Review: The Spy Who Loved Me
When American, British, and Russian nuclear subs go walkabout, British Secret Service head M (Bernard Lee) and KGB’s Gen. Gogol (Walter Gotell) send their top agents 007 James Bond (Roger Moore) and Agent XXX Maj. Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) to investigate. Eventually they are forced into a reluctant partnership when madman Sigmund Stromberg (Curd Jurgens) who has taken the subs, plans on using the missiles as part of a dastardly plan that proves if nothing else that Stromberg is as mad as a cut snake. Caroline Munro is Stromberg’s pilot Naomi, George Baker plays a British submarine captain, Edward de Souza plays Bond ally Sheik Hosein, Vernon Dobtcheff plays a corrupt club owner, Richard Kiel and Milton Reid (who previously turned up in a similar role in “Dr. No”) play Stromberg’s henchmen Jaws and Sandor, Valerie Leon has the first of her two Bond film appearances here playing a hotel receptionist, and future ‘M’ Robert Brown plays Adm. Hargreaves (who may or may not also be the ‘M’ Brown played subsequently).
To a lot of people, this 1977 adventure from director Lewis Gilbert (“You Only Live Twice”, “Alfie”, “Damn the Defiant!”) is Roger Moore’s best outing as 007. Nope, not for me. Scripted by series veteran Richard Maibaum (who has helped scribe most of the films) and Christopher Wood (the subpar “Moonraker”), it was probably the biggest and most spectacular, but to me this is one of the more overrated ones. Placed for me at #14 in between the Brosnan Bond “Goldeneye” and Daniel Craig’s “Skyfall”, there’s some good things here, it’s just slightly below a recommendation from me. It was the last pre-Brosnan film I needed to catch up on, but having now seen it twice I don’t think that has anything to do with my lack of enthusiasm for it.
I don’t know if I have an exact favourite gun barrel theme in the series, but the one in this is definitely Top 5. This is a series about getting small but essential details right, and this film starts well by getting that small but essential detail right. We follow that with an amusing opener featuring a Roger Moore-lookalike getting out of bed and we discover his companion is the secret agent, Russian agent XXX played by the thoroughly edible Barbara Bach. The subsequent scene from the British side with M telling Bond to ‘pull out immediately’ is groan-worthy, however. It gets worse with an abysmal disco version of the 007 theme, and although we get some nice guitar in the film, the majority of the score by Marvin Hamlisch (“The Sting”, “Three Men and a Baby”, “The Informant”) is that ghastly disco crap. I like disco generally, but not in a Bond film. Somehow Hamlisch’s score secured an Oscar nomination. People were clearly out of their minds that year, especially given “Star Wars: A New Hope” should’ve won Best Picture. We get some skiing footage here but that sort of thing was done better in “For Your Eyes Only” and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. In fact, the big stunt here is quite possibly the dumbest stunt in Bond history. Thankfully that brings us to Carly Simon and what Australians will refer to as the L.J. Hooker ad music, but is better known as the Oscar-nominated ‘Nobody Does it Better’. One of the best Bond songs ever, it’s really classy stuff accompanied by one of Maurice Binder’s best titles designs, too. As for the mission briefing, Robert Brown is here but in the role of Hargreaves, as Bernard Lee was still playing M at this point. The trio of Lee, Brown, and Geoffrey Keen’s Minister of Defence is at least more effectively used than Brown (as M), Keen, and James Villiers serving the same basic functions in the later “For Your Eyes Only”. Meanwhile, I still maintain that Walter Gotell’s Gen. Gogol is fatuous and unnecessary, but this is the best and biggest use of the character at least.
Our first real stumbling block casting and character-wise is the villainous Stromberg, played by Curd Jurgens. I’m sorry, but the shark-enthusiast villain was done better by Robert Davi in “Licence to Kill”. The real issue is that Jurgens is a boring and wooden actor in the Gert Frobe/Adolfo Celi mould, and his Stromberg, like Celi’s Largo and Michel Lonsdale’s Drax, is a boring villain in the Goldfinger mould. The plot may be interesting, but Jurgens’ Stromberg is not and it’s one of two major things that hurt the film (We’ll get to the other one later). The best I can say is that Jurgens’ unthreatening performance isn’t quite as constipated as Lonsdale was in the subsequent “Moonraker”. Also, his evil plan is certainly the idea of a true madman. The dude wants to blow up the world and start over…under the sea. You know something is nuts when it’s a vision shared in part by Homer Simpson. Otherwise, he’s truly forgettable and completely upstaged by the set design and henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel).
The production design by Ken Adam (“Dr. No”, “Goldfinger”, “You Only Live Twice”) is arguably the series’ best, and inarguably the film’s chief asset along with the aforementioned Jaws. It’s clearly the best-looking Bond film to this very day thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Adam but also cinematographer Claude Renoir (“Barbarella”), the latter of whose failing eyesight resulted in him getting a lighting assist from an uncredited Stanley Kubrick (Director of “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining”). Chief among Mr. Adam’s bravura creations, Stromberg’s underwater lair is particularly memorable and rightly remembered fondly by most. Kiel’s Jaws has his best outing here, he seems nearly indestructible, and although his other appearance in “Moonraker” was largely regrettable, he’s still one of the undeniable villainous icons of the franchise. The other henchman by comparison (Milton Reid) is a chubby Oddjob wannabe. I also liked seeing multi-racial character bit player extraordinaire Vernon Dobtcheff as club owner Max Kalba. A better actor than he has been afforded the opportunity to show most times, he has the necessary menace and nefarious presence Jurgens sorely lacks. I would’ve loved to see him have a crack at playing Blofeld, too. Sadly, Jaws bumps him off in less than five minutes. The action in the film is pretty good, including the exciting finale that is almost up there with the kick-arse ninja assault on Blofeld’s volcanic-looking lair in “You Only Live Twice” (and admittedly the plot of that film and this one aren’t terribly dissimilar). I loathe the gondola speed boat idiocy of “Moonraker” and the invisible car in “Die Another Day” was a black mark in otherwise Pierce Brosnan’s second-best Bond film. I generally resist the silly gadget shit that was all-too frequent in the Moore era. I also tend to think Lotus cars are a crap Lamborghini, though I know less than nothing about cars, I just like the look of the latter more. I say these things in preparation for having a perverse love for this film’s submarine Lotus Esprit car, quite possibly my favourite Bond vehicle alongside the V8 Vantage Aston-Martin in the mediocre “The Living Daylights”. Anyone who disagrees is factually incorrect. It’s the right kind of silly, as I can’t imagine anyone wanting that Gondola shit and that invisible car stretched my suspension of disbelief too far. The entire chase scene for me is the series’ best car chase by far. It’s really well-done, exciting, and quite varied.
The other highlight of the film here are the girls, with Barbara Bach, Valerie Leon, and Caroline Munro being among the most beautiful women to have ever existed. Like the earlier “Thunderball”, the film definitely gets the eye-candy right, and Bach (you’re a lucky bastard, Ringo!) also giving a perfectly fine performance. Hammer babes Leon and Munro are so incredibly stunning you wish they were in much more of the film. Bach apparently didn’t get along too well with her co-star, which brings me to the film’s other chief flaw: Our hero, played by Roger Moore. Moore gave a stiffer performance in “A View to a Kill”, but it’s no surprise that the two leads weren’t the best match if the real Moore matches the smug prick he presents himself as on screen. I would hope he was more of a charmer off-screen because from what the viewer sees with his irritating performance, he’s punchable, a really resentful screen presence. Like with the dud villain, an unlikeable hero is a massive problem, and it’s a shame because on paper the relationship between 007 and XXX is otherwise rather interesting. It also has to be said that like too many Bond films (including some of the best), it’s a bit too long in the tooth. I think some of the Egypt-set section could’ve easily been cut out to the betterment of the film. The “Lawrence of Arabia” musical cue parody, for instance is a bag of phalluses as far as I’m concerned. Like similar musical cues in “Moonraker”, and the dumb-arse slide-whistle in “The Man with the Golden Gun” it represents the worst of the Roger Moore era.
I can see why people love this big-budget entry in the Bond franchise. The plot is strong and fairly interesting, the chief henchman is great, and the girls are truly stunning. However, with a dud villain and an insufferably smug hero, this was never going to be among my favourite Bond films. Love the submarine car and the Bond song, though.