For the love of entertainment
With legal wrangling surrounding the departure of producer Harry Saltzman in the wake of The Man With the Golden Gun, production on The Spy Who Loved Me was delayed. With all that sorted out, Roger Moore returned for a third adventure as 007 that called back to the early days of the series. Without Saltzman, producers went back to a more fantasy-oriented James Bond. Stolen submarines, overly elaborate underwater lairs, a villain with a nasty shark collection … in fact, this is probably the closest Roger Moore would get to starring in a Sean Connery 007 film. The tone is lighter as well, making the campier plot elements less jarring than Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun. Those two movies tried, with varying degrees of success, to have it both ways: to be serious and to be funny simultaneously. Subsequent Roger Moore vehicles would veer way too far into camp territory. And yet … The Spy Who Loved Me leaves me cold (no pun intended). Why? Let’s go to the tape.
First things first, 007 narrowly survives an attack in the mountains of Austria during the pre-title sequence. This is important because one of the men he takes down during his escape happens to be the lover of Anya Amasova, AKA Russian operative Triple X (see what they did there?). When told of her lover’s unfortunate demise, Amasova swears revenge on the British agent responsible.
Meanwhile, a nuclear submarine owned by the Brits goes missing in Russian waters. 007 is sent to Egypt to obtain a microfilm with evidence. He runs into Major Amasova, who is searching for the same microfilm, and the two tangle over the evidence until their respective nations decide to team up in order to find out what happened. The investigation brings them to Karl Stromberg, an extremely wealthy marine enthusiast with sinister intentions. Inevitably, Amasova figures out that her new partner is the man responsible for her lover’s death, leading her to promise to kill him as soon as they complete their mission.
And that’s part of my problem with The Spy Who Loved Me. Amasova’s revenge scheme is supposed to be what makes her dynamic with James Bond interesting–but in the end it’s little more than a MacGuffin. The moment of revelation is tempered by Amasova’s commitment to the mission (“I’ll kill you … just as soon as this mission is over” really isn’t a very thrilling threat). And really, does anyone have any doubt that 007 will win over the girl and convince her not to follow through on her deadly goal? It’s one of the movies biggest ideas, and it doesn’t actually mean anything at all.
Taken for what it is, The Spy Who Loved Me isn’t a bad movie. It actually stands quite well against early Bond adventures like Thunderball, Goldfinger, and You Only Live Twice. But that’s almost another mark against it in my book. So much of it feels like a retread. Stromberg’s underwater lair, his shark obsession, and the big underwater battle with his henchmen … it all feels straight out of Thunderball. The big battle inside Stromberg’s giant ship (with its impregnable control room) might as well be set in You Only Live Twice‘s volcano lair (perhaps not accidentally, director Lewis Gilbert had previously directed YOLT). Hell, 007 even tangled with a Russian femme fatale with questionable loyalties in From Russia With Love.
Notable Event: This is the second-ever Bond movie to gain an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song (see below for more on that). Richard Kiel makes his first (and best) appearance as a henchman in a Bond film, making the fan favorite the first (and so far only) henchman to star in two movies.
Gadget: The big one is the famous Lotus Esprit car Bond drives. On top of the myriad gadgets the car has installed, it turns into a submarine if you drive it into water. It’s a good thing it’s such a useful car, because aesthetically it is a huge eyesore. But because Bond has to have a watch, in this film he receives ticker tape telegraphs on his watch in the opening sequence.
Ally/Bond Girl: Since she’s so integral to the plot, I’ve already discussed Anya Amasova and my problem with her not-so-very-passionate revenge scheme. It’s a shame she wimped out on the only thing that could have made her interesting. In addition, for a Russian agent she is surprisingly useless in a fight. I suppose that’s to be expected in an early Bond movie, though. At this point in time the only Bond girls allowed to be violent were bad girls. In the 80s Bond Girls would start slowly being allowed to fight back, but it wouldn’t be until Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies (20 years after The Spy Who Loved Me) that a Bond Girl would truly be allowed to kick ass. And while Barbara Bach is beautiful, she’s a terrible actress. For all the world she sounds like she was dubbed, but I don’t see any record that she was. Which means I can only hold her responsible for the dreadful Russian accent on display here. I suspect she was intended to seem cold and distant, but she just seems bored and lifeless to me. I know she has a high place in the canon for many people, but I just don’t get it.
Supporting Bond Girl: There really isn’t one, but let’s give it to Naomi because she’s the only other female character with more than one scene. She hits all the criteria–beautiful, big boobs, slightly exotic. If you ask me, she’s actually prettier than Anya. But there just isn’t anything to her.
Villain: Stromberg is a villain in the Emilio Largo sense. Fiercely intelligent. Unforgiving. Loves sharks. But the most interesting things about Stromberg are his webbed hands (which are never pointed out and are only barely glimpsed), his larger than life lair, and his henchman. You don’t necessarily remember him, just the things he had around him. Which makes him a touch disappointing as a Bond villain.
Henchman: Jaws is a fan favorite among henchman, but if you ask me I’ll take Oddjob or Fiona Volpe any day. Yes, he’s an unstoppably strong guy with metal teeth that he will use to kill you. But he’s mostly used as a comic figure, which undermines his menace. It’s probably also the quality that made him so appealing to audiences, who rejoiced when he returned in the next 007 feature, Moonraker (or at least they rejoiced until they actually saw Moonraker). But even I have to respect that when Jaws ends up in Stromberg’s shark tank he eats the shark. There is no word for how badass that is.
Theme Song: The winning combination of Marvin Hamlisch and Carly Simon rescue us from the veritable shit show that was The Man With the Golden Gun, securing the second-ever Oscar nomination for Best Original Song after Paul McCartney and Wings’ Live and Let Die. And what a song it is! I managed to get all the way into my twenties before I even knew that “Nobody Does it Better” is a Bond song. And that’s part of why this song (and Live and Let Die, for that matter) are so successful: they aren’t just good Bond songs, they’re just plain great songs. They succeed as part of the series and on their own. In my opinion, they are the two best Bond songs for this very reason. If push comes to shove, I actually like “Nobody Does it Better” best, but I would have to give it to “Live and Let Die” for being a more emblematic Bond song. Like I said, I was in my twenties before I even realized that this song even began as a Bond theme. Yes, even though she says “the spy who loved me” in the lyrics.
Also, while the title sequence is stereotypical Bond opening credits, I can’t help but love them for how amusing it is to see naked women in silhouette performing gymnastics on a gun barrel. And 007 is on a trampoline. It’s amazing.
Iconic Moment: Although I would love to give it to Jaws’ shark fight, you’ve got to give it up for Bond’s opening sequence escape: skiing off a cliff, then revealing a parachute of the British flag, which sends him safely sailing into the opening credits. It’s one of the most iconic Bond images in the series.
Grades: Movie: 3/5; Bond Girl: 3/5; Villain: 3/5; Henchman: 4/5; Theme Song: 5/5