Monday, 16 June 2014

Film review: The Spy Who Loved Me

After the inanity of THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, the Bond films could have gone in two directions: take the series back to its more sombre, spy thriller routes or become even more camp and over the top. With Roger Moore the incumbent Bond, it's perhaps not surprising that they went for the latter. However, while GOLDEN GUN and Connery's last two outings had me rolling my eyes and itching to reach for the fast-forward button, somehow Moore's third film, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, makes the grandiose, campy theatrics work in its favour, delivering a vastly superior film to everything since ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that, while GOLDFINGER provided the template for the series a whole, it's this film that the makers of the four Pierce Brosnan entries were looking to ape -- not out and out self-parody, but grandiose and with a definite whiff of the ridiculous. The pre-credits sequence, which culminates in Bond skiing off a precipice, hurtling several thousand feet, then opening a Union Jack parachute while the Bond theme plays, sums up the film rather nicely: bold, ambitious, technically masterful, but silly as all hell.*

The plot itself is essentially YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE retold, with Curd Jürgens as a sort of Blofeld stand-in (to avoid legal action from creator Kevin McClory). His character Stromberg, has a rare wheeze to trigger nuclear armageddon and then establish a new civilisation under the sea -- a scheme so ridiculous it could only appear in a Moore-era Bond film. And yet it works, because the film itself shares Stromberg's level of outrageous ambition in terms of scope and scale. After Guy Hamilton's constrained, TV-like direction of the last two entries, Lewis Gilbert returns to the director's seat for the first time since YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and delivers a far grander, more cinematic film than its three predecessors. The 2.39:1 aspect ratio makes a welcome return, and Gilbert really opens up the canvas, treating us to sumptuous wide angle shots that show off the exotic locales. A tense stalking sequence amid the ruins of Karnak, photographed almost exclusively in extreme long shot and devoid of music or dialogue, is a particular standout, and when the action moves indoors, Ken Adam's bold production design takes over, offering up sets on such a massive scale that a new custom soundstage had to be built at Pinewood to accommodate them.

Barbara displaying her talents.

As for the cast, Barbara Bach is a perfect example of the series' tendency to cast actresses for their looks over their acting ability. Her character, KGB agent Anya Amasova, is set up as being Bond's equal -- tough, ruthless and libidinous. As long as the script doesn't require her to speak, she acquits herself well. Unfortunately, whenever she opens her mouth, her lack of acting ability becomes painfully apparent and the character becomes harder to take seriously. She also spends the entirety of the final act off-screen as Stromberg's prisoner, effectively neutralising what could have been the series' strongest female character since Tracy in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Moore himself is all raised eyebrows and witty one-liners, but it works amid the overall campy tone of the film, and during the extended climactic battle, which is all action and provides no room for humour, he dispenses with the quips and plays it entirely straight, providing a fascinating glimpse into what could have been. He lacks the serious acting chops of someone like Timothy Dalton (Moore was always more of a "star" than an "actor", in my view), but he's at the height of his game here and pitches it perfectly for the film's tone.

I suspect I won't end up doing full reviews of this length for the lesser Moore Bonds (i.e. the rest of his tenure with the exception of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) because there's very little productive I can say about them, but I might do a short piece summarising the Moore era if I get the time and inclination. For now, I'll just say that THE SPY WHO LOVED ME is almost certainly Moore's best Bond film, and the only one to make it into my Bond Top 10.

PS. The final title card reads "James Bond will return in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY." Curse you, Bond producers, for getting my hopes up! We all know, with the benefit of hindsight, that we have to endure MOONRAKER first.

* Incidentally, this appears to be the first film in the series to really stress the British nationalist element. There was, admittedly, always something a bit chauvinistic about the idea of a British agent travelling to far-flung corners of the world, defeating the savage locals and bedding their women. Previously, however, the character's nationality seemed more or less incidental (and any sense of "Britishness" in the Connery years is surely diluted with hindsight due to the actor's Scottish nationalism). With this film, I get the sense that it became a fundamental part of his identity, and a sense of British triumphalism (a reaction to the loss of the empire, perhaps, and a need to loudly proclaim Britain to still be top dog once this could no longer be taken as given) began to pervade.


  1. Still one of the finest Bond films. It may not be as good a (Bond) film as the more serious examples within that self made genre; From Russia With Love, OHMSS, Licence To Kill, Casino Royale, Skyfall for example, which could be great stand alone films in their own right, but for the specifics of a Bond spectacular, it's up there with Goldfinger.

    One of my best mates at school once admitted to me his first realisation of what it was to be a man came from watching this and, more specifically, Barbara Bach's wet red dress and spilling cleavage!

    Good point about the Britishness of the piece. Broccoli was quite clever in that respect, taking something of ours and sending it out to the global market with a distinguished 'made here' stamp (even if it could be argued its essentially a yank selling the idea of Britain back to us) It definitely came to the fore here making its 'I'm Backing Britain' atmosphere feel a little like a decade out of time.

    1. I don't rank it as highly as GOLDFINGER personally, but it's right behind DR NO for me and certainly ahead of everything Connery did from THUNDERBALL onwards. I think, once I've made it to the end of my Bond marathon, I'll probably go back and rewatch the early Conneries to shore up where they belong in my overall ranking. I'm quite struck by the fact that, at present, my Top 5 contains two Daltons, two Craigs and only a single Connery (FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE).

      In terms of the flag-waving being a decade out of time, I think you could argue that the Bond series as a whole was always around a decade behind the trends. The campy fun of the 70s Moore films feels more suited to the Swinging Sixties, while the cold cynicism of the Dalton's two entries would have been right at home in the 70s. Likewise, Brosnan would in a lot of respects been the ideal 80s Bond -- a superficial, smarmy yuppie. (Then again, you could argue that the 90s were a direct continuation of the 80s with Blair assuming Thatcher's mantle, but I digress...)

  2. Well as I've said to you before, for future historians keen to get an idea of the New Labour Cool Britannia lie on film, they need look no further than the opening of The World Is Not Enough.

    1. Indeed. I can't pretend it's a moment I'm looking forward to as I continue to make my way through the series.