After the lacklustre and low-grossing “The Man With The Golden Gun”, “The Spy Who Loved Me” was to be a crucial film for the Bond franchise. Harry Saltzman had departed as producer due to financial problems, leaving Cubby Broccoli in sole charge. In total twelve writers worked on fifteen drafts of the script – which shares nothing but the title of the Fleming novel – with the final product a collaboration between veteran Bond writer Richard Maibaum and series newcomer Christopher Wood with Tom Mankiewicz doing an uncredited polish too. Efforts to get the series up and running again were further hampered by the unwelcome reappearance of Kevin McClory, who objected to the use of aspects he believed belonged to him, such as SPECTRE and Blofeld. Nevertheless, Broccoli’s faith was such that “The Spy Who Loved Me” proceeded with the biggest budget ever for a Bond movie, double that of its predecessor. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely…
When Soviet and British nuclear submarines disappear within days of each other, both governments send their best agents to find out what is going on. Crossing paths in Egypt, Bond (Roger Moore) and Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) join forces to take on billionaire megalomaniac shipping magnate Karl Stromberg and thwart his plan for global devastation.
The film starts with a shiny new gun barrel sequence, immediately delivering a couple of improvements: Bond is wearing a tuxedo for this first time and Moore looks considerably less startled when he shoots. We’re then treated to the scene of a submarine hijacking and there’s no immediate sign of Bond. Three films in, you’d be forgiven for starting to wonder if Roger Moore has an aversion to appearing before the opening credits. Thankfully, it’s a ruse and he appears in time to ski off a mountain and deliver one of the most famous pre-titles stunts of all.
Before the iconic Union Jack parachute appears, there’s a wonderful sequence counterpointing the differences between the two secret services, with Bond and Amasova both receiving their orders to report for duty. It’s an early sign of how wonderfully structured the screenplay and film are, the narrative is tight and cohesive, a compelling mix of detective work, action, escapism and spectacle with all the usual Bond hallmarks polished up to a high shine. The locations are suitably exotic: Austria, Egypt, Sardinia and glamorously shot while Ken Adam’s set designs are epic and iconic (although there’s no denying Stromberg and The Legion Of Doom must have the same architect on speed dial).
The Egyptian-set scenes are a particular highlight and looking back from the bleak vantage point of a troubled 21st Century, it’s interesting to see how casually and amicably the Islamic culture is treated here, before decades of radicalisation and western demonization. The set piece in and around the Sphinx set during and actual show called ‘The Sound And Light Show’ – which still runs today – is superb in its use of the music and lighting from the performance to parallel the action on screen.
Roger Moore delivers his best performance as Bond to date and while his take on the character is undeniably more charming and suave than his predecessors, his reputation for lacking ruthlessness is undeserved. Not only does he kill a henchman by throwing him off a building after he has given the information Bond wanted, in the final confrontation he kills Stromberg in cold blood. By shooting him in the dick. Twice.
After the banal buffoonery of Mary Goodnight, in Barbara back we get a Bond ‘girl’ who is an ideal match for Bond: attractive, smart, sexy and dangerous – with a service history of successful missions to rival 007’s own. Although she naturally takes second place to Bond once they are assigned to work together, she is still shown to be capable and cunning and the shared history both agents have adds a level of danger to their relationship as she vows to avenge the death of her lover at Bond’s hands. Of course, this is a seventies Bond movie and we can’t have a heroine without a little innuendo so naturally her code number is XXX. You know, as in adult movies. How naughty!
The regulars get a bit more to do, especially Desmond Llewellyn who, after being recalled due to popular demand, gets the first of the soon-to-be-trademark Q-branch montages as he trades quips and put-downs with Bond whilst touring through his R&D laboratory. Walter Gotell makes his first appearance here as General Gogol, the KGB’s equivalent of M and he too would go on to become a fixture in the Bond movies over the next decade.
Of course, a Bond film is only as good as its villain and henchman and in Stromberg – an obvious Blofeld proxy – “The Spy Who Loved Me” has a great one. Curd Jürgens delivers a great performance giving Stromberg a gruff, taciturn petulance, his antipathy for the surface world evident. His mercilessness is demonstrated early on as we see him dispose of both traitors and those who have outlived their usefulness with equal finality. He’s almost eclipsed, though, by his henchman, the most iconic since Oddjob: Jaws. A metal-toothed monster of a man, Richard Keil brings a playful malevolence to the role which helps keep the character on the right side of vicious and grisly, especially as Jaws’ preferred method of killing people is to bite them to death (and presumably drain their blood because there’s very little left after he discards a victim).
The action is spectacular, as you would expect, and as if the film wasn’t spoiling you enough already, it still has a couple of aces up its sleeve. Eschewing the Aston Martin, it’s the turn of the Lotus Esprit to help Bond get around, becoming the second most iconic Bond car ever thanks to its slick and well-executed submersible capabilities.
Lewis Gilbert’s return as Director marked a dialling back of the gratuitous slapstick humour which had blighted “The Man With The Golden Gun”, replacing it with more dry quips and musical homages to other films. It’s probably not a coincidence that the grand finale bears a strong resemblance to the ending of his previous Bond film “You Only Live Twice”, with an all-out assault on the enemy’s cavernous headquarters but the oil tanker-set confrontation is nevertheless spectacular, full of action, extras and Wilhelm screams.
The score, by Marvin Hamlisch is contemporary, poppy and great fun and the theme song, performed by Carly Simon, is one of the very best. Effectively a love song to the character of Bond it also has the distinction of being the first main theme to not share the film’s title (although the phrase appears in the lyrics).
While most of its success it by design, there’s a little bit of luck in that it was made at a time of improving special effects and film-making techniques meaning it manages to sneak ahead of the earlier high water marks of the series such as “Goldfinger” or “From Russia With Love”. Humour, intrigue, excitement and spectacle combine in “The Spy Who Loved Me” to deliver a cocktail which leaves you both shaken and stirred. Moore is at his best, surrounded by a superb supporting cast, tremendous production values and a story with stakes worthy of Bond. Broccoli may have bet big, but every penny of the money made it to the screen in spectacular fashion. I’m not ashamed to say it’s my favourite Bond movie, delivering everything that makes a Bond movie perfect, in a perfect way.
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