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.
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 grâce 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 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.
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 Royal 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 (1975), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr Zhivago (1965).
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.
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).
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. The success of Star Wars made the Bond team switch to Moonraker instead, all the better to cash in on the space craze. 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 MeYear: 1977
Genre: Action, Thriller, Adventure, Spy film
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 Eastmancolor Widescreen Panavision
Production company Eon Productions Distributor United Artists