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Bond Blog: The Spy Who Loved Me – A James Bond Retrospective

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The Spy Who Loved Me is a great title, but a terrible book. Ian Fleming’s ninth Bond novel is little more than a novella. But even this slim piece of silliness was too embarrassing. The book is narrated by a Canadian girl and if you think the author of Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang and 007 can’t write from a female perspective prepare yourself for a shock. He can’t.

Fleming sold the title to the producers Broccoli and Saltzman but this was certainly a film that had nothing else to do with the source material. Instead, Roger Moore’s third outing would continue the process of self-cannibalization, once more stealing the plot of Thunderball. This time instead of missiles or spaceships (that will come around again, don’t worry), it’s submarines. Curt Jurgens plays the shipping mogul Stromberg who is capturing Russian, British and American submarines in order to start a nuclear war. Bond must team up with his opposite number Triple X (Barbara Bach) in order to pursue a missing machine which will eventually lead to the plot to destroy the world and start an underwater city.

The film turned out to be a turning point for the franchise. Harry Saltzman had sold his interest in 1975 so it was a big change at the top. Then the Kevin McClory lawsuit continued to have an effect so that the original plan to include Spectre and Blofeld was ditched and Blofeld – with a little finger webbing – became Stromberg. With Lewis Gilbert back in the director’s chair, there is also a sense that the series needs to pick up its game following the relatively modest success of The Man with the Golden Gun. It is tantalising to imagine what Steven Spielberg would have made of the film. He was approached to direct while he was finishing work on Jaws. That indeed suggests not only an alternative version of this film but also of the history of Hollywood movie-making. And here’s another interesting pub quiz piece of trivia. Stanley Kubrick came in and helped light the submarine set because Lewis Gilbert’s eyes weren’t up to it anymore.

The Spy Who Loved Me is the apotheosis of the Roger Moore Bonds. He looks good, is still able to deliver the action scenes credibly and his wooden nonchalance is easily forgotten when everything around him is blowing up. The opening sequence also has the excellent parachute jump with the union jack opening up. It’s cheerfully patriotic on the year of the Silver Jubilee and when punk was being born in London, once more leading the world in music culture. There can hardly be anything less punk than James Bond, but here we get one of the favourite villains of the series: Jaws (Richard Kiel). When I first watched the film as a child, Jaws terrified me, and even as an adult he gives me the shudders. As well as a hulking presence and a mouth of steel, the giant seems to truly enjoy his work, and he’s something of a dandy, always adjusting his tie and patting his suit down.

Bach is not bad as Anya or Triple X. Cast only days before principal photography began, Bach provides a nice back and forth dynamic and feels like a break from the usual useless ‘bimbo’ like Mary Goodnight. That said, she largely disappears for hunks of the last part of the film.

All of my previous criticisms of Moore still stand in this film. He’s an awful actor and any joy from his woodeness usually comes at the expense of the film. But the film has a beautiful set of locations, from the Alps to Egypt to Corsica; some great set pieces and a particularly iconic car, the Lotus Esprit. The scale of the film is obviously large and the stakes are raised, although paradoxically I always feel far less tension when the destruction of the world is in the balance. The theme song by Carly Simon also delivers a memorable ballad. The formula for the next Roger Moore chapters is now firmly in place and will be repeated for the next four films until finally it was decided that someone else actually does it better.

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