It’s Vegas, baby, for James Bond, and he’s played by Sean Connery for the last time (until 1983). The jokiest and the most violent of the Bond films up to that point, it’s no one’s favorite 007 entry – and it’s a lot of people’s least favorite – but we still think it’s got way more panache than many of the films that followed. It’s…
“Diamonds are Forever” (1971)
Diamond smuggling turns out to be, naturally, only the tip of the iceberg as a graying Bond (Sean Connery) unravels a chain of deception that leads him to a Las Vegas-based ultra-reclusive mega-tycoon (Jimmy Dean), and then onto 007’s not-actually-dead arch nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Gray). It turns out that killing Bond’s wife simply isn’t enough for the social climbing super-villain; he’s once again making 007’s life hellish while also having the bad manners to peddle thermonuclear supremacy on the world market. Bond, meanwhile, is nearly wearing out his license to kill.
Though it’s an underrated film and beloved of many serious Bond fans, 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” with George Lazenby was deemed insufficient as a blockbuster. It did well enough abroad, but it’s all-important American grosses was about half that of earlier Bond entries. By 1970, Lazenby was already one for the “where are they now?” columns.
A replacement was needed, and so was a big hit. Stolid American heartthrob John Gavin (“Psycho“) had been contracted as a fall-back Bond, but moguls Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman set their sights on the one actor alive least interested in stepping into the very big shoes of Sean Connery – Sean Connery. While the Scottish unknown-turned-superstar has always insisted he was very grateful for his Bond stardom, to all appearances, Connery was over James Bond — now and forever.
On the other hand, we all have our price. Connery’s was £1.2 million – quite a lot of money in 1970 and enough cash for the actor to start his own charity, the Scottish International Education Trust. To sweeten the deal, United Artists also allowed Connery the chance to take the creative lead on two of his own movies. The understanding was, however, very clear that Connery would never again play Bond…for the Broccoli and Saltzman’s EON team, at least, that turned out to be true.
Casting aside, there was the small matter of the story. The 1956 novel “Diamonds are Forever” – written several years prior to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” – offered the filmmakers the very tempting backdrop of Las Vegas to help woo the American market. It also offered Tiffany Case, a sexy, and oddly lovable femme fatale that seemed appropriate for a Connery return. However, the primary villains were a bunch of rather run-of-the-mill Italian-American racketeers.
As it turned out, “The Godfather” would be released almost exactly three months to the day after “Diamonds are Forever.” The film was widely anticipated, but no one expected any kind of massive game-changer from ne’er do well director Francis Coppola. In any case, the idea of Bond taking on antagonists as prosaic as ordinary mobsters just wouldn’t fly.
Moreover, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” director Peter H. Hunt and writer Richard Maibum had definitely set the stage for a film focusing, to some extent or another, on Bond’s vendetta against Blofeld in the wake of Tracey Bond’s murder. Hunt, however, was apparently taking the fall for the lowered grosses and was now permanently out of the picture when it came to Bond and EON Productions.
With “Diamonds are Forever,” Saltzman and Broccoli were eager to reclaim the dark effervescence of the most successful Bond pictures and “Goldfinger” in particular. The original plan was to pretty much forget the events of the prior film entirely. Regular Bond-scenarist Richard Maibum’s original “Diamonds” screenplay reportedly had Bond facing off against the vengeance-minded and diamond-obsessed twin-brother of the deceased Auric Goldfinger, to be played by a returning Gert Frobe.
“Goldfinger” director Guy Hamilton was brought on to helm the project. Probably wisely, however, the Goldfinger-twin storyline was jettisoned. As Bondian legend has it, Cubby Broccoli had a dream about one of his very many famous friends, the reclusive and increasingly strange Las Vegas-based billionaire Howard Hughes. In Broccoli’s dream, the legendary aviation billionaire and one time film-producer, was replaced by a double. The bad guy would be the head of SPECTRE, and this time he’d be dogging two international men of mystery.
A young but very well connected writer named Tom Mankiewicz was brought in to create a new draft with Blofeld as the villian kidnapping a Howard Hughes-like billionaire. Mankiewicz was clearly not in the same screenwriting league with his legendary father and uncle – respectively writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”) and screenwriting great Herman Mankiewicz (“Citizen Kane”) – but he had an imaginative, light touch and knew his way around a one-liner.
As for casting, with Connery on board at great price, EON was apparently eager to fill out the cast with less expensive celebrities. The late Jimmy Dean – then and now better known as a sausage magnate than as a country music personality – was hired to play the Hughesian billionaire.
Jill St. John, a mid level actress of some talent and enormous sexiness was cast, somewhat perfectly, as Tiffany Case. St. John had been a sexy and likable leading lady in one of the better 1960s Bondian spoofs, “The Liquidator,” based on a novel by future James Bond novelist John Gardner. She also appeared opposite none other than Frank Sinatra in the 1967 detective thriller, “Tony Rome.” Finally, she was a regular in the gossip columns, which didn’t hurt at all. Secondary Bond girl Lana Wood was, unfairly or not, best known for being lifelong superstar Natalie Wood’s younger sister. She’d be playing the newly created, and absurdly named, Plenty O’Toole.
As for Blofeld, Charles Gray was an outstanding actor but far less well known than predecessors Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas. He was, however, very well known to the EON team as he had played a short-lived MI6 contact in “You Only Live Twice.”
By far the most famous supporting player to be filmed for the movie, however, would be Sammy Davis, Jr. His cameo would be cut from the original film and mostly unseen until the era of DVD extras.
The behind the scenes crew working with director Guy Hamilton would largely be as in prior movies. Production designer Ken Adam and his over-the-top sets had taken a break on “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” but Adam’s lunatic style was kind of a must for any Bond movie set in Las Vegas. Also returning was original James Bond cinematographer Ted Moore, now an Oscar winner for his work on 1966’s “A Man for All Seasons.”
Notably, and permanently, absent from the series, however, was former Bond editor and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” director Peter Hunt. Hunt had been a crucial member of the EON team since it’s birth with “Dr. No” and the importance of his departure shouldn’t be underestimated. (His next major project would be the largely forgotten 1974 actioner, “Gold,” which starred, of all people, Roger Moore.)
The Bond Girls (Rules of 3 are Made to Be Broken)
You’d think that if there was any place on the planet where James Bond would be able to keep up his usual coital batting average of three beautiful women per movie, it would be Las Vegas. Oddly enough, however, Bond only gets to home plate with one woman in “Diamonds are Forever.” He does, however, find himself in dangerous close encounters with multiple women.
Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) – In the capable hands of Jill St. John, Tiffany Case may not quite be Pussy Galore, but she is among the most likable and down-to-earth of Bond heroines. She brings not only plenty of humor and enormous sex appeal, but also a blatant streak of honest criminal greed that’s downright endearing. St. John is also one of the most noteworthy of the Bond girls in that she was at least as big a star in America’s gossip columns as she was on its movie and television screens. These days, she’s the long-time wife of Robert Wagner, the former husband of Natalie Wood and former brother-in-law of her “Diamonds” co-star, Lana Wood. Her most famous real or imagined past romances include Frank Sinatra, baseball legend Sandy Koufax, Nixon Administration Secretary of State/alleged war criminal Henry Kissinger, and actor Sean Connery.
Plenty O’Toole (Lana Wood) – Because there was apparently room for only one likable and ultra-hot young vixen in 007’s bed this time around, poor Miss O’Toole is thrown out of a hotel window, and that turns out to be a relatively good day. Nevertheless, she gets to engage in enough extremely sexy byplay with 007 that she more than commands her place among the ranks of serious Bond girls. Certainly, she’s among the most naked, as she’s clearly wearing only a pair of see through panties in her big kissing scene with Sean Connery.
Lana Wood brings an amusing, down-to-earth quality to her role as the doomed gold-digger. Aside from “Diamonds are Forever,” Wood’s best known film role remains John Ford’s masterpiece, “The Searchers,” playing the younger version of her sister’s character in the iconic opening sequence. Like Jill St. John, Lana Wood was also a regular in the gossip columns and her roster of ex-boyfriends includes, you guessed it, Sean Connery. Currently a busy working actress in her mid-sixties, Ms. Wood is, as far as we know, the only Bond girl to be an admitted fan of the Ian Fleming’s novels and spy fiction in general.
Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks) – We could have listed these two actresses with some of the assorted bad guys listed below, but that would be wrong. We think this memorable twosome, and the tragically uncredited performers who played them, deserve full Bond girl status. Named for adorable critters from a beloved Disney classic, the two under-clad acrobatic protectors of billionaire Willard Whyte, and possibly SPECTRE, really give the 40ish Bond a pre-riot girl run for his money.
Appropriately enough for the backflipping Thumper, Lola Larson was an Olympic gymnast. Trina Parks, who may be the first African-American woman to appear in a speaking role in a Bond movie, is an actress, dancer, and singer.
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