The tenth film in the Bond series, The Spy Who Loved Me, is possibly the best of the ones starring Roger Moore and only a notch below the best of the early ones with Sean Connery. Lewis Gilbert, who had previously directed You Only Live Twice (1967), reinfused the series with a little genuine romantic chemistry while otherwise distilling the essence that viewers look for from Bond films.
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Historical Background: Lewis Gilbert was born on March 6th, 1920, in London. He began his career in the arts as a child actor on London stages and in films. During World War II, he worked in the film unit of the U.S. Air Corps. After the war, Gilbert began directing films, starting out with The Little Ballerina (1947), a children's film. In the fifties, Gilbert made war dramas, including Sink the Bismarck! (1960). Gilbert's first major commercial success was Alfie (1966). Off that effort, he earned the opportunity for some big-budget assignments, including three of the James Bond films: You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Love Me (1977), and Moonraker (1979). The best of his later films was Educating Rita (1983). Both Alfie and Educating Rita are character driven films and that propensity also shows a bit in Gilbert's approach to the Bond series, at least in comparison to the other films of the group.
The Story: The brilliant pre-credit action sequence is set in the Austrian Alps, where apparently both Russian and British spies cavort with their lovers. Russian spy Sergei Barsov (Michael Billington) is on a mission but still has time to nuzzle with the strikingly beautiful Anya Amasova, until a call comes in for agent Triple-X. Barsov slides to the side so that Amasova can take the call, since it is she who is the top Soviet agent, codenamed Triple-X. She's to report to headquarters immediately. Meanwhile, Barsov sets off to complete his mission, which involves killing a top British agent, none other than James Bond, 007. Bond is cavorting in another ski lodge with a lovely lady (Sue Vanner) who turns out to be a KGB spy. When Bond also gets a message to report to his headquarters, his erstwhile bedmate informs Barsov that Bond has just left. Soon, Bond is skiing down the slopes with a trio of assassins hot on his tail. During the chase, Bond manages to kill Barsov (in self defense) using a high-powered rifle disguised as a ski pole, which we surmise was another Q-supplied resource. With two other assassins still in pursuit, Bond skis off a sheer ledge that is several thousand feet high. After falling for what seems an eternity, he releases a parachute. As it flutters open we see that it is a facsimile of the Union Jack! That leads directly to the opening credits, which run against the marvelous theme song "Nobody Does It Better," sung by Carly Simon, and a nude gymnast in silhouette turning cartwheels on the barrel of a gun.
At their respective headquarters, Bond and Triple-X each learn that one of their nation's nuclear submarines has been lost at sea without a trace. Triple-X is also informed of the death of her lover, Barsov. Bond and Triple-X are each sent off to Cairo by their respective bosses to locate a tracking device that has come onto the black market. The source of the tracking device is likely to be connected to the missing submarines. Bond's progress takes him through a Lawrence of Arabia sort of fellow, the Cambridge-educated Sheikh Hosein (Edward de Souza), an old friend of Bond from college days. The Sheikh is kind enough to share both his information and his harem with Bond. "When one is in Egypt," says Bond coyly, "one should delve deeply into its treasures." Bond will eventually need to deal with one Max Kalba (Vernon Dobtcheff) in Cairo but to get to him he'll first have to locate a go-between, Aziz Fekkesh (Nadim Sawalha).
Meanwhile, in his magnificent underwater laboratory and city appropriately dubbed "Atlantis," the villain of the piece, Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens), has learned about the tracking system, for which he paid the development costs, being put up for sale on the black market. Stromberg is displeased. He feeds his assistant (Marilyn Galsworthy) to his pet shark and incinerates the two scientists responsible for the development of the tracking system, Dr. Bechmann (Cyril Shaps) and Prof. Markovitz (Milo Sperber), blowing them up in the helicopter that is transporting them to shore. He then sends his two top henchmen, the highly intimidating Jaws (Richard Kiel) and the wrestler-shaped Sandor (Milton Reid), to Cairo to kill anyone and everyone who comes into contact with the tracking system.
So, about the time that Bond is catching up with Fekkish, the latter is murdered, in an atmospheric scene sets amidst the pyramids. Bond has his first of several run-ins with Jaws, but manages to bury the guy under a pile of rubble. That's only a temporary obstacle for Jaws, who, it turns out, is darn near indestructible. Bond then runs into Triple-X and a couple of her thugs, who he dispatches with some fisticuffs while Triple-X watches passively. Bond finds his way to Max Kalba at about the same time as does Triple-X, but she has the distinct advantage of a gorgeous body tucked inside a slinky, low-cut evening gown. The two are about to bid against one another for the fiche when Kalba observes slyly to Bond, "From where I sit, I fancy you'll find the lady's figure hard to match." Before the transaction can be consummated, Kalba is called to the phone, where Jaws murders him with a bite to the neck. Bond and Triple-X are quickly in pursuit of Jaws, thus becoming rivals and reluctant partners simultaneously. Both need to stop Jaws but each wants the microfiche for their own purposes. Later, their impromptu partnership is formalized, as the Russia and Britain spy groups agree to pool resources for the nonce against this mutual threat to their national securities. Soon, Bond and Triple-X are surviving hardships via shared bodily warmth. Later, however, détente will be strained when Triple-X discovers that it was Bond who earlier killed her lover in Austria. Though she must cooperate with him, under orders from her superior, Gen. Anatol Gogol (Walter Gotell), she lets him know that she plans to kill him as soon as the mission is completed.
I won't add more about plot specifics. Other characters that come into play include the beautiful Naomi (Caroline Munro), a Stromberg henchwomen with multiple endowments. Bond has his usual set of teammates, including Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen), M (Bernard Lee), Q (Desmond Llewelyn), and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell). Q provides Bond with one of his best gadgets ever, a fully loaded Lotus Esprit combination automobile and submarine. We're talking "fully loaded," here, as only Q knows how to fully load a vehicle. As the story proceeds, Bond has to revive his old Navy uniform and rank as Commander Bond, for a bit, and acquires additional allies in the form of British and American Navy men. The story plays out in some ways that are predictable but also throws in some unforeseeable surprises. As for Bond and Triple-X, well let's just say that they end up like two peas in a pod.
Production Values: One the issues that most distinguishes one Bond film from another is how far each particular film goes in the direction of comedy, self-satire, or slapstick vs. playing it straight for intrigue, action, and adventure. When Sean Connery retired (the second time) from the series, after Diamonds Are Forever, and Roger Moore took over the mantle as 007, the directors working with Moore generally understood that he could not match Connery's ruggedness or tough guy demeanor. For Moore to succeed in the role, they'd have to emphasize the suave and sophisticated side of the character and wit and wry humor more than tense realism. Even with those adjustments, it was not until Moore's third Bond film, the present one, that he really began to get comfortable in the role. His early performances were flat. Furthermore, in The Man with the Golden Gun, the immediate predecessor of The Spy Who Loved Me, the scriptwriters went too far down the roadway of fanciful absurdity. The series was badly in need of a success when the producers called back Lewis Gilbert as director and turned the scriptwriting duties over to Christopher Wood.
Wood was given a good deal more flexibility than some of his predecessors because the script for this film did not follow the plot of any of the Fleming novels, notwithstanding the fact that there is a Fleming novel with the same title as the film. That allowed Wood to write a script tailor-made for the screen, to distill the essence of the Bond genre, and give movie fans what they craved. This film provided the best stunts and best gadgets that had been used up to this point in the series, one of the best scores, one of the best Bond girls, and the best henchman ever in the series (with the possible exception of Odd Job in Goldfinger). The plot was not especially strong or original, little time was spent on character development, but Gilbert made the maximum use of the Egyptian setting to create a spooky atmosphere, especially in the scene at the pyramids. The Spy Who Loved Me became one of the most popular Bond films and the franchise was effectively back in business.
Moore's Bond was now dapper even under the most austere of conditions and unflappable, despite having a new capacity for vulnerability, set up by the fact that the foremost Bond girl in this film, Maj. Anya Amasova, is both competitor and ally. It's amusing to see the Major sometimes getting the best of Bond, but still falling into bed with him. Moore is given quite a number of crackling one-liners to establish his witty disposition. Moore could never be Sean Connery, but here he was at his own best.
The white Lotus Esprit was a magnificent idea something for which every guy could yearn. The opening ski sequence was spectacular, culminating in a stunt for which the filmmakers paid Rick Sylvester $30,000. That's a lot of money for a few minutes work, but it paid off beautifully. There were some nice little toys thrown in as well, such as Amasova's soporific cigarette.
The soundtrack is excellent for multiple reasons. First, it features one of the finest theme songs, "Nobody Does It Better," sung by Carly Simon. It's a delight. Then there's a cute reference to the theme song for David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), as Bond trots across the devil on a camel. There's the usual dramatic use of the standard 007 music. Finally, there's some great mood establishing music here and there, especially effective during the opening ski sequence and in the scene at the pyramids. All in all, it's one of the finest soundtracks in the series.
The oversized Richard Kiel makes a memorable henchman, sporting his razor sharp, metallic incisors, convenient both for chomping through chains and inflicting death in a vampire-like manner. Bond is no match for the man monster physically, but twice turns Jaw's own strength against him, once by applying a little wall current to the metal teeth and another time by activating a powerful magnet. Jaw's comic book style invulnerability annoys some viewers. He repeatedly gets up and walks away from accidents that would squash mere mortals, simply dusting himself off. I find that aspect of the film hilarious. Curd Jürgens as the megalomaniac Karl Stromberg evokes memories of Bond's early arch-nemesis, Ernst Blofeld. Stromberg is not one of the greatest Bond villains but he's not half bad either.
Barbara Bach is quite lovely and a pretty good actress, though the way her part was written made it next to impossible for her to present the character credibly. Her karate chops just don't look like they could floor Ickabod Crane, much less Jaws. She seems clever enough to match wits with Bond but not robust enough for the rough stuff. Then again, how many women can look gorgeous in a evening gown and also tough enough to be a secret agent? Bach has better chemistry with Moore than all but perhaps one other Bond woman from his seven films, Carole Bouquet.
This was the debut appearance of Walter Gotell in the recurrent role of Gen. Anatol Gogol. I've enjoyed his work throughout the series. Caroline Munro was impressive in a relatively short appearance as the beautiful but lethal henchwoman, Naomi. Among the Bond allies, Lois Maxwell gets little screen time as Miss Moneypenny in this episode, but Desmond Llewelyn, Bernard Lee, and Georffrey Keen all turn in good work as Q, M, and Sir Frederick Gray. There were some nice performances in non-recurrent parts, such as Vernon Dobtcheff as Max Kalba, Edward de Souza as Sheikh Hosein, and Valerie Leon as a hotel receptionist.
The locales are excellent, though not at the very best level for Bond films. The scenes set in Egypt are superb, but most of the action scenes occur in studio sets, of which the only really fine one is the interior of Atlantis, with the oversized fish tanks, piped in classical music, and stately baroque paintings that descend, at the push of a button, as blinds to cover fish tanks.
Bottom-Line: If you purchase the film on DVD, you can get an interesting audio commentary featuring director Lewis Gilbert, along with some cast and crew members. There's also a "making of" documentary and another on Bond's image as suave, dangerous, and irresistible to women. Then there're the usual trailers, television ads, and radio spots. Here then, is my Overall Certified Gold Bond Rating for this film, using my system that facilitates comparisons across the series:
Bond: Roger Moore at his peak Rating: 4/5
Villain: Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens) Rating: 3/5
Henchmen: Jaws (Richard Kiel), Sandor (Milton Reid) Rating: 5/5
Henchwomen (Naughty Bond girls): Naomi (Caroline Munro) Rating: 4/5
Bond (good) Girls: Maj. Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) Rating: 5/5
Colleagues: M (Bernard Lee) 5/5; Q (Desmond Llewellyn) 5/5; Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) 5/5; Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen) 5/5; Sheik Hosein (Edward de Souza) 5/5; Gen. Antol Gogol (Walter Gotell) Average Rating: 5/5
Storyline: Underwater fortress and Armageddon plot Rating: 4/5
Action: Ski chase and cliff jump; Lotus pursued by cycle, car, and helicopter, ingenious lamp and magnet fights with Jaws, penetration of control room, climactic destruction of Atlantis Rating: 5/5
Toys: Lotus Esprit transformable automobile/submarine, hypnotic cigarette, ski pole gun Rating: 5/5
Character Development: More than average tenderness in Bond's relationship with Triple-X Rating: 3/5
Music: "Nobody Does It Better", allusion to Lawrence of Arabia theme song, excellent soundtrack overall Rating: 5/5
Locales: Cairo, Pyramids and Sphynx, Sardinia Rating: 4/5
Overall Certified Gold Bond Rating: 52/60
You may also enjoy my other reviews for 007 films:
Casino Royale (1954), non-series, television
Dr. No (1962)
From Russia with Love (1963)
You Only Live Twice (1967)
Casino Royale (1967), non-series
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Live and Let Die (1973)
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Never Say Never Again (1983), non-series
A View to a Kill (1985)
The Living Daylights (1987)
Licence to Kill (1989)
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Die Another Day (2002)
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