November 13, 2008

REVIEW: The Spy Who Loved Me

[Note: this is part of collaborative Bond appreciation series between me, Alexander Coleman, Christian Divine, Craig Kennedy, and Miranda Wilding (surprise, Miranda! But you've already done it...). Also make sure to check out entries in the Licensed to Blog: James Bond Blog-a-thon, hosted by the tireless Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre.]



Nobody does it better than Roger Moore...

Featuring arguably the best pre-title sequence of all the Bond movies, Lewis Gilbert's The Spy Who Loved Me manages to maintain a breakneck pace of action, intrigue, romance and even comedy throughout its 125-minute running time. Though I have an unhealthy admiration for Live and Let Die, it's difficult to make a case against The Spy Who Loved Me being not only Roger Moore's finest installment in the series, but one of the top five Bond movies ever.


Depending on how you look at it, that either makes Ian Fleming a hack or a genius, because aside from two characters (Bond and Jaws), The Spy Who Loved Me took only the title from Fleming's tenth novel. The entire story, in fact, was the work of screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood (who circuitously ended up actual novelizing the movie after its box-office success). Although Fleming was hardly involved, however, we can see upon closer examination that Maibaum and Wood simply added to the dense Bond framework Fleming already had in place. (Although it's interesting to consider that The Spy Who Loved Me takes so much from You Only Live Twice, which also took almost nothing from Fleming's novel. How could these two movies both be "original" but both be the same?)

So if The Spy Who Loved Me wasn't the first "original" Bond movie, it was likely the first one to have so many challenges in pre-production: longtime Bond producer Harry Saltzman's departure, difficulty in confirming a director (amusingly, even Steven Spielberg was approached), and a drawn out legal battle involving the script. About the only constants involved in this film were Roger Moore and producer Albert Broccoli, who had teamed up with Saltzman on the entire series to that point. Considering of all of this, it's no wonder the three years between The Spy Who Loved Me and its predecessor, The Man With The Golden Gun, was the longest period between any of the ten Bond films to that point. But aside from the unlikely success after a shaky production, there are several other reasons The Spy Who Loved Me is one of the best in the entire series, and of them is the clip shown above.

As the film opens, a Russian submarine is electronically hijacked in the middle of the ocean. The Russian Major Anya Amasova (agent codename “Triple X”) is dispatched from the comfort of her bed, which she is sharing rather romantically with another Russian agent leaving on assignment to Austria. It is there, in a cozy lodge in the Alps, that we also find 007 in his favorite place: the arms of a beautiful woman. He receives his own dispatch from London (via a nifty wristwatch that churns out a message imprinted on punch label) and immediately changes into his ski suit. “But James, I need you,” coos the young woman. “So does England,” replies Bond as Marvin Hamlisch’s campy adaptation of the legendary Bond theme begins. Eluding the black-suited skiers and killing Triple X’s lover with his modified ski pole rifle, Bond skis off the face of the cliff into breathtaking silence until…whoosh, relief in the form of a parachute boastfully constructed as a giant Union Jack flag.

As Bond safely descends, he’s cupped in the silhouetted hands of the title sequence as a lovely piano intro begins. Although Hamlisch wrote “Nobody Does It Better” (and received an Oscar nomination for Best Song in the process), it was Carly Simon’s rendition that, three decades later, still sounds as beautiful as it must have in the theater upon the movie’s release in the summer of 1977. It must be considered one of the top three Bond songs, rivaling only Shirley Bassey’s stunning “Goldfinger” and Paul McCartney’s psychedelic “Live and Let Die”.

The greatness of The Spy Who Loved Me extends far beyond this simple title sequence, however. Not only are the stunts and action among the best of the Bond canon, but the characters are among the most memorable. As played by Barbara Bach (who would go on to become Ringo Starr’s wife) Major Amasova/Triple X is a Bond girl with brains, sex appeal, courage and conviction. She’s loyal to her country and, eventually, to her country’s partnership with Britain (in the form of the handsome Bond, of course). Not only is Triple X one of the most impressively well-rounded women in the Bond series, but she’s one of the few with whom Bond actually establishes a legitimate romantic relationship (the flirting in the scene where Triple X is maneuvering the van around the grasp of Jaws in the Egyptian desert is right out of a romantic comedy). When apart from Triple X, Bond simply reverts back to his indiscriminate sexual predation. “When one is in Egypt, one should delve deeply into its treasures,” he says as he ogles his Egyptian informant’s mistress.


If Triple X provides Bond’s pleasure (his wife having been killed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), shipping tycoon Karl Stromberg (Curd J├╝rgens) provides his pain, mostly in the form of Jaws (Richard Kiel), the mute giant of a henchman whose last visit to the dentist had to have been painful. Jaws sports gleaming metal teeth and brandishes them in order to chew through steel chains and wood planks - when he’s not taking a bite out of people’s necks, of course. Kiel plays the lumbering Jaws as a bit of a goof, always brushing off his baby blue suit jacket after being foiled by Bond (because Jaws was such an iconic character as I was watching the Bond movies growing up, it didn’t hit me until he recently that Kiel also plays Adam Sandler’s giant former boss in Happy Gilmore). I almost wish Jaws would have been in more than just two movies from the series, but he’s a bit of tiresome villain as well, never letting up and never trying anything new aside from just punching through walls.

As the megalomaniac out to destroy the world (there’s one in every Bond movie, isn’t there?), Stromberg is a bit of a more interesting villain (and the first to make any impression after Bond crippled Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever). Stromberg remains tucked away in Atlantis, the futuristic underwater base from which he plans to launch the warheads from the hijacked submarines, thereby destroying New York and Moscow and paving the way for a new kind of civilization. Amusingly, Stromberg laments the “decadence” of humanity as he sits in his opulent throne room listening to Mozart and Bach while stuffing his face and sending people into his shark tank via a trap-door elevator. Bond’s eventual showdown with Stromberg is frankly bland (and is preceded by an overdrawn three army battle), but the destruction of Atlantis in the open sea is truly a sight to behold.

So are all of the filming locations on land, including Egypt, Switzerland, Italy, Canada, Scotland, England, Malta, and most memorably, the Bahamas, where get to enjoy the gadgets on the Lotus Esprit, simply one of the best Bond cars ever. Equipped with missiles, flash charge bombs, and oil and ink sprays, the Lotus is half car, half submarine (and, amazingly, now a reality). Flying off the dock at the end of a helicopter chase, Bond drops the Lotus into underwater mode, destroys the helicopter, evades scuba assassins, and, hilariously, drives out of the water and onto the beach in Sardinia, dropping a dead fish out the window as the flabbergasted beach goers stare in awe. It goes like this (but without the audio dubbing):




The proof is all right there in The Spy Who Loved Me, boasting among the best songs, best Bond girls, best cars, best villains, best comedy, best locations, and best action sequences in the entire Bond canon. What I have yet to mention, of course, is that it also features arguably the best Bond: Roger Moore. That's not a statement I can take very far, however. Each of the Bonds (even Lazenby) has his own unique charm, but something about Moore (his ability to save the world while looking like a news anchorman?) made his seven movies among my favorites.


The best Bond?

If that doesn't jive with you, read:

15 comments:

  1. I think Spy is definitely my favorite Moore film. It was also the first one I saw in a movie theater when it was still new so I have a certain fondness for it.

    I eventually grew out of liking Moore the best and turned to Connery as I got a little bit older and I read the books, but Spy holds up pretty well.

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  2. Most impressive review, Mr. Coleman. But now you must die...joking. I agree this is the best Moore Bond. I actually like the way he cold-bloodedly shoots up Stromberg at the end. Pretty hardcore.

    I'm not such a fan of the song and the whole score can be summed up with one track title: Bond '77...

    And you know that Stanley Kubrick helped light the massive submarine set?

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  3. Hahah...Bond '77. I kind of like the funky riff on hte Bond Theme, but Marvin Hamlisch is no John Barry.

    The Carly Simon theme captures a moment in time that is anachronistic with what I think of when I think of Bond, but I still like it.

    I didn't know that about Kubrick.
    Who designed Barbara Bach's incredible shrinking dress when the underwater lair flooded?

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  4. Er uh, make that "most impressive review, Mr. Getahun."

    Mr. Coleman had a pressing engagement.

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  5. I can't imagine the awesomeness of that opening scene in the theater, Craig. As I said on the Diamonds post, I lean more toward Moore and Connery these days more than anyone else, though I admit I've even come to fully appreciate Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye, and Dalton never bothered me.

    Really, you don't think "Nobody Does It Better" is a timeless Bond song? I mean it totally sounds like a 70's power ballad, but I guess it doesn't sound anymore out of place than the other ones, at least for me.

    Thanks, Christian. I did actually know about that Kubrick piece. Pretty interesting. I wonder what kind of Bond movie he would have made...

    The Stromberg killing is definitely raw, but I guess I like my Bond killings more ridiculously funny, like Kananga's balloon popping.

    Bond '77 = crazy cowbell use.

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  6. Great review, Daniel. You really covered all the bases here.

    The dynamic here is richer than your average Bond movie, with Bond and the leading lady being connected to one another in a not so swell way right off the bat.

    This is where the Moore era reached its zenith, though. Most concur with this viewpoint and for good reason.

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  7. Didn't know you guys were still doing the Bond thing.

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  8. This is an enjoyable Bond film, isn't it?

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  9. It's one of the best, KB. I could just watch those two clips over and over. That car was about the coolest thing I'd ever seen growing up. And now, finally, somebody actually developed one. Crazy.

    Well, Miranda, I don't think we really knew we were doing it until about two days ago anyway! But you've done so more posts already than the rest of us combined (and you're one of the few people who appreciates old Bond). Assuming you review QoS, I'll certainly link to that as well.

    Thanks, Alexander. I guess I didn't do as much defending of Moore (did you know he's the oldest Bond ever?) as I did the movie, but this one definitely isn't all about him anyway. But he's still mostly my favorite...

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  10. Don't feel bad Miranda, I didn't know either and the whole thing was my idea.

    Last time anyone ever puts ME in charge of something...

    Yes Daniel, I sounded wishy washy, but I really do like the Carly Simon song. She's no Shirley Bassey, but it's not a coincidence it is (I think)the biggest crossover hit in the series. It doesn't feel quite "Bondy" enough, but I like it a lot all by itself.

    hahah...Crazy Cowbell. One can never have enough, can one?

    As for the Moore Bonds, I'm also a big fan of For Your Eyes Only which no one seems to care for. It's the only Moore entry that really seemed to take itself seriously. There was nothing over the top in it. No smirking (that I can remember).

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  11. Hmm, well good point about the cross-over appeal of Simon's rendition. The best Bond songs really should be enjoyed only in the Bond context.

    I saw the first half of For Your Eyes Only again a few months ago and found it pretty entertaining. Great car chase with the Citroen.

    Seriously, just listen to that cowbell in the first clip here. Somebody was calling for more, that's for sure.

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  12. Hahahahha.

    But seriously...that cliff jump is one of the best scenes in the franchise. I fondly remember (or at least think I remember...I was like 9) the audience gasp at the jump and then break into cheers as the Union Jack parachute came out and the music kicked in.

    I also fondly remember a Mad Magazine satire of the film where Bond pulls the chute cord and a pair of galoshes come out instead of a parachute.

    Ahhhh...childhood.

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  13. I'm telling you, it was a simpler time back in the 70's (Like I would know...).

    That gasp and cheer was painfully absent from anything in Quantum of Solace. The closest it came was the first scene with the car chase, which eluded more cringing than cheering. I'm pretty sure a stunt man actually died during production of that scene as well, sometime in the spring.

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  14. TSWLM is one of the BOND flicks that I genuinely dig.

    I bought it intending to review it. But I'm glad that you took it on, Danny. I think you genuinely did it justice.

    Far more than I ever could.

    JAWS is terrific. One of the best villains EVER. But I had totally forgotten what a terrible actor Barbara Bach (IMO). She wasn't as attractive as I remembered either.

    Nevertheless, it's still one of the better BOND flicks out there. Extremely entertaining...and ROGER MOORE (very cool) is most definitely in his droll, dry element.

    Wonderful review, honey.

    I'm so impressed...

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  15. I find it a ridiculous statement that you couldn't better justice to this movie, M. You could write a tome, I'm sure, on any one aspect of it!

    If Jaws were in any other kind of movie, I really doubt I would find him so charming and funny. Speaking of Jaws, I'm going to speculate that the name was simply changed as an homage to Spielberg, who turned the directing spot here as he was finishing the celebration of the shark movie. But that's just a wild guess.

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