James Bond Retrospective: The Spy Who Loved Me

Before this film, Roger Moore’s Bond films felt different from the typical Bond formula. There were definitely evil master minds and all the staples were there, but Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) both tried to revamp the appeal of the series while emphasizing the comedic and action aspects. Everything became a bit more pronounced and the film’s central gimmick was the glue. The films stopped any pretense of sophistication and instead chose to go for cheap satisfaction. Lower than the lowest of Connery films.

The Spy Who Loved Me is Roger Moore’s best outing as Bond. We’re going to look at why, but when we do we should remember that this film still has many shortcomings that these Moore films don’t want to address. It is both a miracle and a curse that this film is as good as it is.

I’m going to stop talking grand speech here, let’s go ahead and get into it. I’m excited today, because nobody does it better:

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

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Moore’s smugness was never so deserved.

This film is very, very basic. Yet, I think what’s special about it is how effortless it feels to capture the eye. Before this film you would hear that the Bond films had big budgets and were huge events, and maybe it’s just me in 2019, but this is the first Bond film that felt like a real action movie. The budget really shows in this film in the best ways possible. It’s fun, colorful, and exciting. With Connery films you kind of had to squint your eyes to have a modern appreciation for their action, but here any person could enjoy this film in pacing or spectacle.

And despite the plot being so formulaic, it never overstays its welcome.

The Plot

Bond is in Austria when he’s urgently summoned by M to return home and investigate missing submarine missiles. Yet, British missiles aren’t the only ones missing. Female KGB agent Major Anya Amasova- codenamed XXX (subtle stuff guys) is summoned by her superior to investigate the disappearance of Soviet missiles. She finds out her lover was killed in Austria (yeah spoiler, murderer was Bond) and she vows vengeance.

The villain behind it all is some billionaire named Karl Stromberg. He plans to build some underwater utopia called Rapt- I mean Atlantis. He sends his henchmen, a short fat guy named Sandor and a tall man with steel teeth named… Jaws (played by Richard Kiel) to go to Egypt and murder the guy with a microfilm that could lead governments to him.

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See? This movie looks cool. There’s a sphinx, a tall guy, a green light. This is art.

Bond and XXX are in Egypt looking for the microfilm, Bond murders Sandor and has a coy flirtation with XXX to get the microfilm as they fight Jaws. They escape and XXX keeps the microfilm. KGB and MI6 decide to pool their resources together because they realize they’re on the same team and assign XXX and Bond to take down Stromburg.

Bond and XXX go to Sardinia to see Stromburg, and on the way they fight Jaws and decide they want to have sex. Bond poses as a marine biologist and XXX his wife to get a look inside Stromburg’s ocean obsessed headquarters. They confirm he’s got a new tanker called the Liparis and in the car they’re attacked by everything Stromburg can throw at them, including Jaws again. Using their submarine car (we’ll talk about that later) they look at Atlantis and confirm Stromburg is the guy behind everything. XXX also finds out Bond was behind her lover’s death, and she says after the mission is completed she will kill him.

Bond and XXX board an American submarine being abducted into the Liparis. There, Stromburg has revealed his full plan: British and Soviet subs are going to send missiles to Moscow and New York City, respectively. Stromburg kidnaps XXX and takes her to Atlantis. Bond escapes and rescues every single prisoner and takes over the ship, saving the world by having the missiles hit the subs. Bond goes to Atlantis to save XXX, fights Jaws one last time, murders Stromburg, and saves XXX.

XXX pulls out a gun as the two are escaping, but decides she shouldn’t kill Bond and they have sex again. Secretly, Jaws survives and is found swimming away.

A Closer Look

This film was both widely acclaimed and harshly criticized. On one hand it’s a very entertaining movie, on the other this film is drastically different than the Ian Fleming novel, more so than any of the film adaptations before it. I’ve talked before about how these films were sort of devolving from the novel franchise’s visions, but this film’s only connection to the original story are the movie henchmen bearing a strong physical resemblance to the descriptions of the henchmen in the novel.

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This scene is a good reversal of expectations, we think the guy is the devilish secret agent. But nope, we are wrong and that guy is gonna die in like five minutes.

Bond had become a cultural icon, and so with every film Fleming’s image of Bond (which was already quite different from the start) would lose some of its edge and distinction. Moore’s Bond is a super hero, and unlike Connery his only true character demerit is his libido. In Live and Let Die, the character was that clean for contrast to his surroundings, In Man With the Golden Gun he was morally great so Scaramanga could be equally evil. This film is a normal Bond film, but it retains this clean Moore depiction.

This was also directed by Lewis Gilbert, who had previously directed Connery’s You Only Live Twice (1967). This isn’t much of a surprise, that film was pretty exciting. It also helps that Gilbert downplayed some of the more wild aspects of the previous films. Here, the crazy camp is reserved for the gadgets and the bad guys. The normal cast is way less eager to over act and Moore feels really comfortable in the role now.

And lastly, this is the first time we can really see how a Bond works without SPECTRE or Blofeld. There’s always rich psychopaths with secret fortresses, but this is the first time in a long time we look at Bond’s espionage as distinctly British and an element of the Cold War. KGB agents are the new mysterious menace, though even the producers know they shouldn’t be as demonized.

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Wow, sharks are such a great villain gimmick. They’re so menacing, just casually swimming in their tank away from you.

What’s Good?

The opening theme is an absolute banger by Carly Simon. Both having sexual innuendo and a sort of commentary on Bond’s prevalence in action films, it’s big and fun but also light and catchy. It’s better as a song to enjoy than as an actual companion to the film, but the lyrics of the song remain with you as you watch the film and that really helps the audience appreciate Bond and his chemistry with XXX.

I think this Bond girl, Anya Amasova is much stronger than the last few girls. The women paired with Moore before this were very passive and offered little variety or depth. At worst, they were annoying like Mary Goodnight. XXX has a lesser version of the From Russia With Love (1963) angle of being both the femme fatale and the heroic sidekick. Though XXX has less depth, the chemistry between the actress Barbara Bach and Moore is fantastic and she has enough of a backbone and her own competence to merit appreciation.

Kiel’s Jaws also deserves high praise. I think Jaws is without a doubt the best henchman in the Bond series. The reason primarily being that he has a tangible threat to Bond and he sticks around to become an ongoing presence. Other henchman from the start to this point of the series might have had funny gimmicks or a physical threat to Bond, but Jaws is the real villain to Bond here. He has less of a plan, but his plan is to murder Bond. That’s very effective for an audience, and Kiel’s own charisma and figure leads really well to how he was framed and made him very likable even as a bad guy.

It’s hard to capture in text how well the action was performed in contrast to previous entries, but I think the secret is to look at each individual moment and contrast it with prior analogs. The ski chase has been done before, but here Moore’s close ups are really the only green screen and the rest is just great stunt work. Car chases have more speed and impact. These Moore films had been building in quality, but here every moment never overstays its welcome or makes you question the work as a whole. The gadgets aren’t some silly gimmick that saves Bond right when he’s about to die. Instead, the Lotus Esprit submarine car is really cool and exciting to see and is used for more than just its initial purpose.

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This car chase is also the most realistic of all car chases: traffic is annoying.

What’s Bad?

Stromburg is a bad villain, as is the underwater base idea. The underwater base was actually present in almost all versions of the script, which is a bad sign because the original script for this film was Anthony Burgess’, who tried to write a satirical take on the Bond franchise after disliking what the films did to the novels. Yes, that means they threw out everything that was ridiculous and stupid about the script but kept the underwater city. The actor as well seems to not know how much malice, anger, or satisfaction he’s supposed to have in a given delivery. As a Bond villain, you need to have conviction in your performance. It all rides on your charisma and how you play it.

The locations also seem a little less special this time around. Perhaps the rest of the focus was in everything around it, but the only time the location really feels special is Egypt, and even then it only feels that way when Bond kills the bald henchman and when they’re all in the pyramids. Because pyramids are Egyptian.

Oh, near the end of the film when all the prisoners are trying to save the ship there’s this one guy that’s constant comic relief. He’s annoying. The worst part is during a moment when the camera actually zooms in on him and he gulps.

Looking Forward

Next thing up is Star Wars (1977). No seriously, after Star Wars came out the producers shifted their priorities to the closest thing to science fiction Bond’s got: a big ol’ moon base. It will be simultaneously the high and the low for the franchise. It’s not a good movie high, it’ll just make a bunch of money then the franchise will revel in mediocrity for like a decade.

What I Drank

I drank XXX’s drink order in Egypt: Bacardi on the rocks. It got the job done.

 

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