Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Spy Who Loved Me: A Movie I Love

The Spy Who Loved Me - 1977

Bond:  Roger Moore
Directed by: Gilbert Lewis
Produced by: Albert R. Broccoli
Theme: "Nobody Does It Better" performed by Carly Simon

This is another one of those "fond memories as a kid" movies. I remember watching it with my sister, being allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch the end, and how astounded we were at the reference to Bond's wife. "Bond was married?" I can still see us looking at each other, mouths a gape. I still love this movie and watch it frequently.

Why do I love this movie? Lets see...

1. Bond: Roger Moore finally comes into his own in this movie, or rather the writers finally figured out how to write for someone other than Sean Connery. He's funny. He's flirty without being creepy. He has some depth. It's the right balance of "Bond-as-caricature" and "Bond-as-character". Only Moore in the Seventies could have pulled off the "England needs me" line followed by the iconic British flag parachute jump that defines Bond to this day.

2. The music. Yes the above clip is a little more disco than is my taste, but this movie did come out in 1977. Otherwise, Marvin Hamlisch puts together a score like no other Bond film, complete with classical music and one of the best Bond themes, that you might not even have known was a Bond theme:

3. Barbara Bach as Russian spy XXX, Anya Amasova. Barabara Bach is hot. Ok, she's a terrible actress, but it says something that I didn't notice how terrible of an actress she was until the last couple times I watched the movie. Previous to that I was either too distracted by her hotness to notice, or I attributed it to her Russian character not having a firm grasp on the English language. Ok, to be fair, until I looked her up, I'd always assumed she was foreign. She was from Queens. She's also been married happily to Ringo Starr for over thirty years. How many celebrity couples have that kind of longevity?

4. Jaws. He might not be as popular as Oddjob, but he's certainly the most well-liked and beloved of all Bond henchman. Played by the always likable Richard Kiel, he was supposed to die in the movie. A screening of a rough cut got such a strong reaction though that they re-wrote it to have him survive. Audiences applauded when they saw him swim away from the climactic destruction of Atlantis at the end unscathed. He even comes back in Moonraker.

I had always thought that he was so popular, that they wrote an almost identical character into the movie Silver Streak for him (another movie I love from childhood TV viewing), but no. Silver Streak came out the year before. "Large Henchman on a Train" is just apparently the role that Richard Kiel was born to play. I also figured his name and the presence of a deadly shark in the film were a nod to Jaws. That may or may not be true. Jaws came out in 1975, but TSWLM was in production before it was released. In fact, Steven Spielberg was considered as a director for TSWLM, but they didn't want to take a chance on him until they saw how Jaws worked out. The production was delayed because Kevin McClory sued them because SPECTRE was originally to be the villain in the film. (McClory owned the rights to SPECTRE.) So it's hard to tell at what point Kiel's character took on the name "Jaws" (at least through internet research anyway).

5. Egypt. A huge sequence in the film takes place in Egypt, and it's beautiful. Gilbert Lewis made this movie on an epic scale. The sequence between Bond, Amasova, and Jaws at the Pyramids and the Sphinx is an amazing use of environmental lighting and sound. Shortly after that, we see a three-day long cat and mouse chase sequence among the three where Bond actually wears the same tuxedo for three days because he never gets back to his hotel room. I love linear stuff like that.

6. Character development. Bond films aren't big on character development, but when they are, they always score well with me. This film marks the first overt mention of Bond's wife and her death. We never think of Bond as a widower, but he is. The fact that he's given an opportunity to react and have feelings about that is huge. Plus there's the underlying plotline that Bond killed Amasova's lover (in the pre-title sequence), and she has vowed to kill Bond once their mission is over. That's some pretty meaty stuff that the movie actually dips into here and there. Again, it's no art film, but when seen against the utter lack of character depth in The Man with the Golden Gun, we might as well be watching Lawrence of Arabia here.

This movie, unlike most Bond films, doesn't ignore Bond or any character's past. We see Commander Bond in his naval uniform (in the books Bond was recruited into the secret service from the navy.) M is refereed to by his first name "Miles." M calls Bond "James" for only the second time in the series (otherwise he's always 007). And for the first time other than the credits of Dr. No and From Russia With Love, Q is refereed to by his real name "Major Boothroyd."

7. The "Dr. No" Plot. This movie, in a lot of ways is a remake of You Only Live Twice, which in turn steals it's plot from Dr. No. The basic idea is that an independent evil power, steals or destroys something (a satellite, a space capsule, a nuclear submarine) from the Western powers and then from the Eastern bloc and pits them against each other. This movie twists the formula a little by not having the villain pit East vs. West and instead has East and West work together.

All this plot stealing was not arbitrary as you might think. When Roald Dahl wrote YOLT he complained that the book was just a travelogue of Japan and had no plot to speak of, so he stole it from Dr. No. When the writers were working on TSWLM they faced a similar difficulty in adapting the Ian Flemming novel, in that they couldn't. Not legally anyway. When Flemming sold Eon the Bond rights he specifically mandated that only the title "The Spy Who Love Me" could be used but no elements from the actual novel. Why? Because he took an artistic chance with that novel, writing it from a female character's perspective. Bond doesn't even appear until the last third of the book. When it didn't get the reaction from critics and fans he'd hoped for, Flemming essentially disowned the story and wouldn't even let it be published in paperback in his lifetime.

So with YOLT director Gilbert Lewis set to direct, why not just steal that plot again? Even the climactic battle sequence is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the climax of YOLT, only done better on a larger scale with a bigger budget. They had to build a whole new soundstage large enough to fit the set and hold 1,200,000 gallons of water. Although uncredited, Stanley Kubrik consulted on lighting the sequence. It's done quite well.

Does the movie have it's flaws? Certainly. Roger Moore is old, but our memories of a youthful George Lazanby have faded enough by now that we don't mind so much. Besides, this movie has a Lotus sportscar that turns into submarine! What's not to love?

Oh, and if you're wondering why there's that line about the villain not liking to shake hands with anyone, it's because he had webbed fingers.Or so IMDB Trivia says. Apparently you can only see it on the big screen.

Personal Rankings: This one edges out Live and Let Die if only because of its lack of overt racism.

  1. Goldfinger
  2. From Russia With Love
  3. The Spy Who Loved Me
  4. Live and Let Die
  5. You Only Live Twice
  6. Dr. No
  7. Diamonds Are Forever
  8. Thunderball
  9. The Man with the Golden Gun

1977 Context
President: Jimmy Carter
Queen: Elizabeth II

Star Wars is released. That's really the most important thing that happened in 1977.

Best Picture Nominees:

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In 1789, the governor of Australia granted land and some animals to James Ruse in an experiment to see how long it would take him to support himself. Within 15 months he had become self sufficient. The area is still known as Experiment Farm. This is my Experiment Farm to see how long it will take me to support myself by writing.