THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Written by Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum
Premiered 7 July, 1977
Such a grab-bag of unrelated plot globules that it seems almost impossible to imagine they stuck it all into eight minutes: we start on a British nuclear sub, which goes about its business until something inexplicably messes up the controls and hijacks the vessel. Boom! Switch over to the British government, confused and at loose ends. Boom! In Moscow, the head of Soviet intelligence, Gogol (Walter Gotell) learns that a Soviet sub has also been mysteriously hijacked, and he demands that no less a top-shelf spy than Agent XXX be put on the case. Boom! Now we're in a mountain chalet as a handsome, Lazenby-looking kind of guy (Michael Billington) makes out with a blonde, as a Soviet spy-box chimes that there's a message (it specifically chimes "Lara's Theme" from Doctor Zhivago, which doesn't strike me as the likeliest cultural touchstone for an actual Russian, but we'll run with it). "Haha, playboy spies, the same all over the world," we are meant to think, except it's actually the girl who is Agent XXX, real name Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach). Boom! In another chalet, Britain's Agent 007, James Bond (Roger Moore), is also making out with a woman (Sue Vanner) when he gets a similar message, and he takes off skiing down the mountain - but the woman turns out to be a spy herself, and sends a pack of Soviets after Bond, including Amasova's lover, whom Bond kills with a gun mounted inside of one of his skiing poles.
Anyway, the punctuation mark to all of this is one of, IMHO, the all-time great 007 stunts: Bond's stuntman up and skis right off a cliff, and falls for what feels like a half a minute - I mean, shit, just thinking about where the camera had to be gives me the chills - before pulling the ripcord and parachuting down on the gung-ho patriotism of a Union Jack parachute, as Monty Norman's Bond theme blows up on the soundtrack.
I love this, unapologetically. It has a bit of everything: exotic locations, a cool stunt, wacky gadgets, really, really juvenile humor ("Tell him to pull out. Immediately." snaps a tired-looking Bernard Lee to Lois Maxwell's Moneypenny; cut to Bond boning his newest conquest), and it does the thing that I want any Bond opening sequence to do: it immediately communicates the tone and style of the movie to follow, for good and bad. The Spy Who Loved Me, we shall find, represents a new level in frothy, escapist entertainment - it is the first popcorn movie Bond, screw this "spy film" stuff - and the opening, with its dizzy mixture of locations and exposition, fits that new feelingd; it is oddly plotty, and the five distinct scenes crammed into this short time preps us for that. There are more esoteric concerns too, like the terrific editing (this was John Glen's second picture in the series as editor and second-unit director, after On Her Majesty's Secret Service eight years prior), and the fucking wonderful sound editing - there isn't much in the entire franchise that I love as much as the way the music dies out during that cliff jump, leaving just the rush of the wind until the sound of the parachute and the horns of the Bond Theme. To be fair, it also introduces the largely asinine, disco-influence Marvin Hamlisch score - the films always suffer for John Barry's absence, but there's some really lousy music here - and it demonstrates, pridefully, just how childish the film is willing to get, in all ways.
Still, I think it's rousing and it sets the mood just right. Oddly, at this point my two favorite opening sequences both came in in movies directed by Lewis Gilbert (You Only Live Twice is the other), so maybe he was just really good at it.
Rating: 4.5 Union Jack Parachutes
A milestone! We now come to the first James Bond theme song that does not share the title of the film containing it: the love ballad "Nobody Does It Better", music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager, and performed by the indomitable Carly Simon. Scrupulousness forces us to point out that unlike later examples of the same quirk, the title does make a cameo appearance in the hypnotically clumsy lyric, "But like heaven above me / The spy who loved me / Is keepin' all my secrets safe tonight", at once the most awesome and the most horrible part of the song.
I will confess, dear reader, that since the moment I started this Bond marathon, I knew that this entry was going to be one of the hardest parts of the whole affair. Here's the issue: I actually really like the song, the only Bond theme I knew before I saw the film it was attached to; though as my affection for '70s singer-songwriters has waned from when I was in my teens (I was really lousy at being a teenager), so has my affection for the tune, naturally enough. Still, straight-up on its merits as something I enjoy listening to just because, this is way up there. Top 5 Bond songs for sure, Top 3 probably. It's my favorite Carly Simon single, if that's a valuable statement at all; I like how she mutes the romantic enthusiasm of the lyrics without calling the emotions underneath, while putting just enough ironic spin on a line like "Makes me feel sad for the rest" to remind you that yeah, this woman sang "You're So Vain".
But, it's kind of odd as a Bond theme - and, maybe, odd in a nice way, a good change-up from brassy jazz and twitty McCartneyisms, and Shirley Bassey's smoky howling. When the first simple, acoustic notes of the song wander over the soundtrack, it's a rather unexpected, low-key counterpoint to the raging bombast of the action we've just watched (it is also the last time something will happen in the movie that can be called low-key). But ballads don't really do it for a Bond theme, in my mind: and while this is leagues better than Nancy Sinatra's stultifying You Only Live Twice, the comparison is there to be made.
What really bothers me, anyway, is not how the song fits or doesn't into this film, but the precedent it establishes. After "Nobody Does It Better", there was a run of similar singer-songwriter-esque ballads, and they are godawful. Would losing "Nobody Does It Better" have saved us from "All Time High"? I cannot say, but it's a chance I would seriously consider taking.
Dither, dither, dither. Oh, fuck it, this one has the highest play count in my iTunes, that has to count for something.
Rating: 4 Shirley Basseys
Going with the more laid-back song, Maurice Binder's collection of naked dancing girls is a bit slower and more thoughtful this time around: a lot of slow-miotion, subdued colors (mostly blue and purple), and it's a bit more erotic and less smutty than many of the Bond title sequences are. Also, it's the first time we see Bond himself during the credits, with a few shots of Moore pointing a gun at nothing especially, which is neither erotic nor smutty, unless you have a thing for Moore that I don't really need to hear about.
There's some genuinely good stuff going on: I like that it's almost a mini-narrative about the male silhouette and the female silhouette (wearing nothing but a Russian hat), that sort of bleeds into the plot of the film while flowing well with the song: but it starts to get boring in a way most of these credit sequences are not, and there's some really awful compositing whenever Binder tries to do something snazzy, like have a girl turning cartwheels on the barrel of a gun. A credible effort, though, firmly in the "idea outstrips the execution" camp.
Rating: 3.5 Silhouetted Women
Another milestone! Though Ian Fleming wrote a book called The Spy Who Loved Me, it has not a blessed thing to do with the plot of this film. Making this the first in-name-only, original Bond movie, if "original" is the right word for a story that basically just pilfers from other things in the franchise: Bond vs. a pretty Russian spy, chasing after a cool piece of technology, that's from From Russia with Love; the mysterious villain pitting the West against the USSR from his cartoonishly large base, that's You Only Live Twice; everything else is just boilerplate.
Anyway, the brief version: someone is trying to sell off their device that can track nuclear subs, to whichever sub-owning government is more scared, and both MI6 and the KGB have tracked this back as far as an Egyptian black marketeer named Max Kalba (Vernon Dobtcheff). This is where Bond and Amasova first meet up, bantering in a flirty way (mostly by proving how much dirt they have on each other - Amasova wins by bringing up Bond's dead wife, the first overt reference to those events in any film since On Her Majesty's Secret Service itself), but in hardly any time, Kalba has been killed by a tall, mute henchman with metal plated teeth, known only as Jaws (Richard Kiel). We know, as the agents do not, that Jaws is currently in the employ of one Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), operating out of a massive seabase in the Mediterranean; and he's just as anxious to get the tracking system back as the spies are, since this was never about extorting money for him. This where the film gets intriguingly plotty - for the first half, it's not Bond vs. supervillain, but Bond, Amasova, and the supervillain all trying to find a MacGuffin that subsquently sets up Bond vs. supervillain, and I cannot think of another Bond film with this situation.
Anyway, they eventually find him, and things go right to hell, scriptwise, because it turns out that Stromberg's plot is kill everybody and make the world a better place for sea life, or something. I don't even quite know. There are nukes pointed at Washington and Moscow, and Bond has to stop it, that's enough to work on. After a point it pretty much stops having a plot and just turns into a lot of explosions.
Rating: 3.5 Stolen Nukes
We're supposed to say that the best Bond movies have the best villains, and that is almost always trues: this is, in fact, the only film in the whole franchise that I personally love in despite of the fact that the villain sucks. I mean, suuuuuucks. Stromberg's wicked plot is undercooked and dull, his stabs at ice-blooded evil - oho, I have killed my secretary, with a shark -are bland, and Jurgen's performance isn't of a man who is demented and hellbent on turning the world to his insane will, but of a crotchety old guy who spends his days writing angry letters to the Times about the mistakes in their crossword puzzle. Plus, he gets a pointlessly small death. Flavorless, unthreatening, and boring, and I don't bottom-out his score only because I know that there are worse antagonists still to come.
Rating: 1.5 Evil Cats
She suffers from the common Bond girl complaint of being made to seem awfully strong and self-possessed until the script needs her to be a damsel, but as far as that model goes, Anya Amasova is pretty darn strong and self-possessed at that, giving Bond his own several times in dialogue - there's a priceless moment when she lays down a Bond-style quip at him, and Roger Moore almost physically recoils in a perfect "wow, am I that much of a douche" reaction - and she's a considerably more agile fighter. On paper, she's one of my all-time favorites-
-but we're not just on paper, are we? There's the matter of the performance to consider, and there's something about Barbara Bach's work that I just cannot stand. Her wildly inconsistent accent (which is never, ever "Russian") certainly is part of the problem, though there's more to it than that, of course - Bach's reductive treatment of what should be one of the more emotionally complex Bond girl roles is particularly dismaying, as the character is falling for the man who killed her lover should permit something more than the surliness that Bach uses the signify "steel will". And she and Moore have absolutely not a lick of chemistry between them.
Rating: 3 White Bikinis
After Goldfinger's Oddjob, the most iconic Gimmicky Thug in the Bond canon is surely Kiel's giant, grinning monster, perhaps the oddest rip-off of the megablockbuster Jaws in the whole of the 1970s (and, to the surprise of no-one who observed Stromberg's pet man-eater, Jaws does, of course, get to fight a shark), and the only Bond villain outside of the iconic Blofeld to appear in multiple films (unless you consider Sheriff J.W. Pepper to be a villain - he did ruin two separate films, after all). In his first outing, at least, I think he's one of the best inventions of the Roger Moore era: given that Moore was basically unable to engage in any particularly impressive fight scenes anyway, why not give him a functionally invulnerable sparring partner? And the comic-book, matinee-movie goofiness of the character's basic conceit is one of the best resolutions to the central conflict of the Moore phase of the series: how to balance the jokiness of the character's increasingly bloated adventures and Moore's jolly performance of the spy with some manner of actual physical danger and action. If we're okay with the fact that The Spy Who Loved Me is really more of a superhero movie than a spy thriller (and if we're not, there's plenty to hate on before we get as far as Jaws), he's about as ingenious as colorfully hokey baddies get.
Rating: 4.5 Metal-Plated Teeth
THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
There really isn't one, since other than the girl in the opening scene and a distressingly Orientalist Arabian handmaiden, Bond only ever sleeps with Amasova; but I wish to bend the rules this once and include a woman who is, properly speaking, a henchman, Stromberg's gorgeous assassin Naomi (Caroline Munro). For, after all, if the purpose this role is to provide eye candy before ignobly dying, well, that's is pretty much the entirety of what Naomi does. And, if I can get all male gaze on y'all, she is spectacular eye candy: coming up through the ranks of Hammer Films prior to this movie, one of the few places in British cinema more obsessed with feminine beauty than Eon Productions, had already proven that regardless of what else she had to offer, Munro was outrageously nice to look at. The character is, let's be fair, a complete joke (if she has a grand total of four minutes of screentime, I'd be surprised), that's not really what the Secondary Girl is about, and if Munro isn't the most smoking hot woman in any Roger Moore film, then I don't know what.
Rating: 3.5 Golden Corpses
After the disastrous attempt to fuse Connery-era action to Moore's infinitely less physical Bond in Live and Let Die and the, whatever, stuff that was happening in The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me is the first film to successfully marry this actor's Bond with action sequences that suit him. And since this is still Roger Moore we're talking about, those action sequences aren't the best thing in the world: I am a fan of the opening ski chase, certainly, and the concept behind the film's escalating vehicle chase is nifty (Bond is followed fist by a motorcycle, then an automobile, then a helicopter), though the choreography could be improved without too much effort. The franchise's third fistfight in a train car (after From Russia with Love and Live and Let Die) manages to put a spin on the material by focusing more on how Bond gets his ass handed to him by Jaws than on any particularly exciting action, which is maybe not the best compliment you could pay it, though I like what it says about the Bond/Jaws pairing.
The climactic "storming Stromberg's lair" sequence, with Bond and the sailors of three nations, is tedious, however: you can only see giant objects explode so many times, and with Bond himself left to do nothing but look alert and wave a machine gun back and forth, there's no "narrative" to the fighting. An improvement, and enough to give the film a pass without feeling much enthusiasm for it, but even during Moore's time in the tux, there would be better action than this.
Rating: 2.5 Walther PPKs
Though Bond himself uses just a few gadgets - besides the ubiquitous multi-function watch, he gets a ski pole shotgun and a tricked-out Lotus Esprit - the film itself is just ripe with them, partially because we have another spy to deal with (and Amasova's knock-out dust cigarettes are way better than what 007 gets), and because this film is the first to indulge in a seriously protracted "hey everybody, look at the wacky shit Q Branch is working on!" sequence, including a tea tray that can decapitate a man.
As for the Esprit, I know it is met with some derision in certain corners of Bond fandom, but other than the fact that, inherently, ever car Bond drives that is not an Aston Martin DB5 is a disappointment, it fits the heightened tone of the movie just fine: a car that turns into a sub may be silly, but certainly less than one that flies or goes invisible, and the lines of the Esprit make it unusually well-suited to the task it is given.
I guess Bond also gets a Jet Ski, which is properly-speaking meant to be a gadget (they were not yet widely-available), but I can't credit that.
Extra points for the best line delivery of Desmond Llewelyn's long and storied career as the irritable Q:
BOND: "Q, have I ever let you down?"
Rating: 4.5 Easily-Riled Welshmen
THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Ken Adam, returning to the series for the first time in the Moore years, delivered unto The Spy Who Loved Me the second great masterpiece of his time with the franchise: a submarine hanger so big that he to commission the construction of what was at that time the largest soundstage in Britain (and, if I am not mistaken, all of Europe) just to fit it all in. It is stupidly big enough to put the volcano lair in You Only Live Twice to shame: a gleaming monstrosity of shiny services and water everywhere and plenty of gnarly industrial bits to go boom. It was so large, in fact, that the film's director of photography, Claude Renoir, didn't know how to light it, and so the filmmakers had to consult with a photographer-turned-director who was the only person in Britain at that time who could figure out what to do with such a goddamn huge set: Stanley Kubrick. If that fact isn't completely awesome, then I don't quite see the point in trying to impress you.
That's the awesomely large set; the most visually interesting sets are actually all in Stromberg's floating mansion, Atlantis, full of multi-tiered walkways over shark pits, and an elegant 18th Century drawing room with walls that pull away to reveal the same shark pit. Stromberg likes his sharks.
Anyway, this has, in a walk, my favorite sets of any James Bond movie. They are big, they are '70s-futuristic, and they are all menacing-like. A masterpiece.
Rating: 5 Volcano Fortresses
ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
In keeping with the new movement towards ever-bigger, ever-glossier adventures, The Spy Who Loved Me, while obviously not the first Bond movie to trek back and forth around the globe, is the first one that's really out-and-out touristy: beautiful shots of Sardinia, crazy romantic scenes of the Egyptian desert, and a long, long scene set at the light show played at the Giza pyramid complex so unbelievable tacky that it has to be real. Bond-as-tourist is not the most obvious example of why he is such an elegant sonofabitch, but it is certainly an important part.
The bit that I really, really love, though, is when Bond and Amasova have to hunt Jaws through an excavation site, all three of them wearing their clothes from the night before, and there's a nice frisson that comes from watching two people as comfortable in formalwear as our spies hunting through a sandy, rocky maze; anyone who can look that elegant in those surroundings is doing something right.
Add to that the customary "ah, alcohol, let me be smug about it" moments, and a visit to Bond's school chum, now an Arab sheikh, giving Bond an opportunity to demonstrate suave behavior in an entirely different cultural context, and we pretty much max-out the lifestyle porn of the Moore years; only the fact that we never actually see Bond drink any expensive booze, just talk about it, holds me back from giving it perfect marks.
Rating: 4.5 Vodka Martinis
APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Bond sidles up to Max Kalba and introduces himself.
Forced or Badass? Given its exceedingly close proximity to Anya Amasova's Exposition Hoedown ("Hello Agent 007 with a licence to kill, and who was married at one point to a woman who was killed to punish you, you drink vodka martinis and bed lots of different women"), it ends up feeling much more forced than it really is. We get it, Bond has tropes.
ANYA: "You don't have to worry about me, Mr. Bond, I went on a survival course in Siberia."
BOND: "Yes I believe a great number of your countrymen do."
Full disclosure time: The Spy Who Loved Me was my very first James Bond movie, and as such, the one that first taught me, "this is what a James Bond movie is and does". Even if this weren't the case, I still think it would be my favorite of the Roger Moore films; it has easily the best combination of japery and seriousness, without descending into the clowning that would (at times literally) be a part of all but one of Moore's subsequent adventures.
It is, however, certainly the case that this early exposure to Moore's Bond is the reason that, all things considered, I prefer the more escapist, fanciful elements of the Bond franchise to the more serious and gritty ones - the reason I prefer Moore and Brosnan to Dalton, basically. Which is why "my favorite Moore film", in this case, translates to "and one my very favorite Bond movies" as well.
Thus, much of what I've said and will shortly say about the movie, with an unspoken "isn't it great?" after every thought, is just as likely to be brought up by a more measured, or downright anti-Moore fan of the franchise, as a flaw with the movie. I like it that this was the the point where the series went from being high-profile to absolutely major; that The Spy Who Loved Me was the movie where the Bond films got their first taste of relatively gigantic budgets, and found them awfully nice. I like the extra does of globe-trotting exoticism, the ridiculously huge sets, the fact that Lewis Gilbert returned to anamorphic widescreen after Guy Hamilton's pair of Moore films were in much narrower aspect ratios - bookmark this review, kids, because you're not going to see me call the adoption of 2.35:1 in favor of 1.66:1 an obvious improvement in any other context.
There are trade-offs: the relative lack of spy-movie action in favor of more bombastic spectacle is something I wish we could have avoided, particularly given how quickly it would turn into something degraded and nasty (this film's follow-up, which was not For Your Eyes Only, despite the ending credits' promise, is unendurably bad for all the reasons this one is a big dumb treat). But spectacle, when it is done right, is hard to disagree with, and there's a lot of spectacle-done-right here: the ambition of the sets and scale of the locations (the Great Pyramids, for God's sake), and Claude Renoir's cinematography is lush, sun-dappled, and gorgeous, even as it boasts some of the most interesting shot set-ups in all of Bond (this was the Claude Renoir, after all, who was the grandson of Pierre-Auguste, and nephew of Jean; visual storytelling ran in his blood).
For that matter, while the film is hardly the best of the Bond thrillers, it boasts some awfully taut editing thanks to John Glen, with some driven, exciting scenes (the discovery of Max Kubla's body is a tremendous snatch of filmmaking, with sound, image, and montage all building up beautifully to create a shot of adrenaline like you couldn't imagine), and while none of the Bond movies past Connery necessarily earn their running times - two hours and more is a long time for a genre film - The Spy Who Loved Me feels much faster than a lot of its stablemates.
Add in some lovely Bondian grace notes - Q was never better, and the obviously-aging Bernard Lee has very little to do as M this time around, he gets one of the best moments in his time with the character, quietly approving as 007 shows up XXX in front of his Russian counterpart - and you end up with just a hell of a fun, deliciously watchable Bond movie. Not the deepest, not the most serious (though its repetitive chatter about East-West cooperation marks it as one of the more overtly sociological of all Bond pictures, which had to that point largely eschewed active engagement with the Cold War beyond a simple "We don't like Soviets" backdrop), but as a great big entertaining movie, it's just about as good as the series ever produced. It wouldn't prove a sustainable model, but for this one film, the Roger Moore Bond reached his most ebullient expression.