Musings on Bond at 50: The Spy Who Loved Me

Posted: 6 September 2012 in entertainment, film
Tags: , , , ,

The Spy Who Loved MeReleased during the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II The Spy Who Loved Me restored the James Bond franchise to levels of adulation and profitability unexperienced since the mid-1960s.

Shot at Pinewood Studios, and on location in Egypt, Sardinia, Scotland, Malta, Switzerland, Japan, and Canada, The Spy Who Loved Me is generally regarded as the best film of the Roger Moore era and one of the very best films in the series overall. 1980s director John Glen considers it the best of the series and producer Cubby Broccoli cited it in his top three, together with From Russia With Love and Goldfinger.

Lacking the depth of characterisation that graced the early Connery films and coming close to self-parody at times The Spy Who Loved Me is essentially a tongue-in-cheek compilation of all that had gone before retooled to play to the strengths of Moore’s lighter and more comic Bond. Set pieces and scenes from many previous outings are plundered wholesale, recycled and presented afresh for a new generation of filmgoers. The train fight of From Russia With Love, the car chase and henchman from Goldfinger, the vast villain’s lair of You Only Live Twice, and the ski chase from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. All re-imagined for Roger Moore’s 007.

The plot is virtually stolen from You Only Live Twice as Stromberg’s scheme to destroy civilisation by firing intercontinental ballistic missiles at two major cities from captured Russian and British nuclear submarines is remarkably similar to Blofeld’s scheme to start a war between the Western Powers by stealing space capsules from orbit. The parallels between the fifth and tenth films are even more apparent with the presence of director Lewis Gilbert and production designer Ken Adam who both worked on the Connery epic.

Despite the poor box office performance and critical derision of The Man with the Golden Gun, Broccoli was able to secure a massive $14 million budget from United Artists – the biggest for any Bond film up until that point. Broccoli appeared determined to prove his ability to guide the franchise to glory without either his original co-producer Harry Saltzman or original leading man Sean Connery.

The Spy Who Loved Me - Bond and JawsIn developing the third outing for Roger Moore’s 007 EON Productions were constrained by the fact that under the terms of their agreement with the author’s estate no part of Ian Fleming’s original novel could be used except for the title. Basically a crime thriller told in the first person by the heroine and not featuring Bond until the final third, The Spy Who Loved Me had been an unsuccessful experiment for Fleming as he tried to find new ways to sustain his interest in continuing the book series. Writers who came and went included Stirling Silliphant, John Landis, Ronald Hardy, Anthony Burgess, and Derek Marlowe. Eventually, veteran Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum provided the first workable script – though Broccoli rejected as too political the notion of an alliance of international terrorists attacking SPECTRE’s headquarters and deposing Blofeld before trying to destroy the world to make way for a New World Order.

Four-time director Guy Hamilton was originally signed to helm the film but delays to the development of the script saw him jump ship and sign up for Superman instead (though he would later be replaced on that film by Richard Donner). Given Hamilton’s increasingly lacklustre work on the previous 1970s Bonds this was likely a blessing in disguise. Under consideration at one stage was Steven Spielberg but he was viewed as too inexperienced and by the time Jaws proved his abilities the opportunity to sign him up had passed. Eventually Lewis Gilbert was invited back by Broccoli nearly a decade after his work on You Only Live Twice.

With the script finally coming together after a longer than usual period in development, Broccoli was hit by a series of frustrating legal complications. As part of the deal for making Thunderball Kevin McClory had agreed not to embark on any films based upon the material from the original novel and treatments for 10 years. The agreement had expired in 1975 and now McClory was looking to develop a remake entitled Warhead with the input of Sean Connery and acclaimed novelist Len Deighton. McClory learnt of Broccoli’s plans to incorporate Blofeld and SPECTRE into The Spy Who Loved Me and was threatening to sue for alleged copyright infringement, claiming that he had the sole copyright on the character and organisation.

Rather than engage in a prolonged legal battle and delay the return of Bond even further Broccoli instructed new screenwriter Christopher Wood, who had been brought onto the project by Lewis Gilbert, to remove all references to Blofeld and SPECTRE. Broccoli also tasked Wood to create Jaws, a villain with metal teeth inspired by the character of Horror from Fleming’s novel.

Gilbert decided that previously Moore’s Bond had been written too similar to Connery’s Bond and requested that the character should be closer to the one of the books: very English, very smooth, good sense of humour”. Given Fleming’s description of Bond as a “blunt instrument” it makes one wonder which particular Bond book the director had in mind…

The Spy Who Loved Me - Lotus underwaterGilbert’s plan worked though as it is a very different Bond in this film to the one viewed in Live And Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. Attempts to give Moore’s Bond a harsh violent edge were refined into moments of action followed by vocal and visual humour. A classic example coming when the Lotus Esprit emerges from the ocean after its underwater battle: a man on the beach does a double take and looks at his wine bottle, and then 007 casually drops a fish out of the window of the car. This type of humour can only be done with Roger Moore in the lead role and works by just staying on the right side of parody.

For the first time Moore’s Bond appears in a pre-credit sequence and it is one of the best ever. Costing a total of $500,000 to stage Rick Sylvester performed a stunt that has become the stuff of film legend by skiing off the top of Mount Asgard in Canada. All around the world the audacity of the sequence was cheered and applauded. Lewis Gilbert says that the masterstroke was Christopher Wood’s idea of having the parachute opening up into a giant Union Flag. In common with London 2012 the symbol of the United Kingdom was a focal point of adulation and not derision.

Wood’s appreciation of the Bond novels was evident in several little touches that displayed the rich tapestry that the filmmakers had access to from Fleming’s original universe. Q being referred to as “Major Boothroyd” and M addressed as “Miles” are nods to the real names of those characters – Major Geoffrey Boothroyd and Admiral Sir Miles Messervy KCMG respectively. James Bond’s pre-MI6 service as a Royal Navy Commander is acknowledged by his appearance in naval uniform and his noting of the supertanker Liparus possessing oddly designed bow doors.

The Spy Who Loved Me - Liparus interiorIn planning sets Ken Adam soon determined that no soundstage in the world was capable of housing the conceived supertanker interior of three full scale nuclear submarines and assorted surroundings. Cubby Broccoli barely paused in making the decision to construct the 007 Stage to house Adam’s designs. Costing $1.8 million, complete with a water tank capable of housing 1.2 million gallons of water, the interior of Stromberg’s supertanker remains the design pièce de résistance of the James Bond series. In an age of excessive CGI manipulation replacing traditional physical sets it is a delight to see the extraordinary vision of Ken Adam populated by scores and extras and playing host to multiple action scenes. The 007 Stage was so vast that Adam had no idea how to light it and secretly called in his friend celebrated director Stanley Kubrick to advise. Kubrick’s solution was brilliant in its simplicity – make the stage lights part of the set itself.

John Barry was unavailable to compose the score for The Spy Who Loved Me as for tax reasons he could not work in the UK and was replaced by Marvin Hamlisch who gave the soundtrack a disco-orientated air. Hamlisch also composed the Oscar-nominated theme song “Nobody Does It Better”. Performed by Carly Simon the song has become the unofficial anthem for the series.

Unfortunately somebody should have done it better in the area of key supporting characters – especially villain, leading lady and henchman…

Roger Moore and subsequent 007s have not had the opportunity to face Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his SPECTRE hordes due to the legacy of Kevin McClory and his never-ending attempts to remake Thunderball and grab a slice of the Bond empire. Rather than his nemesis Bond encountered the amazingly bland Karl Stromberg as portrayed by Curt Jurgens. An acclaimed multilingual stage and film actor, Jurgens was criminally underutilised, mainly reduced to sitting in a chair and pushing various buttons.

The Spy Who Loved Me - Bond and AnyaOn a similar level of blandness, due in no small part to poor acting abilities, was Barbara Bach as Major Anya Amasova. Supposedly a female Russian equivalent of 007, Bach was mainly called upon to look pretty and be rescued. An intriguing subplot of Bond having been responsible for the death of Anya’s lover dies an ever quicker death than the beau. Although Moore is pretty good in the scenes where Anya confronts him about the killing Bach’s inability to enrich the proceedings with emotion causes the entire idea to fall apart.

The worst of the bunch is Stromberg’s chief henchman. Richard Kiel’s Jaws is often cited as the most favourite henchman since Oddjob. The popularity of the character is inexplicable as he ruins every scene he is in and only children not yet into double figures could find him frightening. On paper Jaws may have seemed like a terrifying presence but on camera it just does not work – especially given Gilbert’s handling of him as the Wile E Coyote to Bond’s Road Runner. By walking away unscathed from a plunging car, collapsing ruins, violent ejection from a train, etc, etc, Jaws’ constant survival at ever turn undermines the tension of each and every scene he is part of. And why does Bond keep punching or shooting him in the teeth? Connery’s 007 would have likely shot the giant in the leg to bring him down to his level and then pummeled the bugger whilst he was down. The decision to allow the character to survive the sinking of Atlantis and live to not die another day in Moonraker is a truly idiotic one.

The film’s tagline of “It’s the BIGGEST. It’s the BEST. It’s BOND. And B-E-Y-O-N-D.” proved prophetic. With highly positive reviews and a box office return of $185.4 million. The Spy Who Loved Me was a staggering success and put James Bond back on the filmmaking map. The plan of virtually submerging Roger Moore beneath grandeur and supplying him with an increased quota of one liners paid off. Unfortunately the attempt to repeat the experiment in the eleventh James Bond film with a massively bloated budget would undo all the hard work…

1 From Russia With Love
2 Goldfinger
3 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
4 The Spy Who Loved Me
5 Thunderball
6 Dr. No
7 You Only Live Twice
8 Diamonds Are Forever
9 Live And Let Die
10 The Man with the Golden Gun

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