There are many reasons to love 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, but one of them is that Roger Moore’s third outing as James Bond is really a romcom.
This feature contains moderate spoilers for The Spy Who Loved Me.
“It was either him or me. The answer to the question is yes. I did kill him.”
Timing isn’t everything, but with the regular re-releases of James Bond films in cinemas throughout its 60th-anniversary year, it feels like a missed opportunity that The Spy Who Loved Me didn’t land during this month’s long Platinum Jubilee weekend.
Originally released in the summer of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee to massive box-office success, Roger Moore’s third Bond film literally opens on a Union Jack parachute and generally shows its era at the peak of its powers.
Beyond capturing the patriotic mood of British audiences in 1977, it’s also unintentionally closer to the most popular American cinema of its year than the previous attempts at Blaxploitation and martial-arts riffs.
Because in the same year as Annie Hall won Best Picture at the Oscars, The Spy Who Loved Me is the closest James Bond has ever got to a romantic comedy.
After a pre-title sequence that was applauded in cinemas on release but only truly immortalised when Alan Partridge frantically re-enacted it, (“He’s going to die! James Bond’s going to die!”) the film gives us something we haven’t seen from the Bond franchise before – a leading lady who’s truly equal to our hero.
When British and Soviet submarines disappear around the same time, 007 finds himself working against and then alongside his opposite number in the KGB, Agent Triple X, a.k.a. Major Anya Amasova, (Barbara Bach – not Vin Diesel). As they track the black-market sale of an advanced submarine tracking system, their truce is complicated first by their rivalry, then by mutual attraction, and then by a revelation about Anya’s late lover. In the background of all this, fishy operator Karl Stromberg (Curt Jürgens) plots to kickstart World War III and deploys massive assassin Jaws (Richard Kiel) to thwart the agents.
As mentioned last week, there were some legal troubles that deadlocked the production of this one. Original franchise co-founder Harry Saltzman sold his 50% stake to distributors United Artists. Producer Kevin McClory obtained an injunction to stop Eon using Blofeld and SPECTRE (as they planned to here) in any future films. And during the hiatus, regular director Guy Hamilton was lured away by the promise of a big payday on Superman: The Movie and replaced by You Only Live Twice’s Lewis Gilbert.
But the legalities are only material to this story insofar as they made Eon pause and apparently averted the kind of franchise complacency that affected Gilbert’s previous offering with a truly original story for once.
The pressure was on for Eon Productions and the series’ other architect, producer Albert R. Broccoli, to revive the series after the box-office decline of The Man With The Golden Gun. With The Spy Who Loved Me, they succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.
By the way, this is your last warning for moderate SPOILERS just in case you’re planning to see this Bond banger for the first time on the big screen this weekend – scroll past the next image and we’ll get into one of the series’ great romantic pairings…
(No, it’s not them)
Also on Film Stories:
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No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen
How to lose a spy in 10 days
Ian Fleming intended that his 1962 Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me would appeal to female readers, but the result has long been considered his weakest work. Unusually, the story is told in the first person from the perspective of Viv Michel, a Canadian woman who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and almost gets killed as part of an insurance fraud scam by two gangsters (one of whom is a big lad with steel teeth) in upstate New York.
Bond only shows up near the end of the story, to rescue and seduce Viv in that order. It’s a morality play in which our heroine is well advised to avoid violent men, Bond included. This attempt to mix things up didn’t go over well with critics or readers at the time.
Fleming was so embarrassed by the all-round drubbing it received that he restricted the book from second-edition printing during his lifetime and added a clause to his original contract with Saltzman and Broccoli stipulating that they were not to use any elements of the book in their films. The title, however, was fair game.
So, there was no obligation to make the film a romance, but handily, the title lent itself to that. It’s no bad thing either – first off, no James Bond fan has any business calling romantic comedies generic. Second, it’s not as much of a reach as the genre riffs in the last couple of films, and for a series that fancies itself as both sexy and funny around this time, it’s a wonder it took this long to connect these dots.
When Gilbert was hired, he brought in screenwriter Christopher Wood to polish series regular Richard Maibaum’s script and tailor it more to Moore’s cheeky screen presence than the more generic Bond of the two previous scripts. Tom Mankiewicz also performed an uncredited rewrite and later claimed that a lot of the gags and dialogue were his.
Our expectations of “Bond girls” are subverted right from the beginning when Anya answers the KGB’s call instead of Bond-a-like Sergei Barsov (played by almost-Bond Michael Billington, no less) and then the first act shows us a lot of Triple X operating in parallel with 007, seducing people for information.
It’s not a straight love story like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but it’s specifically a knockabout workplace romcom, in which two colleagues who dislike or even hate each other are flung together and grow closer in their work. Here, the job is international espionage, and in Amasova, we get a character who can have a flirtier, funnier dynamic with Bond than her predecessors, precisely because she’s on an equal footing with him.
Few of the previous Bond movies’ cursory seduction scenes could be described as “fun”, but they definitely are here. And they’re usually interrupted by Jaws tearing through a wall or a van door like tissue paper. Meanwhile, Amasova memorably surprises Bond with knockout gas at the point where he’d usually, er… Roger them… which makes her more professional than him too.
This sort of thing likely comes out of Broccoli’s meeting with film censors in Russia, who enjoyed the Bond movies but said they were too overtly anti-Russian to approve. Much as Fleming aimed to appeal to new readers, Broccoli saw the opportunity to expand the franchise’s global reach and revenue with a more ambivalent approach to the old lukewarm Cold War tensions. The introduction of KGB head General Gogol (Walter Gotell) also started a trend of détente that continued in the next five Bond films.
Along the same times, Bond and Amasova overcome their national affiliations and seem to quite enjoy working together (and sleeping together, inevitably) until we get to the bit where they find a much more personal, hitherto unknown beef that connects back to the pre-title sequence and muddies their relationship going into the third act.
It’s a very distant antecedent of a structure that we’ve become more familiar with from umpteen Katherine Heigl-fronted movies, but Anya’s vow to kill Bond when the mission is over adds a dramatic tension (if not actual suspense) that’s rare in the climax of a Bond movie. Even as the spectacular finale slides back into the series’ more generic trappings, the romantic angle freshens everything up.
Ten films in, the bar for female leads is much lower than it ought to be, and Anya clears every one of them except Diana Rigg’s Tracy. There’s even a nod to the late Mrs Bond, the first of three after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s ending, when Anya makes an off-hand reference to Bond’s status as a widower and he’s visibly stung. It’s another neat detail that builds character rather than merely nodding to the past.
Stop me if I’m overstating the film’s romcom credentials, but it undeniably holds up the second part of that bargain too – The Spy Who Loved Me is really, properly funny, relaxing into the tongue-in-cheek style that the Bond movies have been trying to nail since Moore took over. It finally mints this era’s brand of comic shithousery, with its underwater cars and cheeky nods and Jaws’ all-round hilarious indestructibility.
Just as East meets West at the climax, the film’s unusually good romantic sub-plot and bananas brand of comedy coincide in one of the series’ greatest innuendos, but they mingle throughout this thrilling adventure too.
Nobody does it better
Beyond the quirks that push this beyond typical Bond adventures, a lot of things worked out for the best just from the extended production. Broccoli fielded pitches from writers as varied as Anthony Burgess (of A Clockwork Orange fame) and John Landis before hiring Maibaum to collate the best ideas and add Blofeld and SPECTRE.
McClory got wind of this and secured his injunction, which necessitated the creation of Stromberg as a replacement. And thank goodness – for all that Blofeld is Bond’s greatest enemy in the books, how many times has the character actually made one of the films better?
Stromberg is not the strongest villain, his plan is not the cleverest, and his final confrontation with Bond isn’t all that suspenseful. But here, the villain is incidental to the central enemies-to-lovers plot. The version of this with Blofeld would have been as torn as any of the other Blofeld films from 1971 all the way up to 2021.
Besides, even while he’s handily upstaged by his henchman, Jürgens is having an enormous amount of fun with it – he’s not that scary or intimidating, but he’s quite, quite mad. Plus, his is a plan that’s been attempted before, by you-know-who, in You Only Live Twice.
There’s enough going on in The Spy Who Loved Me for me to forgive Gilbert for the earlier film 100 times over, but it’s interesting how much this learns lessons in the re-telling too. Production designer Ken Adam’s hollowed-out volcano lair was an impressive undertaking, but as a freestanding bespoke set, it went to waste after filming was complete.
This time, Broccoli approved the construction of Pinewood Studios’ 007 Stage in March 1976 as a reusable studio space that would first house Stromberg’s super-tanker. Adam’s set looks stunning on screen, not least because of Stanley Kubrick secretly consulting on the lighting of the set with cinematographer Claude Renoir, a contribution that was only revealed after the filmmaker passed away.
Meanwhile, composer John Barry was once again unavailable, and the great Marvin Hamlisch stepped in. Like Live And Let Die, the film benefits from a more contemporary score, with tongue-in-cheek touches like the “Bond 77” disco remix of the Monty Norman theme and source-music references to Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence Of Arabia, kicking off a running gag with musical Easter eggs in subsequent films.
Of course, the jewel of the soundtrack is Carly Simon’s theme song, “Nobody Does it Better”. Written by Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, the song goes right where other innuendo-laden tracks go wrong – it’s a sumptuous, sexy Bond theme and a first-class ballad in its own right. The title says it all, really.
This was Moore’s favourite out of his Bond films and the consensus goes with him on that one. It’s not perfect – personally speaking, I’ve found the difference between a five-star Bond film and a outstanding four-star one is found in the awkward scenes of Bond and Amasova chatting away while Jaws drives them out to the pyramids (maybe if he can’t speak, he can’t hear either, eh?) and the madness of throwaway assistant Felicca being used as a human shield in Cairo.
But I could go on for much, much longer about all there is to love in this one – Moore’s more confident performance, the capable love interest, the scary yet hilarious henchman, the jokes, the fights, the tense pyramid show sequence, the mad Lotus Esprit chase, the finale with the imprisoned Navy crewmen fighting off the goons, that bloody heart-stopping ski-jump opening… but we all get the picture.
This one was a massive hit, with a million tickets sold in the first five weeks of its UK run alone, teeing up a final worldwide box-office haul of $185.4m. It also bagged three Oscar nominations, for Hamlisch’s theme and score and the stellar production design (losing to You Light Up My Life and Star Wars twice over).
Out of the ashes of Saltzman and Broccoli’s break-up, The Spy Who Loved Me is an unqualified triumph. As well as doing things James Bond had never done before, it manages feats that have seldom been done as well since. True, the next film injects more romantic comic relief in the form of Jaws getting a girlfriend, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Nothing else in the series manages to be this sexy and silly and sleek and spectacular all at once.
Maybe you prefer the series’ earlier, pulpier spy thrillers or the later, more reconstructed outings to this particular era, but whichever way you’re coming at The Spy Who Loved Me, if “fun Bond” is your bag – baby, it’s the best.
That’s not the end though, it’s the end of the beginning, and the end of the beginning goes “Glanggg glangalangalangalangalanglang glangalang”…
The Spy Who Loved Me is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 17th June.
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