Britain and Russia teaming up to stop an evil megalomaniac anarchist from launching the nuclear holocaust by capturing the superpowers’ submarine fleets in the midst of the Cold War? It can only be the tenth James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me!
(With 5 weeks until the U.S. premiere of Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, Jalopnik’s resident 007 scholar Justin Westbrook is counting down the 10 best entries in the series, with The Spy Who Loved Me at number 5.)
It wasn’t until Roger Moore’s third film, The Spy Who Loved Me, that the third official Bond actor finally made the role of Bond his own. Following the middling The Man With The Golden Gun, the Bond producers wanted a film with a far larger scope and scale, so naturally they asked You Only Live Twice director Lewis Gilbert to return. As you remember from last week’s review of that film, Gilbert is the perfect man for managing extreme escapism with a perfect formula for reality-meets-ridiculousness.
The Spy Who Loved Me marks the point in the franchise when the Bond team realized they would have to move on without Bond’s nefarious arch-enemy in Ernst Stavro Blofeld. This is because of a series of lawsuits over the rights of the character following a draft for Thunderball, as we’ve covered before.
The easiest solution was to create a Blofeld clone (not literally, as with Diamonds Are Forever). This is exactly what they did with Karl Stromberg, the “richest man in the world” who operates a global-shipping business from a submersible
evil-lair super-structure out at sea called, appropriately, Atlantis.
“Why do we seek to conquer space when seven-tenths of our world remains to be explored.”
The film is one of the most problem-plagued films in the franchise behind the scenes, with multiple hurdles arising throughout production.
Co-producer Harry Saltzman was going through many struggles, including his wife developing terminal cancer and his reckless handling of his finances in projects outside of Bond.
There was an extended hunt for a director for the film, with the young Steven Spielberg in consideration at one point. The producers decided to pass on the Jaws director, and he reportedly never let it go - there are many accounts of him not holding the Bond producers in high regard. They eventually coaxed Lewis Gilbert to return after Goldfinger-director Guy Hamilton backed out to direct the first Superman film (which he was eventually dropped from).
Writing the film was a challenge, with early drafts using the Blofeld character. Supposedly very few changes were made outside of naming the villain Stromberg instead. Another writing challenge for the team was honoring Fleming’s request that no film adaptation of his novel of the same name ever be made.
The novel focused heavily on a female character, which didn’t go over very well with critics upon release. I can’t help but imagine this thematic detail helped influence the expanded role of Triple X in the film, though.
The challenges of creating sets for Stromberg’s submarine-swallowing cargo ship proved too immense for existing facilities, so Eon Productions had an all-new sound stage built at Pinewood, where they continue to make the Bond films today. It’s a well-versed rumor that director Stanley Kubrick was brought in to advise lighting the sets, as their uniquely massive scale proved to be extremely challenging to adapt to for the film crews. Too bad they never got him to make a Bond movie.
The difficult conditions of the film proved to be a near make-it-or-break-it moment for the franchise. Had The Spy Who Loved Me failed, or even been as middling as The Man With The Golden Gun, the film likely would have been considered a failure. Luckily that didn’t happen, and instead the Bond team delivered a kick-ass Cold War team-up that delivered Roger Moore his halo film in the role of James Bond.
The Spy Who Loved Me opens with one of the most iconic images in all of Bond history. A British submarine equipped with nuclear warheads is ambiguously attacked, causing M. to call on 007 to come in from the field.
Cue the infamously gross Roger Moore make-out scene all of his Bond films seem to have. He’s interrupted by a message from M. and skis off. On his way down the slope in the Austrian Alps, he’s attacked by some KGB goons and evades them by skiing off the cliff, kicking of his skis and pulling a parachute - with the Union Jack printed. Cue the title song used in every single James Bond montage - ever.
With information that plans of the submarine tracking system used against the British is now on the market in Egypt, Bond heads out, where he runs into Russian agent Anya Amisova, codename “Triple X.” The pair attempt to out-bid one another for the tape with the plans, before villain Karl Stromberg’s henchman Jaws arrives and kills their seller.
The two chase down Jaws together through the very-real historical Egyptian archaeological sites, where they seemingly dispatch of him and retrieve the tape, but only after the giant man with metal teeth rips apart their getaway van.
Triple X knocks Bond out once they get to Cairo and steals the sub-tracking plans, causing Bond to report to M. seemingly empty handed. Upon arrival he discovers the head of the KBG waiting for him - we’re introduced for the first time to General Gogol. M. informs Bond that Russia and Britain are teaming up to take down Stromberg after discovering his watermark on the plans they captured.
Bond gets to his usual ways with Triple X before too long, but it’s ruined when she realizes he’s responsible for the death of the KGB agent she loved in his Austrian ski escape to open the film. She decides to continue with the mission, after which she plans to kill Bond for murdering her lover. He’s not too phased.
Together they board an American submarine to investigate Stromberg’s sea-based operations platform when they’re attacked and swallowed by a Stromberg tanker - the world’s largest - called the Liparus. As the submarine crew is forced to surface, the Liparus opens at the front, scooping the sub into a water-filled deck inside the hull of the ship.
Stromberg takes Triple X off-ship with him, leaving the Liparus to launch his operation. The plan? To dispatch two previously captured submarines and have them launch their nuclear payloads at Russia and the United States, initiating a nuclear war between the two. After the nuclear apocalypse that will follow, Stromberg plans to begin a new era of humanity under the unexplored ocean.
Luckily Bond and the American sub crew manage to rebel and take over the Liparus, turning the two besieged subs against one another, causing them to unknowingly blow each other up.
As the Liparus begins to sink, Bond and the American crew escape in the submarine they were captured on, torpedo-ing their way through the tanker’s hull.
The sub then locates Stromberg’s base of operations with intents to destroy Atlantis directly from the Pentagon. Bond convinces the ship’s captain to give him forty minutes - to save Anya.
Upon infiltration, he has the classic “dinner with a megalomaniac,” but he cuts it short this time after Stromberg attempts to shoot him. He returns the favor, except without missing. On his way to Anya he bumps into Jaws, who just doesn’t die, in a classic henchman fight. Bond uses a giant magnet lift to latch on to Jaws’ mouth, dropping him into the water with the sharks.
Jaws eats the sharks.
Bond a Anya make it out in one of Stromberg’s escape pods, where she just can’t manage to kill Bond, instead opting to keep “the British end up” until they are rescued.
Q. shows up to give Bond his famous Lotus Esprit - the only Bond car to ever come close in coolness or popularity to the Goldfinger Aston Martin DB5. Bond and Triple X use it for their cover as marine biologists to initially meet with Stromberg.
After the meeting, they are ordered to be killed, with one of Stromberg’s ladies piloting a helicopter. This leads into the kick ass chase between Bond and Anya in the Lotus against Stromberg’s goons on the ground and his lady Naomi in the helicopter.
The stunt drivers in the Lotus couldn’t get the shots of the car spinning and drifting like the director wanted. After witnessing the Lotus test-driver who had delivered the car to set whip around at seemingly-impossible speeds, Gilbert had him drive in film.
This leads to the moment we all wait for when watching The Spy Who Loved Me where Bond drives the Lotus off of a pier and into the ocean to get away from the machine-gun equipped Stromberg helicopter. The Lotus has been equipped by Q. Branch to transform into a submarine, codenamed “Wet Nellie,” after Q.’s “Little Nellie” gyrocopter in You Only Live Twice. Billionaire Elon Musk recently purchased the set piece submarine Lotus, because of course he did.
Q. also equips Bond with a build-it-yourself SkiDoo - thing, which Bond uses to get from the submarine to Stromberg’s Atlantis base to save Anya. It makes for some of the most ridiculous looking shots in the entire film, with Bond on this tiny machine gliding across the ocean Somehow it knows how silly it is and works better for it.
What first strikes me every time I sit down to enjoy The Spy Who Loved Me is the subtle but spectacular cinematography. People often claim that Skyfall is the most beautifully composed film, but I prefer the subtle approach of truly capturing the environment used in films like Casino Royale and The Spy Who Loved Me.
There are many standout shots, including some red-lit shots on the interior of the submarine and Bond’s Union Jack parachute jump at the beginning of the film. The shots of Egypt in the film are some of the most beautifully developed scenes in the entire franchise, where the characters are framed to appear dramatically smaller, or in Jaws’ case - just as large, compared to the giant Egyptian ruins around them.
It truly feels like they are in the land of the kings, and the creative approach to Bond and Anya stalking Jaws make for some uniquely tense sequences.
They Spy Who Loved Me also excels where Thunderball and For Your Eyes Only failed for me - underwater. The Lotus being attacked while submersed is tense and exciting, as well as the dramatic shots of Atlantis rising out of the ocean. Not much time is spent underwater, which is how it should be, and the film feels faster and is better for it.
There are also obvious influences from the landmark film Lawrence of Arabia, with Bond arriving in Egypt in white robes and looks strikingly similar to Lawrence. It is obvious the filmmakers when out of their way to make a connection, and it’s done beautifully. Themes from the soundtrack were also woven into The Spy Who Loved Me by first-time Bond composer Marvin Hamlisch.
Any time John Barry is not scoring a Bond film, I automatically assume it is worse off for it. Minus a few awkward tracks and sound effects, Hamlisch nails his own sound for the film, while keeping it Bondian enough to be recognizable. The film carries a fantastically notable sound.
One of my all-time favorite single Bond tracks is featured when the American sub gets swallowed by the Liparus. The brass swells and truly grasps the scale and drama of the situation, and I love it.
Speaking of scale, I always remember this movie as no only Moore’s best, but his biggest. He travels from Austria to London, to Egypt, and then on to Sardinia, and then.. the open sea! The ski jump at the beginning immediately tells you this film will be big - at the time that jump set the world record for most expensive stunt on film at a cool $500,000. The stuntman who did the jump made $30,000 for the one take.
The sets are all massive, including the real Egyptian ruins used in the middle of the film - Bond is still one of the only productions to get that kind of access to the Pyramids and other ruins. The Liparus sets, as previously mentioned, required an all-new production stage to be built, and the cinematography creatively captures the beautiful set design by Ken Adam.
Barbara Bach as Anya Amisova enjoys one of the most detailed and heavily featured Bond-girl roles and she excels at it. Not only is she gorgeous, but she is shown as Bond’s equal in every way. The scene in which she is introduced directly plays into the equality of her character, with her in bed with a male Russian agent. They get a call to report at once, and just as you think the man is about to respond, she leans over to confirm the message.
If she isn’t in your Top 5 Bond girls, you need to re-think your list.
The same goes for Jaws - he is by far the only other character in the series to rival Oddjob for best-ever henchman. His metallic smile and gigantic size is extremely menacing, and Moore plays off of him extremely well. The fact that he never seems to die is fortunate, for he would return in Moonraker and continue chasing Bond down.
My sole disappointment with The Spy Who Loved Me is the villain, Karl Stromberg. There is nothing about his character that stands out in any way. He’s hardly given any lines!
As mentioned before, he was initially meant to be Blofeld, and it is obvious his character has been heavily handicapped by having to be re-written. It seems they simply erased most of his lines and scenes involving a past with Bond, as he is given hardly any memorable moments on screen.
For an anarchist who wants to end the world and restart under the sea, he’s pretty boring.
The Spy Who Loved Me is Roger Moore’s greatest Bond film - it was even nominated for three Academy Awards! It’s influence on pop-culture with the Lotus Esprit and the henchman Jaws, as well as in the franchise with films like Quantum Of Solace aping multiple scenes (villain being thrown off a roof; walking through the desert), it’s an easy number five on my Top Ten James Bond films.
Stay tuned for next week, and until then, check out the rest of the list.