So we meet again for the first time, for the last time. Well, not really. I have a few more of these to go, but who would have believed that we could get this far? I know that the Vegas bookmakers had odds that certainly weren’t in my favor. But seeing as how hell froze over this past week, I knew I had to continue, bringing you up to the minute and obviously essential pontification about the world’s debonairest secret agent, James Bond 007.
Our story begins in the wreckage of The Man with the Golden Gun back in 1974. With two movies under their belts in two years with new James Bond Roger Moore, the producers faced a quandary: how could they make a better Bond movie without involving bad kung fu, redneck sheriffs, and non-intimidating henchmen that were almost four feet tall? Well, it turned out that their hands were forced by circumstances in a way to ultimately make a better movie.
Harry Saltzman, one half of the EON production team, had some serious financial troubles that caused a halt on the next Bond entry until they were sorted out. Saltzman received the help he needed, but he had to sell his half of the franchise in order to get it. Then Kevin McClory hit the production team with lawsuits when Blofeld was announced as the initial villain of the movie. (For a more detailed examination of this legal muck, go check my post on Never Say Never Again, because I’m not going through this again unless I truly and deeply feel the stirring need to fill paragraphs to pad a post.) All the legal ramblings held up the next Bond film for almost three years before the dust finally settled down. And then there was yet another wrinkle…
When the rights for the Bond series were purchased for film production, Ian Fleming attached a stipulation regarding the novel The Spy Who Loved Me. The stipulation was that no part of the novel could be filmed and only the title could be used. Now that I think about it, that is more of a headache than a stipulation. But having run out of Bond novels for the most part, as For Your Eyes Only consisted of collected short stories and Moonraker in a pre-Star Wars world would be too costly and risky, The Spy Who Loved Me looked like a better bet.
The novel itself was unique in the Bond canon. It is the only Fleming 007 book that is told from the perspective of the main Bond girl and how she reacts to Bond. It was an audacious experiment that led to some backlash, especially as that book was the follow-up to Thunderball, which had action to spare. The Spy Who Loved Me is a story of a woman who gets herself in a situation where she is intimidated by two gangsters, Bond shows up by coincidence, Bond saves her, and the book has nothing else. Given the march of time, I suppose a straight adaptation of the novel would be actually kind of interesting. I don’t know if Fleming would care anymore in any case as he was mysteriously unavailable for comment when this was sent to my imaginary press.
So an original story was cooked up for the movie script because it had to be. And by “original”, I mean ” slightly derivative”. You see, the story of the film version of Spy is basically the plot of You Only Live Twice, just placed in an aquatic setting. To make even more of a parallel between the two movies, Lewis Gilbert was the director on both of them. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed in some aspects of the plot, resulting in Roger Moore not having to adapt a Japanese disguise to infiltrate anything.
Speaking of Roger, this is his third appearance as James Bond and Spy is really the first true Moore 007 movie. The script plays to his strengths and definitely allows for him to place his own imprint on the character. He even shows some vulnerability when the subject of Bond’s dead wife was brought up in the film. Many have said that this is the best of the Roger films in the Bond series. It would be hard to argue, at least in regards to Moore’s performance.
As our lead Bond girl, Soviet agent Anya Amasova, Barbara Bach was cast. Otherwise known as former Beatle Ringo Starr’s wife, Bach was certainly one of the most beautiful Bond girls, if not the best actress. Let’s just say that I have a hard time believing her as a hardened Soviet spy who is just as adept at espionage as James Bond. Michelle Yeoh she ain’t. But she is quite pretty so there’s that. And the less said about her attempts at a Russian accent the better.
Since Blofeld was out as a character, the main villain’s name was changed to Karl Stromberg, portrayed by Curt Jurgens. Given webbed hands and an underwater lair, his plot is to provoke the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to destroy each other in a nuclear holocaust so he can start an underwater civilization. He is right in the middle of the “meh” and “whatever” villains in the series which is a pity as Jurgens was a much better actor than the film allows. (If you want to see him in a great role, go check out The Enemy Below where he matches wits with Robert Mitchum in naval combat during WWII.) But in Spy, he doesn’t have much in the way of character development.
Also in the villain category we get Richard Kiel in the role of Jaws. Why Jaws? Well, he just happens to have a set of metal teeth in his mouth that he uses to assassinate his victims. He’s also super strong, nigh indestructible, and eventually a source of comic relief for the most part in the movie. Roger tries everything in this movie from dropping ancient Egyptian masonry on him, to driving his car off the road, to electrocuting his mouth with a broken lamp, to tossing him out of a moving train’s window, and still Jaws keeps going like a pre-Energizer bunny.
Now I understand the temptation for having comic situations with a character like this. And Richard Kiel is fine in the role, but this is another instance where one could say that the Roger Moore Bonds started to get more comedic and not in a good way. Can you imagine Sean Connery dealing with Jaws? (Now that I mention it, that’s a pretty good idea!) Of course Jaws has a moment where he kills a shark by biting it. Yes, this happens in the movie. I like to think they got away with this scene only because the producers courted Steven Spielberg to be director at one point.
With John Barry unavailable to do the music, Marvin Hamlisch, who did the score to 1973’s The Sting, was brought on board. The soundtrack does work for the most part, although I would have lost the Lawrence of Arabia cue as Bond and Amasova cross the Egyptian desert. However Hamlisch outdid himself in co-writing the theme song “Nobody Does It Better”. Sung by Carly Simon, the song became a common cue for Bond in later retrospectives and was a definite chart hit. I remember that when Desmond Llewelyn died, they played the song over a selection of Q scenes for The World Is Not Enough DVD. It was genuinely touching. Wonderful song.
Production designer Ken Adam returned to the series after being absent since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. The need to have a huge interior set of an oil tanker containing several nuclear submarines resulted in having the 007 Stage permanently built at Pinewood studios. Adam’s sets were a marvel yet again. Even a perfectionist stickler like Stanley Kubrick would use Adam twice for his films. If I could have Adam designs for my home, I would do it in a heartbeat. However I think my local village building code would never permit a volcano on my block.
Most of the stunts in this movie are first rate. The pre-credits teaser scene is one that usually mentioned as one of the most memorable stunts in the entire series. Aside from some great ski stunts, this movie is also the one where Bond skis off of a mountain and pulls a parachute out to safely land. The stuntman who did this had never done it before but was entirely game to give it a try. Give skiing off a mountain a try?! Place chrome plated cajones on that man. That sequence led to a series of excellent pre-credits scenes for the Bond movies from here through to Octopussy. (And yes, I just wanted to type Octopussy again. You’re welcome!)
There’s also a return of a Bond car that is decked out with gadgets. We haven’t seen one of these since the pre-credits scene in Thunderball and the car itself is a doozy. This Lotus Espirit can handle attacks from a helicopter, a car, and a motorcycle with sidecar before it converts into a submarine and deals with underwater threats. The car would make sort of a reappearance in For Your Eyes Only, but mainly for comic effect. The Lotus certainly holds its own against the Aston Martins and BMWs that the series has used. Oh sure, it isn’t an AMC Hornet, but it’ll do.
Somehow in a year that brought about heavyweights such as Smokey and the Bandit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, Annie Hall (no, really!), and some space opera called Galaxy Battles or some such nonsense, The Spy Who Loved Me became a rather large hit at the box office. It helped to bolster the franchise after the wobbly previous two entries and firmly established Moore as his own Bond.
The film does manage to hold up rather well after almost 40 years. The only real knocks I can place against it is that the villain isn’t that interesting, it is a smidge too long, the lead Bond girl doesn’t bring much believability to the role, the soundtrack isn’t solid throughout, and a partridge in a pear tree. But overall, this entry is still quite good despite these nitpicky handicaps.
Oh and Jaws. Yes he is an icon of the series, but ye gods, why two movies? You see they brought him back to bother Bond in a more comedic sense in the follow-up which ended up being Moonraker. The late Richard Kiel was very affable on all accounts and certainly wasn’t a horrible actor by any means. But you just don’t take Oddjob and make him 8 feet tall with a mouthful of metal and you certainly don’t bring him back for another movie. Director Gilbert talked about how a lot of fan mail came in from kids asking why did Jaws have to be a bad guy, so he was changed to be a good guy with the next movie.
I’m guessing some fan mail wasn’t printable after Moonraker was released because when For Your Eyes Only came out, guess what? No Jaws. Now those children’s letters had the right idea!