“Well, well… a British agent in love with a Russian agent. Détente, indeed.” – Karl Stromberg
Welcome back to 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure. This is our weekly walk through the Bond films. We continue this week with the highly regarded tenth James Bond film – 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.
There’s a reason why they say “through adversity, comes art.”
Following The Man with the Golden Gun, Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman prepared for The Spy Who Loved Me. But storm clouds were gathering. The first was that Saltzman and Broccoli were having some behind the scenes arguments. Saltzman didn’t care much for all of Broccoli’s ideas (particularly in the music side of things), and Broccoli found that Saltzman had made some poor business decisions. Saltzman wanted to run some restaurants. He got the loans, thanks to the collateral of the James Bond series. When those businesses failed, the Bond series was in trouble. Eventually, after some delay from court hearings, Saltzman’s half of the series was bought out and it was now solely the property of Albert Broccoli.
That wasn’t all though. There was a clause in the contract with the Fleming estate saying they couldn’t adapt any element of the novel for The Spy Who Loved Me (aside from the title). That means an entirely new story had to be conceived. This isn’t exactly new as most Bond films based around an Ian Fleming novel usually differed wildly from the source material. Eventually, a script by Christopher Wood and longtime Bond writer Richard Maibaum was written, agreed upon and it was time to start filming the new film…
Until Kevin McClory reared his head once more in the plans of the Bond series. McClory had those rights with Thunderball once upon a time and always felt he had stake in a film series featuring 007. He claimed the script for The Spy Who Loved Me plagiarized a story he had written at some point. He filed an injunction, and a court threw it out. Finally, the 10th Bond film through United Artists and EON Productions could be made.
Through all this, The Spy Who Loved Me would become one of the biggest moneymakers in the series at this point, and is typically deemed one of the very best films of the entire franchise.
The movie opens with a nuclear submarine mysteriously disappearing. This is not happening to just British subs that are disappearing, but also Soviet subs. The British, naturally, send James Bond to check out what’s happening, but the Soviets send one of their top agents, Triple X (Barbara Bach), to investigate as well. They are not working together.
The villain of this movie, Karl Stromberg (played by Curd Jürgens) is obsessed with the sea. He lives in an underwater laboratory called Atlantis (as one might suspect he would). He’s hired men to design a submarine tracking system, but the microfilm has gotten out and is in danger of being sold to competing world powers. After dispatching of those who designed it and who stole it, Stromberg sends some henchmen, including the iconic Jaws (Richard Kiel), to track down the microfilm and kill anyone who comes into contact with it.
During the chase for this information, 007 and Triple X eventually cross paths and their governments believe it to be good for them to work together.
Okay, so standard fare for a James Bond film. However, there are things here that transcend this relatively run of the mill plot. In some ways, this movie even goes so far as to borrow plot threads from You Only Live Twice – both films were directed by Lewis Gilbert. This is the beginning of an idea that has sort of been seen in the past, but will be seen quite a bit in the future – play it safe by doing things that had been done before, but do them just different enough, thus taking safe risks to improve upon past ideas. Instead of a space craft gobbling up orbiting craft, it’s a giant tanker swallowing up smaller subs. But also, have the villain kill one of his employees by dumping her into the water to be eaten by some sort of killer fish (You Only Live Twice used piranhas and The Spy Who Loved Me uses a shark). Same, but different, and no one really complains.
So let’s unpack all of what makes this movie so wonderful. First, next week will be talking about the awesome music for this movie, so just know that is one of these wonderful elements of the movie. I think one of the items that almost everyone knows about this movie is Jaws, the henchman with the metal teeth. He was a breakout star of the film, appearing again in Moonraker. Richard Kiel’s height instantly makes him an imposing henchman. The teeth being a gimmick that is about as memorable as Oddjob’s derby. He’s also ridiculously strong. He’s just a great villain and is often shot as a horror monster more than just a normal man.
I also like Stromberg’s plan. In fact, it’s something that will find a place in the next film as well. Stromberg is a man of incredible resources. He’s also a complete crazy person. He wants to live under the ocean. He then will ignite World War III between the super powers. From there, he’ll create a paradise underwater. It’s delightfully over the top and it’s something that helps make the stakes higher and keep the series fresh. Also, it is noted that he does not like to shake hands with people. It’s not exactly stated that he is a germaphobe, but still… It’s the little things that make a movie great.
Jürgens has that deep voice and slow delivery that reminds me of a Blofeld kind of arch villain that can very easily be taken seriously. I also like that he’s basically the only Bond villain I can remember, and certainly the only one up to this point, that gets shot in the literal dick to be defeated by way of a tube under his table that he has connected to a gun to shoot people with that Bond uses first. In fact, he is one of the few main villains in any of the movies in the series to be killed by a gunshot.
What really makes The Spy Who Loved Me special in the series is the emotional tone it strikes. With Moore now free to develop his Bond to be even less like Connery’s and more of an English gentleman, he can really sink his teeth into more of who he is and what his profession does to him. At the beginning of the movie, Bond barely escapes an assassination attempt before launching into a very iconic stunt that shows Bond skiing off a giant cliff and unleashing a Union Jack parachute – proving, above all else, what his loyalty is and why he does his job. One of the people sent to kill him was the lover of Anya Amasova (agent Triple X). When she is told by her superior that he was killed during a mission that intersected with a British secret service mission, she swears vengeance.
She later learns it was Bond who killed him. She tells him that at the conclusion of this mission in which they must work together. There’s a particularly strong scene of Bond explaining himself to her, agent to agent, and the nature of their business of kill or be killed. They have a competitive relationship that is laced with being enemies from rival countries. They are very much equals with maybe the only difference coming down to age and experience. Despite the contention between our heroes, Bond still does everything he can to save a captured Anya from Stromberg’s Atlantis base before the Americans blow it up with a sub they were able to free from Stromberg’s clutches. He’s willing to appeal to her better angels while still being a good guy and doing the right thing to save her which works. She decides to forgive Bond.
This is one of the rare times that Bond’s marriage to Tracy is ever brought up. Anya is running what she knows from the dossier on him and mentions being married once and that she was killed. He stops her and she comments on him being sensitive about some topics. All in all, they know in a matter of days, they will be enemies again, with one in particular itching to use a license to kill on the other, but they remain professional after getting the orders to work together. Every scene with them is loaded with a lot of subtext that just enriches the entire story in ways most Bond films don’t get.
That brings me to our ladies of the film. This entry has a whole bunch of them, but two really stand out the most. The reason why the scenes between Bond and Anya work so well is because of Barbara Bach. She was selected to play the part only days before principal production began. She is radiant in the movie and definitely pulls her weight against Moore’s Bond. I mean… Just read the three paragraphs above. She’s one of the great Bond Girls and rarely gets the wider credit due to her.
The other standout girl in the movie is former model turned actress and singer Caroline Munro. Now, I am well aware of Munro’s work from the scores of B-movies she made in the 70s and 80s. But she got her part as Stromberg’s pilot Naomi because Broccoli saw her ad campaign for liquor where she would be wearing various wet suits with a knife holstered on her hip. He brought her in, and decided that she had all the right attributes to be Naomi, and yes… Yes she does have all the right attributes. An interesting tidbit is that she had a very small role in 1967’s version of Casino Royale which is a bizarre spoof on the Bond series released by Columbia Pictures. The less said about that one, the better. Additionally, she was supposedly lined up to play Ursa in the first two Superman films, but turned it down to be in The Spy Who Loved Me. That’s the power of the Bond franchise.
The primary gadget in this film, delivered by Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, is a tricked out Lotus Esprit. In real life, it is a custom car that is literally handmade. In the film, it has several weapons on board, but is mostly known for one thing. When being chased by various Stromberg goons, Bond and Anya need to find a place to hide, he takes the car underwater where it transforms into a small submarine. He uses a missile to blow up a helicopter, then uses it to fight off some underwater guys from Stromberg’s Atlantis when they get too close to it. It’s a cool car with a cool transforming ability. There’s a decent joke with it too as Bond drives out of the sea onto a crowded beach full of confused onlookers.
The look of the film is spectacular. This is yet another Ken Adam design. He’d get nominated for an Oscar for this. It’s also the beginning of the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios. A massive stage was constructed to show off the interior of Stromberg’s giant tanker. Nowadays it would be a digital effect with green screens and blue screens. Here, it’s all tactile and real. It also allows for a huge action set piece toward the end of the film that is a huge firefight between Stromberg’s men and the captive crews of the various submarines captured throughout the movie. What I always liked about the Ken Adam Bond sets was how sci-fi they look, but also so real too. It’s something that many movies would imitate, but almost none would succeed in pulling off quite the same way as Adam did.
In the end, The Spy Who Loved Me would be one of the absolute finest of films in the series. It’s smart and serious, while also being playful and has moments to be lighthearted. There are moments of true drama mixed in with the excitement of the action scenes. It is part of a group of entries that almost everyone who is a fan of the series agrees is one of the very best.
Join me next week for a look at the music of The Spy Who Loved Me. In two weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the eleventh Bond film, Moonraker.
Oh… One last thing before I move on for this week, The Spy Who Loved Me contains my favorite kill of Bond’s. Considering it is during Roger Moore’s time, someone who is absolutely a pacifist in real life, this kill of one of Stromberg’s men is cold but something you can definitely cheer when watching it.
That’s a pretty cold blooded kill.