The good, the bad, and the Bond: Re-evaluating 007 – The Spy Who Loved Me
PUTTING down the golden gun, it’s time for SCM to take a ride in an underwater sportscar, so grab a harpoon and a submarine for our next Bond snipe: 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.
Jozef Raczka: Nobody does it better. It’s almost undeniable that Carly Simon and Marvin Hamlisch’s work on the credits theme for Spy Who Loved Me is one of, if not the best, and that’s appropriate because Spy is drawn with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for the best film so far. Writers Christopher Wood & Richard Mailbaum and director Lewis Gilbert set out to – finally three films into his run – try and actually write for Roger Moore instead of trying to make him Sean Connery, resulting in a much looser, sillier and more charming adventure. Without a single J.W. Pepper in sight!
To cover the three standard elements of the film – the Bond Girl: Barbara Bach as Agent Triple X (no, really) is in the upper echelons of Bond Girls: Smart, resourceful, almost as handy with a quip as Bond but also vulnerable and soulful. Sure, she could probably do with a little more agency to make her feel truly like Bond’s match, but this is the 70s. Don’t ask for too much. Then there’s the Bond Villain: Curd Jürgens as Stromberg. Now here’s a guy who understands menace. From his entrance – feeding a woman to a shark to the strains of Air on the G String, to his death in his own private Atlantis – I don’t think he even leaves his armchair.
But does he really need to? Especially when he has the Villain’s Henchman to beat all Villain’s Henchmen – Jaws (Richard Kiel): the man with the metal teeth, the man who tore apart a van, the man who beat a shark in a fight, the unstoppable monster. Much like Stromberg never leaving his chair, Jaws doesn’t need to say a single word; his shining teeth and that unbreakable grin say everything, and it’s a true force-of-nature performance by Kiel.
The action sequences are surprisingly restrained – bar a skiing pole blunderbuss here and an underwater Lotus Espirit there – but the cinematography is crisp and clean, the action well-paced and Lewis Gilbert’s direction provides a strong hand and a natural showcase for Roger Moore’s charming, roguish persona. The opening sequence ski chase is in my top 10 Bond chases; it’s short, sharp and ending with that beautiful, silent fall into a glorious crescendo as his Union Jack parachute opens.
If it weren’t so properly English, you’d feel it was worthy of an air punch. In fact, possibly the best move of this film is to strip back the soundtrack. (Beyond the main theme, let’s not talk about Hamlisch’s work. It’s… not great.) The wordless, soundless fight scenes feel far more intense from their lack of constant sound-tracking, a major problem of many modern action films.
The film is not without its problems (which I’m sure Dan will detail further below). The disco flecked instrumentals are a bit naff and, somehow, despite being about nuclear submarines and underwater bases, the stakes feel oddly low. Yeah, it could do with about 25 minutes of trimming from the second act but it is, absolutely, a bunch of fun. It’s big, it’s quite dumb and has a Lotus Esprit that can go underwater. What more do you want?
Daniel Abbott: Within five minutes of The Spy Who Loved Me‘s runtime, James Bond is told to “pull out”. Within ten minutes, he’s skydived off a cliff and pulled the cord on a Union Jack parachute. These glorious ten minutes – two of them scored by Carly Simon’s superlative main theme – are among the finest in the entire series, condensing what makes James Bond so captivating into a wonderful snippet of prime, grin-inducing joy.
It’s a blast of pure quality that the rest of the film can’t quite match. Though this may be one of the most grudging negative write-ups in our collective – a view borne out more by obligation than by belief – The Spy… is undeniably lacking in several areas. The plot, as standard, is vague espionage-y gibberish, slapped together with the thinnest of pretexts in order to propel Roger Moore and Barbara Bach through action sequences that, by turns, thrill and mildly spur.
While the trademark Bond chase scenes are exhilarating in their flagrant disregard for human life and property, the hand-to-hand fights are laughably plodding and awkward, especially when Jaws and Bond square off. The stuntwork is great as ever – especially in that incredible intro – but the actual choreography of these fights is only a slight cut above Shatner axe-handing that Gorn.
The script is hilarious, both intentionally and unintentionally, relying on Moore’s snarky arsenal of quips to bring it to life. Moore’s eyebrow is almost perpetually raised, and how could it not be when he’s forced to act opposite Bach, whose beauty is matched only by her utter lack of acting ability (compounded by horrendous dubbing). Moore has more chemistry with Kiel’s delightful Jaws, the faithful henchman who just won’t fucking quit. The gadgets, even moreso than usual, are ludicrous, culminating in the submarine Lotus Esprit that’s so damn cool it doesn’t even matter.
But, in all honesty, I’m really stretching here. I get giddy when I watch The Spy…, infected by its relentless energy, cavalier spirit and, quite frankly, superb cinematography. Claude Renoir’s visuals are sumptuous, drenched in sunlight and replete with gorgeous angles, whether underwater or in ancient Egyptian ruins. Returning to the series after You Only Live Twice, Gilbert’s direction is brimming with confidence and bold panache. Ken Adam’s futurist, angular production design is also, as usual, stellar.
These same traits would inform (and enhance) the unbridled glory of Moonraker, the next in the series. The Spy Who Loved Me prefigures much of Moonraker‘s creative madness, but still manages to (relatively) ground its audacity in submarines rather than space. It’s probably Moore’s worthiest outing (in purely technical terms, at least) as Bond, and a definite highlight of the series, but it’s not quite the perfection of Moonraker.
I fucking love Moonraker.