The Bond: Roger Moore, again.
The Release: The three years between the release of The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me (the longest period since the franchise began without a new Bond) weren’t so much a choice as the result of a troubled production process. Richard Maibaum’s original script brought back SPECTRE and Kevin McClory filed an injunction claiming, first, that the story was plagiarized from one of his and Ian Fleming’s original treatments and, second, that he had invented SPECTRE in helping create Thunderball and Eon therefore had no right to use it. So, all references to the organization were removed and director Lewis Gilbert brought in friend Christopher Wood to work on a new script. More importantly, some bad investments required producer Harry Saltzman sell his shares in Eon and Cubby Broccoli (and later his family) was left to run the franchise alone. Despite the drama, when the film hit theaters on July 20, 1977 in the UK and August 3rd in the US, it made $185 million worldwide and in all markets where Star Wars wasn’t released until the next year, it was the highest grossing movie of the year.
The Girl: Barbara Bach as Anya Amasova, or Agent XXX of the KGB. She’s Bond’s most capable paramour to date and watching them one up each other–bantering playfully all the while–makes them one of the sexier Bond pairings. However, two things stop the character from being great. The first is that Anya gets damsel-in-distressed for the third act when the villain takes her back to his underwater lair, puts her in a sexy outfit and stays strapped to a pretty phallic-looking chair until Bond rescues her. The second is that Bach just isn’t a great actress. Everything she does except withering sarcasm and sex appeal comes off as robotic.
The Villain: Curd Jürgens as Karl Stromberg, who’s a combination of past villains’ best traits. He has the insane world domination plot of Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld, the theatricality of Charles Gray’s Blofeld, Dr. No’s affinity for underwater seascapes and Largo’s killer sharks. Jürgens plays the character as a megalomaniac barely in control of his madness and he’s great fun even if he’s not remotely frightening.
There’s also Stromberg’s heavy Jaws, played by Richard Kiel. He’s mostly a joke about the biggest film of 1975, Jaws, but much like his namesake, he chomps into victims with his grotesque metal teeth. However, the character also provides some laughs, particularly when he gets dropped into a shark tank and bites the animal to death instead of the other way around.
The Gadgets: Bond’s Lotus Esprit is by far the best thing in the movie. The production team initially ordered only one of the hand-built cars and realized too late that they needed a second, so the company’s chairman happily lent them his. An American company called Perry Submarines converted the car for the underwater scenes and while the film makes it look like the passengers stay dry while it’s submerged, in actuality, those inside had to wear wetsuits and breathing gear. Sadly, the scenes where the vehicle transitions from car to sub were done in miniature by special effects artist Derek Meddings, but the real car was used in the scene where it approaches a beach Jaws-like and then drives up onto the sand.
The Song: “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon. Simon only sings the line, “the spy who loved me” once, so most people probably don’t even realize it’s from a Bond movie. Composed by Marvin Hamlisch (who also did the film’s horribly disco-y score) with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, it’s one of the franchise’s best. While it skews sappy, it’s kind of perfect in terms of the state of the franchise in 1977. The film business had changed in the three years Bond was absent from the screen and the franchise had something to prove. TSWLM was indeed proof that nobody does blockbuster entertainment better than Bond.
The Book: Attempting to try something different, Ian Fleming wrote the novel from the perspective of Vivienne Michel, a French-Canadian journalist on a motorcycle ride across America who gets mixed up in a gangster’s plot when she becomes the secretary of The Dreamy Pines Motor Court. Fans and critics mostly disliked the book (largely because Bond doesn’t appear until over halfway through), so Fleming only sold the title to Broccoli and Saltzman for adaptation to film. However, other than the moment where Vivienne thinks that “all women love semi-rape,” it’s surprisingly well-written.
Though that doesn’t mean the book is necessarily fun. The action takes place almost exclusively on Friday the 13th, but Vivienne’s life is pretty awful on a normal day. The reason she even finds herself in a motel far from either her Quebec upbringing or her most recent home in London is that a series of traumatic romantic entanglements have broken her spirit. The first is with an English boy named Derek who convinces her to sleep with him (in a public place where they get caught, no less) and then stops calling as soon as they do. The second is with her boss, Kurt, who becomes her no-strings-attached sex buddy after his fiancée jilts him. However, when Vivienne accidentally becomes pregnant, Kurt responds by firing her, handing her an envelope of money and sending her off to Switzerland for an abortion and only shows mild regret that their arrangement must end.
Given that history, it’s almost no surprise that two gangsters appear in the night to rape and murder Vivienne. So who could blame her when, at the end of the book, she worries that Bond may have ruined her for all other men? It’s maybe not the most progressive of stories, but at least both Fleming and Bond treat her emotions and intelligence with a surprising level of respect.
The Movie: Writer Christopher Wood said that, “One of the keys to writing a Bond movie is, you have to do the same thing, but do it differently,” and this movie exemplifies that. While its basic plot is a lot like You Only Live Twice (with satellites instead of nuclear submarines), its most surprising connections are to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This is the first film since then to acknowledge Bond’s dead wife, but on a simpler level, the pre-credits skiing sequence recalls the similar chase in that movie. This one outdoes the original by ending with Bond skiing off a cliff (Canada’s Asgard Peak standing in for Austria) only to be saved from plummeting to his death by a parachute with the Union Jack on it.
Thanks to shots like that and the cinematography of Claude Renoir (nephew of filmmaker Jean Renoir), The Spy Who is the most visually interesting Bond film since OHMSS. Whether it’s the gorgeous colors of Egyptian sunsets or the shot of Bond sitting at Stromberg’s dining table that also encompasses the long gun barrel attached to its underside, Renoir exploits the widescreen frame (last used in Diamonds are Forever) for all it’s worth. Unfortunately, thanks to his failing eyesight, filming on the set production designer Ken Adam (who took a break from the franchise after Diamonds and won an Oscar for his work on Barry Lyndon in the process) built for the interior of Stromberg’s supertanker, the Liparus, presented a problem.
Built simultaneously with the sound stage that housed it (which Eon paid £400,000 to construct) the set was so large that Renoir couldn’t see to the end of it because of his failing eyesight. Adam asked friend Stanley Kubrick for advice on how to light the space and he agreed to help on the condition that nobody find out. Exteriors of the Liparus were much easier to film because Meddings built it with a miniature so convincing that Shell employees familiar with the tanker it was modeled on thought the ship in the film was real.
With so much visual splendor, it’s easy to forgive how uninteresting and unnecessarily convoluted the plot is. It goes from ski jumps to underwater sequences to car chases to explosions with so few breaks in the tension that it’s almost exhausting. Even so, there’s a reason this movie is widely considered Moore’s best Bond, it’s so fun to watch that the problems almost don’t matter.