The Spy Who Loved Me is an entertaining jaunt in the world of James Bond, though neither the most or least satisfying. It is perhaps most notable as being the film where many of the exotic locales and impressive stunts become de rigeur for the series.
My name is…
We begin as we always do, with Roger Moore’s third outing as Commander Bond. It is also the first time we truly get a sense as to why he earned the role. First, however, it’s worth noting that Mr. Moore’s performance is attenuated roughly to the point where it stays for the remainder of his appearances in the series. Gone is the whimsical, buffoonish playboy of Live and Let Die. Mr. Moore is now the suave, charming, sophisticated bon vivant, and the script allows him to showcase a substantial degree of physicality.
The costume designers have left the wacky early 70’s styles behind and Mr. Moore appears as every bit the sophisticate, much to his credit. There is one other solid aspect to Mr. Moore’s portrayal. Despite the outward appearance of a superficial lover who knows just the right thing to say to bed a woman, many of his more serious lines are delivered with conviction. When confronted by Amasova (Barbara Bach) on the death of her lover, Mr. Moore’s response is direct, forthright, and deadly serious. His various battles with Jaws show he’s quite capable of a good fist-fight. In perhaps the most brutal Bond murder since Sean Connery plugged a man in the back in Dr. No, Mr. Moore slaps his tie from the grasp of an assassin teetering on a ledge, and he falls to his death. Finally, the assault inside Stromberg’s cavernous tanker demonstrates his natural leadership and military training. All in all, he’s a very convincing Bond this time around, and even a bit of a bad-ass.
The film has a decent storyline, enhanced by the competitiveness of Bond and Amasova in this “new era of Anglo-Soviet cooperation,” and her promise to avenge her lover’s death after the mission is complete. This sets up a nice tension between the two, reflective of the mutual distrust of the two superpowers at this time in history.
Indeed, the very notion of the U.S. and Soviet Union working together in the late 70’s remains a surprising and rather bold plot point. The film’s structure works fairly well, in which the first half of the film focuses on the recovery of the microfilm, and the second half turns to investigating and defeating Stromberg. There’s a good deal of suspense and action that keeps the film moving, although the section in the desert feels a bit flabby (Trivia enthusiasts will note Bond and another female agent had to slog back through the desert in Quantum of Solace. However, the film is not held together by a solid thematic element, which makes it feel episodic in places. There are also numerous unforgivable mistakes – such as the number of times Bond could simply be killed and isn’t. Right from the opening sequence, the woman he beds before skiing out the door radios her accomplices, warning them that Bond is coming. Why doesn’t she just shoot him in the back as he’s leaving? And Stromberg has Amasova tied to a lounge because he’s going to do….what, exactly?
As Bond women go, Barbara Bach certainly falls into the “classically beautiful” category. With her long silken hair and slender figure, she is unquestionably fetching. I wasn’t wowed by her performance, though, which feels rather wooden and lacking in charisma (trivia: she has been married to Ringo Starr for 30 years). Nonetheless, she is given a rather meaty role, as the female-Soviet counterpart to Bond, whom she outwits on more than one occasion. Certainly, when Bond tries to make his move on her in the boat, and he gets a faceful of knockout gas in return, you have to admire her resourcefulness.
Of course, no discussion of the film is complete without a look at Richard Kiel as Jaws. It’s easy to dismiss him as comic relief, given his metal teeth and habit for emerging relatively unscathed at the end of any set piece. Yet it is worth looking a bit deeper. Here is a 7-foot giant who is more formidable than any other nemesis Bond has faced. He has absolutely no regard for his own life (probably because he knows he’s indestructible) and carries out his missions with all the determination of The Terminator. As a result of these characteristics, he is (almost certainly unintentionally) a virtually supernatural force that Bond must deal with on a regular basis, especially given his penchant for appearing out of nowhere to attack Bond. Yes, it’s particularly lazy screenwriting, but there are always interpretations available for even the sloppiest of cinematic moments. In this case, one such interpretation is that Jaws (who also dresses rather nicely) is the manifestation of Bond’s worst qualities – his Jungian Shadow come to life – who has no other purpose other than to kill him. This isn’t unusual. We’ve seen Bond’s doppelganger many times in the series, going back to Dr. No. In this case, however, Jaws is not the sophisticated reflection of Bond, but the base, violent, unstoppable Id.
The villain, Karl Stromberg (Curd Jurgens), is a dud. The late Mr. Jurgens was apparently an actor of some note, with a filmmography of dozens of films. It’s not his fault, though. He’s a megalomaniac out to destroy the world, given no basis for his beliefs that he will create a perfect society under the sea after starting a nuclear war. He’s not a particularly charismatic villain, and when one compares him with the kick-ass villains such as Telly Savalas’ Blofeld, or Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga, there really isn’t a comparison to be made.
Two other minor characters make for amusing appearances. Shane Rimmer makes his second Bond appearance in the role of Captain Carter. Mr. Rimmer appeared briefly as a NASA tech in You Only Live Twice and he makes for a solid, capable sub commander who allies with Bond during the tanker escape. We are also treated to the first appearance of Walter Gotell’s General Gogol, the détente-minded Soviet general who makes several appearances going forward.
For me, the film is really the first of the series that pulls together all of the elements we have come to associate with Bond. The pieces had been slowly coming together, but now we really are globe-hopping – Austrian Alps, Moscow, the high seas, London, Egyptian desert, Cairo, train across Europe, and Sardinia. We get the first true Bond credits sequence with naked women swinging about (although arguably the previous film had this).
We see the first truly modern car chase of the series, longer and more sustained that in Man with The Golden Gun, with more dynamic camera angles, an exploding sidecar, and a helicopter equipped with machine guns. There’s a more active underwater sequence than Thunderball provided (preceded by a strongly-framed shot of the Lotus flying off a dock into the water, pursued by the helicopter).
These stunts, along with the classic ski jump-parachute moment in the pre-credit sequence, really elevate the Bond films into a new realm (second unit director and editor John Glen, who also shot second unit for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, went on to direct five Bond films). The shoot-‘em-up in the tanker is an exciting sequence and the second time (after You Only Live Twice) that we witness wholesale slaughter in a Bond film.
I want to call attention to a few sequences involving Jaws. Director Lewis Gilbert and editor John Glen create some startling and rather disturbing moments when Jaws kills Fekkesh. The ambient music grows louder as Glen cuts back and forth between Jaws, shot from a very imposing low angle, and Fekkesh, shot from high above. Fekkesh’s face is a tableau of absolute horror – a man realizing he’s about to die – and is juxtaposed against the terrifying face (and teeth) of Jaws, where we realize this man is a killer with absolutely no conscience.
As if that weren’t terrific enough, the sequence where Jaws pursues Kalba into the depths of the Pyramids is wonderful. With the booming narration regarding the history of the pyramids dominating the soundtrack, and the accompanying source music, we watch as Jaws stalks Kalba. Bond and Amasova snake through the setting, as colored lights shift angle and direction, alternately illuminating and then obscuring all of the characters. The suspense builds as another tableux-murder occurs.
I want readers to watch this sequence, which you can find here and here, because it is one of the most purely cinematic moments in all of the Bond films, and reminiscent of how Alfred Hitchcock built suspense and set exciting set pieces in grand public locales.
A quick shout-out to a memorable song from Carly Simon, although the score was too disco-influenced and gave the film a cheesy quality.
I’m introducing the Meyers Proprietary Bond Film Rating System (MPBFRS) in this article. I reserve the right to change my star rating at any time, without prior notice. For example, I’m giving Dr. No three stars right now, but it’s a four star film in many ways. I just don’t want to throw that rating around willy-nilly, though.
I assign four stars if a Bond film is not only a great Bond film, but a great film, period. It should have a totally engaging set of characters and storyline, skillful or surprising storytelling methods, a strong thematic through-line, cinematic elements worthy of exploration that carry a solid degree of artistry, psychological depth to characters, memorable score, and overall great filmmaking with few mistakes.
Three stars for a film that, for whatever reasons, have all of the above to a lesser degree. It’s the difference between a truly great Bond film and just a solid, good one.
Two stars is really the dividing line. This rating is for films that are enjoyable, but may have several flaws and/or elements that are lacking. They may have some great elements – such as great stunts, action, locales, cinematic elements, and characters – but overall the film will not feel tight and will be sloppy in places. The film will lack cinematic aspects of note, generally contain a low degree of artistry, have unforgivable plot holes, demonstrate outright silliness, and/or have boring sequences.
One star films are pretty much disasters. There may be many interesting elements, but overall the film does not hold together, is boring in places, insults the audience, lacks artistry almost across the board, and would have been better if it had not been made.
I rate The Spy Who Loved Me TWO STARS.
To recap all the films:
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
The Man With The Golden Gun
From Russia With Love
Diamonds Are Forever
The Spy Who Loved Me
You Only Live Twice
Live and Let Die
James Bond will return in Moonraker.