Sunday, July 10, 2011

Diamonds Are Forever until you get the Shaft

It's 1971. We're about to watch a fascinating meditation on the unreliability of memory, the quotidian nature of evil, and a multi-layered examination of attitudes to race, gender and sexuality.

Oops. No, we're not in that parallel universe.

It's 1971. "The other fella" is a distant memory, expunged from Bond's life without so much as a nod to continuity, and Scotland's Finest Wig-wearer is back in the saddle.

Diamonds Are Forever may be where the rot set in; Thunderball was incompetent and started the whole deadly furniture trope that would persist throughout, but despite its fat-man-stuffed-in-a-wetsuit farrago, the mistakes might be dismissed as youthful inanity. By the seventh film, it's less like mistakes and more that Broccoli had decided he knew what the public wanted1, and was keen to give it to them.

We start with a sign that we're in the Seventies: not only is taste out of fashion, so is continuity. Never mind Sylvia Trench, the golf-playing nymphomaniac who was in the first two films and never seen again. Never mind how nobody for a second remembers that Bond was recently widowed. What we should be asking is how did the Tokyo section head turn into Blofeld? Is this a statement on the pernicious ubiquity of evil? Is is a good example that absolute power corrupts absolutely?

No, it ain't. It's some guff about plastic surgery via a Magical Mud Bath. The only continuity they are concerned by is having a potentially fatal table. At least this time it's [a] Blofeld being consigned to hell rather than Sean strapped to a Deadly Vibrating Machine.

All this after an opening sequence that plays like a malefic Benny Hill, as Sean thwack-pow-strangles his way through a bunch of foreigners and women.

So misogyny and xenophobia were more important than continuity. After all, there's a different Felix Leiter in almost every film, and that's never commented on either, unless the various Felixes are some comment on the faceless interchangeability of American secret agents.

Simon Winder puts it best in The Man Who Saved Britain:
I used to idly assume that the actor playing Felix Leiter was different in every film for symbolic reasons - because it stopped him from becoming a rival pole of attraction to Bond, albeit at a high continuity cost (how does Connery keep recognising him when he loses height, gains twenty years, turns blond, puts on weight?). But could it in fact have been just to keep the pay cheques down?
I have to admit, the film isn't an undiluted pain to watch. Although Bond driving a moon buggy into the Nevada desert is an embarassment to witness, some of the sets (inside the church, for example) are beautifully realised, and for the end of the film they have a proper full size oil rig to blow up. "Willard Whyte" is an amusing nod to the reclusive Howard Hughes (although the standup comedian employed in his casino, Shady Tree, is pretty dire) and there is a woman called Plenty O'Toole. She come out with one of the greatest lines of the film
You handle those cubes like a monkey handles coconuts
although to my chagrin, Bond doesn't reply "what? I shake them really hard and then try to eat them?" No matter, she'll be dead soon, without even getting in a car with James. Blofeld's contempt of Bond is made clear too: why else would he subject him to this idiotic Tweedledum & Tweedledee routine in the Whyte House?

So that's the positives. On to the negatives.

Everyone in Vegas is shitfaced; the cops can't drive (even when chasing the Blake's Seven moonbuggy across a featureless desert, they can't stop crashing) and at the gas station an irate driver is too out of it to notice some weirdo clambering in the back of the van in front of him. Being boozed out of their minds seems the simplest explanation. Then again, this is Vegas in the aftermath of the Sixties: everyone being off their face is kind of realistic.

Secondly, Jill St John isn't that hot.2

Third, there's the racism that runs through the film. Maybe it wasn't apparent in 1971 that it was a bit ... off to have a scene where an African woman apparently transforms into an angry gorilla. Or perhaps it was ok that the only black cast members are:
A miner stealing diamonds
A female fighting machine with very short hair who jumps around a lot and then gets submerged by Sean
Two blokes on an oil rig who are just there to wear hardhats and get shot.

This is made more clear when you're flicking between Diamonds Are Forever and Shaft, where Richard Roundtree and the rest of the cast are so incredibly black that the monoculture of the Bond film becomes really obvious. It's strange that an oil rig, Vegas and London seem a bit dull, whereas the grimy, grey streets of New York are exotic, even when Richard Roundtree is walking down the street at the beginning, looking for all the world like somebody's dad who's a bit cross.

Maybe his next door neighbour has failed to return his lawnmower.

In fact, Shaft, for all that everyone knows it as a classic of the 1970s, full of cool clothes and music, basically starts with an angry bloke storming through traffic. Take away that soundtrack and it could have been a quite different film.

But although Shaft has a much lower budget (tomato ketchup seems to be all they could afford for special effects) there's so much more it achieves.

Better dialogue:
where you going, Shaft?
To get laid. Where the hell are you going?
Better sex scenes. Or at least, more commitment. Som of the birds in New York are a bit ropey, but the film isn't scared to show Shaft's pulsating buttocks, thrusting away, rather than some nudge nudge wink wink innuendo as Bond gets his end away.

Better gadgets: ok, Q and Blofeld's voice changing devices are neat if you're nine years old and like Transformers, but at one point Shaft has on his desk a solid brass butt plug on the end of a belt.

Patrick Stewart: I swear at seventeen minutes in, he's roasting chestnuts to sell to Shaft.

The music isn't so great. Some of it is awful jazz farting; the Bond films were still mostly ahead of the game. And although Roger Moore will soon be camping it up, Shaft does flounce off his coat like a wrong 'un. And the catchphrase they try to establish ("close it yourself, shitty!") is never in with a chance of reaching the heights of "Bond. James Bond."

But overall, Shaft is the more enjoyable film, because you don't know what's going to happen next, and instead of a dried-out formula, it's something new and exciting.

Seven films in, and now I know how Connery felt. Goodness.

The biggest crime, seen much more clearly when viewed in conjunction with Shaft, is that it's dull. Shaft throws a man out of his own office window, damn the expense. 3 Diamonds Are Forever has two gay hitmen. And that's the extent of their personality. They're gay. That's all.

Maybe they were trying to prove Vegas is dull and banal. Maybe there was a strong egalitarian streak to the direction, and they were trying to say homosexuals are just as dull as everyone else. Or maybe they were bored with having a go at the Orientals, thought they'd start on the gays this time around, leaving the next film for a good crack at black people.

Finally, and I only noticed this the second time I watched Shaft, it includes the lines
I love you.
I know.
years before Harrison Ford 'ad-libs' them to Carrie Fisher in The Empire Strikes Back. All this time we thought Han Solo was all suave and cool, and it turns out he was ripping off Richard Roundtree.

In conclusion, I have to ask myself, did I only watch Shaft because I figured it might annoy the ghost of Ian Fleming?

Damn right!

1 Shit, apparently.
2 Hang on. Now I'm being needlessly crass about a woman's appearance. Has watching all these films made me a misogynist, or did I only watch them because I already was one?
3Echoed years later by Gareth in The Office: "he's thrown a shoe over a house - what have you ever done?"


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