s'mores without starting a fire, and the early heat is a familiar one: Bond impersonates Peter Franks to creep into a diamond smuggling ring. No one bothered to take care of the real guy, though, necessitating a bloodless elevator fight that doubtless had claustrophobic viewers reaching for brown paper sacks filled with mad nothing.

Why leave Franks unaccounted for? Plot. Bond switches actual IDs with the dead man, leaving Tiffany Case impressed that he vanquished such a mighty foe (how does she know who the hell James Bond is anyway?). All three bodies fly out to Las Vegas, the dead one carrying the diamonds in his person, all the better for them to be fished out once he's been cremated.

The real JB barely escapes the big sleep thanks to a stand-up comic/smuggler with no apparent feeling in his hands--Shady Tree! Oh that name's too good to leave between covers. The diamonds were fakes, and he's mad. Bond tells Felix Leiter to send the real deals to a casino where Tiffany will retrieve them. Lots of trust there, and it's not repaid. Her conscience headbutts back pretty quick, though, and she takes Bond to the spot where her smuggle buddy is handing off the diamonds to Vegas big shot Burt Saxby.

Saxby answers to Willard Whyte, a reclusive billionaire an owner of a hotel that Bond scales in hopes of talking to the mystery man, only to find Ernest Stavro Blofeld…and his body double. And some stupid machine that makes Blofeld's voice into a perfect mimic of Willard Whyte's.

Not only did Eon bring back the world's most famous spy, they brought back his most vicious nemesis. The general public knows not (and thus cares not) of the Spangled Mob. They do know well the man Blofeld, though. His plans tend to the grandiose, and this is no different: he's using the diamonds to create a satellite that fires laser beams…from space! After some emotionless back and forth, Blofeld pulls a gun on Bond and shoots him in the heart--heh, no. He forces Bond to step into an elevator, where knockout gas makes it much easier for Blofeld's henchmen Wint and Kidd to drag the body to the desert, where it's left to die. (Again, I can only guess, of old age. Throughout the movie, Wint and Kidd kill swiftly. When time to take out James Bond, who certainly would've been the standout snuff on a long and impressive list, they decide to let something else do the job?)

With no help from anyone, much less from abducted-ass Tiffany Case, Bond escapes and meets with Q, who just so happens to have a voice replicator just like Blofeld's. Via this nonsense, he locates Whyte (played by musician/sausage Lord Jimmy Dean) and subsequently, Blofeld's base of operations. The satellite is in orbit and has already eradicated nuclear weapons in three world superpowers. Blofeld's vision of an international auction for global supremacy is growing clearer by the minute.

The villains downfall (comeuppance?) is real splodey, and it was real nice of the CIA to show up and remind everyone what country this was all taking place in.

The confrontation between Bond/Case and Wint/Kidd on a cruise ship was no surprise to Fleming fans, but Mankiewicz and Maibaum managed to make the showdown more creative and more anticlimactic, somehow. Wint's death is played for easy homophobic laughs, and Mr. Kidd you're on fire Mr. Kidd, ah well least he died as he lived. I'm so glad those two pun/bun-loving killers made it to the end, as they gave Diamonds Are Forever some desperately needed comic relief, and of the "dark" variety to boot.

The first 60% of Fleming's work is scene-setting. Considering his adeptness, what would be an unacceptable pace for a kiss-bang-zoom-to the moon buggy! Hollywood BOFFO production is a gradual mental message for readers. In particular, his descriptions are more cinematic than ever.

I understand that the Spang Brothers weren't exactly shootin' for the stars, but I do mourn Serrafimo's ghost town resort missing out on the big-screen treatment. His train alone would have been worth half the price of a ticket: crystal, mahogany, a domed ceiling. The other half, when Serrafimo meets Bond decked out in full cowboy regalia.* Instead, moviegoers got Blofeld in drag.

Which brings me to the characters. Casting Charles Gray as Blofeld--tragic. Bond fans had seen him only two films prior as a short-lived dork in a kimono. Not to mention, at no point while he had a gun on 007 did he instruct Bond to take a jump to the left or place his hands on his hips.

Is the movie version of Tiffany Case the first truly regressive Bond Girl? The characters plummet from sassy to liability is painful to witness. I place little blame at the feet of Jill St. John, who can only do so much with the un-demands of a Richard Mankiewicz script. Shame, as I aver Tiffany Case was Ian Fleming's first fully-developed female character, one whose life pre-Bond defined her so sharply that the man himself couldn't fight off a fascination.**

Bond himself shows a bit more of the man behind the numbers here. We get a real treat when Fleming allows us a glimpse at how Bond internally sizes people up, and in case you doubted the overall decency of the guy, he eats soft shell crabs.

Lamentations over the campy treatment of Wint and Kidd in the film are not uncommon, but at least they're amusing. In the book they just made my skin pucker up and crawl away.

The climactic train chase is better in your head, my head, anyone's head, everyone's head. Any director that could have imbued the sequence with the tension needed to keep it from being incredulous would not have even been hired for the task.

In summation, the book is finely-tailored. The movie is wearing a sweater two sizes too big or three sizes too small, depending on what scene you're watching.***

(Okay, there is that racing article Fleming throws in there, like I won't notice that it's as vital to the story as lettuce to the taco.)

When Cubby Broccoli has a dream--an actual dream, twitchy eyes and all--wherein James Bond crosses paths with reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, why, a person would be a fool to agree that it would make a great idea for a movie.

And yet.

Things could have played out worse for Diamonds. The story of Auric Goldfinger's twin out for revenge was considered, and wisely discarded like so much moldy bread, but the producers messed up by not pursuing the revenge angle more aggressively. Specifically, Bond's revenge on Blofeld and Irma Krebs for the murder of his wife in the previous film. How exhilarating would it have been, to watch a rampaging, broken-hearted 007 scour the globe for the unrepentant scoundrels who robbed him of the most exquisite happiness a man can feel. Unfortunately, the actress who portrayed Krebs passed away shortly after On Her Majesty's Secret Service hit theaters, making true retribution impossible.

(The pre-credits sequence of Diamonds is as close as we get; might have resonated if Connery didn't approach the business of avenging his late missus with all the zeal of a hungover tortoise.)

The gap's true distance depends on the individual devourer, and the value they place on permanence. Diamonds are forever, but so is death, a truth that does not escape Bond. His victory is a morose one, and even though Tiffany and he seem like they may have a future together, Bond knows deep down how little a chance they stand.

The movie, meanwhile, couldn't even pull off a car stunt. Adding a slide whistle and failing to double-check existing footage are two very different sins, friends.


*Reading the novel, I couldn't help but think of my best friend, a fellow Bond-head who adores trains and abhors Old West imagery.

**Limits! Bond's (Fleming's?) reverie of a woman's passions reborn thanks to a man's mere attentions made every muscle in my body clench for a solid second.

***So, Tiffany Case doesn't identify people based on head shots, but fingerprints? Maddeningly improbable.

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