The Return of 007: Sean Connery in DIAMONDS ARE FORVER (United Artists 1971)

007 fans all over the world cheered when Sean Connery returned to the role that made him famous in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, the 6th James Bond screen outing. Connery left the series in 1967 (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE), and was replaced by George Lazenby for 1969’s ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. Lazenby was actually pretty good, if a bit boring, but he was one-and-done, choosing not to be typecast as cinema’s most famous spy (how’d that work out, George?). Producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman offered Connery an unprecedented $1.25 million dollars to come back, which the smart Scotsman snapped up in a heartbeat… who wouldn’t? Well, except for George Lazenby.

The opening sequence has Bond searching the globe to fins Ernst Stavro Blofeld, SPECTRE’s megalomanical leader who ordered the death of Bond’s wife in the previous movie. 007 hunts down his arch nemesis and ends his villainous career in grand fashion! Following Shirley Bassey’s bombastic theme song, we find Bond and M at a meeting with Sir Donald Munger, who’s concerned about a diamond smuggling ring that aims to flood the market and depress prices. Bond is sent to Holland to follow the money, and we’re introduced to the stunning but duplicitous Tiffany Case, played by the stunning Jill St. John ! And when I say stunning, I’m not kidding around:

Jill was the first American Bond Girl – God bless America! Anyway, Bond follows the trail to glitzy Las Vegas, where he’s pitted against the Howard Hughes-esque Willard Whyte, mobsters, and an oddball pair of hitmen called Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, who leave a trail of bizarre murders wherever they pop up (and seem to be more than just business partners, but that’s none of my business!). Our Man Bond is in for a big surprise when he breaks in on Whyte’s top-of-the-world casino hideaway (which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen this one), and gets enmeshed in a deadly game of nuclear blackmail involving a satellite-stationed laser cannon, then an action-packed aerial assault on the bad guy’s oil rig base off the coast of sunny California!

Connery was now over 40, but still inhabits the role of James Bond like a custom fit tuxedo. He can be sometimes charming, sometimes vicious, with both the ladies and the bad guys, depending on what’s appropriate at the time. To me, Sean Connery was always the best of the Bonds, and even though DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER isn’t ranked high among many Bond fans, I find it a good, entertaining entry in the series. There’s plenty of great action scenes, like Bond’s daring escape from Whyte’s facility in a moon buggy across the Nevada desert, or the crazy cool car chase down the neon lit Vegas strip.

Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd

Did I mention how stunning Jill St. John is? I did? Ok, then let’s move on to the rest of the cast. Bernard Lee (M), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), and Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny) are all back, and country singer Jimmy Dean (yeah, the sausage guy) plays the reclusive Willard Whyte. Charles Gray takes over the role of Ernst Stavro Blofeld this time around, and Lana Wood has a small part as casino shill Plenty O’Toole. Veteran bad guys Bruce Cabot , Marc Lawrence , and Sid Haig show up, as does deadpan comic Leonard Barr, uncle of another film superspy Dean Martin (the MATT HELM series). Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are portrayed by character actor Bruce Glover (father of Crispin) and noted jazz bassist Putter Smith, respectively.

Guy Hamilton also returned to the series to direct, and he stuck around to helm the next two, introducing Roger Moore to the Double-O club. Connery had his had fill, at least for the next twelve years, when he once again returned as Bond in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. As for George Lazenby? The man who didn’t want to be typecast has pretty much made a career out of parodying his one shot at 007. But that’s okay; with DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER Sean Connery pretty much proved he’s the biggest (and best) Bond of ’em all!

The Game’s Afoot: THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (Universal 1976)

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Sherlock Holmes has long been a favorite literary character of mine. As a youth, I devoured the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, marveling at the sleuth’s powers of observation and deduction. I reveled in the classic Universal film series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson, and still enjoy them today. I read Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” as a teen, where a coked-out Holmes is lured by Watson to Vienna to have the famed Sigmund Freud cure the detective of his addiction, getting enmeshed in mystery along the way. I’d never viewed the film version until recently, and while Meyer’s screenplay isn’t completely faithful to his book, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the novel.

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This is due in large part to a pitch-perfect cast, led by Nicol Williamson’s superb performance as Sherlock. We see Holmes at his worst, shooting coke like a maniac, jittery and on edge, babbling with wild-eyed intensity about “my nemesis, my evil genius”, the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty. He’s paranoid and delusional, and Williamson brilliantly captures a man in the throes of cocaine-induced mania (trust me on this). Slowly but surely, with the help of the equally brilliant Freud, Holmes regains his sanity, and his deductive reasoning returns strong as ever. Williamson’s Holmes recalls the great Rathbone’s interpretation of the sleuth; indeed, the film as a whole will remind you of those 40’s films, albeit with a much, much larger budget.

Robert Duvall (Dr. John H. Watson) wants to dedfend the honor of Alan Arkin (Dr. Sigmund Freud).

Robert Duvall  gives a different take on Dr. John Watson than jolly old Nigel Bruce, far less of a bumbler and more athletic here despite the cane and limp. Alan Arkin makes a fine Sigmund Freud, and though the thought of the father of modern psychology as action hero may sound ludicrous, Arkin’s cerebral acting makes it work. Laurence Olivier is on hand briefly as Professor Moriarty, persecuted by the cocaine-demented Holmes. Vanessa Redgrave makes a lovely damsel in distress, playing the operatic diva Lola Devereaux. Charles Gray plays Holmes’ brother Mycroft, as he would later in the long-running British TV series starring Jeremy Brett. Jeremy Kemp exudes continental evil as the villainous Baron Leisdorf. All-star Familiar Faces Joel Grey, Samantha Eggar, Anna Quayle, Jill Townsend, and famed French discotheque’ matron Regine add to the fun.

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Besides the acting, this film is visually beautiful, with a lavish production design by Ken Adam, art direction by Robert Lamont, and Oscar nominated costuming by Alan Barrett, all stunningly filmed by cinematographer Oswald Morris, whose credits include MOBY DICK, HEAVEN KNOWS MR. ALLISON, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, LOLITA, and OLIVER!. Producer/director Herbert Ross’s background as a former choreographer comes in handy, gracefully guiding the players through their paces. Ross never really got the acclaim other directors of his era did, despite a solid track record of hit comedies (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, THE SUNSHINE BOYS, THE GOODBYE GIRL), musicals (FUNNY LADY, FOOTLOOSE), and dramas (THE TURNING POINT, STEEL MAGNOLIAS).

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There are references to the Doyle stories peppered throughout the film for Sherlockphiles, and the climactic train chase, complete with a fencing duel atop a speeding locomotive, is loads of fun. Anyone who enjoys the current BBC version starring Benedict Cumberbatch or the CBS adaptation ELEMENTARY will have a grand old time viewing THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION.

Halloween Havoc!: Christopher Lee in THE DEVIL’S BRIDE (Hammer 1968)

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Satan worship was all over the big screen back in 1968.  There was ROSEMARY’S BABY of course, that Oscar-winning fright fest from Roman Polanski and William Castle. WITCHFINDER GENERAL found Vincent Price on the hunt for daughters of the devil, while CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR boasted an all-star horror cast of Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele, and Michael Gough. Lee starred in a Hammer tale of satanism that year titled THE DEVIL’S BRIDE, as an occult expert pitted against a cult led by Charles Gray. That’s right- it’s Dracula vs Blofeld in a battle for souls!

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Sir Christopher’s  on the side of the angels for a change as the Duc de Richleau, who along with army buddy Rex Van Ryn, find their late chum’s son Simon Aron. Simon’s been “meddling with black magic” in a coven of devil worshippers led by Mocata, an adept Satanist. They manage to spirit Simon away, but the evil Mocata has him in his thrall, planning on baptizing him into the cult along with a young girl named Tanith. Rex knew Tanith in the past, and rescues her as well. Taken to the country home of de Richleau’s niece Marie and her husband Richard, Mocata tries to invoke his will over Marie, until her child Peggy barges into the parlor.

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Tanith leaves with Rex for fear of harming them all, because Mocata is using her as his instrument of destruction. The Duc, Simon, Marie, and Richard form a circle to protect them from Mocata’s black magic, including a giant spider and the Angel of Death himself! The titanic battle is won when de Richleau speaks the potent Susama Ritual: “Oriel Seraphim, Eo Potesta, Zati Zata, Galatin, Galatah!”. But the Angel of Death must be served, and Rex returns with the dead Tanith in his arms.

But the war is not over yet, as Peggy has disappeared. The Duc summons Tanith back from the dead, using Marie as her channel, to locate the missing child. Simon thinks he knows where the cult is and bolts out on his own. He gets there ahead of the rest only to discover Mocata will sacrifice Peggy to restore Tanith to life through a “transference of souls”. The group arrives, but can’t defy Mocata’s power, as he’s now summoned up Satan! Tanith’s spirit once again overtakes Marie, who has Peggy repeat the Susama Ritual, causing the devil to return to Hell and Mocata’s coven to follow him in a fiery conclusion. The Angel of Death has been appeased, Tanith returns to the living, and The Duc thanks God, “for He is the one we must thank”.

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It’s refreshing to watch Lee in a heroic role, battling against the forces of darkness instead of being one of them. That smooth as butter voice serves him well while spouting all that Latin, and even gets involved in some fisticuffs. Charles Gray is suave and sophisticated as Mocata, bringing a malevolent presence to the role. Gray later battled James Bond in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER as Spectre head Ernst Stavro Blofeld, was Sherlock Holmes’ brother in THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION, and The Criminolgist in the cult classic THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. He’s more than a match for Lee in this devilish film.

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If you’re reminded of an AIP film here, credit screenwriter Richard Matheson , who adapted Dennis Wheatly’s book “The Devil Rides Out”. Matheson had worked for Hammer once before, penning DIE! DIE! MY DARLING starring Tallulah Bankhead. Hammer vet Terence Fisher keeps the film moving at a rapid , almost serial-like pace. The special effect are *meh*, but serve their purpose for the era. THE DEVIL”S BRIDE is a fast and fun film, and a rare chance to watch Christopher Lee play the good guy. Another perfect Halloween treat!