Sunday, August 28, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

(Directed by Lewis Gilbert)
Even during a period of détente between the British and Russians, evil lurked in the shadows and posed a threat to the entire world. Following the at first unexplained disappearance of British and Soviet war submarines, 007 (Roger Moore) was called upon to search for a highly sophisticated submarine tracking mechanism, whose plans, stored on microfilm, were apparently located in Egypt. It was there that he made the acquaintance of a Russian secret just as cunning and capable as himself, Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), aka agent XXX, who was also hot on the trail for the tracking system plans. There time in Egypt was almost cut short when whereupon discovering one of the oddest yet most powerful assassins ever, a behemoth named Jaws (Richard Kiel) equipped with steel teeth. 

Bond and Amasova opted to form a truce for the sake of both their countries, and were aided by additional intelligence which pinpointed to a certain Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens), sea life scientist and mastermind behind the impressive Atlantis underwater facility where he performed research, or so he claimed. It was almost too late when 007 and agent XXX became privy to the true nature of Stromberg’s intentions, which involved launching nuclear missiles from his base of operations onto the cities of Moscow and New York, thus propelling those nations into nuclear war and endangering the entire world. Man, the most destructive animal ever to walk the planet, would be dead, with Stromberg living in peace in the aftermath with a newly created civilization. 

There has been a something of a running theme in my reviews throughout this Definitive Bond marathon. When the films have been more realistic (in relative terms since this is still Bond we are discussing after all), the more I have been inclined to praise them. Conversely, the more ludicrous the movies have been, the higher the likelihood that my opinion would drop. With rules come exceptions however, and in the case of feeling underwhelmed by the bloated 007 adventures, The Spy Who Loved Me is the exception to the rule. That is not to say that I absolutely adore Lewis Gilbert’s second take on the Bond franchise (his first being You Only Live Twice), but he serves up one heck of a good time. In fact, for many reasons, it feels rather unsurprising that this is frequently claimed as being the best of the Roger Moore 007 adventures. I may not entirely agree with that sentiment, but I definitely see where those people are coming from when they argue such.
There is a really fascinating history behind the production and pre-production of this movie for interested in that sort of archival material. Ian Fleming’s original novel was experimental in nature (hard to believe something Bond related being as labelled ‘experimental’ but it is true) and the author himself was not completely satisfied with his work, therefore demanding that the book not be translated, plot-wise, into a film, meaning the filmmakers, and screenwriters Richard Maibum and Christopher Wood in particular, would have to come up with something entirely original. There was also the matter of Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman suffering through crumbling debts upon seeing many of his side projects eat dust. With Saltzman being unfortunately let go from the Bond family, TSWLM  therefore became the first in a long line of 007 movies solely produced by Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli. Then came lawsuits from a man whose name should be familiar to anybody familiar with the franchise: Kevin McClory, who battled long and hard for writing credits and film rights with Ian Fleming and MGM, before and after The Spy Who Loved Me (his name will come back in a big later on in this marathon). All of this meant that for the first time since the film franchise began, there was more than a 2 year wait between instalments (Golden Gun was released in 1974). There was also the matter of Golden Gun being one of the lesser well received Bond films in some time...

Despite this trying time in the history of the franchise, creative minds and sheer determination culminated in one of the most entertaining 007 adventures. If the franchise was going to go out, it was to do so with a freaking bang. Well, evidently the series did not go out in 1977, but it still made a bang. Make that a sonic boom. TSWLM is a massive, massive film. It is ironic that Lewis Gilbert directed this project seeing as he also directed that last Bond film that reached epic proportions, You Only Live Twice. I guess the man simply adheres to the formula of ‘the bigger, the better.’ In this case it actually pays off however. One need only see a few clips featuring the villain Stromberg’s underwater home, Atlantis, when it rises from the water. It looks and feels absolutely epic in all the right ways, with a slick look, but one that hints at a malevolence. It is something that could only come out of a fantastical dream and fits the character of Stromberg, a sophisticated if delusional recluse, perfectly. Lewis should share the credit with Bond veteran production designer Ken Adam, who was once again on board to design most of the sets. Adam put out all the stops in creating Atlantis and many of the other sets, such as Stromberg’s super tanker which swallows up other submarines like a lion would swallow up a mouse. Lewis, on the other hand, is an intelligent director in that his camera is not all that flashy in any shape or form that could call attention to itself, but is almost always well placed to capture either the beauty or awe inspiring visuals of a scene. I’ve always firmly believed that some Bond films are genuinely well filmed (lighting, camera angles, editing, etc), something I do not think a lot of people ponder on or notice when watching and discussing 007, and TSWLM fits that bill. Some of those scenes in the Egyptian desert and in Cairo look stunning. For some more interesting information, check out the I Spy section after the review for a little bit of trivia might knock some of your socks off...

So the film is epic, but what about beyond the scope? Rest assured, TSWLM delivers on so many more fronts than just production design and cinematography. The tone of this adventure just fits so well with the Roger Moore Bond, not to mention that the actual ‘spy love’ angle is seriously well established and developed. Moore is just as good here as he was in Live and Let Die, especially with the one-liners and the action seems to be well suited for his physical capabilities, unlike in the previous film where he was put up against karate fighters. He seems like a better fit for this sort of adventure than, say, Timothy Dalton or Daniel Craig would be. More than that however, is the fact that his Bond is perfectly paired with agent XXX, played by Barabara Bach. She may not be the strongest actress to play a Bond girl (I personally think people give her a bit more credit than she deserves), yet still pulls off a decent performance as a rival turned lover. That plot point, that a British and Russian agent must work together and eventually feel attraction for one another, works superbly as a love angle in a Bond picture, but the screenwriters actually go the extra mile in have Bond unknowingly kill Anya Asamova’s lover in the pre-credit sequence. This comes back to haunt Bond later in the story when XXX learns of this news, which of course sours what relationship she and Bond had been developing. All in all, TSWLM has one of the better written Bond-Bond girl stories in the series. The script equally pays respect to the man that is James Bond with some brief but welcome references to his status as Commander in the Royal Navy and the fact that he was married once.

Another department in which the series receives a much needed shot in the arm is the action, of which there is plenty. Most of it is exciting and superbly shot. The chase sequence between Bond’s Lotus Esprit and a machine gun equipped helicopter helmed by Naomi, Stromgberg’s personal pilot, is executed to perfection. The sense of speed, the manoeuvres a car would possibly do in attempts to fool a helicopter, and even Moore’s persona as 007 are all played upon (the little sarcastic nod he gives to Naomi from his car after she gives him a sarcastic wink from her helicopter). The final shootout between two small armies that transpires within Stromberg’s super tanker is equally exciting. There is also the small matter of the parachute jump off a cliff in the pre-credit sequence, which stunned audiences back then just as it still does today. There are no cuts during that fall, my friends, that’s one take. Rarely have the 007 adventures been this perfect in the execution of the action sequences.

Any discussion about TSWLM would be incomplete without any mention of Jaws, arguably the most memorable Bond villain in the franchise’s storied history.  From where I’m standing, Jaws is quite the controversial creation. Allow me to explain. To begin, when analyzing the character of Jaws as depicted in TSWLM, one must be paying close attention to the film.  I’m being serious here. Pay close attention. The first hour or so feature Jaws is a genuinely terrifying figure, a giant of a man who, while slow and not very agile, can somehow always manage to snare his prey and kill them in the most grisly of manners. As a child, the scene in Egypt, during a light show around the pyramids when Bond is following Jaws who himself is following the man trying to in possession of the submarine tracking system plans, truly gave me the creepers. I may not get the same goose bumps today as back then, but I nonetheless see that sequence as effectively spooky, one that demonstrates, in a very dark way, how dangerous the world of James Bond can be. But if one pays attention to how the character is treated after 007 and XXX escape from Jaws clutches in the Egyptian ruins, he is almost always played for laughs, as if the filmmakers just can no longer keep a straight face about how ridiculous Jaws is, which ends up disappointing because for all intents and purposes, they were actually doing a half decent job at using the character Jaws ‘straight’ for a solid portion of the film. An opportunity missed if I ever saw one, but the concept of Jaws remains stellar.

A bit like Jaws, not everything in the movie works as well as one would like. Stromberg remains interesting if only because the reasoning behind his dastardly plot has less to do with being truly evil (although that obviously plays a part) and more to do with his disgust at humanity rape and pillaging of Erath.  Other than that, despite Curd Jürgens being a good actor, there is not much there that strikes the viewer in any particular fashion. The way Stromberg goes about putting his scheme into motion resembles Blofeld’s plan from YOLT far too much (one of the reasons Gilbert was brought back to direct, perhaps?).

Despite some of the picture’s flaws, TSWLM is often rousing entertainment. It has a vintage Roger Moore Bond plot, a really solid Bond girl, stupendous action and some exquisitely well filmed sequences. I have no qualms admitting that despite its overall ridiculousness it is a Bond film dear to my heart.



thevoid99 said...

Nobody does it better... Makes me feel sad for all the rest... Nobody does it, half as good as you... Baby you're the man!!!

This is one of my favorite Bond films ever. It's got everything I need in a Bond film.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I'vge always referred to TSWLM as "James Bond: The Musical" for its music jokes, Marvin Hamlisch's lush score, and the wide screen cinematography that keeps everything in cenhter-frame (for the TV broadcasts).

United Artists was the producing studio for the film, not M-G-M, which (if I remember correctly) acquired UA at the time of Octopussy.

I saw no "I Spy" section for the movie (with trivia)but ehre's one: the "007" Stage at Pinewood, which housed the "Liparus" set was so huge that the cinematographer had no clue how to light it—there was a similar problem with the volcano set in YOLT (another way that TSWLM parallels YOLT). Production designer Ken Adam called Stanley Kubrick to see if he had any ideas (Kubrick's step-daughter Katherine Hobbs worked for Adam and designed the teeth for Jaws and Adam worked for Kubrick on Dr Strangelove and Barry Lyndon). Kubrick (who wanted to see the stage at Pinewood) agreed, but only if it was kept secret. Kubrick's practical lighting design is something os a triumph—that stage gleams in brightness—and his involvement was only revealed after his death.

edgarchaput said...

@thevoid99: 'Baby you're the BEST' but whatever. The movie is still too over the top for me to consider it one of my all time favourites, but it's among the top tier.

@Yojimbo %: The I Spy section of the review is located at the Filmspotting message boards. Stanley Kubrick's secretive visit to the set is among the many little tidbits I share. Don't worry, I had that covered.