The Spy Who Loved Me
Returning after a gap of three years, Bond expanded on the diabolical mastermind plot outline that had informed both Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. But now, nothing short of global destruction was on the agenda. It’s the assumption that this was the standard motivation of the Bond villain, but we don’t see it fully-formed until the tenth outing (in theory this could have been a consequence of the actions in YOLT, but economic domination by SPECTRE”s employers was most likely the main goal). By coincidence or design, the film was also “adapted” from Ian Flemings’ tenth Bond novel.
TSWLM is a Bond film substantially informed by those most spectacle-driven of Connery instalments, and brings along YOLT director Lewis Gilbert along for the ride. As a consequence, it suffers from the same blight that afflicted both of those; a seemingly unending set piece showdown in which the director seems at a loss as to where to place the camera, or how to edit the explosive action to make it remotely dramatic. More positively, it carries a lightness of touch and self-conscious, self-reflexive tone that would inform its semi-sequel, Moonraker. This is something new; while the series had been veering more in that direction since the start of the ‘70s, it was now wearing comedy elements on its sleeve. For better or worse (and many fans would say worse) this reached an extreme with the next film.
So Gilbert was both a good and a bad choice; his comic sensibilities were far more attuned to Moore’s take on the role (ironically, YOLT is a relatively mirthless escapade), and most definitely hit on a broader and less ruthless 007 (not that the first two Moores were exactly cutthroat). But his handling of the action relied almost entirely on the second unit. Fine, when that’s all there was (the snowy opening) but hamstrung when he was calling some of the shots himself. It’s never a good idea to have sets dictate storyline and scene; that TSWLM is subject to exactly that kind of formulation makes it all the more remarkable that it stands up as one of the best Bonds.
There’s an assumption that TSPWLM reinvigorated the series, although the truth is that Moonraker was the film that pushed Moore closest to Connery-at-his-peak levels of box office. Perhaps popularity with the public becomes inversely proportional to appreciation by aficionados at some point; it’s one of the most-maligned of the series, at least until the also highly successful Die Another Day came along. I would probably have ranked TSPWLM as my favourite Bond film at one time (it still hangs on near the top of the list), but I have to accept that this was more for the inventive, and often hilarious, first half than the rather pedestrian, “show off Ken Adams’ massive set” second.
This surge in quality is not without irony since, as mentioned, there are strong similarities to by far the weakest film in the series up to this point, YOLT. Nuclear submarines are stolen from the Russians and British with the intention of using them to start World War III (in YOLT it was space capsules). And the theft of military hardware was already more than familiar to viewers of YOLT; Thunderball’s plot revolved around the ransom of atomic bombs from a stolen fighter.
Lewis Gilbert was eventually secured, a decade after his previous Bond, following a series of difficulties in getting the first incarnation of TSWLM off the ground. Guy Hamilton had originally been attached, along with a succession of writers including John Landis, Anthony Burgess, Sterling Silliphant and Derek Marlowe. It’s telling that the familiar name of Richard Maibaum ends up credited (he would work on the series up to, and including, Licence to Kill), along with Christopher Wood, who was suggested by Gilbert.
Continued production difficulties eventually ended Hamilton’s involvement (it would have been his fourth successive Bond film). That, and he was offered Superman (this was also the film that Spielberg was considered for, but there were concerns over his lack of experience). First, there was the near bankruptcy of producer Harry Saltzman, which resulted in him selling his half of Bond (this is the first film credited solely to Cubby Broccoli).
Then there was bugbear of Kevin McClory, seeking an injunction (eventually rejected) over what he saw as plot elements lifted from his script Warhead (the nuclear submarine element). A consequence of McClory’s rights over Thunderball was the removal of SPECTRE and Blofeld and their replacement with Stromberg as villain. Maibaum’s original draft sounded quite intriguing, involving an attempt by a group of international terrorists to wrest control from Blofeld and introduce a New World Order. Curiously, Broccoli didn’t like this because it was too political (really?! – it sounds as far-fetched as any Bond plot).
Part of the reason for all this toing and froing over story was that Fleming had decreed the novel off limits as source material, following negative critical response. However, the henchman Horror did make it into the film, as Jaws (and Slugsy most likely became Sandor). It seems particularly ironic then, after all this concern over not using, or not being able to use, certain plots as inspiration that You Only Live Twice should form the backbone of TSWLM.
And it isn’t as if the changes involved much in the way of twists and turns, basically requiring Bond to do his usual thing of following a lead, which leads to entanglements with a henchman/henchmen and in turn identifying the villain. TSWLM is something of an exception in this regard, as Bond doesn’t know Stromberg is behind it all until about halfway through the film. The additional element that does make a difference is arguably the Bond girl, Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach).
Anya: Did you kill him?
Bond: The answer to the question is yes.
Anya: Then, when this mission is over, I will kill you.
She is KGB Agent Triple X (not the most inspired of code names), assigned to the same task as Bond by her Soviet masters; follow the trail of the plans for a submarine tracking system that have been put on the market, and discover who pinched the submarines. Their respective superiors, M and General Gogol (Walter Gotell, who would return to the role in five subsequent Bonds), instruct them to work together on the mission. But the additional twist is that, as the pre-credits sequences shows, Bond killed her paramour during an Austrian altercation. Anya swears vengeance, of course.
The casting of Bach came at the end of a long search and a whisker away from the start of shooting. She’s best known, outside of this film, for her marriage to Ringo Starr. It’s probably fair to say that, while she is certainly one of the most attractive, she isn’t the most accomplished actress to play the lead in a Bond film. But she is, at least, served by her character’s ice queen demeanour.
There is ample opportunity to show off the skills of an equal and opposite agent to Bond, but precious little makes it to screen, the writers settling more on verbal sparring and childish one-upmanship. Indeed, you could take the line that Anya represents an enormous missed opportunity, since there’s real weight and motivation behind Bond and Anya’s relationship, the like of which is rarely formulated in this series.
M: Bond, what do you think you’re doing?
Bond: Keeping the British end up, sir.
Yet, when Anya has the chance to take her revenge, the scene is resolved with a laugh and a giggle. Even given that she would inevitably fall for Bond’s charms, it doesn’t sit quite right that she get over the death of her lover so nonchalantly. After all that stewing. In some ways, it’s a set up that is wasted on a Roger Moore film; to really take advantage of the opportunities for drama either of his successors would have been a better fit (it’s curious that the film takes the trouble to mention the loss of Bond’s wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, another gesture towards gravity that has no real pay-off).
Roger Moore, only halfway through his run and just turned 50 when the film was released, cites TSWLM as his favourite, and he’s probably not far wrong (certainly, as I write this I would agree with him but my view may change when I’ve completed revisiting his run). This is the first time that, rather than the odd quip, or reaction to an amazing stunt, whole scenes are played for laughs. And remember, lest you forget despite me banging on about it, it’s Moonraker that takes the flak for not being serious enough.
One of the key ingredients of the higher comedy quotient is Richard Kiel’s Jaws. He comes on like a seven-foot hybrid of Quentin Tarantino and Michael Shannon, but replacing their intensity with a disarmingly goofy quality that effectively undercuts his imposing screen presence. Broccoli was spot-on in his decision not to kill off Jaws at the end of the film.
He represents one of the (literally) biggest crowd-pleasers the series has seen; if Sheriff Pepper plays for laughs directed at his pig-ignorance, Kiel evokes a genuine sympathy at how, time-after-time, things go wrong for the poor henchman (The metal teeth were highly uncomfortable for the actor, which may have added to this dolefulness).
We soon forget that the first few times we see him, he is displaying almost vampiric tendencies, apparently biting his victims to death. Jack O’Halloran, who played the dim-witted Krytponian Non in Superman/II, was also considered but I don’t think he could have brought the pathos (an extreme choice of words, perhaps, for essentially a comic creation, but that’s the point; the character is what the actor invests in it) to the role that Kiel does.
Witness the moment where he drops a huge rock (presumably on his toe) as Bond and Anya drive off. Later, when his car lands front-end down through a roof, Jaws emerges dusting himself down resignedly. There’s an endearingly tragic hilarity to his expression that recalls the similarly frustrated Wylie Coyote.
Stromberg: For me, this is all the world. There is beauty, there is darkness and there is death.
The other major character is Stromberg, played by Curd Jürgens. The aquatically-obsessed villainous mastermind bent on creating a new world underwater. Drax will attempt to do the same thing for space in Moonraker (a sign of Christopher Wood’s penmanship, most likely). The problem with Stromberg is that he never leaves much impression. Neither do his webbed fingers (the disfigurement for the villain in this case gives him a shorthand motivation for wanting to nestle mankind beneath the waves; except that we are only conscious of this feature in a couple of shots).
The impact Stromberg makes is the reverse of Jaws; he isn’t funny, imposing, and both his physical affliction and his encounter with Bond are unmemorable (“Observe, Mr. Bond, the instruments of Armageddon”). There’s no doubting that Jürgens is a fine actor, but he’s a first draft villain; feeding underlings to sharks is so passé. About the only area he scores points for is his penchant for classical music. Indeed, this and his “throne room” are one of the few antidotes to the austere steel surroundings of the predominantly set-bound second half of the film.
Bond: What a handsome craft. Such lovely lines.
A mention for some of the supporting players before moving on; Caroline Munro, impressive of bosom (Broccoli cast her on the strength of a busty ad campaign in which she had starred) and vaguely cat-like of features, she had become a Hammer mainstay (contracted to the studio, even) by this point. Even elsewhere, she was clearly cast to her obvious strengths (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, At the Earth’s Core). She plays Stromberg’s henchgirl Naomi (destined to meet her end in some 007-dictated helicopter carnage); Munro was dubbed, not quite a dying art in the series.
George Baker pops up as Captain Benson. He previously appeared in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and famously dubbed Lazenby for his Bond undercover scenes. Edward de Souza, who has an amusing scene with Moore as the very public-school Sheikh Hosein, is a television mainstay who has appeared in everything from Doctor Who to Coronation Street. Milton Reid (as Sandor) has little more than a cameo (he makes an uncredited appearance in Dr. No, and can also be seen in the “ad break” sequence in The Goodies’ Kitten Kong).
Walter Gottell’s screen roles usually consisted of German or Russian villains, latterly mainly on TV; one of his final appearances was as Victor Klemper in The X-Files’ Paperclip. Michael Billington, as the ill-fated Sergei Barsov, played the initial object of Anya’s affections. Billington had been second lead in Gerry Anderson’s UFO, and was in the running for Bond at several points (allegedly). American actor based in the UK Shane Rimmer is granted an amusing scene as the US submarine commander who gives Anya use of his quarters (“What’s the matter, sailor? Have you never seen a major taking a shower before?”)
Of the old guard, M has a little more to do, meeting his opposite number, while Q gets to drop the Lotus off to Bond in Sardinia. Moneypenny, for whatever reason (omission?) doesn’t muster a close-up this time out.
M: Well, tell him to pull out immediately.
Bond is, of course, on the job when he receives his summons. And this sort of gag is par for the course at this point in the series. See also the offer of totty a few scenes later:
Sheikh Hossein: Are you quite sure I can’t persuade you to accept a bed for the night?
Bond: When one is in Egypt, one should delve deeply into its treasures.
It’s the lengths TSWLM takes the comedy to that surprise, even given the previous penchant for quipping Moore displayed (and the playing to the cheap seats that saw Sheriff Pepper crowbarred into The Man with the Golden Gun).
Before delving into this, it should be pointed out that the comedy doesn’t drain the drama from the film. Rather, more than ever, it signposts that a Bond film is now just a collection of scenes, each to be taken on its individual merit. Moore is barely even trying to convince as an action man by this point; he has none of Connery’s imposing movement, and being the ’70s his suits are the antithesis of elegant. But he still musters conviction when squared off against assassins, be they bulky (Sandor; “What a helpful chap!”) or big (Jaws; the fight on the train is as involving as any, not least because there’s never the remotest chance of Bond beating him in an even punch-up).
As usual, the gags include their share of duffers (the “Out of Order” sign Bond places on a victim of Jaws) but this is a film, thanks to Gilbert, designed around Moore’s persona. Anya climbs into the back of Jaws’ telephone repair van, only to find Bond already sitting there. Moore’s expression is priceless; he’s so relaxed and nonchalant he might as well be seated in a comfy chair in his favourite London club.
And then we get to the Egyptian ruins (there isn’t much in the way of elaborate action during the first half of the film, the ski sequence aside; hunting prey is the name of the game). The extended fight with Jaws is played completely for laughs, but still manages to engage dramatically as he keeps on coming. A structure collapses on the giant (“Egyptian builders”, quips Bond).
And then, as Bond and Anya try to escape, Moore launches into a stream of sarcastic remarks (“Women drivers!”) at the expense of Anya’s problems with the van. That Bach plays it so straight only helps sustain the jokes. Even after they escape Jaws, Marvin Hamlisch (in his only Bond film) ladles on the funny with a whacky musical accompaniment to the van driving and then giving out.
From there, it only seems natural that the Lawrence of Arabia score should cut in as Bond and Anya tramp through the desert (the piece was apparently added by one of the editors as a joke, but liked so much it was retained). It’s only surprising that the Jaws theme wasn’t used when the Lotus rises from beneath the sea, since that’s clearly the visual cue.
Anya: I went on a survival course in Siberia.
Bond: Yes, I believe a great many of your countrymen do.
Who says the films don’t get political? The first of three cameos from assistant director Victor Tourjansky occurs as the Lotus drives up the beach, double-taking at the booze he’s drinking. It’s become a famous moment, and aptly sums up the approach of Gilbert and Moore to the films.
Still, there can be a thin line between funny and crappy. Gilbert’s decisions to use slow motion for comic effect tend to flounder; a giant spring in Q’s testing lab, the ejection of Jaws through the train compartment window.
At $13m, TSWLM was the most expensive Bond yet; Broccoli clearly felt he needed to make a splash, out on his own without his producing partner and with his character away from the big screen for the longest period so far. In addition, although it was a success by most standards, The Man with the Golden Gun had underperformed, even in relation to Moore’s debut.
What that means in practice, however, is ridiculously extravagant sets. As mentioned, it ensures that the finale will suffer because it’s all about showing off how much money was spent rather than progressing the plot. The supertanker set was so vast that, with cinematographer Claude Renoir suffering from failing eyesight, Ken Adam brought in Stanley Kubrick to advise on how to light it. The reward was an Oscar nod for Art Direction, even if the climax suffers from inertia. For my money, the most impressive set is Gogol’s office, a beautiful, vast and empty affair stretching out behind his desk.
In contrast to the climax, the opening ski chase is just as compelling as it was 35 years ago. Admittedly, the blue screen close-ups of Moore are resolutely unconvincing as is his stepping from a Pinewood ski lodge onto an Austrian peak. And the choice of yellow ski suit is quite horrific. But they’re kept to a minimum, so the momentum of the scene is allowed to increase until the famous leap-turned-free-fall dive. As for the pièce-de-résistance, Bond’s Union Jack parachute, under the influence of Moore’s slyly self-conscious Britishness it becomes not a source of national pride but a nod-wink gag of post-Carry On mockery
Elsewhere, the staging is more variable. The Lotus chase is memorable not for the chase itself but its consequent amphibian capabilities; the stop-off in Sardinia is that rare non-descript location. The Lotus itself is as definably Bond’s car to a certain generation as the Aston Martin. Who didn’t own the Corgi toy with retractable fins? It also looks splendidly exotic in the underwater sequences (much more so than on land). Less successful is Bond’s one-man sea scooter, yet another example of a silly real-world gadget getting publicity in the series (see also one-man jet packs and helicopters).
While the model work is generally impressive – the supertanker, except when being blown up, doesn’t provoke even a murmur of suspicion that it is a model – the Atlantis never quite convinces. Part of the problem is the old one of miniatures versus “over-sized” water (there were tentative plans to use the floating Japanese island Aquapolis, but it was soon realised this would be logistically unfeasible). There isn’t much to say about the interminable fight sequence within the supertanker; a standard issue countdown clock can’t even revive interest.
But TSWLM at least scores points for rallying at the end, as Bond travels to Atlantis to rescue Anya. Not only do we see him dispatch Stromberg with untypical Moore ruthlessness (shooting him four times, just to be sure) but the gradual flooding of the laboratory is much more engaging than the prior shoot-out. Bond has to confront Jaws, rescue Anya and then find a handy escape pod. Jaws, inevitably, battles Jaws (a shark). It also provides an opportunity for the commercially-minded director to include some lingering close-ups of the soaked Bach’s melons.
Yet, for all the expense showered on the film elsewhere, undoubtedly the best sequence is Bond’s attempt to capture Fekkesh. The scene unfolds against the backdrop of a show/lecture on the pyramids. The pyramids were a matte painting (costs prohibited lighting them) but the soundtrack of the show is genuine, and the result is highly atmospheric. At points the diegetic music/voice of the presenter punctuate the action (Jaws up to nasty work). Throughout, the night-time setting and stage show lighting add immeasurably to the hide-and-seek off-kilter tension. It’s one of the series best scenes, in some ways ripped-off more flashily for the Hong Kong assassination in Skyfall.
Marvin Hamlisch’s score fully embraces the “wacca-wacca” of ‘70s disco, so it’s surprising how well it stands up. The reinterpretation of the Bond theme is actually pretty groovy; far and away superior to Bill Conti’s abominable disco-tinged work on For Your Eyes Only. And Nobody Does It Better, written by Hamlisch and sung by Carly Simon, is certainly one of best Bond songs.
Hamlisch also liberally sprinkles classical music throughout, which makes an effective contrast to the embrace of contemporary sounds; we hear Bach, Chopin, Mozart (and the song was reportedly based on Mozart). While it walked away empty-handed, the music (score and song) represented two out of the three Oscar nominations bagged by TSWLM.
If the music is up-to-date, the title credits are disappointingly run-of-the-mill. Moore features, while a topless tart in a fur hat (she’s Russian, see?) runs about pointing a gun. Maurice Binder had certainly done better.
The tenth Bond film was released in the same year as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Compared to those monsters, the film’s takings were merely respectable. But it got the series back on financial track. The same glancing over one’s shoulder that resulted in Live and Let Die’s Blaxploitation trappings saw the announced follow-up For Your Eyes Only shunted to make way for the space opera-Bond, and zeitgeist-friendly, Moonraker. Gilbert and Wood came too, with the ante of the humour ever-upped. The result would be the most successful Moore Bond film and, until Skyfall, the biggest non-Connery Bond in the US (taking inflation into account).
One thing Broccoli resolutely didn’t take on board was the rise of the wunderkind directors in the ’70s. Bond was a producer’s medium and directors were merely a safe pair of hands. That’s why a long-time assistant director would take over the series during the ’80s. And, right up until the prestige appointment of Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, the series’ chose to keep directors on a tight leash, with stylistic flourishes at a minimum.
Arguably, the humour that surfaced fully-formed in TSWLM defines the Moore era. For better or worse. For me, part of the appeal of the series is its reinvention (within certain boundaries). Straight spying rarely figures anywhere in the films, and spectacle quickly supplanted any notions of content or plot. If a comedy Bond makes for an enjoyable two hours, I’d much rather watch that than a bloated monster that induces fatigue (Thunderball and You Only Live Twice). Bond continues to look to its peers for inspiration (the Bourne series), but it would need to find a very particular type of lead to return to the hijinks witnessed in the broadest Moore films.
I find it mystifying that TSWLM is venerated by the same circles who vilify Moonraker, which was hitting all the same notes just slightly more broadly. The retreat into more “reality-based” territory with For Your Eyes Only would represent a misunderstanding of Moore’s persona and appeal. TSWLM stumbles when called upon to extol the less virtuous elements of the series (the overblown climax) or the more serious ones (seeing through the revenge subplot) but it is a joy to watch when it embraces demeanour of its lead actor.