Review: The Spy Who Loved Me

Welcome to my review of The Spy Who Loved Me, the tenth part of my challenge to review all of the James Bond films. I’m watching each film in turn and trying to figure out which one is my favourite. For more information, see my introduction here. You can read my review of the previous film, The Man With The Golden Gun, here. Spoilers follow.

The Spy Who Loved Me
(dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1977)

The Spy Who Loved Me trailerI’m going to say this now, just in case anyone reading has a weak heart: I think The Spy Who Loved Me is a better film than Goldfinger.

The Spy Who Loved Me is far from perfect. There are definitely some weak points near the end of the film, but to be fair the end of Goldfinger isn’t quite as good as everyone remembers either, apart from the fight with Oddjob. And yes, Goldfinger has the woman painted in gold and the Aston Martin DB5, and is very much the iconic Bond film. On the other hand, The Spy Who Loved Me has Jaws, the ski jump off the side of a mountain that ends with the world’s most patriotic parachute, and the Lotus Esprit that turns into a submarine. It is about as iconic as Bond films get without going into the blatant self-parody and referentialism of the later movies.

After the relatively tame villains of The Man With The Golden Gun and Let And Let Die (who are flamboyant, but who don’t have international domination on their respective agendas), The Spy Who Loved Me brings us Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), who is about as close to Blofeld as was legally allowed at the time. He steals submarines armed with nuclear missiles and plans to destroy both New York (why not Washington DC?) and Moscow—not for money, but because he’s evil.

What this means is that the British and the Russians (and later the Americans, when Bond apparently uses their submarine for bait, and who have some kind of contract that states Bond can’t complete a mission without them) must join forces. Given when the film was made, this is a surprisingly optimistic move, and in actual fact most of the plot is generally pretty good, although it falls apart a bit when Bond rescues the submarine crews inside Stromberg’s lair (seriously: why do the bad guys never just kill the large number of trained military fighters they capture? They demonstrate that they are capable of doing so without even opening the submarine!). I don’t really understand why we need the big armies fighting in the final battles of these films; Bond works better alone.

Roger Moore continues to exceed my expectations as Bond, including a stunning moment where we are reminded of his brief marriage in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Moore manages to show anger and hurt without overegging his emotional side, which I’m beginning to recognise as being one of his strong points—and he’s still playing Bond the Bastard, which is a Good Thing). His opposite number, Anya ‘Agent XXX’ Amasova (Barbara Bach) is a strong character—while Bach’s performance is a mite wooden, the fact that this is the most effective Bond girl since Diana Rigg’s turn in thepreviously mentioned film is greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, Agent XXX eventually gets put in a skimpy outfit and tied up by the bad guy, which undermines her character a fair bit—although let’s remember that something similar happened to Diana Rigg. Bond has to save someone, I guess.

There’s a minor subplot about how Bond killed Agent XXX’s lover in the opening scenes of the film. What is particularly special about this is that—to Bond—the man was just another faceless mook; neither Bond nor the audience ever get to know him. This took the idea of Bond’s licence to kill, even in self-defence, in an unexpected direction: we are finally, if briefly, faced with the repercussions of Bond’s actions. And Bond’s actions are brutal: Stromberg’s death in particular shows Bond to be as merciless behind the trigger as Connery ever was.

Richard Kiel gives us one of the best henchmen since Oddjob with Jaws, a seven-foot brute with metal teeth that can bite through damn near anything. Bond never really gets the upper hand on Jaws, which makes their fights genuinely compelling. Action-wise, The Spy Who Loved Me hits most of the right notes. The mountainside parachute drop is jaw dropping—more so when you remember that it was done for real—and the aforementioned Lotus is astounding both above and below sea level. Stromberg, for his part, is delightfully insane, and a solid main villain.

I enjoyed The Spy Who Loved Me far more than I expected, and despite the low point of The Man With The Golden Gun I’m beginning to realise Roger Moore isn’t as bad as I remember.

Title song: Carly Simon gives us yet another high note of the franchise with Nobody Does It Better. I’m really going to have to rate my favourite Bond songs at some point, but I suspect that will be even more difficult than rating the actual films.

Greatest moment: Probably the whole scene in Giza, where a light show is shining against the Pyramids to create a luminously tense confrontation between Bond, Agent XXX and Jaws.

Worst moment: I wasn’t a fan of a lot of the ending battle (at least until Bond leaves the submarine on the world’s first jetski, where the film picks up again), but the lowest point for me was when the two enemy submarines are fooled into firing their missiles at each other—because they’re too stupid to realise that the grid references they are sent are in the wrong directions. And why, on a 2D map, do the missiles describe what I assume is meant to be a 3D arc, thereby looking like they are diverting via Iceland? In fact, if the missiles could be launched at that distance in the first place, why did they bother moving the subs that far from the ship in the first place?

Best gadget: Look, I realise that the DB5 is the quintessential Bond car, but the Lotus Esprit is still pretty damn cool—especially when it drives back out of the sea, and 007 casually drops a fish out of the window.

Best quote:
[After Agent XXX pushes a button in the Lotus to drop a mine and kill an enemy mook]
James Bond:
How did you know about that?
Agent XXX: I stole the plans to this car two years ago.

Most obvious product placement: Well, the car did create a three year waiting list to buy a Lotus Esprit, so there’s that. Also, while they don’t get the first line of the film this time, there’s another bottle of tabasco sauce displayed prominently on Stromberg’s table near the end of the film. Tabasco: the taste of evil.

Verdict: Goldfinger is without a doubt an iconic film, as I stated back in my review. But The Spy Who Loved Me is also iconic, if possibly slightly less so, and Moore’s film has the virtue of having a plot where the Bond girl is—for the first two-thirds, at least—an equal to Bond, and not simply a plot device that activates only after being held down by the hero. The ending of the film stops it threatening first place on my league table, but for now it’s a clear podium winner.

  1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (dir. Peter Hunt, 1969)
  2. From Russia With Love (dir. Terence Young, 1963)
  3. The Spy Who Loved Me (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1977)
  4. Goldfinger (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1964)
  5. Live And Let Die (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1973)
  6. Dr No (dir. Terence Young, 1962)
  7. You Only Live Twice (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1967)
  8. The Man With The Golden Gun (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1974)
  9. Thunderball (dir. Terence Young, 1965)
  10. Diamonds Are Forever (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1971)

Next up, Moonraker. I know I’m on a mission of challenging all my preconceived notions of the franchise and all that, but I just want to say this: oh god oh god oh god, do I have to?