One night, a former farm boy from Long Island had a dream. He dreamed that his good friend Howard Hughes, the Hollywood legend and infamous recluse, had been replaced by an imposter. The dream belonged to Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who’s said to be descended from the same family that created the eponymous vegetable by crossing cauliflower and rabe. The farm boy turned film producer, included the counterfeit character fantasy in the plot of his next project. It was tossed into the outlandish olio of the seventh installment of the James Bond franchise.
The rest of Diamonds Are Forever is filled with imagery seemingly mined directly from the nocturnal unconscious of any one of its craftsmen.
The Bond franchise is produced by EON Productions; its founders Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli bought the film rights for most of the popular book series from its creator Ian Fleming. Similar to today’s omnipresent Marvel Cinematic Universe, the films were based on populist texts and, though subject to the behest of several directors, writers, and actors, control was largely held by its producers. Prior to the forehanded rule of Kevin Feige and his phased plot to conquer the box office, the loose continuity and looser adaptations of Fleming’s texts were an international phenomenon. Unlike its superhero successor and now competitor, the mix of the franchise’s expansive existence and lack of a larger story arc allowed for a wider and some (me) say more interesting gamut of interpretations.
The film sits at a turning point for the franchise, the nexus of one generation of Bond to the next. The clean-cut, Baby Boomers’ Sean Connery of the ‘60s would become the wide-lapelled Roger Moore of the ‘70s. The franchise wanted to grow its hair out and Diamonds exists in the awkward in-between phase. Its combination of elements from both eras, tumultuous pre-production and subject to the whims of producers Broccoli and Harry Saltzman make it a chaotic but memorable installment. The unintended consequence of this motley medley is a Dadaist 007 episode featuring gay henchmen, a moon buggy chase, and Sir Sean Connery.
The James Bond franchise exists as an enduring cultural artifact, reflecting, refracting and responding to the world and filmmaking through the prism of the famous secret agent and his adventures. In the six-decade and soon-to-be-25 film oeuvre of the series, Diamonds Are Forever stands out as the most peculiar entry in the franchise thanks to its unintentional embrace of the surreal and the challenges it poses to its own pedigree and dogma.
In 1924, André Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto to codify the work he and his colleagues in Europe were doing. In defining the term “surrealism,” the French poet solidified himself as the movement’s founder and leader.
Breton defined it as “pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express…the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason. Outside all moral or aesthetic preoccupations.” He outlined the Surrealist movement’s embrace of dreams and the unconscious as means for artistic expression. This interest in our unwaking thoughts builds on the theories of another famous founder and interpreter of thoughts, Sigmund Freud.
Another influence was Italian avant-garde artist Giorgio de Chirico. Admired by surrealists and dubbed a “sentry” by Breton, he suggested future works of art should “create previously unknown sensations. To strip art of everything routine accepted…in favor of an aesthetic synthesis.”
A “superior reality” exists, wrote Breton. It stems from our untainted and uncontrolled thoughts and the “omnipotence of dream.” He proposed, “the mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent. Kill, fly faster, love to your heart’s content. And if you should die, are you not certain of reawaking among the dead? Let yourself be carried along, events will not tolerate your interference. You are nameless. The ease of everything is priceless.”
It’s said that the world of James Bond exists 10 minutes in the future. Maybe it’s five. Maybe I’m just early, or late. The film series has always asked us to believe the world of Bond is a bit different than ours. Sometimes that’s telegraphed through the technology of Q’s gadgets; the gilded social enclaves of the black-tie elite or the well-staffed and advanced infrastructures of 007’s nemeses. It can also be through stunts that defy the laws of physics.
The producers planned an elaborate car stunt for Diamonds Are Forever. Pursued by the local fuzz, Bond eludes their chase by balancing a shiny red Ford Mustang on its two side wheels and slipping it through a narrow alleyway. The audience sees the car enter the alleyway balanced on its passenger-side but exit on its driver side. The continuity error is the result of each end of the stunt shot in separate environments by two film crews. To address the error, an insert shot of Bond and Tiffany Case shows them somehow rolling over as they thread the pony car through the slender corridor. The result is a sequence that challenges, albeit unintentionally, our perception of space that could be pulled from the twisted mind of Christopher Nolan. (Nolan is a Bond devotee of note.)
The bounds of reality are further interrogated prior to another chase when the film references the 1969 moon landing conspiracy. Bond attempts to flee Blofeld’s laboratory and finds himself on what appears to be a sound stage. The stage is a mockup of the lunar surface complete with Earth floating in the background and a stiff American flag planted in the rock as two space suit-clad figures slowly conduct experiments to present the illusion of a lower force of gravity. The “astronauts” remain committed to their performance when they lunge at Bond in slow motion as he makes his way to an escape vehicle, a moon buggy. The grotesque moon buggy has two Johnny-5-like arms and nonsense buttons, just as you’d imagine. The ever-adept spy mashes at the buttons until it starts and he crashes through the wall of the sound stage pursued by three-wheeled ATVs into the Las Vegas desert.
Later, in a vacation house in the desert, we meet the sensational Bambi and Thumper. Bond enters, searching for Whyte, when he is assaulted by the two acrobats, one wearing spandex and knee-high lace up boots and the other in a yellow bikini. Never previously mentioned or alluded to, their flexible physicality is unleashed on an unassuming Bond as well as the equally unprepared audience. The performances are over-the-top with many of their moves done merely for show as they swing from light fixtures and tumble about the furniture. The scene is a dreamlike non-sequitur.
Dreams are in the DNA of Diamonds Are Forever’s screenplay. Broccoli’s dream of imposters is applied to Bond’s archnemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Gray), who creates facsimiles of himself using plastic surgery on some of his subordinate co-conspirators. The multiple instances of Gray’s Blofeld perplex Bond as well as the audience. Who is the real Blofeld? (Cue Spiderman pointing meme.)
Blofeld had threatened both 007 and the world throughout the franchise, each time played by a different actor. The character’s notable appearances were portrayed by Donald Pleasence and Telly Savalas in You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, respectively. Like the Bond portrayals, each incarnation of Blofeld differed based on the actor and the story. In Diamonds, Gray plays Blofeld as a fussy intellectual, a departure from Savalas’ more brutish turn as the head of SPECTRE in the previous film. Adding an extra layer of convoluted befuddlement for the audience, Gray played a different character four years earlier in You Only Live Twice.
The copies of Blofeld in Diamonds can be stand-ins for Blofeld’s past. It addresses the existence of multiple Blofelds and the fact they’re all, more-or-less, the same bad guy.
The surrealists believed there was a hidden beauty to objects. That beauty could be unlocked if the object could be seen again for the first time. To reveal this, artists used a technique that goes by many names: displacement, juxtaposition, dépayesment, estrangement. They took an object out of its cultural context and placed it into another. Artists like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte created disorienting works by making the uncanny from the mundane.
In his manifesto, Breton wrote about “a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.” When the juxtaposition is fortuitous, it just hits differently as Breton would say, were he the blue check Twitteratti of today.
Aside from its position as a curio in the franchise, Diamonds Are Forever is also perhaps the most American a Bond film can get. If some of the producers had their way, it would have been even more so as Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and Adam West were all approached to take on the role. An American playing Bond would certainly be unexpected, but perhaps less so than Connery’s return to the role.
After an unpleasant experience filming You Only Live Twice and clashes with the producers, Sean Connery, the man who personified James Bond for the series’ first five films, handed in his Walther PPK and walked away from the inescapable hysteria of the role. Connery attained international renown from the films but the actor, who cherished his privacy, had enough of living the paradox of being the world’s most famous secret agent. When George Lazenby left the role after one film, the producers decided they needed to lure their superstar back at any cost. That cost ended up being $1.25 million, which Connery used to set up an education fund in his home country of Scotland.
Diamonds spends most of its time in the casinos and deserts of Las Vegas, Nevada. There’s a strange dissonance at the sight of James Bond at the gambling tables of Circus Circus or the fictitious Whyte House. It makes perfect sense to see him in a casino (we were first introduced to him at a baccarat table) but to see him in his white dinner jacket beside the hoi polloi in their vacation outfits creates a particular kind of uncanny valley.
Playing the role of the kidnapped Willard Whyte is Jimmy Dean, a television host and singer with a twang as thick as the pork sausage he would later sell on TV. As such, he was one of the last people you’d expect to hear say the name “Blofeld.”
The near free-for-all casting extended further down the call sheet. Bruce Glover, father of the unique spirit that is Crispin Glover, and Putter Smith, a jazz bassist with no previous acting experience, were cast to play the film’s queer henchmen, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd.
Compounding the improbable combination is the unlikely decision to make the characters partners in both crime and romance. Henchmen in the world of 007 are often portrayed as nearly silent, physically imposing heavies who let their fists do the talking. It is rare they are ever sexualized, particularly if they are men. After Wint and Kidd’s first on-screen kills, they walk off into the distance holding hands. Wint’s predilection for perfuming himself in copious amounts of fragrance leads to his undoing. Though Bond has never seen Wint, he recognizes the scent and shoves a bomb up his, well, uh, butt. Wint gives a curious reaction of surprise and perhaps satisfaction before Bond throws him off a boat. Their queerness is exploited as an attribute that makes them more sinister and inscrutable in the eyes of the 1971 audience.
On his album Low Hangin Fruit, comedian James Adomian explores the phenomenon of gay villains. He identifies the manicured, indulgent and theatrical attributes of Vincent Price characters, Ursula, the Riddler, and others. These subtextual qualities apply to many of 007’s foes including Dr. No, Hugo Drax and Karl Stromberg.
The queerness of other Bond villains were presented more plainly such as Rosa Klebb, Raoul Silva, and the legendary Pussy Galore. For Galore, her queerness was unambiguously mapped to her good-guy/bad-guy allegiance. When she first meets Bond in Goldfinger, she states that she’s “immune” to his charms. After a tussle in a barn, Galore succumbs to the unimpeachable masculine energy that is James Bond. She falls for him romantically and turns into his ally, switching sides both from homosexuality to heterosexuality and evil to good. It isn’t until Skyfall in 2012 that it is suggested Bond himself may have a queer history.
Diamonds plays more with queer themes in one of the more peculiar images to exist in a Bond film. At one point, as a means of escape, Blofeld flees in full drag. The image of Gray wearing a wig, lipstick, and oversized sunglasses while stroking his white Persian cat completely undercuts the menace that Blofeld is meant to represent in the franchise.
It’s unclear if Blofeld’s wig belonged to actor Jill St. John’s signature line of hairpieces that we see earlier in the film. In the scene where we first meet Tiffany Case (St. John), she leaves and enters a large room in her apartment several times. The audience experiences this from Bond’s perspective. While chatting with him, she emerges each time donning a different wig, changing in both color and hairstyle without any recognition of her transformations. We never see her refashion her hairpieces, just the outcomes. The scene is dreamlike in St. John’s cool and collected delivery. Throughout each variation, she continues her specious interaction as if nothing were unusual. Bond is the first to address this rapid recontextualization, eventually leading to one of his classically inappropriate suggestive comments. (He doesn’t mind which hair color a woman has as long as the “collars and cuffs match.”)
This scene acts as a distillation of the audience’s relationship to the film. There are a multitude of strange images and experiences in Diamonds. Their peculiarities are simply presented as reality. A reality unbounded by the control exerted by reason.
The wild success of the 007 series gave the producers carte blanche to stretch their secret agent in whichever directions they pleased. Despite sitting close to the bottom of many a Bond ranking, the filmranked third in the U.S. box office for 1971.
“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which appear so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality one might call it,” wrote Breton. Intentional or not, the synthesis of the two states was the environment for Connery’s final official outing as the double-oh agent.
The reality of Bond is no doubt a heightened one. There was grand imagery and incredible scenarios before and after Diamonds: a volcano lair, pigeon double-takes, para surfing on a manmade tsunami. But none of Bond’s other adventures were so consistently and unwittingly as bizarre as Diamonds. Its unconventional nature adds a curious aberration that helps round out the prolific Bond film canon.
In Le Paysan de Paris, surrealist poet Luis Aragon wrote “reality is the apparent absence of contradictions. The marvelous is the eruption of contradictions within the real. Love is a state of confusion between the real and the marvelous.”
If we’re ever able to inquire with the great surrealist artists on which Bond film they love, you can bet your melty clock it’s going to be this one.