When it’s on: Saturday, 28 July (3.10 pm)
More silliness from the Bond franchise with The Spy who Loved Me, which abandons any lingering pretensions of seriousness with an adventure romp based on spectacle, explosions, glamour and set piece thrills. It should be an expensive mess. Double the money was plugged into it than was lavished on its predecessor, The Man with the Golden Gun, upsetting a normal trend of responding to diminished returns with lower budgets, and that cash is on the screen with a visibly more lavish affair. And somehow, against considerable odds it works. The film’s a blast. It never gets dull and every scene is stuffed with a sense of playfulness. For once, Roger Moore seems wholly appropriate to the proceedings, an arch Bond for a totally knowing piece of work.
The film had a troubled birth, which explains the atypically long three year gap between releases. It was the first to feature Cubby Broccoli as sole producer, following the financial problems experienced by Harry Saltzman. In charge and able to take the franchise in directions according to his own vision, Broccoli called for fast paced action and fun, a thrill ride for the whole family, and wound up with something very similar to You Only Live Twice. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the director hired was Lewis Gilbert, responsible for the very same 1960s entry with the massive volcano. Gilbert wasn’t the first choice. The reliable Guy Hamilton turned it down and there were serious thoughts about approaching Steven Spielberg, at the time a young gun whose entire reputation and future credibility rested on some picture about a shark…
Gilbert and the crew started work on The Spy who Loved Me without a finished script, which was becoming an epic tale in itself. Whilst the film shared its title with Ian Fleming’s novel, the production was allowed to use no more than the book’s title. At the same time, legal rumblings with Kevin McClory, who owned the rights to Thunderball, stopped the production from including SPECTRE or Blofeld in the film, leading ultimately to the appearance of the very Blofeld-esque Karl Stromberg, played by Curd Jurgens who probably turned out to be the best unofficial Number One they ever had!
After soliciting any number of writers (those claiming to have had a hand in the script include Anthony Burgess and John Landis), the finished screenplay was put together by Bond veteran Richard Maibaum, with Christopher Wood hired by Gilbert to iron out the bits that fell foul of the legal department and to make the lead character different from that played by Sean Connery. Wood showed up with a lurid and fascinating background in writing. Desperate to escape from the drudgery of his job in advertising, he wrote a series of sex novels under the pseudonym Timothy Lea, each with the title ‘Confessions of‘. Hired for The Spy who Loved Me, the suggestion that Bond’s encounters with women would go down the route of entendre-driven sordidness (which is often enough where it was heading in previous pictures) were happily wide of the mark. 007 beds, as is always the way, but his relationship with Russian counterpart Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) is surprisingly well developed over the course of the picture.
As the title of the film suggests, the story isn’t really told from Bond’s perspective at all. Fleming’s novel left him out of much of the action, whilst the film focuses strongly on Amasova, the Russian spy who is ordered by the collaborating Secret Services of Britain and the USSR to team up with Bond. One of the picture’s strongest cards is that it develops Amasova into a strong, independent character. She’s clearly Bond’s equal, fully capable of outwitting him, and it’s a great relief after Solitaire and Goodnight (simperers, the pair of ’em) to come across a ‘Bond girl’ who isn’t written into the plot solely to collapse into his arms. The edge to her character is that in the film’s first act, Bond shoots a Soviet agent whilst escaping their ambush; the dead man is Amasova’s lover. When she discovers 007 is responsible for killing him, she tells him that once their mission is over he too will die. It’s a great moment, made better for being taken seriously by Bond, who gives the impression of falling for Amasova himself. An earlier conversation between the pair even raises the spectre of his dead wife, and the raw spot that mentioning her opens for him.
The plot takes Bond and Amasova from Egypt to Sardinia and eventually to Stromberg’s submersible lair, which looks like something from The War of the Worlds. The Egyptian scenes are especially good. Like a tour of the Nile, the action tracks from the pyramids, through Luxor’s Karnak Temple and finally to Abu Simbel, as the two spies cross swords with each other and Stromberg’s henchman, the steel-teethed Jaws (Richard Kiel). Jaws is a cracking baddie, more than just a heavy and with a fantastic sense of comic timing. He also comes with a Hammer attitude to attacking his victims, slowly moving in for the bite. So successful was he over the course of the film that in between this mission and the next, Jaws transferred his services to the employ of Hugo Drax and awaited his next appointment with Bond…
Ken Adam was once again on hand with his fantastic sets, outdoing even his volcano base from You Only Live Twice with the massive interior of Stromberg’s tanker, constructed on a newly built Pinewood sound stage and storing more than a million gallons of water. The set seems all the more impressive by the fact it’s really there, with real actors running around within it. Equally breathtaking is the model work that went into creating a miniature of the tanker’s exterior. The initial intention was to use a redundant tanker donated by Shell, but insurance costs for running the vessel were prohibitive and the production instead built a 65-foot model. As an illusion, it’s extremely well done, the crew even replicating the ship’s lengthy tailback for maximum authenticity. And then there’s Stromberg’s aquatic base, Atlantis, all curves and domes, a successful attempt by Adam to develop a lair that contrasted sharply with the cramped, linear offices occupied by M.
I’m no fan of 007’s gadgetry, so the Lotus Esprit that converts into a submarine did little for me, and besides it feels a bit like cheating to have Bond pursued into a dead end by Caroline Munro’s sexy villain, only to play yet another Joker. Bah! Not just that, but the daft comic scene where the Lotus drives out of the sea and onto a beach, watched with disbelief by Victor Tourjansky who looks from the car to his bottle. It was the first of three Bond cameos by Tourjansky, doing the same thing in each successive film. Being charitable, I agree it’s a good natured gag, though it’s always sat uneasily with me to think of a supposedly secret agent – note the secret – showing off so brazenly. Having said that, I hope when I see something incredible happening before my very eyes that I have my trusty wine bottle by my side.
The Spy who Loved Me: ****