Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Giving "Diamond" an Appraisal

Like a lot of my readers, I just love a glossy, melodramatic soap opera, the glitzier and more overwrought the better. Today's featured film, Diamond Head (1963) isn't necessarily glitzy, though thanks to it's Hawaiian locale it is often beautiful, but it's definitely overwrought and features a cast of familiar, often attractive faces. Unintentional humor is always welcome, too, and there's some of that as well. This movie occasionally becomes confused with Charlton Heston's other, later movie The Hawaiians (1970, a sequel to Hawaii, 1966), though they are totally unrelated apart from the setting. Viewers were captivated by Hawaii in the 1960s thanks to its becoming the 50th state in 1959 and the new realm of culture and storyline its native people, pageantry and practices afforded.
Diamond Head is set in 1959 because the burgeoning statehood of Hawaii called for political representation in The White House and it is this scenario which kicks off some of the turmoil of the plot. Land baron Heston is approached to run for the U.S. Senate (for an undisclosed party) and, despite some degree of hesitation, eventually decides to go for it.

He lives on a beautiful plantation with his little sister Yvette Mimieux, who's a bit less innocent after having been away at school with one of the local Hawaiian boys, James Darren (wearing more mascara than most of the ladies!) It seems that during school and on their way back home from college via a luxury liner, they've fallen head over heels in love. Having been raised a generation behind her overly-protective, controlling brother Heston, she is far more open to the idea of a “mixed” marriage than he is.
Complicating matters is the fact that he is now about to run for the U.S. Senate and the notion of his blonde kid sister marrying a native Hawaiian is deemed potentially scandalous. Also on board is Heston's sister-in-law Elizabeth Allen. Heston's wife and young boy were killed years before by a tidal wave and Allen, his deceased wife's sister, has been at the estate ever since to help raise Mimieux (Heston and Mimieux's parents having long since passed away, too!)
Heston and Allen represent a formidably old-fashioned and restrictive duo in contrast to Darren's own mother Aline MacMahon, who warmly welcomes Mimieux into her life. Even she, though, has misgivings about the union since she has been forced to watch her own race of purebred Hawaiians of limited number dissipate over the years thanks to intermarriage.
She didn't exactly help the cause, however, by marrying a white man prior to Darren's father! That union produced George Chakiris as a half-Caucasian/half-Hawaiian young doctor who has to straddle two worlds in life.
Heston is more than blunt about his feelings and attempts to have Chakiris talk Darren out of the pending marriage. Used to running roughshod over his household and staff, he basically demands that Chakiris find a way to end it. He's not much easier on Darren himself when he lays it all out for him during a morning horseback ride. Will Darren be able to provide Mimieux with the lifestyle she's been raised amid?
Neither Darren nor Mimieux will have any of this, however. They intend to be married, period! There's a curious, hypocritical angle to all of this hubbub, however. Prior to and all during his pointed disapproval of Mimieux's relationship and his attempts to thwart it, Heston has been seeing a lover of his own, an Asian beauty (France Nuyen) for whom he provides everything from clothing to a cozy cottage!

Nuyen deeply loves Heston despite the fact that he will not marry her and has expressed a desire to never again become a father after the loss of his only son. He expects her to live on call, under his thumb, without any consideration for her own future happiness or livelihood.

Unbeknownst to Heston, Nuyen has a shiftless brother who often visits her, samples Heston's cigars and liquor and utilizes some of the money that Nuyen receives from her wealthy lover. The brother (Marc Marno) is becoming increasingly disgusted by the situation, not that he minds enjoying some of the fruits of it.

The big wedding set to proceed come hell or high water, MacMahon throws a considerable luau at her home to which everyone is invited, including some folks she doesn't even know! There is festive music, leis galore, a pig roast and dancing.
Heston arrives at the shindig in time to see the folks ravaging the roasted pig in a manner that suggests a lack of civilization and to watch Darren and Mimieux engage in a dance that is meant to be passionate and stimulating but ultimately comes off as rather tame and more than a little silly. (This was 1963, after all, and so many things are muted that might be more graphic even five years later.) With the bongo drums beating and the crowd pouring in, literally everyone except Nuyen seems to be at the party, even her antagonistic, drunken brother Marno. Heston and Marno eventually come to blows at the event, the side effect being that everything falls apart and before all is said and done, the wedding between Darren and Mimieux is impossible.

We next begin to see that Mimieux has, perhaps, had some heretofore unexplored issues. Yes, she earlier acknowledged stripping down to the skin in front of Chakiris when they were younger for a dip in a pond and even flirtatiously inviting him in to join her. However, there is now some question about what sort of feelings she has for her own brother/controller! She has a loopy dream in which she is swimming (ostensibly nude, but not) with Darren, Chakiris and Heston all taking part in the activity in one way or another.
Depressed and confused, she decides to leave their home for a stay in Honolulu. She's not the only one who's troubled, though. Allen finally has to face the fact that she's been living a hollow facade of an existence at Heston's side, hoping he'll take notice of the fact that she has fallen in love with him. He has no feelings to return, however, so she makes plans to leave as well. She stops off at a the beach to bid farewell to her little sister-in-law Mimieux.

Incidentally, I couldn't love the moment any more when Allen, decked out in a completely coordinating crème ensemble, removes her high heels (which would take an ordinary mortal some doing thanks to the snug pencil skirt she's wearing, but gives her no trouble at all herself!) and then pads through the sand in her hose to chat with her young sister-in-law!
Mimieux now begins to drink heavily and to fray around the edges. Just as she's getting close to falling apart, Chakiris arrives on the scene, rescues her and takes her to MacMahon's and his home where he puts her in Darren's childhood bed. Before it's all over, he's also put himself in Darren's childhood bed with her! Thanks, brudduh!
In other news, Heston and Nuyen's relationship has hit a major roadblock of its own, which seems insurmountable. (It might be more surmountable if granite-jawed Heston could unclench even a tad. He's at his most stubborn, impregnable and stone cold in this movie.) They resolve to end their association, though it makes neither one of them happy to do so.

As the anguished story nears its conclusion (and in the interest of not spoiling the plot line, I have deliberately left out a couple of key details), there is still considerable enmity between Heston and Chakiris, especially now that Charikis thinks it might be his turn to propose marriage to the prize-like Mimieux.

Before the movie closes, somewhat open-endedly, but with clues to its ultimate direction, a few folks seem to have come close to having a happy ending, but there has also been a lot of pain and sacrifice for others.
The title volcanic formation bears little to no relation to the film's story, though the title Diamond Head might as well apply to the impenetrable Heston's noggin! His character simply refuses to see anyone else's viewpoint but his own, making this one of the often-heroic star's most emotionally rigid portrayals.

This movie is often categorized with other plush, outdoor soapers like Island in the Sun (1957), A Summer Place (1959) or Rome Adventure (1962) and they all share colorful locales populated by beautiful people in beautiful clothes. I eat up anything produced by Ross Hunter and even though this movie WASN'T produced by him, it was put together by Jerry Bresler, who later produced Love Has Many Faces (1965, a still of which is shown at right) and that will do nicely in a pinch! (He also produced the troubled Heston western Major Dundee, 1965.)

The director, Guy Green, had helmed 1962's Light in the Piazza, another gorgeous melodrama set in gorgeous surroundings. It also starred Mimieux along with Olivia de Havilland. After this, he would switch gears to the tender, but also starkly vicious, A Patch of Blue (1965), which earned Shelley Winters another Oscar and also observed racial conflict.

Heston was close to the height of his popularity and box office clout at this time, with his Oscar-winning Ben-Hur (1959) and El Cid (1961) recent successes. Though he had many hits ahead of him, there were quite a few problem-riddled productions in the near future such as 55 Days at Peking (1963), in which director Nicholas Ray quit and was replaced in part by Diamond's director Guy Green. The aforementioned Major Dundee (1965) had fiery director Sam Peckinpah nearly being ousted and the film hacked to pieces by Columbia Studio execs.

A frequent target of naysayers for his later political stances on things like gun control, he was in 1962 a highly conscientious supporter of civil rights and of events stressing equality. I just tend to like his movies because they are often adventuresome, expensive, epic, colorful and feature great costars. Needless to say he's an icon of 1970s disaster & sci-fi cinema as well. There's a bit more about him to be found here.

Although she was never an outright favorite of mine, Mimieux seems to pop up in so many movies that I like. She was also a hot property at this time thanks to 1960's The Time Machine followed by that same year's Where the Boys Are. As the '70s dawned, she found herself working far more heavily in television, retiring from the screen altogether in 1992 at only age fifty.
At nearly two decades Heston's junior in real life, they somehow manage to bridge the gap enough to get this story across. Later, in 1972's Skyjacked, they would play estranged lovers. As the product of a mixed marriage herself (a French father and a Mexican mother), she could surely find herself attuned to the subject matter explored here. Now seventy-one, she works in real estate and has other interests.

Chakiris was born to Greek immigrants in the Cincinnati suburb in which I now live! I got to meet him at length in 2011, something I shared with Underworld readers here. At the time of Diamond, he'd won the Oscar for 1961's West Side Story and was beginning to win much bigger and better roles than he'd previously been given (usually as a dancer or in a bit role.) Like Mimieux, the 1970s seemed to signal a turn to television versus movies. Now seventy-eight, Chakiris has been retired from acting since 1996 and lives a peaceful, low-key life designing unique pieces of sterling silver jewelry.
When Nuyen took part in 1958's South Pacific, her movie debut, she didn't even speak English, but that film's roaring success led to her winning other parts and swiftly learning until she could be feasibly cast in a variety of parts. She possessed a remarkably strong speaking voice that could be intense when called for (see her fiery guest role on Star Trek, shown below, for example!) William Shatner tells a hilarious story about her in his autobiography during Broadway's The World of Suzie Wong, in which she steadfastly refused to speak to him at all!
Of French and Vietnamese heritage, she too was working in a film with a subject she could surely relate to. Now seventy-three, she is a psychological counselor having worked on screen only a bit since the millennium. Marno, who played her sleazy brother, only ever had two movies and three TV shows to his credit, the last one being an appearance on Hawaii 5-O in 1972.

Darren was a teen singing idol who'd soared to fame as “Moondoggie” in Gidget (1959) and its sequels Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961, produced by Jerry Bresler) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), always opposite a different actress as Gidget!! 1961's The Guns of Navarone and this film were meant to expand his range as an actor beyond the sand and surf types of things he'd specialized in, though that only happened to a marginal degree. Darren recorded the theme song for Diamond Head, which doesn't appear in the movie at all, but was on the film's soundtrack album.

In 1966, he joined Robert Colbert in the Irwin Allen television fantasy series The Time Tunnel, which retains a small cult following. Then in the early-'80s, he became part of William Shatner's team of police officers on T.J. Hooker (1982-1986.) Some of the hair on the men in the publicity shot below is real and some ain't! Absent from acting screens since 2001, Darren is now seventy-seven.
American actress MacMahon had been a valued character performer in movies since the 1930s, with 1932's One Way Passage a highlight. In 1944, she played an Asian in Dragonseed and scored an Oscar nomination (the award went to Ethel Barrymore for None But the Lonely Heart.) Her pool-like blue eyes (see below) were obscured with dark contact lenses for her role as a Hawaiian matriarch in Diamond Head. Her last role was on TV in 1975, but she lived until 1991, dying of pneumonia at age ninety-two.
I've long been a fan of the brittle, beautiful bitchery of Allen, a former Ford model who found success on the Broadway stage, on television and in several films. Somehow in these glossy soaps, I am always drawn to the sleek, well-dressed, refined types of ladies like the one she plays here. This is a potentially thankless, one-dimensional part, but she plays it with elegance and by the time she departs, she's managed to express a certain level of humanity.

Allen next made Donovan's Reef (1963) with John Wayne, another Hawaii-set picture, followed by Cheyenne Autumn before sticking primarily to TV with 1972's The Carey Treatment (in which she and James Coburn exchanged pointed remarks) a notable exception. She was a frequent stage costar of Paul Lynde's and, in fact, played his wife in the infamous sitcom The Paul Lynde Show (1972-1973.) Retiring in 1983, she died in 2006 of kidney failure at the age of seventy-seven.

Two other casting notables are Philip Ahn as a remarkably assured and dignified police inspector (don't forget that this was less than two years after Mickey Rooney's over-the-top buffoonery in Asian drag in Breakfast at Tiffany's and just three since George Takei's pigeon-English performance in Ice Palace!) and Edward Mallory as one of Heston's political cronies. Mallory served for fourteen years (1966-1980) as Bill Horton on Days of Our Lives and was part of a highly successful love triangle involving him, his brother and his brother's wife (who'd bore his son.)

Appearing very briefly, unbilled, somewhere in this film (and damned if I can find her!) is once-popular silent film actress Billie Dove. She'd costarred with legendary swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks in 1926's The Black Pirate and made the transition to sound with ease, but left the business entirely in 1932 to marry and ultimately raise two children. She'd been offered the role of Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939), but turned it down, this wisp of a bit part (possibly as an extra in either the cruise ship or restaurant sequence) in Diamond Head her only appearance before a movie camera ever after 1932. She died in 1997 at the age of ninety-four of pneumonia.

The music for Diamond Head (apart from the main theme) was supplied by John Williams, at the time known as “Johnny.” This was one of his earliest film assignments, having scored some TV and five or so small films previously. (His name was still so minor then that it didn't even appear on the front of the soundtrack album, shown below!)

He would continue to straddle TV and movies, eventually teaming with producer Irwin Allen to compose all of the theme songs for Lost in Space (1965-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-1977) and Land of the Giants (1968-1970), each one (with the first and third shows having two themes apiece) a classic gem.

This led to his hiring for Allen's The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974, needless to say, life-changing movies for me!), which in turn led to Jaws (1975), whereupon his cinematic scoring career was assured all the way to the present day. He is the recipient of five Oscars with close to forty additional nominations!

Any fan of those glossy, tortured romances like Susan Slade (1961), By Love Possessed (1961), A Rage to Live (1965) and the like ought to be able to settle into Diamond Head with ease. Certainly, the authentic locations aid the movie immensely as do the slick, but committed, performances. I, for one, always look forward to discovering another one of these old-fashioned soaps, since the genre - on the big screen, anyway - has long since dried up, with barely a residue remaining.


NotFelixUnger said...

Thank you so much for this post! You know what comes next: I have to find the movie!

I fell in love with France Nuyen when I first saw, "The Joy Luck Club." 20 years later I can't seem to get enough of her and relish everything she has ever done.

Also, you are very correct. Her voice is unique. It is hard to find people who have both a commanding and seductive quality in their voice. It is very low for a lady which also adds to the mystique.

Poseidon3 said...

NotFelix, if you enjoy France Nuyen, you will be glad to watch this movie as she is very lovely and appealing in it. This is on DVD, so I don't think you'll have too much trouble locating a copy. None of the still photos, caps, etc... seen on my page do true justice to the beautiful color of the Hawaiian-filmed movie either. Let me know what you think once you've seen it! Thanks!!

Scooter said...

Why, oh why isn't there a splashy technicolor melodrama channel? "Tonight on STMC..."

Randy said...

I remember seeing "Diamond Head" and "Hawaii" as a double feature. I much preferred "Diamond Head" although it wasn't as big a production as "Hawaii."

joel65913 said...

I'll have to give this one another view. I saw it years ago but remember very little of it except thinking that it was absurd that Moondoggie was made up as a Hawaiian! Same goes for Aline MacMahon who at the point I watched this I had only seen as Ida, Judy Garland's faithful, grandmotherly and very caucasian companion in I Could Go On Singing.

I enjoyed your write up and have recently viewed quite a few Yvette Mimieux films by chance, Joy in the Morning, Light in the Piazza, Picasso Summer, what an odd experience that was, Toys in the Attic and Death Takes a Holiday, in which she was quite appealing so perhaps a review with fresh eyes could reveal new splashy, excesses that I missed the first time.

edwardscampbell said...

I was disturbed by the casual way the younger brother was all but forgotten in this movie, by some pretty heartless relatives! In fact, James Darren himself was quite underrated as an actor. He studied with the famous Stella Adler before being discovered quite by chance by Joyce Selznick, David O's niece! He wanted more substantial roles, but became, after Gidget, a teen idol with his gorgeous looks and singing voice. You have left out an important addition to his resume: he attracted a new generation of fans as the Vegas hologram, Vic Fontaine, on Star Trek Deep Space Nine, which brought him back to his roots as a singer. Several of his first albums have been reissued. Still gorgeous, and still singing!