Diamonds Are Forever marked Guy Hamilton’s return to the James Bond franchise, and it’s every bit as innovative as Goldfinger, marking Hamilton as the best Bond director up to this point. On the face of it, Diamonds Are Forever might even seem like a spiritual sequel to Goldfinger, since once again Bond has to contend with the transport of precious materials – diamonds in this case, rather than gold. Yet Diamonds Are Forever is radically different in tone and approach from Goldfinger, which perfected Bond as a narrative vehicle with arguably the tightest and tautest story until the Daniel Craig films. By contrast, Diamonds Are Forever is Bond as spectacle, as Hamilton takes us through a series of increasingly sublime set pieces that collectively pave the way for the more impressionistic narratives of the Roger Moore era.
In fact, the franchise had been struggling to achieve this more spectacle-centric style since Goldfinger itself, but was largely frustrated in Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Only with You Only Live Twice did we really glimpse this new level of spectacle, so it makes sense that Diamonds Are Forever starts by asserting its continuity with Connery’s last film. The action begins in Japan, as if George Lazenby had never happened, where Bond appears to dispose of Blofeld to make way for a new stage in the franchise narrative. Yet Diamonds Are Forever is never quite able to let go of the past and forge a new future, presumably because everyone knew that this was going to be Connery’s last film. As a result, the narratives of the last two films come back to haunt the present – Bond pretends to be dead, as occurred in You Only Live Twice, and takes on two different disguises, recalling the middle section of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when Lazenby’s Bond was also in disguise.
You start to sense, in these early scenes, a kind of natural finitude to the Bond narrative – that there are only so many stories that can be told about this relatively limited character. Perhaps that’s why Hamilton gradually moves away from narrative altogether, treating the screenplay as a springboard for one lurid fantasy sequence after another. The most spectacular moments in You Only Live Twice took place against the Tokyo nightsprawl, which Hamilton now parlays into a vision of Las Vegas at its most hyperreal and postmodern. We first approach Vegas via a garish funeral parlour – Slumber Inc. – that’s decked out with psychedelic stained glass, piped-in music, and an electronic deck to coordinate cremation. It all looks like an eccentric music studio, or a futuristic performance space, rather than a funeral parlour, setting the stage for a plethora of Las Vegas buildings, interiors and neon nightscapes.
If Hamilton was already sceptical about narrative in the opening scenes, then the spectacle of Vegas utterly decimates any linear or logical progression of events, since the only way the film can process it is as a variety show. Time and again, Hamilton reaches back to the past to try and envisage the future on display here, blending cutting-edge hotel and casino architecture with an older sense of carnival and vaudeville. In one lengthy scene, we watch circus performers twist and spin above a sea of slot machines, before following Bond through a series of travelling variety shows that blend seamlessly into the casino ambience and décor.
Vegas is just as sprawling and decentred in the outdoor scenes, which emphasise it as an autocentric space – all casinos, carparks and service stations. One especially spectacular car chase, which was apparently sanctioned by Howard Hughes, takes place against every neon vista on the strip, as if to prove that Vegas can easily hold its own against Tokyo. Whereas most Bond films slide metonymically from one location to the next, Vegas is varied enough to hold our attention for the rest of the film, which unfolds against a series of simulations that double down on what real locations did in earlier Bond films – reframe the world as spectacle.
During these Vegas scenes, you sense a new quality emerge in the franchise – a vaudevillian technological spectacle that’s equal parts futuristic and old-fashioned, much as Roger Moore would turn out to be both more debonair and lascivious than Connery’s bond. This gradually dissociates us from any realistic semblance of space and time, starting with a scene in which Bond comes across a moon landing simulation in a desert laboratory – a set piece that doesn’t serve any other purpose except to produce a delightful incongruity with the landscape outside, when Bond takes control of the moon rover and careens it back out into the desert.
This thirst for spectacle was tiresome in Thunderball, and could be tedious in some of the Roger Moore films, but it works brilliantly against the hyperreal backdrops of Vegas, to the point where Diamonds Are Forever may well be the classical postmodern portrait of the city. During this era, debates about postmodernism first emerged in the field of architecture, and were especially focused on hotels – transitory prestige spaces that could afford to be edgier than regular urban and suburban zones. Hamilton, and Diamonds Are Forever, are similarly fascinated with the futuristic hotels of Vegas, which we first glimpse through one of the most extravagant boudoirs in the Bondverse – a tropical aquarium fashioned into a lush queen bed.
From there, we move to the central set piece of the film – Bond scaling the elevator shaft to the roof of his hotel. Here, Hamilton’s eye for the precipices of Vegas hotels, and the stark contrasts between horizontal sprawl and vertical structures, pre-empts the vertiginous space opened up by later Vegas rollercoasters and rooftop attractions. Scaling the hotel takes Bond into a space of total simulation – a room entirely comprised of screens, a pair of Blofeld clones, and their weapon par resistance, a “voicebox” that allows them to replicate, remix and repurpose other voices, including that of Bond, who ends up using it himself later on. Like the control deck at the funeral parlour, you sense an incipient remix culture here, and a new plasticity to the franchise, which also allows Hamilton to reframe the dubbing that could be so grating in these early Bond features as yet another element of the film’s postmodern play.
In other words, we’re starting to see Bond’s gadgetry segueing into 70s science fiction, a process that would come full circle with the lunar landscapes of Moonraker. These science fiction elements are clearest in Hamilton’s fascination with hotel elevators, which were gravitating towards the exterior of buildings at this point in time. In his study of the Bonaventure Hotel as a landmark in postmodern architecture, Fredric Jameson defined the postmodern partly as a collapse of surface and depth, inside and outside, form and content. Architecturally, this produced buildings that confounded interior and exterior – and elevators were often the clearest symptoms of buildings shedding their skin, turning out their insides, involuting themselves in the manner Jameson describes as typical of postmodernism. Hamilton follows suit here, using these involuted elevators to collapse all distinction between story and spectacle, turning the franchise inside out again, much as he did with Goldfinger.
By the third act, the film is simply a string of sublime set pieces. Hamilton has a real knack for set pieces, and for the pace, play and sense of the absurd that accompanies the best set pieces. There’s a proliferation of disgusting liquids here – a cloning concoction that was apparently dyed mashed potato, a vat of bubbly goop that swallows Blofeld in the opening scene – reflecting Hamilton’s search for ever more fluid yet eccentric ways to bridge his spectacular creations. At the same time, Hamilton is the first director to really hone in on Blofeld’s cat as the signifier of a new potential for play in the franchise, to the point where the cat is now largely divorced from Blofeld, and becomes a character and spectacle in its own right, cloned with matching diamond chokers into a whole series of cats. And where Blofeld was played by different actors in the past, he’s now synonymous with performativity itself, appearing, at one point, in drag, as if channelling Liberace and the camp heritage of Las Vegas.
With Blofeld and his cat abstracted into sources and sites of play, Spectre becomes nothing more than anti-play – a series of attempts to trap Bond in claustrophobic spaces, from a coffin that takes him into a cremation cell, to an underground pipe in the Nevada desert. Yet the essential porosity of the film, both in terms of its spaces and set pieces, works against these attempts at confinement, which finally play as so many attempts to restore conventional narrative as Spectre’s final weapon. Against Spectre, Bond (and Hamilton) resist narrative, transforming the coveted diamonds from narrative objects to anti-narrative objects. Initially, they’re important because Spectre is planning to use them to refract an outer-space laser onto the world’s main nuclear arsenals. By the end of the film, they function mainly as incentives to narrative refraction – ciphers for a refractive outlook that splinters the story into so many glistening shards of set pieces until space and time are both hyperreal, postmodern.
In the final scenes, this starts to approach the post-continuity action of Michael Bay’s early films – especially Armageddon, which seems to pick up right where Diamonds Are Forever leaves off. Both Armageddon and Diamonds Are Forever draw a link between two dramatically refracted spaces in the American consciousness – offshore oil rigs (and their tenuous link to foreign capital) and outer space. In Armageddon, Harry S. Stamper, Bruce Willis’ character, is a oil rigger who has to command an asteroid approaching America Similarly, Diamonds Are Forever finally leaves Vegas with Bond tracking Blofeld to an offshore oil rig that he is using as the control centre for his own mission of astronomical destruction.
The closing act, which also plays as a prologue to Armageddon, confounds any residual distinction between inside and outside, or surface and depth, through a series of increasingly abstracted elevators and elevator-surrogates. First, Bond enters the rig through a makeshift cage that is lifted from the water by crane. Then, Blofeld tries to escape in a submarine, which one of his henchmen deposits by crane into the ocean – until Bond takes over the controls, recovers Blofeld from the water, and smashes the submarine against the side of the rig. Finally, Bond releases a weather balloon to signal MI-5, who are approaching by air – the last breath of this elevator motif – after negotiating the underside of the oil rig, which blurs the line between surface and structure more than any other topology or topography in the film.
The result is the most economical Bond finale since Goldfinger – partly because, like Goldfinger, the story moves away from a lair in favour of extravagant aerial dynamics, extending the attack on Fort Knox into the final showdown over the oil rig. By this stage, Bond has been entirely subsumed into spectacle, so it barely matters that Connery is haggard, overweight, disinterested and downright ugly for long stretches of the action. For all its opening anxieties about continuity, Diamonds Are Forever finally realises that we don’t need Connery for Bond to survive – and in the process it traverses the need for any single specific Bond, envisaging the franchise as the exercise in spectacle it would become in the Moore era.