1977, UK/USA, Lewis Gilbert
The Spy Who Loved Me is by far the most popular of the Roger Moore Bond movies in terms of fan adoration and critical response. Let me assure you then that it is not without qualms that I confess to finding it somewhat disappointing on repeat viewings. Since Ian Fleming gave strict instructions that his very uncharacteristic novel could not be adapted for the screen, an original plot had to be worked out. The word “original” is probably not quite appropriate in this case, since there are more than a few resemblances to earlier Bond movies - especially You Only Live Twice, also directed by Lewis Gilbert. It’s also the film in which the wry comedy of the previous films begins to turn into outright clowning. In fact, that’s the problem; it’s neither one thing nor the other. If you want a straight Bond film then this seems to be too silly, but if you want outright slapstick fantasy action, then Moonraker is considerably more inventive. While I appreciate that this is very much a minority view, I feel that Spy falls between two stools.
The tenth Eon Bond film, Spy was released in Jubilee year, 1977. So while the Sex Pistols were assuring us that there was no future in England’s dreaming, Bond movies were comfortably on the way to slumberland. In this film, Britain’s pre-eminent position in the world is taken for granted, America is barely mentioned for half the running time, and only Anglo-Soviet co-operation can save the world from total annihilation. Even when the USA makes an appearance, CIA agents are conspicuous by their absence - presumably too busy buggering about in Central America to be concerned with the threat of nuclear armageddon. The excuse for the action set-pieces in this one is the theft of a nuclear submarine tracking system by Karl Stromberg, a sea-loving nutter who wants to destroy corrupt civilisation and start a new world underwater. In order to do this, he’s been stealing Superpower nuclear submarines and stockpiling the missiles. Stromberg is played very colourlessly by Curt Jurgens - webbed fingers being the only concession to flamboyance - so his henchman is, as so often, more interesting. Of course, it’s Jaws (Kiel), not only massive but with teeth made out of steel. He’s also got a natty blue flared suit. Jaws gets everywhere - the pyramids, a vulgar Cairo nightclub, under the sea and he even, somewhat unconvincingly, fits into the wardrobe of a train sleeping compartment.
As you would expect, The Spy Who Loved Me is very glossy and entertaining. Roger Moore is at his most stylish and amusing, having finally settled into the Bond role, and his delivery is good enough to persuade us that the jokes in the script - mostly contributed by Christopher Wood, creator of the Confessions films - might actually be witty. In the disposable role of the requisite Bond girl, Major Anya Amasova of the KGB, Barbara Bach is adequate. It’s supposed to be a triumph of feminism to have a woman as Bond’s KGB colleague, but since she still ends up in a revealing costume screaming, it’s not exactly “The Female Eunuch”. There’s some tedious soul-searching about Bond having killed Anya’s boyfriend in the spectacular pre-credits scene for which Anya wants revenge, but this is as far as character development goes. In the secondary role of one of Stromberg’s henchwomen, Caroline Munroe is, surprisingly, a knockout, with a wonderfully kinky villainy that is over all too soon. Otherwise, the cast perform dutifully, with Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewellyn providing the usual strong base for the film to rest on and welcome appearances from the likes of George Baker, Sidney Tafler and Edmund De Souza.
Lewis Gilbert’s direction is, as ever, competent and uninspired - rarely has a mediocre director been better served by good collaborators such as DP Claude Renoir and composer John Barry - but he loses the plot a little in the final third once the action moves inside Stromberg’s massive tanker, the Liparus. It’s an incredibly impressive set, which involved the building of the massive OO7 stage at Pinewood, at the time the largest interior set ever built. As usual, Ken Adam’s design work is stunning throughout, but the scenes within the set are much too repetitive and people of my generation are likely to be distracted by memories of Chris Kelly’s Clapperboard which seemed to be reporting from the 007 stage every other episode. However, the excellence of the designs is impressive in itself, and the model work by Derek Meddings throughout the film is quite extraordinary. Some of the other set-pieces in the film are considerably more impressive than the big finish, notably the classic scene where the Lotus Esprit turns into a gadget-ridden submersible and a rather wonderful fight in a Cairo building site.
Let’s be fair about this. The Spy Who Loved Me is considerably better than drivel like A View To A Kill but it doesn’t quite work. The violence is surprisingly brutal in places which doesn’t sit well with the slapstick knockabout, and there is at least one climax too many. The similarities to You Only Live Twice are grating as well - there is one moment which is identical to a scene in the earlier film, right down to the camera angle. Although many fans love this film, I don’t think it’s the classic that its reputation suggests.