James Bond 007: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) is the quintessential Bond film of the Roger Moore era, with big stunts, big thrills, and a breezy, yet involving story. Many consider it the best of Moore’s Bond films, but it still suffers from many of the weaknesses, especially a shallowness of theme that plagued many of Moore’s films, which in turn keeps it from being a great film in my estimation.

After the more focused villainy of Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, the film series broadens its scope with this tale of a criminal mastermind bent on destroying the world. Karl Stromberg, played by German actor Curt Jurgens, is an archetypal Bond villain: a shipping magnate and brilliant scientist with plans to pit the Soviet Union and United Kingdom against one another in a bid to destroy the world. James Bond is called upon to investigate the disappearance of two nuclear submarines, romance a beautiful women whom he doesn’t entirely trust, and save the world. While it shares the title with the tenth book in Ian Fleming’s Bond series, almost none of the book’s plot or elements make it into the film (for good reason, as even Fleming felt the novel was a “failed experiment”). Instead, the film trades the lurid narrative of Fleming’s novel (in which Bond doesn’t make an appearance until nearly two thirds of the way through) for a grander, bigger Bond film that embraces spectacle.

Director Lewis Gilbert returns to the director’s chair for a second time, after the fifth film, You Only Live Twice (1967), and it’s notable how many of the beats of that film are repeated, though to better effect. The film opens with a nuclear submarine being engulfed by a mysterious supertanker, echoing the capture of the American spacecraft at the beginning of You Only Live Twice. Once again, opposing forces—British and Soviet—suspect each other of foul play, and activate their best agents. We cut to Austria where James Bond is on a mission and ends up having to evade Soviet forces. This leads to the famous ski jump sequence, in which Bond deploys his Union Jack parachute after skiing off a huge cliff as the opening credits and Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” begins. It’s a rightfully praised bit of stunt work (shot by second-unit director and future Bond director, John Glen with a stunt team at Mt. Asgard in Canada) featuring one long take in extreme wide shot and highlighting one of pleasures of this era of action films: their sense of reality. Despite the film’s relatively laconic pace which keeps the film from ever feeling truly urgent, the action and stunt work are impressive bits of pre-digital filmmaking and often thrilling.

That kind of excessively elaborate stunt work and settings—both exotic locales and giant set pieces—typifies the charms of The Spy Who Loved Me, but it also comes at the expense of thoughtful characterization and subtle plotting. There’s a fair bit of plot in the film, as Bond and his Russian counterpart, Anya Amasova a.k.a. Triple X (Barbara Bach), travel around the globe attempting to identify the person behind the stolen submarines. But even upon rewatching it, it hardly seems worth recounting in detail. The film’s pleasures lie in the action sequences and in Roger Moore’s refining of the role of Bond to fit his particular charms. Moore’s Bond plays up the smoothness of the character and has plenty of one liners. The film plays primarily to delay the discoveries and pack in the action scenes, adding the tension between Bond and Anya’s rivalry as it turns to affection.

Barbara Bach (the future Mrs. Ringo Starr) as the Russian agent Anya marks a slight departure from the kinds of Bond girls that have typified the series thus far. Anya is Bond’s equal in competence as an agent. She shares with him his love of his job and dedication to the mission, but the fact that Bond killed her lover in Austria means that she vows to kill Bond when the mission is done. When they meet and she comments that Bond has “Many lady friends but married only once. Wife killed…”, Bond retorts “All right, you’ve made your point.” Her comments on his sensitivity, demonstrate that despite her own loss, the film sets Anya up as being harder and less sensitive than Bond. It’s a reversal of the kind of relationship Bond had with women in the past films, and one of the few times later films refer to Bond’s marriage to Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). On the downside, despite the potential for more interesting characterization, Bach isn’t entirely up to the challenge of portraying Anya. In fact, she portrays what could have been an all-time great character with a kind of indifferent boredom. Many of her line deliveries come across as flat, though I’m also willing to chalk that up as partly the typical representation of Russians in Western films of the time.

The Bond-Anya relationship not only marks a change in the portrayal of the relationship between the sexes in the series, but also the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West. This was the era of détante, and the warming of relations between the superpowers. Portraying the Russian and British agents as teaming up against a supervillain who is a threat to the whole world is a shift. Despite the fact that SPECTRE (who couldn’t be used in this film due to the ongoing Kevin McClory lawsuit) was an international organization, it was still often aligned in the earlier films with the threat of Communism. In contrast, Stromberg is a thoroughly capitalist villain, making use of his economic power to threaten world governments.

One of the most memorable aspects of The Spy Who Loved Me is its villains, both Stromberg and his henchman, Jaws (played by Richard Kiel). Stromberg’s plan involves goading the superpowers into a nuclear war, so he can restart civilization under the sea in his grand fortress Atlantis. (As a side note, whenever I think of Stromberg’s plan I imagine Homer Simpson’s idea that they can always escape their troubles by moving under the sea and Marge’s retort, “Homer, that’s your solution to everything, to move under the sea, it’s not going to happen”). It’s a ridiculously grand idea, and one that would be echoed by later Bond villains including Hugo Drax in the immediate sequel, Moonraker (1979) and even Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Jurgens plays Stromberg perfectly well, giving him an air of cocky confidence and a flamboyant villainy, such as when he feeds his treacherous secretary to a shark.

Kiel’s Jaws is arguably the most famous Bond henchman of all time, and rightly so. His giant stature and metal teeth—in one of the few details borrowed from Fleming, Jaws matches features of the description of of Sol Horror in the novel—make him a larger than life threat that fits the tone of The Spy Who Loved Me very well. He’s frightening, but most interestingly becomes an engaging screen icon without delivering a single line. His mute presence manages to convey his menace on a purely visual level. When at the end of the film Jaws attacks the shark in its tank rather than become its victim (in a clever play on the Spielberg film of the same name) and swims away, it wasn’t surprising that the filmmakers would choose to bring him back.

This kind of flamboyancy that characterizes the villains is typical of the whole film. Stromberg’s base, the submersible fortress Atlantis, is the kind of grand science fiction element that presages the more overt science fiction elements of Moonraker. Atlantis offers director Gilbert a chance to up the elaborate villain lair from his previous effort in You Only Live Twice. Atlantis, and the super tanker, Liparus, necessitated the building of one of the biggest soundstages in movie history. The “007 Stage”, as it would become known, at Pinewood in England, built for this film was at the time the largest in the world. It does lend The Spy Who Loved Me a kind of operatic scale that the previous two outings had lacked, and would set the tone for Bond films for the next decade: that is, bigger, and more outlandish. The approach to to making Bond a cinematic vehicle for pure spectacle would see diminishing returns as other science fiction and action films outpaced them. But in the context of this film, it works.

The film also takes good advantage of its locations, from the fight set among the Great Sphinx and pyramids of Egypt (recalling the “Temple” level from the 007 GoldenEye video game and bringing back many fond memories of the game for me) to the chase sequence in Sardinia, when Bond is able to make good use of one of the film’s most memorable gadgets: the amphibious Lotus Esprit. So, both Bond and his enemies in this film are characterized by their gadgets, technology and gimmicks, from the submarine car of Bond to the submarine base of Stromberg, to the metal teeth of Jaws. The result is plenty of icons that would rightly go down in the history of the series.

For me though, the film never quite coalesces into something greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it’s the sluggish pacing of the film, despite being fairly jam-packed with action, or the drab 70s costumes and design. The Spy Who Loved Me plays a bit like a best-of Bond, since so many elements are either most famous for their appearance rather than their essential role in the plot, or are repeated from past films and recycled in later installments.

In the end, most of my compliments for The Spy Who Loved Me are on the level of the technical and spectacular, and that’s where it excels. While the Bond-Anya interplay is an interesting alteration in the Bond girl pattern, overall I don’t find it to be particularly moving or complex. The Spy Who Loved Me is great fun, but it’s not among the series very best in either style or character.

7 out of 10

The Spy Who Loved Me (UK, 1977)

Directed by Lewis Gilbert; screenplay by Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum based on the character James Bond created by Ian Fleming; starring Roger Moore, Barbara Bach, Curt Jurgens, Richard Kiel, Caroline Munro, Walter Gotell, Bernard Lee, George Baker, Desmond Llewelyn.