Monday, 22 October 2012

50 Years of Bond: "The Spy Who Loved Me"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, and the 23rd Bond movie, Skyfall, is set to hit theatres this November. I thought now was a pretty good time to revisit several of the Bond films. I'll probably not cover every film but I'll discuss the most important films in the franchise as well as my personal favourites, which do overlap frequently. Now it's time to look at the third Roger Moore Bond film: The Spy Who Loved Me.

The Spy Who Loved Me is probably the best Bond film of the Roger Moore era, though I feel my favourite of his entries is For Your Eyes Only. Along with that film, The Spy Who Loved Me is the most tonally solid of the Moore era. It's outlandish and large-scaled, with fancy gadgets, an underwater fortress, and a henchman with metal teeth-but it avoids the double taking pigeons, southern sheriffs and overall campiness that would plague other Moore entries. It's arguable that this is the closest the Moore era got to the later Connery era films-in that it's absurd, but still enjoyably so.

This is the grandest Bond film since You Only Live Twice, so it makes sense that the producers brought back that film's director, Lewis Gilbert, to direct this film. The film announces itself as being a very production right from the pre-title sequence.  Bond is involved in a ski chase with Russian agents in Austria, which ends with Bond jumping off a cliff and unveiling a Union Jack parachute. The stunt was performed by Rick Sylvester and cost $500,000, making it the most expensive movie stunt at the time. The Union Jack parachute is such a great punchline to the pre-title sequence. It also establishes the hostile relationship between Britian and Russia, which leads to a detente between the two countries in the film.

The detente is a result of British and Russian submarines being abducted while undersea. This is part of shipping tycoon and scientist Karl Stromberg's (Curt Jurgens) plan to use the submarines to destroy the world, with Stromberg creating a new civilization underwater. I'm not quite sure how this plan will work and how he'll re-populate the underwater civilization. But, despite being insane, there's something surprisingly sweet about Stromberg's obsession with the underwater world. In a conversation with Bond, Bond asks him whether he misses the outside world, to which Stromberg tells him: "For me, this is all the world. There is beauty... there is ugliness... and there is death."  As Stromberg is telling him this, there are insert shots of different underwater creatures seen through the windows of Stromberg's underwater base, personifying each of these characteristics, which is a great visual touch by Gilbert and editor John Glen, who in four years would direct his first of five Bond films, the most of any director, with For Your Eyes Only.

The detente leads to Bond having to team up with a Russian agent, Major Ana Amasova (Barbara Bach), also known as Agent Triple X. Bond and Ana's relationship is really the heart of the film, resulting in one of the more interesting and nuanced Bond/Bond woman relationships in the franchise. They start off as rivals, then grow closer together and start to fall in love once they have to work together. Then things get more complicated when Ana discovers that Bond killed her lover during the ski chase in Austria. We had known this information earlier in the film but it's still a great payoff. Bond's "It was either him or me" justification is also one of Moore's best moments in the franchise and, as written, it really channels the moral grayness found in Ian Fleming's source material.

This was Moore's third time as Bond. I'm not a overall fan of the Moore era, which I think was due to the problem of the series, as I stated earlier, becoming too campy- as well as being worn thin by adhering to the Bond formula, which was coupled with the fact that Moore played Bond for 12 years and seven films, which did make the franchise feel a little stale near the end of the 80s. Moore was essentially being spread over too much bread (he was nearly 60 when he stopped playing it). I really wish someone as like Timothy Dalton had taken over at the beginning of the 80s.

Still, I actually like Moore as Bond. People involved in the franchise always say in Moore's first two films, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, the writers were writing Bond, and Moore was playing him, in a way that was more like Sean Connery than Roger Moore. What's good about Moore is he eventually found his groove and was able to make his portrayal of Bond different from Connery, being more of an English gentleman than the Connery rough around the edges approach. Moore could also be quite ruthless and darkly funny, as in a scene when Bond is fighting Stromberg's henchman Sandor on the roof of a building. When Sandor almost falls off the building, he grabs hold of Bond's tie. Bond asks him where someone is. Sandor tells him, to which Bond knocks Sandor's hand off his tie, sending him to his death. "Such a helpful chap" he says. It's a perfect example of Bond combining brutality with dark humour, which Moore pulls off very well.

I do wish a stronger actress had played Ana since she's one of the stronger women in the franchise. Bach is a little too stiff and removed for me. She isn't horrible and actually does a decent job of going from being a little cool towards Bond to falling in love with him, to swearing to kill him. I just feel that with a more accomplished actress, like Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Honor Blackman in Goldfinger, I would've loved the film more. My favourite moment between Bond and Ana is one of their first meetings, where they both know each other's backgrounds. She goes through some of Bond's backstory, reaching the murder of his wife Tracy, to which Bond curtly cuts her off, telling her "You've made your point." "Your'e sensitive Mr. Bond," she says. "About certain things, yes," he replies.  It's a moment that really reminds us that Bond is human, whose loss of his wife still haunts him.

While Stromberg is the main villain of the film, his henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel), is the the most memorable villain of the film, as well as one of the most memorable of the franchise. Jaws gets his name from having a mouth full of metal teeth. The fact that he shares a name with the shark from Steven Spielberg's Jaws, released a year earlier, plays in to the underwater theme, particularly when Jaws kills a shark near the end of the film. Jaws is both terrifying but also quite funny in how Bond keeps getting the better of him- as well as how clutzy Jaws is-dropping a rock on his foot, get buried under Egyptian archictecture, and having his teeth stuck to a magnet.   

The final big action sequence, taking place in Stromberg's tanker, is the kind of spectacle that is quintiessentially Bondian. Someone on the IMDb message board for this film asked why Bond isn't backed up by a platoon anymore in the films. It's a good point, since several of the early Bond films, including this, had Bond joined by soldiers during the final action sequence. Having Bond joined by the submarine teams gives the finale a sense of comradery, and reminds us that Bond was once in the navy. I do like the sequence when Bond has to take out of the core of a nuclear bomb in order to blow through a wall in the tanker. If the core touches the sides, the bomb will blow. It's one of the genuinely suspenseful sequences in a Bond film. The stuff involving Bond's Lotus Espirit, which can travel underwater, is also pretty cool.

The Spy Who Loved Me is the best Bond of the 70s. It has a healthy blend of outlandish spectacle, humour, and humanity. The next film, Moonraker,  would go even bigger, taking Bond in to outer space and having Jaws fall in love. James Bond will return in: Moonraker

P.S Carly Simon's theme song is one of the franchise's best, poignant and nostalgic. Here's another article I wrote recently about the best Bond theme songs-

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