The Spy Who Loved Me: In the year of ‘Star Wars,’ James Bond kept the ‘British end up’ with the best Roger Moore Bond film

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) was the third film to feature Roger Moore as Ian Fleming’s James Bond. With the massive success of this film, directed by Lewis Gilbert, James Bond made a grand comeback after a tumultuous decade that saw diminishing box office returns and three different actors embodying Bond.

The year 1977 was a watershed in the history of American cinema (and maybe World cinema as well). This was the year when a little film called “Star Wars” got released and exploded like a nuclear bomb, the effects of which are felt even to this day- perhaps more today than ever before, when most\only mainstream films getting released are Franchise films . Till then the American film industry was more of a cottage industry, but Star Wars proved that not only one film can make more money than perhaps the entire slate of films released by a studio in a calendar year, but the film itself can become an industry of its own – generating sequels, spinoffs, merchandises, comic books etc. etc. Though the success of the “Star Wars” was the big event of 1977, what’s usually forgotten is the fact that the year also witnessed the grand comeback of the mother of all franchises – the ‘James Bond’ franchise – that even to this day is the most durable film franchises ever. James Bond films were planned as a franchise in the early ’60s by producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman when the concept of franchises did not exist. Sequels to films were made since the beginning of Hollywood, but they were made only if the first movie was successful; simply to capitalize on the success of the first film. James Bond was the first instance when producers planned to make a series of films (based on Ian Fleming’s novels featuring the British agent 007 James Bond and mainly using talent from the British film industry) without bothering about how the first film turned out. The series started rather modestly with the 1962 film, “Dr. No,” with then unknown actor Sean Connery as James Bond. And each year after that there were successive installments; and with each installment the popularity of the films kept on increasing- to the point that by 1965, with the release of the fourth Bond film “Thunderball,” Bond mania had gripped the world, and Bond films became the most popular movies on the planet. By this time, Sean Connery had become a superstar and the most popular and recognized man on earth. But Connery, who felt imprisoned in the Bond role and wanting to expand his range as an actor (there were salary disputes also), shocked the producers by walking out of the franchise after the release of the fifth Bond film, “You Only Live Twice(1967).”

The decade between 1967 and 1977 would prove to be tumultuous for the Bond film franchise. Connery’s replacement in the role of Bond, George Lazenby, proved to be unpopular with the audiences in the film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service(1969),” and the producers were forced to get Connery Back for the next film, “Diamonds are Forever(1971),” at an enormous fee. But it was just a stopgap option, and another actor, Roger Moore will play Bond in “Live and Let Die(1973).” The popularity of the series would wane in the interim – due to the constant switching of actors, poor quality of filmmaking and the emergence of a countercultural audience who preferred gritty realistic fare closer to their lives (and not the globetrotting fantastical adventures of a British secret agent). This was very evident by the box office performance of Moore’s second outing as Bond- “The Man with the Golden Gun(1974)” would turn out to be one of the least successful films in the franchise. There were also problems behind the scenes, as professional differences cropped up between the two producers, Broccoli and Saltzman; the latter finally quitting the series, selling his share in the Bond films to the studio, United Artists. Saltzman was convinced that Bond films had no future- a sentiment shared by a lot of people in (and out of) the industry. But Broccoli, who was now the sole owner of Bond, was not willing to give up. With his next production, he decided to go for broke by emulating the formula of his most successful ’60s Bond films, like “Goldfinger” and “You only Live Twice”; he was going to make the new Bond film, “The Spy who Loved Me(1977),” big and spectacular. To this end, he allocated a budget that was twice the size of “…Golden Gun.” The film’s plot was also going to be a rehash of “You Only..” with that film’s director, Lewis Gilbert, hired to direct this one as well. The extend of Broccoli’s ambitions can be understood from the fact that he had a new, massive soundstage, the 007 soundstage, created for this film to house the spectacular sets- designed by the great production designer, Ken Adam; a set so massive that Adam had to seek the help of Stanley Kubrick to light it. Broccoli took a long time in planning this new venture, so there was an unprecedented three year gap between two Bond films. But when the film finally premiered in 1977 (about a month after “Star Wars”), it was an unqualified success, becoming the most successful Bond film ever. “The Spy Who Loved Me” resurrected the Bond franchise, which was on the verge of extinction, and also made sure that Roger Moore, who was struggling to embody Bond, would go on to become the actor to play the British agent the maximum number of times.

Now coming to the plot of the film, well. it’s as generic as it can get. A megalomaniac – this time named Stromberg, not Blofeld – is planning world domination by destroying the earth and starting a new civilization under water. He himself looks like a freak of nature, with webbed fingers and his preference for living in an underwater city, named “Atlantis.” He is hijacking British and Russian ballistic-missile submarines using his supertanker, Liparus, in order to steal the nuclear warheads. The British government authorizes James Bond to investigate the disappearance of their Sub. Similarly, the Soviets authorizes their agent XXX , Major Anya Amasova to investigate the matter. Naturally, Bond and Anya’s paths cross – first they are adversaries, then they become allies (and lovers), after British and Russian authorities decides to mount a joint operation to unlock the mystery behind disappearing subs. Obviously, all clues leads to Stromberg, who sends out his his henchmen, Sandor and Jaws, to eliminate the agents. After a lot of action and destruction, Bond and Anya are captured by Stromberg, as he prepares to put into action his plans of world decimation. But as expected, Bond manages to foil the evil villain’s plans, rescue the girl and save the world. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is perhaps the first Bond film where its plot is of no importance; though Bond films always followed a formula with its trademark ‘items’, the movies up until this point actually tried to be different from one another as far as the basic plotline goes, with each trying for a different mood. Like “From Russia with Love” was more of an espionage drama, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was more of a romantic love story, “Live and Let Die” had elements of horror and gritty Blaxploitation. But starting with this film, and for the rest of Moore’s tenure as Bond (with the honorable exception of “For Your Eyes Only(1981)”), Bond films will have pretty much the same plot; and it will also aim to create a similar mood of effervescent self-parody. There will be nothing remotely downbeat, disturbing or unexpected in these films- everything will be very predictable, polished, shiny and fun & games. Director Lewis Gilbert would literally remake this film as the franchise’s next installment, “Moonraker(1979)” -with outer space standing in for the Ocean, which is ironic\parodic because this film substituted Ocean for space in “You Only Live Twice.” But the thing that separates “The Spy Who Loved Me” from the several latter day Moore Bonds is the finesse, conviction and seriousness with which all of the mindless fun stuff in the film is executed. The film is mindless fun for sure, but it is made with seriousness and passion by the cast and crew involved. This automatically makes it the best of all Moore Bonds, and one of the Best Bond movies ever made.

This seriousness and professionalism is visible from the very first frame of this Bond film- the film is shot in a different (widescreen) aspect ratio from the previous ones; it uses a different film stock, different color schemes and lighting effects from previous ones; the screenplay is very professionally done, with the film moving very quickly from one plot point to the next. The emphasis is always to create a grand action adventure epic – something like a James Bond film equivalent of a David lean epic – with action constantly shifting from snowy Alps to Egyptian desert to Sardinian landscapes. David Lean , the unquestionable master of epic cinema, is explicitly referenced twice here, with Maurice Jarre’s iconic themes from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” being used in some scenes. Of course, then there are the set-pieces, the lifeblood of all Bond movies, and particularly during the Roger Moore era, when the plots were relegated to being mere clothesline to hang the several spectacular action set-pieces and fancy gadgets. Starting with the now legendary, Union-Jack unfurling skiing, parachute jump that sets up a great pre-credits sequence, the film is full of exciting and inventive stunts. My most favorite being the stunt involving the amphibious Lotus Esprit , as Bond driving the car fights off attacks from bikes, cars, helicopters and min-subs. The lengthy sequence is a masterclass in action choreography- with the action starting small, and then it slowly builds and builds; and as it goes on, it keeps getting bigger and better at every stage; the action begins on land, and then it becomes an underwater battle when the car dives into the ocean and morphs into a mini-sub. The filmmakers uses wide angle lenses mounted on cameras set up on vehicles running at very high speeds to capture the action involving the car and helicopter, which gives it a near-3D effect. This sequence has a great climax, with the Lotus emerging from the sea and driving onto the beach through the middle of the stupefied onlookers. Another great action sequence is the one before the climax that takes place inside the Liparus Supertanker.

Apart from the Lotus Esprit and the supertanker, there are several other inventive gadgets and sets\set-pieces featured in the film. Stromberg’s home, “Atlantis” is a fantastic futuristic design that must have sprung from the combined imagination of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Another great set-piece in the film is a ‘Light and sound’ show orchestrated around the Egyptian Pyramids- at once dazzling and funny, where the metal-teethed, devilish-looking ‘Jaws’ appears to be part of the show. There are also several fight sequences between Bond and Jaws- one amidst the Egyptian ruins, the other on a train, another on the road etc. – all of them ending with Jaws defeated and almost dead, but still coming out of it all alive, which kind of becomes a running joke in the film; and in the end, we actually see him biting and killing a shark and escaping (to return in the next James Bond film “Moonraker”). The film also has a great score by Marvin Hamlisch , and a pretty good, Oscar-nominated title track – “Nobody does it better..” written by Carole Bayer Sager, and performed by Carly Simon. It was the first theme song in the series with a different title to that of the film, though the title is featured in the song. Lewis Gilbert, who directed this film, was more famous for his character-driven dramas like “Alfie” and (later) “Educating Rita.” But with “You Only Live Twice,” he proved that he was really good at making mindless spectacles that thoroughly engaged the audiences. In his second outing as Bond film director, Gilbert, even as he rehashes the plot elements and the spiffy, insouciant tone of his first Bond film, successfully rectifies the mistakes he made with that one; no more cringey stuff like Bond becoming Japanese, or disguised as a fisherwoman; nor are the women just hot bikini babes. Here, Gilbert does his best to update Bond for the mid’70s and also present him at his dashing and debonair best, with the Bond girls becoming active participants in moving the story forward. He has created a sleek, sexy, epic, over the top (but not too over the top) and very entertaining Bond film that definitely contain elements that would become predominant factors in the embarrassing late-career Roger Moore Bond films, but for this one they are perfectly mixed and matched. Gilbert also proved that he can stage large scale action sequences effectively on massive sets and exotic locations that are characteristics of Bond films. His training under Hitchcock seems to have definitely helped him in building up and staging some suspenseful scenes in the film (Bond and Anya trailing Jaws in Egypt, Bond and Anya discovering Jaws in their train cabin, the climax scenes etc.).

The only point where the film falters majorly is in the casting of Barbara Bach as Anya. She is wooden as hell and completely destroys one of the best Bond girl\woman characters ever created. She is not lacking in sex-appeal, but she moves and talks as if inflicted with somnambulism- on top of that she affects a terrible accent. The scenes that should have been electrifying – like the moment when Anya finds out that Bond has killed her lover and vows to take revenge once their mission is completed, or the scene where they try to one up the other while using their deductive skills to solve a mystery – barely registers. There are such interesting dimensions in the relationship between Bond and Anya- first they hate each other , then they team up and become partners, then they fall in love, then the tension over Bond killing Anya’s lover clouds the relationship; all this should have been exciting, suspenseful and very romantic (as the title suggests, romance is\should have been an integral part of the film), but I never felt any kind of tension, leave alone romantic\sexual tension between the two. Director Gilbert does his best to maintain a romantic mood throughout by judiciously using music and camera effects, but they are not enough. How I wish Catherine Deneuve, who was more than eager to do the part, would have done the role of Anya; this would have been epic; her mystique, exoticism and talent would have elevated Anya into one of the greatest and most iconic Bond heroines ever. Deneuve even cut her price by half to get the role, but even that was too much for producer, Broccoli to accept; he never believed in paying his actors much- all those fights he had with Sean Connery over money is a testament to that – and believed in paying the actresses even less. Then again, why should he?, the Bond formula is itself so commercially potent that it’s going to succeed irrespective of who appears in it. In the end the film is going to make money no matter whom you cast. Like all commercial Film producers, Broccoli was more\only concerned with the bottom-line; as his habit of endlessly recycling Bond formulas till they run out of steam represents.

Curt Jürgens is an interesting choice for the Captain Nemo-like antagonist Karl Stromberg. He oozes despotic menace, and he’s also witty in a very understated way. Though sometimes he comes across as too grumpy an old men, who just don’t believe in having any fun at all (Unlike a Goldfinger or Scaramanga)- The filmmakers originally wanted actor, James ‘Captain Nemo’ (from Disney’s “20,000 leagues under the Sea”) Mason himself to pay the role, but that did not work out. Instead, the colorful villainous part is left to Richard Kiel’s Jaws, one of the most iconic Bond villains, who made his first appearance here. Jaws is an indestructible 7-foot tall hulk with metal teeth who’s obsessively driven to kill Bond. As for Roger Moore, this is the film were he finally came into his own as Bond. In the first two films, the filmmakers were trying to turn him into another Connery, but this film is designed to suit Moore’s strength as an actor. This Bond is funnier, sleeker, refined & sophisticated; Moore definitely imparts some English suaveness, charm and an aristocratic authority to the part- as opposed to the more gruff & tough, working class Scottish Bond of Connery. Here, Moore proves that he is adept at mixing humor, romance, drama and action, always topped off by his trademark ironic detachment; Moore was never a good action hero. Actually, he made Bond into someone who was too cool to be an action hero, but here he looks much more comfortable in action scenes than he has ever looked.

In many ways, “The Spy Who Loved Me” is to Moore what “Goldfinger was to Connery- the film that took them on a different path from their previous films; for Connery, it was actually a step down to move into a gadget-filled Bond spectacle from the more dramatic and well-written “From Russia with Love” (Connery’s favorite Bond film), but for Moore it was a step up, as this is the film where he finally managed to put his personal stamp on the Bond character (No wonder this is his favorite Bond film). Both these films are also two of the best (maybe ‘the’ best) Bond films ever made in how well they managed to mix all the trademark Bond ‘items’ – stunts, girls, gadgets, glamor, sets, exotic locations etc. – in an extremely well-made & entertaining package. Apart from being the film that saved the ‘James Bond’ franchise, and also being one of the franchise’s most iconic (the presence of Lotus Esprit & Jaws, Moore finding his touch etc.), “The Spy Who Loved Me” is also the film that transformed Bond into a British Icon. The early Bond films of Connery maybe more British in style and treatment, but the character of James Bond – in those films- was more of a popular character who happened to be British. But with this film, especially with the true-blue Englishman Roger Moore’s suave embodiment of the character, and more so with the opening and closing sequences explicitly and unabashedly associating Bond (and Bond’s virility) with his Britishness – the unfurling of the Union Jack to escape death in the opening sequence and Bond keeping the ‘British end up’ in his inimitable way in final sequence, Bond, finally, came to be accepted as a true British icon.

4 thoughts on “The Spy Who Loved Me: In the year of ‘Star Wars,’ James Bond kept the ‘British end up’ with the best Roger Moore Bond film

  1. You know so much about films than the so-called trend influencers on YouTube. Every review of yours is a lesson in the history of cinema.

    P.S. I hope you will review ‘Shamshera’ when it comes.


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