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The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Film poster for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), portrait format
In the mid-1970s the James Bond series was in trouble. Harry Saltzman, one half of the original Bond producing partnership, was embroiled in financial difficulties with his outside business interests, and left the series following 1974's The Man with the Golden Gun. That film had been the least successful in the history of the Bond series, rushed into release the year after the more successful Live and Let Die. The first two Roger Moore films had latched onto popular trends in contemporary cinema, Blaxploitation in the case of Live and Let Die, and the kung fu craze in The Man with the Golden Gun, but the Bond series was looking increasingly like a 1960s hangover on its last legs.

The next Bond film then, the 10th in the "official" Eon Productions series, was something of a make or break effort for Bond. Albert R. Broccoli was now the sole remaining producer of the series, and he gambled that audiences were ready again for a dose of grand escapism. The next film would be the biggest Bond for a decade, a return to the kind of spectacular fantasy last seen in You Only Live Twice in 1967. The budget would be double that of The Man with the Golden Gun and the film was so big it would require the building of a whole new stage at Pinewood Studios, the 007 Stage, large enough to house three submarines for the film's climax.

Roger Moore in Royal Navy uniform
While their agreement with Ian Fleming had given Eon the right to use the title of The Spy Who Loved Me, they were not given permission to adapt the book's story. Fleming had been unhappy with this experimental 1962 novel, written from the point of view of the main female character. This meant that the film would need an entirely new story. While some Bond films bore only a vague resemblance to their Fleming originals, The Spy Who Loved Me would be the first to start with a completely blank page. Several screenwriters were brought in to work on scenarios, before scripting duties eventually fell to Christopher Wood, with additional input from Bond regular Richard Maibaum. With no book to adapt, the screenplay of The Spy Who Loved Me instead plunders the previous nine cinematic Bonds for its story, characters and highlights. It would be a re-statement of Bond's values and of the Bond formula, but with some minor tweaking for the sensibilities of the seventies.

The film opens with one of the great pre-title sequences in the history of the Bond films. Bond is canoodling in an Alpine ski lodge with a beautiful blonde, when he gets an urgent recall. As he heads out of the door in his extraordinary banana yellow ski suit, his companion simpers “But James, I need you”. Moore turns to her and replies, deadpan, “So does England”, followed by a mock patriotic note on the score. As he skis away a group of bad guys (dressed in black, of course) give pursuit. Bond kills one using a gun concealed in his ski stick but they continue to give chase. As he heads towards the edge of the precipice he skis straight over and into the abyss. The audience watches agog as Bond falls, and falls and falls. As he does so, his skis fall away and finally a parachute emerges to take him to safety. The coup de grĂ¢ce is that it's not just any parachute, but one emblazoned with a Union Jack.

Everything gets called iconic these days, so I use the word advisedly, but this genuinely is an iconic moment, one of the most famous in the Bond series. So famous that it's referenced to some degree in at least three other Bond films, and formed the basis for the Bond homage at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. As a statement of intent this scene is hard to beat. It states so perfectly and so clearly that Bond is back, bigger and cheekier than ever. Just to emphasise the message, the film then cuts to the titles and Carly Simon singing “Nobody Does It Better”.

The stunt was inspired by an advert for Canadian Club whisky, showing a man skiing off El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The photo turned out to have been faked but the skier, Rick Sylvester, agreed to do the stunt for real on Mount Asgard on Baffin Island in Canada. The scene was filmed by 2nd unit director John Glen, who would go on to direct all five 1980s Eon Bond films.

Roger Moore and Barbara Bach
After the titles we get to the plot. British and Soviet submarines have gone missing and the plans for a tracking device that can trace submarines underwater are on the market. Bond vies with a female Russian agent, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), for the blueprints, before they reluctantly team up and trace the plot to a megalomaniac shipping magnate (Curt Jurgens). His aim is to provoke the super powers into a Third World War, enabling him to replace modern “decadent” civilization with his own underwater cities. It's probably no coincidence that the director of The Spy Who Loved Me, Lewis Gilbert, also directed You Only Live Twice a decade before, because the two films have a lot in common. Both involve a plot to cause World War 3 by stealing pieces of Cold War hardware – space rockets in You Only Live Twice and nuclear-armed submarines in The Spy Who Loved Me. Both feature a villain with a deadly line in aquatic pets (piranhas in the former, sharks in the latter), and both films are the only time we see their respective Bonds in Navy uniform.

The script is deliberately derivative of its predecessors, but it's well paced and incorporates a satisfying array of action sequences and new locations for Bond, with the Pyramids at Giza and the Karnak Temple complex in Egypt being the best used. Christopher Wood was the writer of the Confessions series of sex comedies in the 1970s, and M's line near the beginning of the film, giving orders for Bond to “pull out, immediately” just as he's in a clinch with a beautiful blonde, is the sort of deniable dirty joke his Bond scripts tended to specialise in. The film also introduces various pop culture jokes, including nods to Jaws, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago.

One area where the screenplay scores is in the characterisation of Bond. I think it's fair to say that Roger Moore's interpretation of the character had not quite gelled in the previous two Bond films. The Man with the Golden Gun, in particular, hardens the Bond character to the extent that he becomes quite an unpleasant jerk. The script for The Spy Who Loved Me, together with Moore's assured performance, rectifies that, finding exactly the right language and tone for Moore's suave, unflappable and ever so slightly self-mocking Bond.

James Bond's Lotus Esprit dives into the sea
One admirable aspect of the Roger Moore Bond films is that they usually avoided trading too heavily on the Connery Bond image, attempting instead to set a new course for Bond in the 1970s and 1980s. Moore's first film, Live and Let Die, does as much as possible to differentiate and distance his Bond from Connery's. The Spy Who Loved Me also differentiates the Moore version, continuing to avoid Aston Martins and introducing instead an all-new Bond car, the Lotus Esprit. With its startling seventies wedge styling, the Esprit is a radically different car from the Aston Martin, a modern, upstart supercar instead of a traditional hand-built gentleman's express. The Lotus stars in one of the film's best action sequences when, pursued by car, motorbike and helicopter, it plunges off the end of a jetty and into the water. Instead of sinking to the bottom, the car produces fins and a propeller and turns itself into a submarine, ready to continue the battle underwater. A genuine, working submarine was built for the film using the Lotus Esprit shell, but the driver needed to wear scuba gear inside because it wasn't watertight. The man on the beach who does a double take as Bond drives the Lotus out of the sea is Victor Tourjansky, part of the film crew on the Italian location. He plays the same role when the joke is repeated in the next two films, in the Gondola scene in Venice in Moonraker and during the ski chase in For Your Eyes Only.

In a significant twist on the Bond formula, this time Bond must team up with a Russian agent, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach). In the seventies Bond girls had mostly deteriorated into a succession of clueless airheads, but Bach's Soviet spy gives them back some dignity. She is even allowed to get the better of Bond occasionally, and is resistant to his charms. Well, resistant until about 10 minutes before the end anyway. As a capable and intelligent agent in her own right, Amasova is clearly intended to be the Russian, female equivalent to Bond. Amasova is the best female role in the series since On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1969, and while Barbara Bach is not one of the better actresses to star in a Bond film, she performs the role well enough.

Richard Kiel as Jaws
The film's main villain, Karl Stromberg, is a little under-written, but Curt Jurgens gives him enough gravitas to make the part work. The villain everyone remembers though is American actor Richard Kiel as Stromberg's main henchman, a seven foot tall metal-toothed heavy called “Jaws”, in a nod to another recent blockbuster. It's quite an achievement that the Bond films could still create such a memorable henchman after 15 years and 10 films. It's just a shame that when they brought him back for the next film, Moonraker, he was turned into a joke character. In The Spy Who Loved Me he's a genuinely threatening and unsettling presence, despite his slightly cartoonish indestructibility, and he's one of the last truly memorable henchmen in the history of the Bond series.

The film doesn't give an enormous amount to do for Bernard Lee, in his penultimate Bond film as M, Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny or Desmond Llewellyn as Q, but it does introduce a few characters who will become Bond regulars for the next decade. Geoffrey Keen makes his first appearance as Sir Frederick Gray, the Minister of Defence, as does Walter Gotell as General Gogol, M's opposite number in the KGB. Both would appear in every Bond film for the next ten years. Gotell had previously played a SPECTRE bad guy in From Russia with Love. Robert Brown also appears as Admiral Hargreaves. Brown would take over as M from 1983-89, so this gives Bond fans the opportunity to argue over whether Hargreaves became head of the Secret Service, or if Brown is playing a completely different character.

The film also sees two returning actors appearing as new characters. George Baker, Sir Hillary Bray in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, plays a Royal Navy Captain, and Shane Rimmer appears as the US submarine Captain. This was Rimmer's third and final Bond film after playing different roles in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds are Forever. There are also a couple of notable Hammer glamour girls in the cast, Caroline Munro and Valerie Leon. Although Munro is dubbed, she has a memorable role as the pilot of the helicopter that chases the Lotus into the sea. Valerie Leon has a smaller part as a hotel receptionist, but would get a larger role six years later in the “unofficial” Bond film, Never Say Never Again (1983).

The Supertanker set
The film's true star though is Ken Adam, here on his sixth and penultimate Bond film as production designer. While his best known Bond sets are probably Fort Knox in Goldfinger, and the volcano in You Only Live Twice, his work on The Spy Who Loved Me represents some of his finest in the Bond series. The film gives us a remarkable array of spectacular and ludicrously inventive sets, from the understated simplicity of Gogol's office and a Russian dacha, through a classic Ken Adam headquarters set for the British Admiralty and a secret base in an Egyptian pyramid, to Stromberg's amazing undersea lair, and the spectacular supertanker set. The latter set was so huge and so difficult to light that Stanley Kubrick was asked for advice on the best way to light it. He and Ken Adam had previously worked together on Dr Strangelove and Barry Lyndon. Adam's work on The Spy Who Loved Me was so remarkable that even the AMPAS finally woke up and took notice, giving him a long overdue first and only Oscar nomination for a Bond film, although the fact that he was already an Oscar winner for Barry Lyndon no doubt helped.

While the James Bond films were innovative, influential and endlessly imitated in the 1960s, for most of the time since the early 1970s, the series has essentially been reactive, responding to the changing landscape of the film industry and popular culture around it. The Spy Who Loved Me is unusual, because it finds Bond instead on the crest of a wave. Perhaps by luck, perhaps by some intuition that the wheel was turning, The Spy Who Loved Me arrived at the beginning of a new era of modern blockbuster cinema. George Lucas's space fantasy Star Wars was released in the US on 25th May 1977 and confirmed that audiences were hungry for spectacle and escapism. Less than two months later, The Spy Who Loved Me premiered at the Odeon, Leicester Square in London on 7th July 1977 (7/7/77) and broke box office records around the world, doubling the grosses of its predecessor.

As is traditional for the series, the end credits announced that Bond would return, this time in For Your Eyes Only, although that turned out not to be accurate, as the success of Star Wars made Broccoli look for a more fitting property to cash in on the space craze instead. And Bond lost some of the fresh impetus that The Spy Who Loved Me had given it and the series became reactive again. But that's a story for another time.

For the Bond series, The Spy Who Loved Me was exactly the right film at the right time. It's probably the consensus pick as Roger Moore's best Bond film and the best Bond of the seventies, and it fully deserves that status. Few Bonds are more assured, more extravagant, more spectacular, or more downright entertaining than this one.

If you've seen The Spy Who Loved Me then let me know your thoughts in the comments, and if you haven't then check it out immediately. It's not only one of the great Bond films, it's probably the one that saved the entire series.


The Spy Who Loved Me

Year: 1977
Genre: Action, Thriller, Adventure, Spies
Country: UK
Director: Lewis Gilbert

Cast Roger Moore (James Bond), Barbara Bach (Anya Amasova), Curt Jurgens (Stromberg), Richard Kiel (Jaws), Bernard Lee ('M'), Caroline Munro (Naomi), Geoffrey Keen (Frederick Gray), Walter Gotell (Gen. Gogol), Shane Rimmer (Captain, USS Wayne), Desmond Llewellyn ('Q'), Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny), George Baker (Captain Benson), Robert Brown (Admiral Hargreaves), Milton Reid (Sandor), Michael Billington (Sergei), Edward De Souza (Sheikh Hosein), Vernon Dobtcheff (Max Kalba), Sydney Tafler (Liparus Captain), Nadim Sawalha (Fekkesh), Valerie Leon (receptionist), Olga Bisera (Felicca), Sue Vanner (cabin girl), Eva Rueber-Staier (Rubelvitch)

Screenplay Christopher Wood, Richard Maibaum  Producer Albert R Broccoli  Cinematography Claude Renoir  Production design Ken Adam  Editor John Glen  Music Marvin Hamlisch  2nd unit directors Ernest Day, John Glen  Titles Maurice Binder

Running time 125 mins  Colour Technicolor  Widescreen Panavision
Production company Eon Productions  Distributor United Artists


This review was for the James Bond blogathon hosted by maddylovesherclassicfilms.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for taking part, Jay. This is such a fun film. That opening ski jump is one of the best moments in the whole series, it's certainly the most impressive stunt (a tie for me with the dam jump in Goldeneye). I agree that it's good that Bach plays a strong woman equal to Bond, she's not just there as eye candy. Maddy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The ski jump scene is so influential that every Bond film for the next 20 years has to open with an aerial or ski stunt of some kind. That's why Goldeneye has to start with the dam jump, and I think it's the most memorable scene in the film.

      Anya Amasova is the best Bond girl role of the '70s, but Barbara Bach is not an especially good actress, I think she's just OK. Catherine Deneuve's agent apparently approached Eon about her playing the role, but she was too expensive. Cubby Broccoli never wanted to play big star salaries, which is why very few Bond girls were famous actresses until the 1990s.

      Delete
  2. The Spy Who Loved Me is the absolute pinnacle of the Moore Bond films. Parachuting off a cliff edge, Jaws, the submarine swallowing supertanker, nuclear terror, the underwater Lotus and the gorgeous Barbara Bach. What's not to like?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Paul

      I totally agree about The Spy Who Loved Me. I don't think a “fantasy” type Bond film has ever been done better than this, and perhaps never will be.

      Delete

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