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Friday, March 13, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1977)


10. The Spy Who Loved Me

As “The Spy Who Loved Me” went into production, Eon Production was in turmoil. Co-producer Harry Saltzman, desperate for money because of some bad investments, sold his half of the franchise. An initial plan to use SPECTRE and Blofeld in the script was counteracted with a law suit from Kevin McClory. When Ian Fleming sold the rights to his book “The Spy Who Loved Me” to Eon, he only allowed them to use the title, forcing the studio to completely invent a new story. Finally, “The Man with the Golden Gun” suffered a lukewarm reception, showing that maybe ol’ James Bond was starting to get a bit stale. All of these challenges proved beneficial in the end. “The Spy Who Loved Me” became a big hit, revived interest in the Bond series, and continues to be considered the best film of the Roger Moore era.

An American submarine, carrying nuclear missiles, mysteriously vanishes. Not long afterwards, the same thing happens to a Soviet submarine. After killing some Russian agents on an Austrian mountain top, James Bond is on the case. A leaked microfilm, containing the tracked location of the submarines, is located in Egypt. While there, Bond meets up with Russian agent Anya Amasova, known as Agent XXX to her government. Though antagonistic at first, the two eventually develop a mutual attraction. Working together, they discover neither the Americans nor the Russians are responsible for the submarine thefts. Instead, a millionaire shipping industrialist with an obsession with the ocean and sick plans for world devastation is the culprit. While attempting to survive the bad guy’s henchmen and villainous plan, Bond and Amasova’s relationship becomes complicated.

The last few Bond themes were upbeat pop or rock numbers. “The Spy Who Loved Me” instead opens with a softer, blatantly romantic song, which fits the movie. Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” focuses on the singer’s simple but strong vocals. She’s back up by relatively straight forward instrumentation, built around a lovely piano melody. The lyrics nicely incorporates the film’s title. Considering how many women Bond has loved over the years, it’s impressive such sincere lyrics were written about the guy. It’s a giddy, romantic number, one I like a lot, and was a break-away pop hit at the time. The credits sequence, meanwhile, is also a favorite of mine. Against a cool blue background, to go with the film’s oceanic theme, Bond is shown disarming female agents with his romantic abilities. (He also somersaults through the air, a delightfully cheesy element.) Meanwhile, the required nude silhouettes tumble around, one swinging around the barrel of a giant gun. My favorite bit is when Bond is shown sweeping a whole fleet of female solders of their feet. In other words, it’s a great way to open the film.

The first two films of Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond were obviously inspired by other popular film genres at the time. “Live and Let Die” was influenced by blaxploitation, “The Man with the Golden Gun” by Hong Kong martial arts flicks. One of the things I most like about “The Spy Who Loved Me” is that it’s not following any trend. Okay, you could make the case that the movie’s watery setting and reoccurring references to sharks (up to and including a character named “Jaws”) might have been inspired by the success of “Jaws.” However, Bond doesn’t blow up a giant shark or anything. The disco driven score, which features a funkified version of the traditional Bond theme and is super distracting, is obviously a product of the time. But all “The Spy Who Loved Me” is really trying to be is a really good James Bond movie.

As the title indicates, “The Spy Who Loved Me” is by far the most romantic of Roger Moore’s films. This is a good thing since one of Moore’s strengths is his romantic charm. It helps a lot that Moore has a totally spectacular female co-star. Barbara Bach plays Anya Amasova. Amasova, right down to her three digit code name, is very much the Soviet equivalent of Bond. The film even begins by placing both characters in bed with a member of the opposite sex. Bach’s steely but exotic beauty is a great fit for the character. She has fantastic chemistry with Moore. The plot has the two playing against each other before eventually falling into one another’s arms. Most Bond films would have stopped there but their relationship continues to evolve. After discovering that Bond killed her Russian lover, Amasova turns on him, determined to avenge her lost love. It takes Bond saving her from the bad guy before she changes her mind. It’s one of the few times when the film’s central Bond girl seems like she could have stuck around for a few movies more.

The previous Bond films have been criticized for being too campy. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is, on the surface, no less ridiculous. However, the film smartly roots itself in a world of comic book-like possibility, a place where anything is plausible yet also weirdly grounded. The best example of this is the film’s villain, Karl Stromberg. Stromberg is the first genuine supervillian Bond has ever fought. Stromberg’s kidnapping of an American and Russian nuclear vessel, a plot point blatantly stolen from “You Only Live Twice,” is not motivated by greed. No amount of money will dissuade his plan to trigger World War III and the accompanying nuclear annihilation. Stromberg intends to destroy the world so that a purer, newer society can live on under the ocean. Stromberg is obsessed with the ocean and everything in it, especially sharks. Curt Jurgens’ villainy is fairly one-note but I applaud the Bond series for finally moving into outright comic book villainy. It was the right tone for this era.

Another example of that perfectly balanced tone of realism and popcorn silliness is the film’s most iconic element. The henchmen Jaws eclipses even Oddjob as the most beloved lackey in the Bond universe. The late, unforgettable Richard Kiel was already an experienced character actor by this point in his career, using his giant frame to play many aliens and monsters. Jaws is a monster of sort too. With his mouthful of metallic teeth, he severs people’s spines by biting them, like a non-bloodsucking, strictly murderous vampire. His super strength is monstrous too, as are his subtle cunning and tendency to appear when least expected. It’s not too hard to re-imagine the character as the star of a horror film. Like Frankenstein’s Monster or Jason Voorhees, Jaws is patently indestructible too. He’s buried in rubble, tossed from a moving train, caught in an exploding car, and attacked by sharks. Each time he walks away, dusting his suit off. Little character traits like that makes the purely sadistic, indestructible Jaws sort of lovable. It’s not a surprise at all that he would become a pop culture icon and make Kiel into something of a cult figure.

Something that really stuck in my teeth about “The Man with the Golden Gun” is that Bond wasn’t given much punching or killing to do. “The Spy Who Loved Me” corrects that. Right from the beginning, Moore is skiing down a mountain, blowing away enemy agents. A roof top fight in Cairo features plenty of punching, flipping, and judo chopping. The first fight with Jaws has Bond being outmatched, the villain swinging a 2x4 like a baseball bat. A later encounter in a train is even more intense, Bond barely fighting the brute off. In the last act, Bond climbs a railing, dragging a bomb along with him. Roger Moore is more physical then ever, his Bond feeling like a real badass for the first time.

Q makes a strong come back too. Despite this, Bond only has one real gadget. Following in the tire tracks of the Aston Martin DB5 is the Lotus Espirit S1. The car, with its blocky triangular design, isn’t very sexy. However, what it does is pretty cool. The car is an important part of the best car chase in a Bond movie since “Goldfinger.” The action in the scene escalates. First, Bond and Anya are pursued by a motorcycle with a rocket-launching side car. They barely escape that by swerving between two trucks, a tense moment. Next a car loaded with baddies, Jaws included, catches up with them. Recalling “Goldfinger,” they’re taken out by the Espirit’s rear oil cannons. Next, a helicopter piloted by a beautiful but villainous Caroline Munro takes chase. That one remains on their tail, the car peeling around tight corners. Until, of course, the Lotus turns into a friggin’ submarine that can launch sea-to-air missiles. The chase continues underwater, as aquatic henchmen attack the submerged car. The pay-off to the scene, of the car surfacing onto a beach full of very confused on-lookers, is classic.

Of course, “The Spy Who Loved Me” features a gun fire and explosions filled final act. After boarding a submarine, Bond, Anya, and the rest of the crew are taken captive inside Stromberg’s oil tanker. The villain takes the girl, leaving Bond and the crew members aboard the ship. Naturally, Bond escapes and leads a rebellion. What follows is probably the most violent of any Bond climax. There’s lots of shooting, grenade blasts, people being set on fire, and plenty of death and destruction. It’s shockingly visceral. But then the film does something unexpected. The massive finale turns into a suspense film. Bond has to pull the detonator out of one of the nuclear mission. Like a deadly game of “Operation,” if it touches the side, it’ll explode. Afterwards, an attempt to set off the home-made bomb leaves Bond stuck in the way, forcing a last minute escape. Once they break into the control room, the Navy has to redirect the already airborne nuclear mission, preventing atomic destruction. It’s all surprisingly tense stuff. And it’s not even the end of the movie! Bond still has to make it to Stromberg’s lair. You can tell how pissed off the bad guy made Bond, as he spends extra time killing him. By skipping the army-vs.-army ending, “The Spy Who Loved Me” creates a far more personal climax.

The film might also be the first Bond fill to address deeper, more humanistic issues. Made during the middle of the Cold War, here was a movie about an English spy and a Russian spy putting aside their differences for the greater good and even falling in love. The British MI6 and the Soviet KBG are actively working together to stop Stromberg. By making Bond the murderer of Anya’s lover, it addresses two things. First off, it acknowledges how many damn people Bond has killed over the years and how that may not always be a good thing. Secondly, it shows that peace and cooperation isn’t always as easy as seduction. That love, reason, and sexual double entendres conquer in the end is a positive thing. Am I reading to much into it or is “The Spy Who Loved Me” the first Bond movie with actual, you know, subtext?

Lastly, the production design is aces in this thing. The inside of Stromberg’s tanker is an impressive bit of engineering. It’s all straight-forward, steel lines, cold and emotionless like its leader. A huge amber globe shows the positions of the bombs. The control panel is black and white, painted with the image of a fish. Stromberg’s base is the underwater Atlantis, a submersible building that vaguely resembles the Legion of Doom’s hideout. Like that building, it can rise and fall beyond the waves. It also looks a little like a spider, further establishing the villain’s cred. Another bit of far more subtle set design are the offices of MI6 and the KBG. M’s office is colorful and lovely, full of personal decoration. The head of the KGB, meanwhile, is made of sterile concrete, with flat, wide, tomb-like walls. That’s a nice way to visually show the differences between the two agencies.

With exotic locations are far-reaching as Italy and Egypt, “The Spy Who Loved Me” is a joy from beginning to end. Moore has finally found his niche as Bond. It has great action, a wonderful supporting cast, a fun plot, cool gadgets, wicked bad guys, and a genuinely romantic tone. It’s not as good as the best of Connery’s era but, in its own way, it is an equally iconic film, and easily the best of series made in the seventies. “The Spy Who Loved Me” reinvigorated Moore’s Bond and allowed the actor to continue playing the character well into the next decade. Truly, when it comes to this very specific type of film, nobody does it better. [Grade: B+]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

1 comment:

Mark Sohn said...

Not so fast... Blaxploitation, Martial Arts(And energy crisis) and then Moonraker (Star Wars/CE3K)... but The Spy who Loved Me, NOT a Jaws cashin?... all the underwater stuff, a shark that Jaws bites a chunk out of... AND they wanted Spielberg to direct... (Famously waiting to see 'How the shark picture turned out' and missing out on his services...)