Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

James Bond needed a boost. While audiences seemed to be agreeable to Roger Moore in the role, the first two films of his tenure were not well regarded. The creative forces behind the franchise knew something needed to be done, and quickly. It became an all or nothing gamble. 1977 was going to showcase the biggest James Bond film yet. If it didn’t work with audiences, than it was time to throw in the towel. But if it did work… well James Bond would return.

British Secret Agent James Bond (Roger Moore) is put on his most vital case yet. A British submarine literally vanished. MI6 discovers that someone has figured out a way to track submarines, and is willing sell the technology to the highest bidder. Bond makes his way to Cairo, Egypt to find out more. When he gets there he meets the lovely Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), a Soviet secret agent who is also in Cairo to buy the plans for this technology. You see the Russians have lost a sub too.

There is a third party involved in this, a super-rich eccentric named Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens). He dreams of a world without war and torment: a world completely under the oceans. To accomplish this, he will use the nuclear submarines to start World War III, while he sits in his underwater laboratory of Atlantis and watching the world burn. Of course he can’t have Bond or Anya messing up his plans so he dispatches his deadly henchman, a hulking brute with metal teeth called Jaws (Richard Kiel). The hunt is on, as Bond and Anya put together the sinister plot, battle Jaws among the ruins of Egypt, drive a car that turns into a submarine and face the villain in not one, but two huge lairs! But things take a final turn for the worse, when Anya discovers that Bond killed her lover. Once the mission is over, she will save one bullet – for Bond… James Bond.

Good Points:
  • Goes back to the huge scale and scope of the biggest Bond films
  • Balances humor and action almost perfectly
  • Anya and Jaws are two of the best characters of the Moore era

Bad Points:
  • This plot should sound awfully familiar
  • Hate disco? Then you’ll hate the disco-tastic score by Marvin Hamlisch
  • Bond is pretty much a superman in this movie

If you don’t mind your James Bond films to be filled to the brim with fun, then you’ll enjoy this film. The writers finally found the sweet spot, providing Moore with a part he can really get into. Lots of great stunts, visuals and one of the most iconic henchmen of the franchise, The Spy who Loved Me is certainly the best Bond film of the 1970s.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5

In Depth Review
Bringing a whole new meaning to detante.
One of the most amazing things about the James Bond franchise is its ability to soldier on, even when things start to get tough, or audiences seem disinterested, the creative minds come together and are able to knock one out of the park. The early 70s were something of a low point in the franchise. The movies seemed smaller, and even the injection of Roger Moore into the main role didn’t help things. The Man with the Golden Gun had some the key ingredients, like exotic locales and a villain with potential, but the final product just didn’t work. It still felt like someone attempting to make a Bond movie.

One of the largest and most complex sets ever
made for a James Bond film.
By the time they decided to work on The Spy Who Loved Me a few changes had to be made. Albert Broccoli took over as the sole producer. Guy Hamilton who had helmed Goldfinger, but also directed the previous three films was out. Instead Lewis Gilbert was brought back. He worked on one of the biggest 007 adventures of them all, You Only Live Twice. But one of the most important elements missing from the previous two films was production design by Ken Adam. When it comes to the 1960 and 1970s, Bond films, Adam defined the look for James Bond’s world. His eye for clean lines, immense scope is unmistakable, and became one of those things that an audience doesn’t even realize they are missing, until it is gone. Yep, Adam was not around for Live and Let Die or The Man with the Golden Gun.

With these new elements in place, The Spy Who Loved Me was ready to roll with an immense budget. For Broccoli, this was the big gamble and in a lot of ways this would be the turning point for James Bond. If the character and concept could become a huge hit again, then they knew the franchise was unstoppable. If it failed here, well, folks would be shaken and stirred.

Ken Adam's futuristic design is all over this set.
In a lot of way The Spy Who Loved Me takes the familiar and best loved elements of a James Bond film, gives the whole thing a new coat of disco-tastic 70s colored paint. The goal is to deliver pure entertainment. The movie is both looking backward at the legacy and cementing its place in the present. This may be the main lesson that all the James Bond films learned afterward.  When the movies worked best, it is when they were able to comment on pop culture and events of the moment, but still keep the all the “classic” elements you want in a James Bond film.

Ken Adam’s production design was a perfect example of this. Yes the scope to the film was huge, and set elements like the enormous cargo bay in the mega-tanker (that fit three submarines inside it) reminded folks of the volcano base in You Only Live Twice. But Atlantis’ extremely mod design could only have come from the 70s. The interiors of that laboratory just look like they came from the disco era, but still have that clean look we associate with 007 mega-villains.

Egypt gets a chance to show off in this film.
The Spy Who Loved Me also keeps the exotic locales as a key highlight of the film. The pre-credit sequence features snowy thrills. Then we jump into the heat of Egypt, with lots of footage taken around the pyramids and other famous ruins. Next it is off to Italy, with some lovely beachside location shooting and an exciting chase on seaside cliff. It is a great variety of real locations that gives this film a distinct feel far from the routine location drabness of Diamonds Are Forever or Live and Let Die.

Bond car vs. helicopter? I think we all know who
is gonna win this one.
Then you have the visual effects. Much like You Only Live Twice, this film is certainly going for more visual wows. So there is actually a lot of model work, crazy gadgets and rear projection on display. Some of these models were enormous beasts, like the mega tanker. But the star of the show was James Bond’s new car. Yep, it was that melding of “classic” and current. Bond hadn’t had a really cool car chase in years (the one in Diamonds are Forever is really sad, in my opinion). So here, Bond gets an oh-so 70s Lotus Esprit. This little car is packed with gadgets and turns into a submarine. How frickin’ cool is that? Finally Moore felt like he was stepping out of the shadow of Connery in more than just his performance. Even the surroundings were telling audiences, this is Bond, but this Bond of today.

Jaws closes in for his final confrontation with
Let’s talk about the action. With the smaller budgets and scope of the previous three films, some of the action scenes suffered. The Spy Who Loved Me decided to correct that. The pre-credit sequence makes it very clear that action and stunts are on the menu for this film. The ski chase followed by one of the most amazing visual freefall stunts ever put on film. It makes this easily one of the top ten best pre-credit sequences of the series. It also whets the appetite for more. Most of the work in Egypt is of the cat and mouse chase and escape variety. Bond and Anya do their best to complete their mission with Jaws dogging their every move. It’s a nice switch up, to put this type of henchman in such a prominent role, and effectively executed too. Then you get the fun and exciting car chase in Italy. But the whole thing is cranked up to 11 when Bond leads the captains of three captured submarine crews against a horde of villains. This huge battle aboard the tanker is filled with stunts, gunfire, explosions and excitement. It really takes the model of Thunderball’s final battle and places it on land and gives it a bit more excitement (and is more effective to the similar battle in You Only Live Twice). The only misstep is that this is not the finale. Bond still has to face Jaws and Stromberg in a final test, and these are low key, feeling more like an epilogue then a climax.

All this action requires a lot of solid sound effect work. The sound team delivers with one of the most action packed tracks yet. But things go a bit differently on the music front. Instead of turning to John Barry, the man who provided James Bond with his signature sound and who worked on most of the previous 007 films, the producers turned to a composer with a more modern approach. Marvin Hamlisch took Monty Norman’s James Bond theme and made it boogie. You heard that right, Disco Bond, or Bond 77 fits the movie like a glove. It is a ton of kitschy fun, and certainly told moviegoers that stuffy old 60s 007 was in the rear view mirror. Hamlisch also composed some solid action and suspense music, not mention some interesting source music for the Egyptian scenes.

Bond races to the rescue.
Perhaps his most memorable contribution to the Bond musical legacy is the song Nobody Does it Better. This pretty much became Roger Moore’s tag line, and it was used going forward. The song is adapted wonderfully into the score as the love theme for Anya and Bond. But it is the opening credit performance by Carly Simon that everyone remembers. So yeah, Carly Simon, Marvin Hamlisch – it really doesn’t get much more 70s than that.

The script to The Spy Who Loved Me was really tailor made for Roger Moore, so it really isn’t a surprise that we get one of Moore’s best performances in this movie. This is the script where they finally adjusted the humor and style of Bond to fit Moore. Yes, he still gets in those one-liners, but he has this smooth charm without the blunt edges of Connery. It is this element and the dash of dry humor to his reactions to situations that just clicks. No matter how outlandish the film gets, Moore’s Bond takes it all in stride. He’s James Bond, he’s pretty much seen it all. Not to say that all the edge is gone, but it is toned way down. We do see him get a bit grim during the battle aboard the supertanker as the tide turns against his side. But all in all, Moore’s Bond is a lover with a dry wit more than a fighter.

Looks like the cold war is freezing over again.
Barbara Bach as Anya Amasova is a perfect foil/love interest for Bond. The part is one of the best written ones for a female lead in the Bond film since Domino in Thunderball. She’s got a solid back-story, she’s a capable woman and she uses her charms to thwart Bond on a number of occasions. He does end up one step ahead of her most of the time, and she does end up captured in a skimpy outfit by the end, but hey it is still more progressive a character than Goodnight from Man with the Golden Gun. Bach is adequate in the role. She does play some scenes better than others, and she certainly looks sexy in some of the outfits she wears. But the edge is missing, and that is something that we’d see portrayed a bit better with Melina in For Your Eyes Only.

The main villain is the nefarious Stromberg played by Curt Jurgens. It is actually not a very interesting part. He is basically Captain Nemo taken to further extremes, but lacking the dynamic personality. He’s obviously determined and obsessed with creating his undersea kingdom. But he doesn’t really have much screen time. Jurgens’ performance works well, but he actually pales a bit compared to the similar character of Drax in the next film Moonraker.

Jaws noire.
No, the villain who steals the show is Jaws played by Richard Kiel. As much as Oddjob became the henchman for Connery, Jaws became the henchman for Moore. He’s a great mix of hulking power, persistence and humor. During the Egyptian portion of the film he is like a juggernaut of horrors, relentless in his execution of all who come in contact with the microfilm. Time and again Anya and Bond thwart him, but he keeps coming back. And each time Kiel survives the latest debacle; he looks mildly annoyed and dusts himself off. Just another day at the office. This humor just the right touch for this villain and even though we were rooting for Bond to win, we were pleased to see Jaws get away.

Naomi makes one fine welcoming committee.
Supporting cast includes all our London regulars such as Bernard Lee as M, Louis Maxwell as Moneypenny and Desmond Llewelyn as Q. We are also introduced to Walter Gotell character of General Gogol, the equivalent of M for the Russian side.  Gogol would go on to appear in all the following James Bond films until his final appearance in The Living Daylights. Robert Brown also shows up as Admiral Hargreaves, but the actor would take over as the new M starting with Octopussy and ending with Licence to Kill. Not sure if Hargreaves is the same character, but it is interesting to see him here. Last but certainly not least is the sexy Caroline Munro as the femme fatale Naomi. She certainly steams up the screen. It’s a shame they didn’t give her more to do. But I love that wink she gives Bond as she tries to blow him up from her helicopter.

Stromberg monologues his evil plan.
When it comes to the script, it is the details that make The Spy Who Loved Me work so well. Bond is written to suite Moore. Anya is a fresh take on the Bond Girl trope. Jaws is a fresh take on the unstoppable henchman. There is a focus on scope and wow factor. But underneath all that, you can see that the basic story is essentially a rehash of You Only Live Twice. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the original villain for the film was intended to be Bloefeld (after escaping his horribly cheesy demise at the end of Diamonds Are Forever we presume). But legal issues prevented this so Stromberg was created. Still, Bloefeld used a titanic space capsule to swallow up Soviet and American capsules to start a world wide panic in You Only Live Twice. Same essential story here with the supertanker swallowing up submarines.

Yeah, the Lotus is one cool car/sub.
Even some of the basic story beats are the same, with Bond putting together the pieces of the puzzle in Egypt and Sardinia instead of Japan. The huge finale end battle is pretty much set up and executed in a similar fashion in both films. But as I mentioned earlier, I think The Spy Who Loved Me does it a bit better. There seems to be more tension in the later film. The only other element that really comes out in this script is that James Bond is essentially a super man. He can do no wrong, never gets hit, his hair always looks great. It’s pretty darn ridiculous, but it fits right in with the film. This super-Bond version of the spy would be the default version for Moore’s Bond, and it is one of the reasons some fans of the franchise aren’t too keen on his films. The thrills are diminished as the scope increases. So the script isn’t terribly original on the surface, and yet all the details molded to fit the 1977 model of James Bond are worked really well into this plot structure.

Lewis Gilbert injects the whole movie with a fun spirit and plenty of momentum. Unlike the previous films helmed by Hamilton, this movie never feels bloated, or over-long. It slows a bit during the big battle scene, but it is nothing compared to the dreary boat chase of Live and Let Die or the dull car chase of Diamonds are Forever. Gilbert makes sure everything stays fun, humorous and engaging. In so many ways, he got to remake You Only Live Twice and improve the whole thing. When you run into fans of Roger Moore’s take on 007, this is usually the movie that made them fans. It is not hard to see why.

Naomi waves bye, and then tries to blow you away.
Such manners.


  1. I'm sorry, but there are no bad points. : )

    Great and thorough look at one of the best Bond films ever.

    1. Thank you sir! Your compliments mean a lot to me. :)

      And yes, if someone really hates disco, then they will really be annoyed by the music. I speak from experience on that one.

  2. ...and Caroline Munro's bikini went on to a long career in B movies. I met her at a Chiller Theater convention a while back.

    Bond and Jaws are both a bit cartoonish -- but that's OK. We expect each Bond, like each Dr. Who, to have a distinct style, and this is the style of Moore Bond movies. If one just accepts it, the films are fun and this is the best of the Moore batch.

    As for the music, even in the day I never sang along with Alicia Bridges "I love the nightlife/I got to boogie" on or off the "disco 'round." But in the 70s the sound was unavoidable. I know because I tried hard to avoid it, but even Blondie sucker-punched me with "Heart of Glass." So, it is appropriate for the time.

    Good review.

    1. I first saw Munro in "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" where she made quite an impression as the slave girl. That may always be my favorite role with her. But I still haven't seen "Starcrash" yet. :)

      Thanks for the compliment Richard. I appreciate it.

  3. And by the way Roman, as you know, you really can't say enough about the model work and the miniature work provided by Derek Meddings. Fantastic details to his amazing work. Could easily fall under Good Points.

    Never tire of coverage on The Spy Who Loved Me. Yours was excellent.

    Also, imagine taking this film and replacing the 70s sounds with something ...well... else. That would be cool to see.

    I'd love to see The Spy Who Loved Me on the big screen. What an event when I saw it. I walked away in awe of that film.

    1. Yeah, Meddings always did fine work. Some really great stuff in this movie.

      The producers really wanted to get away from John Barry's brassy 60s style, so they went right for the disco. I think it works great. But some of my fellow film score fans HATE this score. For them, if Barry didn't score every single Bond film until his death, well it was just a waste. But I think you could argue that Barry's swinging 60s sound wouldn't quite fit with this film. I think the disco really works for it, and the song is certainly a keeper. A little variety in the music never really hurt the franchise, no matter what my fellow film score fans think.

      Yeah every once in a while they will show a classic Bond film in theaters around here. But it is usually reserved for "Goldfinger" or "From Russia with Love". Moore rarely gets a showing. I think the only time I saw it was for "Moonraker" back in 2009. But "Spy Who Loved Me" would be a real treat.

  4. I think my two favorite Bond songs are: Shirley Bassey's Goldfinger, which I think I've got on 45 rpm around here somewhere, and Paul McCartney's Live & Let Die. I maybe overlooking some of the songs, oh, I like Adele's Skyfall song too.

    At any rate, I don't know that disco will work too much for me, but it does thumbprint the decade pretty well, so there's that bit of nostalgia. I haven't seen The Spy Who Loved Me, and I've been wanting to watch more Bond so added it to the NF list. I'm sure it's fun.

    1. As long as you know its going to be a light and fluffy adventure, you'll enjoy it. I contemplated doing a top 10 list of best Bond songs, but I'm not sure. Something is holding me back. Maybe the backlash of not loving "Goldfinger". ;)