In the 1990s there became a ‘tradition’ of the British ITV network screening Bond films on a Bank holiday. However, as a child, my first memories of James Bond films are from seeing them on a Sunday night, starting around 7:45pm. Even though school was imminent the next morning, 007 let you escape into a world of glamour and excitement. For 2 hours you could forget. And how long those 2 hours felt! And with an epic like The spy who loved me it felt (and still feels) like a much longer film. But I loved every minute of it, and still do.
The spy who loved me is a pivotal film in the James Bond franchise. Without its success, the series may have stalled in circumstances of financial and legal complication. Few Bond films have had as troubled a production as The spy who loved me. Aside from Cubby Broccoli’s split with Harry Saltzman and the company almost going into liquidation, Eon had released one of the lowest grossing James Bond films in 1974. The series was in trouble and nothing less than a true return to form would save it. The series didn’t just need a really good crowd pleaser. To be honest Broccoli needed a blockbuster.
The trouble got worse in 1975 when Kevin McClory’s ten-year ‘ban’ on producing a rival Bond picture ended. As you might know, he had a lot to do with the screen treatment of Thunderball, and had teamed up with Saltzman and Broccoli in 1965 on the understanding that he wouldn’t launch a rival production. His film would have to be a re-make of Thunderball, as it was the only Fleming book he had the rights to, having been involved with the creation of what became Fleming’s original novel.
Broccoli and director Guy Hamilton had been in talks with novelist Anthony Burgess, famous for A clockwork orange. Burgess had been a great fan of Fleming’s work, and had cited Goldfinger as a particularly great novel. He set about creating a screenplay for the next Bond film, but ultimately his treatment proved unpopular with both Broccoli and Hamilton. So Richard Maibaum, as reliable as ever, started to work on the project. He planned to bring back Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who hadn’t appeared in the series since Diamonds are forever in 1971. The problem there was that McClory held the rights to the Blofeld character and his SPECTRE organisation, and had started flexing his legal arm. Blofeld and SPECTRE had first appeared in the novel Thunderball, based on a screenplay Fleming wrote with McClory. The situation becomes a bit ridiculous when you consider that Fleming himself was almost in breach of copyright, as he included Blofeld in three other novels- all without McClory’s permission! Plus, to make the situation even sillier, Blofeld had appeared in five of the nine Bond films made up to that point- he was arguably James Bond’s arch-enemy and the main protagonist of the franchise. So due to McClory’s legal claims, all references to Blofeld and SPECTRE were ultimately exorcised from the new script and a new character- Stromberg- was eventually created. There were some similarities between the presentation of the characters, but they were relatively superficial. It was a pity, though. The spy who loved me would have been a nice showcase for Blofeld’s return, and who better to relaunch Bond than the man with the white cat? But everything had to change. In the end Maibaum bowed out, and Christopher Wood took over writing duties.
The stress of pre-production also led to the departure of Guy Hamilton and the appointment of Lewis Gilbert in the director’s chair (Hamilton had also been given the opportunity to direct the upcoming Superman: The Movie, although that job eventually went to Richard Donner). Lewis Gilbert had directed a Bond before, of course, ten years earlier. Looking at both You only live twice in 1967 and The spy who loved me in 1977, there are definite similarities. This time around they couldn’t get John Barry for the music, which was a shame, but Marvin Hamlisch gives the film a whole new identity of its own. It’s hard to imagine Spy without that electronic disco styled score, as Roger Moore skies away from his gun-toting enemies. Add to that Ken Adams’ return to the series after six years, and The Spy loved loved me had some inspired new production design to go with the funky music. Bond had finally found a ‘70s answer to the success of its lavish ‘60s style. It may have been a bit less refined and the furniture a bit more plastic, but it was vast improvement on the previous three outings. One reviewer once commented that The spy who loved me sometimes resembles a ‘70s soft porn film. I couldn’t possibly comment of course. Perhaps it’s all that lipgloss or maybe it’s just the fashions?? I think it does have a decadent ’70s ‘international jetsetter’ thing going on there. You can imagine Caroline Munro’s character being a disco dancing coke fiend and villain Stromberg being…no, let’s not go there. Also there does seem to be a lot more cheeky innuendo than previously and Caroline Munro does look like she’s wandered in from a far seedier production. How she got a job on Ted Rogers’ family show 3-2-1 after this is anybody’s guess, although I recall her wearing clothes in that so I suppose it’s a bit different.
The spy who loved me was a glossy, futuristic kind of Bond. What You only live twice did for the ‘60s and Connery, I suppose Spy did for the ‘70s and Roger Moore. They are undeniably similar, more so that most Bond films might resemble each other. The final story wasn’t all too original either, being a re-hash of the megalomaniac threatens the world type yarn. If you’ve seen Thunderball or You only live twice, we’re in similar territory. The spy who loved me is a kind of ‘James Bond’s greatest hits’. A lot of elements here had appeared in previous films, but not always together. There’s a souped up car, a gargantuan base for the villain, a fight with a henchman on a train, Bond in his naval uniform, references to his late wife and an energetic ski chase to name but a few. But Spy does these all so well, that we’re happy to see them again. Plus the fact that Spy does all that and manages to feel new and fresh is probably down to the panache of the presentation. It’s a fun film, and you can see the enthusiasm and talent behind the production. Perhaps because it took nearly three years of hard work to get it to the screen, it shows. One thing for sure- somewhere along the way the Bond series re-discovered its confidence and sparkle. Even if some of The spy who loved me had been done before, Spy does it better, or tries it’s hardest to. So on its own merits; Spy is a fantastic escapist adventure film.
The pre-title sequence is a classic. We’re introduced to one of the very best Bond girls- Major Amasova, also known as “Agent Triple X”, wonderfully portrayed by Barbara Bach. There’s a disconcerting moment where she’s in bed with a George Lazenby clone (Michael Billington, who was once considered for the 007 role himself). After you’ve convinced yourself that this isn’t 007, and that Roger will be along any minute, you get to the point of the back-story. ‘XXX’ gets called on a mission by her boss General Gogol (Walter Gotell, in a wonderfully dry role that he was to reprise over the next five films), her lover (who I think looks like Lazenby) is also sent on a top-secret mission. We meet Roger in the middle of getting to know a lovely blonde in a snow bound log cabin, before he’s off in his yellow ski suit. Anyhow, it’s not long before enemy agents are chasing James. Some time later 007 shoots down one of his pursuers, who so happens to be Amasova’s lover. You just know that’ll cause problems later. Cue Bond’s ski jump off a cliff edge and you have something that’s nothing short of amazing. A truly great stunt. This effortlessly blends into Maurice Binder’s title sequence, which is probably his best. Carly Simon’s title song Nobody does it better is a nice change from the usual bombastic themes, but it is wonderful. And all that, my friends in Bondage, is just the beginning of the film! After that it just keeps on getting better and better. This, of course, is one of the more outlandish adventures, so it’s best not to take this as seriously as Fleming’s radically original novel.
But what we get is nothing short of impressive. We get an undersea city that rises up from the sea like a War of the worlds tripod. We get a white Lotus Esprit that converts to a submarine, and of course we get Caroline Munro as Naomi who gets to chase after Bond in a gun heavy helicopter. There are also some beautiful location shots of Egypt and the pyramids and Richard Kiel plays one of the best henchmen- the steel toothed Jaws. He’s silent but deadly, and Kiel plays him with nice touches of humour. Roger Moore is on good form, and adds a nice light touch, which suits the film. He’s also more than capable of handling the fight scenes and is a bit ruthless in this one. At one point he has a heavy dangling over a rooftop in Cairo. After getting the information he needs he releases the man’s tie and lets him fall to his death. “What a helpful chap”, Roger deadpans. Roger’s Bond has a twinkle in his eye in this film, although he does show hidden depths when Amasova mentions his late wife. Curt Jurgens makes for a cunning and relentless villain as the marine obsessed Stromberg. He does seem like a reinvention of Blofeld to me, and as discussed the whole film is reminiscent of the ‘60s SPECTRE epics. The regulars are as good as ever, and we actually have general Gogol refer to ‘M’ by his first name- Miles. Asamov also refers to ‘Q’ as Major Boothroyd, which was the name of the character as he appeared in From Russia with love.
Anyway, I could go on and on. There’s plenty of good stuff here. One thing that sets this film apart is undoubtedly its phenomenal production design from Ken Adam (with help from the ever reliable Peter Lamont). It’s a great looking Bond film. Adam’s friend and colleague Stanley Kubrick even gave him advice on the gigantic tanker set, agreeing to pop by and give it a look. If Kubrick was impressed, it must be good.
Few Bond films in the ‘70s and ‘80s compare to the success of The Spy who loved me, when it came to epic escapist entertainment. A lot of blood, sweat and tears had gone into its production, not to mention more money than any other film in the series to this point. But Broccoli’s gamble had paid off- the film was a huge critical and commercial hit and arguably gave Roger Moore his greatest Bond film.
Nobody did it better.