Tuesday, November 03, 2015

007 Week: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

It’s probably strange to talk about films in these terms, but regarding the 007 franchise, there are big Bonds, and there are little Bonds. 

There are movies that operate on a more or less human level, with Bond facing off against a human-sized villain and his organization (Goldfinger, For Your Eyes Only, or Licence to Kill, for example), and then there are the Bond epics in which vast armies clash and the survival of the world is at stake. Nuclear Armageddon is just moments away!

1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me is indisputably a “big” Bond movie.  The film is absolutely huge in scope, in terms of sets, ambition, and location, and the action is utterly spectacular.  “Spectacular” doesn’t even cover it adequately, actually.  This film’s pre-title action sequence – a high-water mark for the fifty year old -- is actually breathtaking.

Many critics and Bond fans count The Spy Who Loved Me as the very best film of Roger Moore’s era, and I can understand the arguments for the film.  The film is light, entertaining, action packed, and yes, epic.  All the ingredients chug along together and really work, unlike in a film like A View to a Kill (1985), by contrast.

But for me, Roger Moore is at his best in For Your Eyes Only (1981), and Live and Let Die (1971), and though I rate The Spy Who Loved Me highly, it is a bit over-long, and somehow, generic. The film is entertaining, and Roger Moore is a good anchor for the action, but the story apes another Bond film (You Only Live Twice) a bit too closely for my taste.

The Spy Who Loved Me is definitively product of the Bond franchise’s occasional (and somewhat self-destructive) bigger-is-better mentality. So this is a bigger (though not better) remake of You Only Live Twice.  And Moonraker is a bigger (though not better) remake of The Spy Who Loved Me.

I admire The Spy Who Loved Me, but it’s a product of the kind of thinking that ultimately spirals the franchise out of control, and requires periodic re-grounding (think On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, or For Your Eyes Only).

When British and Soviet nuclear submarines go missing, Agent 007, James Bond (Roger Moore) is on the case.

His first clue leads him to Egypt, where he encounters KGB agent XXX (Catherine Bach), as well as a hired assassin, the hulking, metal-mouthed Jaws (Kiel).

Realizing they share a common interest, Bond and XXX team up, despite the fact that Bond killed her lover (Michael Billington) in the line of duty. 

Their investigation takes the duo to Carl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), a man who has made the study of the ocean his life, and even built an underwater headquarters called Atlantis to further those studies. 

In truth, Stromberg has captured the missing submarines and is intent on starting World War III so that humanity can begin again…in undersea colonies that he alone commands.

Ask any Bond fan, and he or she will tell you that the third time is the charm for Roger Moore’s James Bond era.

The Spy Who Loved Me doesn’t exactly feature an original story, but it certainly executes every requisite 007 ingredient with wit, charm, and a surfeit of style.  

The special effects, stunt-work, and set design are perhaps the most impressive in the series up to this point, and both Moore and the writers/director seem to understand exactly how this iteration of their long-lived hero should fit in the 1970s.

Hint: Bond is a superhero, not merely a secret agent, and his costume is a white dinner jacket.

As I believe the late, great Roger Ebert once observed, the James Bond films are as tightly structured and stylized as Kabuki plays, and one must approach them on the basis of their ingredients and how each one rates on a scale of quality.

Right down the line, The Spy Who Loved Me succeeds admirably by this benchmark.  The film opens with a hit tune, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” offers up a soldier villain to rival Goldfinger’s (1964) Odd Job, Kiel’s steel-toothed Jaws, and provides Moore’s Bond with a car the equal of the beloved Aston-Marton: a Lotus-Esprit that, while apparently lacking an ejector seat, can transform into a submarine at a moment’s notice.

The film’s plot, which is a reiteration of You Only Live Twice (1967) concerns an evil third party attempting to ramp up hostilities between Cold War competitors, but is nonetheless epic enough to provide a fantastic enemy headquarters (a sea castle called Atlantis), and a massive-scaled battle of two armies clashing in the interior of a giant, souped-up oil tanker.  

The film climaxes with a tense countdown to nuclear Armageddon.  Even the romance between Bond and a Russian agent called Triple X (Barbara Bach) strikes all the right notes, right down to a mention of Bond’s much-mourned and dead wife, Tracy. 

The Spy Who Loved Me also opens with one of the most jaw-dropping stunts ever to grace the silver screen, followed up by one of the best visual punch-lines of the entire Bond film series.

Here, Bond is pursued by Soviet agents in Austria when he is forced to ski, essentially, off a mountaintop.  He makes that jump (still wearing skis…) with no digital trickery or rear projection tomfoolery.  The camera follows the jump as 007 goes down, down and down -- in real life some 3,000 feet -- for an impossibly long time.  It looks like he is a goner.

But finally, a parachute goes up; a parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack symbol, a representation of British pride. 

The message is plain. Bond is back. And England is back too, the movie declares confidently.

It’s a perfect movie moment, and brilliant opening to a revitalized James Bond series.  The incredible jump was performed by stuntman Rick Sylvester at Mount Asgard in Canada, supervised by editor John Glen, and shot by cinematographer Alan Hume and a ledge camera man. This early moment in the film isn’t merely stunning, but literally jaw-dropping. Movie history -- and James Bond history -- was made in the first scene.  In the thirty-plus years since this pre-title sequence, it still hasn’t been topped.

Like both You Only Live Twice and later, Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me stresses Cold War tension.

A shadowy, unknown force is stealing Russian, British and American nuclear submarines, and each side blames the other.  Nuclear tensions rise.  Nobody trusts anyone.  But James Bond works with Triple X in a personal expression of “detente.” 

He soon learns that he is responsible for her lover’s death. She vows to kill him when their mission is over, a good continuing source of tension in the film, but for the moment puts their personal baggage aside.  This agreement to put differences aside is clearly a prescription in The Spy Who Loved Me for ending the Cold War. That prescription involves putting ideology aside, and deterring nuclear Armageddon for the benefit of all mankind, communist or capitalist.

The film’s villain, perhaps reflecting this increased sense responsibility to the global community, is not a criminal interested in money (like Goldfinger, Scaramanga or Mr. Big), or even, again, in ideology (like the misguided Russian general who nearly starts World War III in 1983’s Octopussy). Instead, he is a power-hungry maniac who wants to rule the world, and create a New World Order…under the sea.

Given the stakes, the whole canvas of the film is, appropriately, spectacular.  The movie is a roller-coaster ride and adventure, but not precisely an espionage film.  Bond is no longer merely a spy on the job, a secret agent protecting his government, but the savior of the world itself.  That he does so with a funny quip, an arched eyebrow, and an unflappable dedication makes him all the more appealing at this point in film’s history. 

Connery’s portrayal is more human and “dirty,” in a sense.  Moore’s Bond is one for the 1970s: more promiscuous, more amused by circumstances, and also somehow antiseptic; unwilling to let the chaotic terrain around him (a crisis of confidence?) detering him from doing what he must.  A downside to this new approach is that occasionally Moore’s Bond doesn’t seem to be in as much grave danger as his predecessor, though that’s not the case in The Spy Who Loves Me, which finds plenty of jeopardy for the character. 

The Spy Who Loved Me is an original story by Christopher Wood and Richard Maibum, though it takes the name of a Fleming novel. Although the decision to create original Bond material (with a familiar name) is no doubt controversial, it may be the very key to Bond’s long-term survival as a film franchise.  The character must always speak to modern times, not remain anchored to the 1960s.

The Spy Who Loved Me -- arriving in cinemas the same year as Star Wars -- seems to understand that audiences desired a less realistic, more modern, more humorous Bond.  The scales were tipped, perhaps too far in the next entry, Moonraker, but then the ship righted again in another great Moore entry: 1981’s For Your Eyes Only.

But had The Spy Who Loved Me failed in the summer of Star Wars, there might have been no future for 007.  The film succeeded in a tough summer by revitalizing and rethinking the 007 equation for the 1970s.

Also, I must note, finally, the “third movie” paradigm relating to 007 movies. Basically, it states that all the elements (performance, story, stunts, and so on) gel best in a Bond actor’s third film. 

Goldfinger is Connery’s third film. The Spy Who Loved Me is Roger Moore’s third. And Skyfall is Daniel Craig’s third.  Thus one can see the appeal of this argument, though I don’t necessarily buy it.

The only other actor who got to a third Bond film -- Pierce Brosnan -- is also the only one who breaks this pattern, with the less-than-stellar The World is Not Enough (1999) as his third entry.  My feeling, however, is the Brosnan mystique gels faster, and is at its best, actually, in his second film: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

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