Monday, May 23, 2016

Celebrating the camp thrills of Diamonds are Forever & Octopussy


Pardon any confusion. It's surprisingly hard to find pictures of Rog and Sean together

They don't rank high on most people's favourite lists, and are often used as evidence in the case against the series's post-peak years.

While I would never claim that either of these are great movies (even calling them good is a bit of stretch), despite their flaws (and I would argue, because of them) there is something so quintessentially Bond about these two films in particular that makes them extremely watchable.

For me, these two films have always felt of a piece with each other. Both movies mix a spy plot with extreme levels of camp and humour, to varying degrees of success, and the often uneven mix of the two tones is fascinating to pick apart.

There is a lot of stuff that does not work about these films, but that is part of the fun. Time to break into a more in-depth look of these extremely strange movies.

Diamonds are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971) 

For many, the pre-credit sequence of this movie is as egregious as the end of Man of Steel was to comic book fans. After George Lazenby refused to return, the producers sent a dump truck full of money to Sean Connery to make him come back. Following the less-than-stellar reception to Lazenby's more grounded On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the key creatives decided to go back to formula, leading to one of the most hilariously inappropriate ret-cons in cinema history.

Bond films are famous for their lack of continuity, but trying to sync the ending of OHMSS with Diamonds are Forever will destroy your brain. To boil it down, OHMSS ends like this. I'll wait here until you're done watching.

Real poignant, right? Kind of sad. Not really like a Bond movie at all. And it makes you wonder what happens next. Well...

Overlooking the incredibly poor editing (especially the weird delay after the Japanese dude hits the wall) and dubbing (they aren't even trying with the Egyptian guy), the tonal shift is insane. What makes it even weirder is that after Lazenby's boyish features (he was barely 30), Connery has aged considerably and is extremely out of shape. The hairpiece and shoe polish eyebrows don't help either.

However, this is where I begin to love this movie. The pre-credit sequence, in all its crappy glory, is made palatable by Connery's breezy performance. It's clear he does not care, but he's clearly having a lot of fun, and that gels with the light, campy tone of the movie.

Roger Moore is often labeled the 'camp' Bond, but the tone was set with Diamonds Are Forever. In fact, it might be the broadest of the Bond films. The script by Tom Mankiewicz is packed with great one liners, and while the plot is absolutely impossible to follow, it is filled with so many strange characters, set pieces and oddities that plot logic and character motivation take a backseat to entertainment value.

Any movie that chucks in the fake moon landings is doing something right.
Diamonds are Forever is notable for several terrific bits and pieces. I'm not going to get hung up trying to summarise the plot, because it really isn't worth it. A lot of Bond movies feel like a collection of set pieces, this more than most.

Here's a list of the goodness:
  • The title song by Shirley Bassey -- a strong contender for best Bond song of all time

  • Any scene with henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. Played by an actor (Crispin Glover's dad, Bruce) and a jazz musician the director thought looked interesting (Putter Smith), this bizarre clash of styles epitomises the weirdness of this movie. Somehow, their dynamic works, and they remain two of the creepiest and most memorable supporting characters in the Bond rogues gallery.  They combine a penchant for overly complicated modes of killing with extremely obvious puns. 

  • Still on the villain track, Charles Gray is a terrifically amusing Blofeld. While he is not as iconic as his predecessors in the role, Gray gets all of the best lines. For once Bond gets one-upped in the one-liners, and it is awesome. If the character had been someone else, Gray might be more memorable.
  • On the one-liners, Diamonds Are Forever is possibly the funniest Bond film in terms of verbal sparring. Every character gets at least one or two zingers, and most of them hit. You get the obvious ones ("Hi! I'm Plenty." "But of course you are." "Plenty O'Toole." "Named after your father perhaps?") and some that are just clever (Bond, on being told that his female contact got her name from being born in Tiffany's: "Well, I'm glad for your sake it wasn't Van Cleef & Arpel."). You expect a certain amount of funny patter in Bond, but Diamonds Are Forever takes it to a level that most Bond flicks wish they could reach.
  • Most of the action in this movie misfires, but the fist fight in the elevator is terrific -- it is a complete ripoff of Bond's train fight in From Russia With Love, but still fun. And it leads to some more of that great repartee.
  • John Barry's score is very odd in comparison to his other work. It's got all the trademarks you'd expect, but distinct to the movie. It's sleazy, jazzy and (since it's the seventies) just a touch funky. It captures the atmosphere of the Las Vegas locale to a T, and provides a terrifically creepy theme for Messers Wint and Kidd.  
Octopussy (John Glen, 1983)

While Diamonds Are Forever takes a hard turn into camp and stays there, Octopussy zigs and zags all over the place. It feels like two movies mashed together. On the one hand you have a tense cold war thriller with a loose nuke and a mad Russian general (eighties heavy Steven Berkoff) as the bad guy. On the other hand you have a Bollywood caper in which an English tourist crosses swords with a mad Afghan prince and romances a female crime lord.

While these two  subplots are connected, they never really fit together, and it's hard to invest in one storyline because the other one will always veer in to take the limelight (and vice-versa). And yet, like Diamonds Are Forever, there is something incredibly watchable about Octopussy. Both of these movies probably benefit from TV and video because they are perfect examples of the kind of movie you can switch on while you're doing something else.

Unlike Diamonds Are Forever, there is a lot of plot in Octopussy, albeit too much for one movie. Let's break it down.
  • The first scene after the credits is genuinely terrific. A secret agent, disguised as a clown, flees through the woods outside East Berlin while twin knife-wielding psychos hunt him down and kill him outside the British Embassy. The scene ends on a great button, with the dying clown crashing through a window into the middle of the Ambassador's dinner party, where he dies with a priceless Faberge egg in his bloody hand. The lack of music, atmospheric lighting and good pacing make this one of the more tense pieces in the Bond canon. Originally this scene was supposed to act as the pre-title sequence, when this movie was set to introduce a new Bond, but Roger Moore's return meant this scene got bumped. A pity -- this scene establishes an interesting mystery, and would have made for a more original opening. 

  • Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) is a villain in the Charles Gray mould. While not really threatening, he makes up for it with a strong supply of one-liners ('Mr Bond is a very rare breed. Soon to be made extinct.') and a good line in upper class snobbery. Like Blofeld, he is highly incompetent, and Jourdan, while smooth and suave, is a bit stiff compared to Gray.
  • Vijay Armitaj, the famous tennis star, basically plays himself as Bond's Indian contact. He is incredibly charming and naturalistic, and is one of Bond's most memorable allies. When he dies it is genuinely affecting. 
  • While the filmmakers botch it with an extended finale, the third act set in East and West Berlin is a real cracker. Involving several cars and trains, it is a genuinely exciting race against time as Bond struggles to reach the nuclear weapon before it is detonated. 
  • This movie gets rubbished for putting 007 in clown make up but both sequences (including the opening scene previously discussed) are genuinely exciting. Plus it makes sense within the context of the movie -- the only wayBond can avoid the police is by hiding among the circus folk -- for Bond, who never bothers with disguises, it is a rare moment of covert action.  It helps that Roger Moore is the one in the makeup (you can't really see any of the others getting away with this).

  •  The final battle at the castle leading to the fight outside the plane is a set piece too far (a flaw of many action movies), but the plane sequence does boast some great stunt work. It also gets points for including the best moment for scimitar-yielding henchman Gobinda ('Go out there and get him!' 'Out there?').
Neither Diamonds Are Forever or Octopussy can be ranked as great cinema, but if you watch them with the same set of expectations as the Fast and Furious movies or the more insane corners of Arnold Schwarzenegger's filmography, you'll have a lot of fun.

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