A Tale of Three Bonds: Diamonds are Forever (1971), For Your Eyes Only (1981), and Almost-Bond #17 (1991)

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, movies were supposed to be for everyone — made that way and seen that way — and were therefore social events that involved a diversified community. Some of this universality was undoubtedly mythical, but another part was surely real — and accounts for the continuing appeal of such certified popular classics as King KongGone With the WindThe Wizard of Oz, and Casablanca, not to mention An Affair to Remember. But movies today, even when they cite such models as exemplary, as touchstones, almost invariably intensify the distances between us instead of speaking to our common situation. They are designed to splinter and isolate us from one another, not draw us together. Apparently someone figured out that more money could be made that way.

The above comment, from the always insightful Jonathan Rosenbaum, resonates with current entertainment trends: the devolution of discrete mediums such as film and television into amorphous ‘content’, the splintering of said content across competing streaming oligarchs, the courting and weaponising of disparate fan cultures against each other (e.g. Marvel vs. DC) for commercial motives, and the mercenary kindling of outrage, hot takes, and Twitter crusades for publicity. In this divided celluloid landscape, the James Bond series — almost 60 years young and steered predominantly by the same producer family — straddles divides as an object of multi-generational pilgrimage, family and social gathering, festive seasonal viewing, and so on. There are (arguably too many) other blockbuster series currently in rotation — Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Fast and Furious — but none with entries dating back to the 1960s which remain among the top 50 grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation), as does the Bond series with 1964’s Goldfinger and 1965’s Thunderball, pointing to the endurance and (quantum of) solace afforded by this long-running celluloid comfort food.

Having said that, any claim that a series is universally beloved is courting hyperbole. The Bond films have plenty of non-fans, those who see Bond as outdated, a jerk, or — as memorably described by Judi Dench in Goldeneye — “a sexist misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War”. And like any long-running franchise, there are divisions in its fandom: the series, while constant and sturdy, is also malleable and chameleonic, conforming to the tone and trends of different periods, thus spawning debates about which Bond era is better, which specific films are better, and which Bond stars are better, often along generational and aesthetic lines. This article spotlights three (sort of) Bond films hitting (sort of) anniversaries this year: 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, Sean Connery’s sixth and final Bond adventure (discounting the non-canonical Never Say Never Again), which turns fifty; 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, Roger Moore’s fifth Bond adventure, turning forty; and Timothy Dalton’s hypothetical third Bond outing, which was set for 1991 release but never eventuated. All three are curious entries marking transitional moments in the series, with each film going somewhat against the grain of what preceded it and each star playing somewhat outside their comfort zone.

Diamonds are Forever, Connery’s last canonical Bond outing, marked a return to the role after a four-year hiatus following 1967’s You Only Live Twice. In the interim, George Lazenby had essayed the role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but bowed out of future missions, while Connery headlined a handful of smaller, interesting flicks like The Molly Maguires and The Anderson Tapes. The plot of Diamonds largely ignores the events of OHMSS; though it opens with Bond hunting down and killing Blofeld (Charles Gray), who murdered his wife at the close of the preceding film, this personal history is not acknowledged. Following this pre-credits sequence, Bond is tasked with infiltrating a diamond smuggling ring, and impersonates a smuggler to team up with sassy criminal Tiffany Case (Jill St John). This leads Bond to Las Vegas, where he finds Blofeld alive and perched atop the smuggling chain, impersonating a reclusive Vegas tycoon and using diamonds to power a deadly satellite weapon.

Diamonds are Forever is something of a course-correction from the perceived disappointment of (the still profitable) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. History has proven OHMSS a classic and a jewel in the crown of the series, artfully executed and more substantial than the average Bond adventure, while Diamonds is less distinguished, albeit more popular in the cultural consciousness thanks to its Shirley Bassey theme song. With hindsight, it’s hard not to slight Diamonds as an over-reaction, though whether the Bond series would have continued another five decades without said overreaction is another can of worms. The film’s course-corrective impetus is discernible not just in its plotting (e.g. ignoring of the events of OHMSS), but its mixture of old blood (Connery, Bassey, director Guy Hamilton) and new blood (screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz) and overall tone. Hamilton directed the most recognisable of the 1960s Bonds films, Goldfinger, so was a safe bet to guide Bond into the 1970s. As a filmmaker, Hamilton’s style on both Goldfinger and Diamonds is glossier than Peter Hunt’s grittier touch on OHMSS, or Terence Young’s OG touch on Dr.No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball. This lack of grit is especially pronounced post-OHMSS on Diamonds. While earlier Bond features had their share of goofy moments, and none would be mistaken for an authentic espionage drama like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Diamonds veers from goofy into camp at times, a quality exacerbated by the tacky faux-glamour of its Vegas setting, its effeminate villains (Gray’s presence evokes his role in cult camp classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, while Bruce Glover and Puddy Smith play gay killers), Connery’s slightly detached and ‘over it’ vibe, and a more sluggish feel overall: the action scenes lack the tight, swift cutting of earlier films (which were edited by Hunt) and are consequently lower on wallop. Connery’s expensive fee also resulted in more frugal production value for these sequences; while not exactly spendthrift, the action does feel a bit chintzier than the high-tech You Only Live Twice or muscular OHMSS.   

As mentioned, Diamonds are Forever sported new blood in screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz. Although veteran Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum is co-credited, Mankiewicz’s fingerprints are all over Diamonds. The scallywag of the dynasty (his father wrote and directed All About Eve and his uncle, aka Mank, wrote Citizen Kane), Mankiewicz was a populist at heart, with a knack for infusing genre films with humour and making pre-existing and potentially self-serious material palatable: on top of writing Diamonds and the first two Roger Moore Bond films, he was heavily involved in shaping Superman and Superman II, and directed the Dan Aykroyd/Tom Hanks vehicle Dragnet. The comedy on display in Diamonds — Bond commiserates with a mouse, commandeers a moon buggy, combats swimsuit-clad warrior women named Bambi and Thumper, gives Bruce Glover’s gay assassin a wedgie eliciting an ecstatic response, and interacts with stunt-cast (but likeable) country musician Jimmy Dean as a Good Ol’ Boy take on Howard Hughes — makes it the lightest of the Connery Bond films. It’s telling that Adam West was one of the actors considered to take over the role before Connery returned, as Diamonds is cut from similar cloth to West’s 1960s Batman series (Jill St John, incidentally, appeared in the first two episodes of that show). Ultimately, Diamonds feels distinctly like a film from the Moore era which followed, and sits somewhat uncomfortably between the Connery and Moore era aesthetics.

While Diamonds are Forever foreshadows the Roger Moore adventures to come, For Your Eyes Only, Moore’s fifth outing as the debonair super-spy and the first Bond film of the 1980s, is the most Connery-esque of Moore’s seven 007 instalments. Scaling back from the excesses and goofiness of his earlier excursions (the last of which, Moonraker, took Bond into space), the film sends Bond on a mission to retrieve an Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator (or MacGuffin for short) from a sunken British naval vessel. Also on the hunt for this device is opium kingpin Kristatos (Julian Glover), looking to sell the device to the KGB. Bond teams up with Melina Havelock (Caroline Bouquet), whose parents were murdered by Kristasos’ underlings.

Like Diamonds are ForeverFor Your Eyes Only was a franchise course-correction of sorts. In the decade between these two films, Moore debuted as 007 in the Hamilton-directed, Mankiewicz-scripted Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun, before cementing his gentler, amiable stamp on the role in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. The latter was a huge commercial success, but also a jumping the shark juncture for the series. As mentioned, no Bond film is bereft of goofiness, and Connery had nearly boarded a spacecraft himself in You Only Live Twice, but with Moonraker Bond did board a spacecraft, travelled to space, fought bad guys and made love in zero gravity. That’s not mentioning the pigeon double take as Bond drives a hovercraft around Venice, the towering metal-toothed henchman named Jaws, or any number of other ridiculous things in the film. For Your Eyes Only is consciously earthbound — albeit in typically exotic Bond locations like Cuba, Greece, and the Italian Alps — with considerably lower stakes, and is light on technology and gadgets: early in the film Bond’s high-tech car is destroyed and he’s forced to use a beat-up Volkswagen in a car chase. The stripped-back, grounded approach of For Your Eyes Only particularly evokes the early Connery film From Russia With Love, albeit with the requisite superior stunt-work of the era: the abovementioned winding car chase around treacherous mountainous terrain, an epic ski pursuit that segues into a bobsled race, tense underwater sequences, and so on.

The film marked the beginning of John Glen’s decade-long, five-film tenure as director on the Bond series (the most Bond films helmed by a single filmmaker, with Hamilton trailing behind at four). In the cultural consciousness, the Bond directors are largely anonymous, their authorship subsumed under other creatives — the series’ producers, original novelist Ian Fleming, the six actors who’ve played Bond, and even the title song artists and the alternately lush and bombastic orchestral work of John Barry, which largely defined the sound of the franchise — and constrained by filming locations, product placement, etc. But it’s worth noting that five filmmakers worked on the franchise over its first three decades and sixteen features, each directing multiple features (bar Hunt, who nonetheless edited earlier Bond films). Each brought a directorial imprint of sorts: Terence Young’s films (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Thunderball) were solid spy larks, and Young was the Henry Higgins who moulded Connery’s rough-hewn Eliza Doolittle into a swaggering gentleman spy; Guy Hamilton, as indicated above, helped cement the Bond iconography in Goldfinger, though his subsequent films devolved into kitschier terrain; Peter Hunt brought grit and a smidgen of New Wave to his sole directorial venture; and Lewis Gilbert helmed the grandest and ultimately silliest of the series (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker), a world away from his other work as a director, like the acclaimed and markedly lower-fi Alfie, Educating Rita, and Shirley Valentine. Like Hunt, Glen brought Bond bona fides to the gig, having previously edited and directed second unit on OHMSS (plus Hunt’s subsequent films Gold and Shout at the Devil, both featuring Moore), The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker. Glen was a steady hand — if at times a little bland — to shepherd the series through the 1980s, with a clean, unobtrusive visual style and technical polish. The film also had screenwriting guarantors in returning scribe Richard Maibaum (another prominent Bond Whisperer with a hand, to varying degrees, in thirteen of the first sixteen Bond films) and future Bond producer Michael G. Wilson, who together scripted all Glen’s 80s Bond features. There was, however, some new blood injected via Rocky composer Bill Conti, who gave the familiar Bond theme a healthy dose of funk.

Moore was routinely self-effacing about his acting prowess — “My acting range? Left eyebrow raised, right eyebrow raised”— and his action prowess: “Of course, I do my own stunts. And I also do my own lying”. Moore also found the concept of Bond inherently comedic and played to that, in turn playing to his strengths:

To me, the Bond situations are so ridiculous, so outrageous. I mean, this man is supposed to be a spy and yet, everybody knows he’s a spy. Every bartender in the world offers him martinis that are shaken, not stirred. What kind of serious spy is recognized everywhere he goes? It’s outrageous. So you have to treat the humour outrageously as well. My personality is entirely different than previous Bonds. I’m not that cold-blooded killer type. Which is why I play it mostly for laughs.

While some fans prefer a harder-edged approach to the role, Moore’s likeable manner, tongue-in-cheek delivery, and posse of more spry stunt doubles kept the Bond films escapist in the 1970s to mid-1980s, distinguishing them from other action-thrillers and franchises with rougher sensibilities (e.g. Death WishDirty Harry) and enabling the series to hold its own respectably alongside increasingly fantastical blockbuster entertainments like Star Wars and Superman. A case in point: For Your Eyes Only’s American release was the same month as Superman IIRaiders of the Lost ArkThe Great Muppet Caper, and The Cannonball Run, in which Moore parodied himself as a wealthy eccentric who thinks he’s Roger Moore and drives an Aston Martin. An embarrassment of popcorn riches. 

Although any Moore movie would look like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy alongside The Cannonball Run, For Your Eyes Only is not without the characteristic comedy of his Bond era: it does conclude, after all, with a parrot talking on the telephone to Margaret Thatcher, a sight which must seem very bizarre to viewers only acquainted with the brooding Daniel Craig films. As evinced from his autobiographical writings, Moore enjoyed community and camaraderie with his fellow actors, and was arguably a more gracious actor than Connery, who was typically the gravitational force of any scene he appeared in. For Your Eyes Only has an eclectic ensemble cast, and there’s pleasure to be had from watching Moore interact with and bounce off veteran players like Glover and Topol, the glamorous Bouquet and Cassandra Harris (then-wife of future Bond Pierce Brosnan), the somewhat stunt-cast ice-skating ingénue Lynn Holly-Johnson, and returning M16 staffers Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, and Geoffrey Keen. Yet there are also shades of tougher characterisation in For Your Eyes Only that add to its Connery-era vibe, particularly in a scene where Bond, avenging the murders of Harris and an Italian colleague, kills villain Locque (Michael Gothard) in cold blood by kicking his car off the side of a cliff. It’s a funny thing to say about a film series in which the hero is licensed to kill, and does so emphatically in every instalment, but the context of the moment gives it a harder edge, one which Moore was openly uncomfortable with. The film also opens with Bond visiting the grave of his wife Teresa (played by Diana Rigg in OHMSS), an allusion to Glen’s first and arguably Maibaum’s finest work on the series, something which Diamonds are Forever, OHMSS’s immediate follow-up, didn’t see fit to do. This spectre (pun intended) of unresolved grief hanging over the series figured into the revenge plot of the darker-tinged License to Kill eight years later, in which Bond seeks revenge against a drug-lord for murdering his friend Felix Leiter’s bride on their wedding night. That movie would be Glen’s final Bond film and the last of the 1980s, and like Moonraker would trigger another franchise pivot.

Following Moore’s final Bond adventures Octopussy and A View to a Kill, Timothy Dalton inherited 007’s license to kill for The Living Daylights and the abovementioned License to Kill. Like Moore in The Cannonball Run, Dalton affably parodied his Bond persona, as seen above, in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, playing a famous actor best known for portraying a superspy who turns out to be an actual superspy. Unlike Moore, in his two Bond performances Dalton played the role largely straight. However, the reputation of Dalton and his Bond films for being dry and humourless has been widely overstated, in part due to the simplistic logic that longevity equals success and short-lived equals abject failure (the same faulty logic applied to Lazenby’s work as Bond). Though cast and conceived as a contrast to the lighter final films of the Moore era — in which Bond swings through the jungle hollering like Tarzan, dresses as a clown, snowboards to a tinny rendition of the Beach Boys’ ‘California Girl’, and bakes a mouth-watering omelette, among other indignities — the Dalton films are a blast in their own right, with colourful villains, endearing romantic interests, and top shelf stunts and effects, and Dalton amply exhibits both action and dramatic chops and, where needed, dry comedic timing. Moreover, License to Kill’s supposed veering off the rails into 80s Joel Silver/Hollywood action movie territory — largely predicated on its revenge plot, American settings, and Michael Kamen score — is similarly overstated: it’s still very recognisably a Bond film, moreso than the disproportionately adored Daniel Craig films of recent years. Credit is due, and largely under-given, to Glen and his collaborators for steering the Bond ship through casting and tonal transitions and shifting commercial waters. Yet License to Kill did financially disappoint on release, its 1989 audience already spent on the more escapist and outwardly satisfying likes of BatmanIndiana Jones and the Last CrusadeLethal Weapon 2,and Ghostbusters II. Cue another franchise course correction in three, two, one…

That course correction ultimately arrived six years later — following much legal wrangling over franchise rights — with Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan’s 007 debut. However, during that time two projects were conceived and developed to be Dalton’s third outing, and in an alternate timeline one of those films was released in 1991 and continued his run in the franchise. These missed opportunities are chronicled in Mark Edlitz’s book The Lost Adventures of James Bond and briefly sketched here. One project was a serious film consolidating the house style of the Dalton era, involving Bond investigating a series of industrial disasters triggered by a British-Chinese industrialist who can control microchips and is bent on starting war between Britain and China. In its climactic battle, Bond fights a robot (yes, this was the ‘serious’ project). The other, more comedic project was courtesy of the writers of Twins and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, and featured a subplot where Bond poses as a cowboy to infiltrate a rodeo. Suffice to say, it went against the Dalton era house style.

I suspect the earnest intentions (robot fight aside) of the former project would have been squished commercially by the other robot-centric blockbuster of 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, not to mention the season’s other rip-roaring adventure from a British hero of yore, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The latter project, seemingly cut from the same comedic cloth as The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy, might have suffered from the same disjunction between light material and a harder-edged leading man working against his strengths as Diamonds are Forever. Ultimately, neither project came to pass. Timing is everything, and Goldeneye proved the right Bond #17 at the right time, a fun and savvy series revival with a new lead seemingly scientifically engineered from the best attributes of Connery, Moore, and Dalton. As a Dalton fan and apologist — his delightfully arch work in Hot Fuzz should see him heritage-listed as an international treasure — I’m sorry there weren’t further Bond adventures on his watch, especially given that third films tend to cinch a Bond actor’s legacy (see Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, Skyfall). Having said that, robot-fighting and rodeo-crashing might have proved a bridge too far. Still, he eventually got to play that cowboy.

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