Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood
Release Date: 8the July, 1977 (U.K), 13th July, 1977 (U.S)
Released in time for the series’ fifteenth anniversary, the tenth James Bond film marks something of a victory lap for the series, a brilliant greatest hits package of sorts that is full of confidence and bravado, with a theme song that literally sings to the audience that ‘Nobody Does it Better’. The journey to its premiere was not a smooth one, however, but you wouldn’t know that from watching it.
Released into cinemas to blockbuster success in 1977, The Spy Who Loved Me was something of a renaissance for the franchise on the heels of troubling times. It would mark the first film to solely carry the name of Albert R. Broccoli as producer, as the partnership with Harry Saltzman that led to the creation of James Bond as viable movie franchise came to a somewhat embittered end during the three year break between films.
The two and a half year break marked the longest gap between Bond pictures since You Only Live Twice and OHMSS, and while The Spy Who Loved Me followed on the heels of the lowest grossing film of the series, the film would mark a major roll of the dice for everyone involved in terms of grandiose blockbuster filmmaking.
The Man with the Golden Gun was a box office disappointment (as was always the case with the series, it still made a profit), and with it being the third film to retain much of the creative team that had been making the films throughout the 70s, it was clear that some fresh blood was needed behind the scenes.
The fact that Roger Moore’s first two films took inspiration genre-wise from other films was indicative of how Bond wasn’t above looking to other genres and filmmaking styles to sustain itself, but The Man with the Golden Gun felt even tired in this regards, trying to chase audiences going to martial arts movies by throwing it into the middle of the film with little regard, simply putting it in there because it was a fashionable filmmaking trend.
The Spy Who Loved Me would be a glorious, big budget blockbuster that would take the series back to the excesses of the mid-to-late 60’s and it does look as if You Only Live Twice was the film that everyone was looking to when it came to trying to put the series back on a blockbuster map. While the series had proven itself unafraid to take the titles of Fleming’s novel but little of the stories, when it came to The Spy Who Loved Me, everyone had no choice but to create a narrative from the ground up.
As part of his agreement in selling the film rights, Fleming had stipulated that nothing but the title be used when it came to a film version of his novel, a deviation from his established formula towards a Psycho-style noir thriller told from the point of view of its female lead with Bond playing the role of supporting player.
This was to be a more fantasy-flavoured film, perhaps even more so than the Connery films from the late 60s, and in that regard Broccoli was predicting the next filmmaking trend and getting in on the ground floor as opposed to having the series follow those trends in the manner of Live and Let Die and Golden Gun.
The darker tones and gritty stylings that enveloped cinematic storytelling with the emergence of New Hollywood was about to give way to a return to productions that were more layered with optimism, fantasy and spectacle; released the same year as The Spy Who Loved Me was George Lucas’ Star Wars which would become a cinematic phenomenon and the biggest film of the year, while the rest of the decade was about to throw itself into a cavalcade of films featuring space settings, UFO’s (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and even big budget depictions of Superman, while the 80s would begin with Lucas and Steven Spielberg being inspired by their love of Bond to create their own cinematic hero in the shape of Indiana Jones, and with it a more supernatural flavour that would run counter to Bond’s more science fictional espionage adventures.
For The Spy Who Loved Me, Lewis Gilbert returned to the director’s chair, ten years after directing You Only Live Twice, while the entire story and narrative of the film would essentially be an ocean-set variation of Gilbert’s first Bond epic; space shuttles are replaced with submarines, a submersible car takes the place of Little Nellie, and in a repeat of Ken Adam’s glorious volcano set, the film would go all out in terms of grandiose production design with some of the greatest production design ever accomplished for a motion picture, not to mention having to create a new soundstage at Pinewood Studios in order to facilitate the expansive production.
One of the best stories that came out from the film was Adam enlisting the help of Stanley Kubrick, whom he had worked for on Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon, to help with lighting the soundstage.
The film’s biggest criticism is perhaps the lack of originality and that it replays key moments from previous films throughout its two hour run time, and yet the replaying of key formula moments from the series was going to be a major component in ensuring a future for the series, and it’s arguable that Roger Moore’s third film in the series was a major part in making sure that Bond would stick around for years to come.
While his first two films portrayed a Bond figure who still retained that edge of Connery toughness and even cynicism, Roger Moore’s third film would see Lewis Gilbert and writers Richard Maibaum, Christopher Wood, not to mention an uncredited Tom Mankiewicz, channel Moore’s brand of comedy and charm into a way that made his performance as Bond here feel more in line with what we think of when we think of the actor’s personality.
Everything is encapsulated magnificently in the pre-title sequence. Gilbert returns the series to a widescreen scope format and we get an oceanic variation of the opening to You Only Live Twice with space shuttles replaced by submarines. We then segue into a truly spectacular sequence; there’s innuendo, double entendres, cheesy patriotism, stirring action and a magnificent stunt, with the punchline being a slice of Cool Britannia that shouldn’t work, but strangely does.
For a series that had a lot to prove at this stage in terms of commercial appeal and filmmaking ability, everyone involved appears to be going through the film without breaking a sweat, encapsulated magnificently in Moore’s performance which acts as proxy to the tone of the whole film.
Instead of relying on copying other filmmaking trends, The Spy Who Loved Me looked to the Bond series’ own legacy and copied and pasted it in a wonderful way. It would be so easy to criticise the film for reverting to formula, but it’s one of those films were resistance proves futile, and for all the talk of it being a silly, frivolous film, there are moments where Moore’s performance does appear to take things seriously.
The film made a big deal over the casting of Barbara Bach as Agent XXX (this is Bond, of course, and it’s co-written by the writer of the Confessions films), a female character who was very much Bond’s equal. For some scenes, the character manages to get one over on Bond himself, not least when she uses gas from a cigarette to knock Bond out and steal the microfilm that kickstarts the film’s plot.
However, this being a 007 picture, she still must be rescued by Bond come the final act of the film, but the character was still a major step away from the likes of Mary Goodnight in the previous film. There is a lovely piece of subversion in the pre-title sequence when the Bond-alike Soviet agent played by Michael Billington (who was forever linked to playing the role), who we assume is about to be contacted, is in fact not the Triple X agent being referred to but it is in fact Bach’s character, and it his death that pushes Anya’s involvement in the story and not the other way around, where so many movies, television shows and comic books opt to ‘fridge’ female characters in an attempt to push the narrative for male characters.
For a film well known for being a lighter, frothier concoction, the film isn’t afraid to have its moments of Fleming-style seriousness dotted throughout. There is a reference to Tracy and the events of OHMSS, the first time the series had done so, while Bond having killed Anya’s lover in the pre-title sequence gives the film a ticking time bomb sense of suspense as to when Anya will discover that Bond was the one who killed him.
Of course, we know she won’t kill Bond as she promises to do upon discovery of this fact. The film isn’t a Le Carre adaptation after all. It’s very much an Eon Bond film, with all the tricks and tropes present and correct and given an era defining make over.
The hulking silent henchmen with a gimmick gets it most iconic characterisation from the 70s in the shape of Richard Kiel’s Jaws, while the Lotus Esprit and the manner it turns into a submersible is combination of Goldfinger’s Aston Martin and Little Nellie from You Only Live Twice, but given an aquatic makeover in line with everything else about the film. Then there’s the final act of the film which returns the series to the grandiose battle sequences of the 60s, set against the backdrop of that Ken Adam set with hundreds of extras going to war in the most budget busting and extravagant way imaginable.
The film gave the series a boost of freshness, with the series itself learning that there was nothing to compete with it but itself when it came to making a great Bond film.
As the film ends, the credits exclaim that ‘James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only‘. However, that plan would change. While Eon’s tenth Bond film was a massive success, it did premiere in the year of Star Wars, and when Bond did return two years later, like so many blockbuster films that were following in the wake of the first instalment of George Lucas’ space saga, it would aim for the stars.
Bond, James Bond will return with…Moonraker.