The Spy Who Loved Me: The Best of the Epic James Bond Movies
The underwater car, the terrifying henchman and perhaps the most iconic opening scene of all time. The Spy Who Loved Me is a cracker...
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
And so we arrive at the best Epic Bond of the lot. A great big chocolate fudge sundae of a film with extra waffles and butterscotch ice cream. It begins by making a parachute iconic and cracks on from there. Boasts a henchman, car, and girl to rival Goldfinger, and a villainous scheme even more deranged than You Only Live Twice.
Nuclear Armageddon meets Finding Nemo – what’s not to like? Hops around the globe without losing its direction. Never once stops trying to please the audience. Never fails to.
The Villain: Overshadowed by his henchman. Stromberg isn’t a terrible antagonist but he hardly sets the pulse racing. Comes across a bit Blofeld-lite: (I Can’t Believe it’s not Blofeld!) SPECTRE were supposed to be resurrected but legal shenanigans denied Moore his shot at the Connery heavyweights. Stromberg is a decent replacement. Lifts his plan from Blofeld and his sharks from Largo – but Atlantis is a unique lair and the notion of turning all surviving humans into surrogate mermaids is insanely brilliant. A stodgy dish but fantastic trappings.
The Girl: As fierce as Pussy Galore, as beautiful as Solitaire. Anya Amasova is an extremely high calibre heroine and just the tonic needed after a succession of drips. She is the female equivalent of James Bond, although naturally not quite as good. Theirs is an enjoyably complicated relationship: she dislikes Bond, then likes Bond, then hates Bond, then likes him again. Holds only a brief grudge over Bond killing her long-term boyfriend. Although the Russian accent is tolerable, her codename ‘Triple X’ is more problematic. Every time anybody says it, a shirtless Vin Diesel must be banished from my mind. And people say it a lot.
A confession: I really wanted to dislike this one. I hadn’t seen the film for years, and for some reason I harbored vaguely negative memories. And everybody loves it. After all, there’s nothing like mass adulation to provoke instant prejudice. So I settled down to watch, hackles raised and teeth bared. And, after ten minutes, it reall hit me: it’s really bloody good, isn’t it?
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The pre-credits is a zinger. As well as a submarine abduction, a double portion of chalet loving, a ski chase and a very famous parachute, it manages to construct the two key plotlines of the stolen sub and Anya’s dead lover. Impressive, especially for a series hardly renowned for narrative economy. Bond’s silent freefall after skiing off a precipice might be the signature stunt of the series. Cue the Union Jack parachute and Monty Norman at full blast. Spines tingle, air is punched. Such moments illustrate why the franchise has lasted 52 years and counting.
The Spy Who Loved Me can be described in one word: fun. The entire film has a great big smile on its face from start to finish. Is there one unpleasant moment? Sure, a lot of people die, but death in Bond – in cinema even – is an emotionally flexible concept. Here the dial is very much turned to ‘cartoon’: baddies are offed, numerous extras have a lovely time pretending to be gunned down, and nobody is expected to feel anything other than good.
This is evident in the song, which became the unofficial slogan of the franchise. Carly Simon croons a gorgeous tune but it wouldn’t have half the impact were the film that follows not equally great. And, truthfully, nobody does ‘it’ better than Bond: ‘it’ of course being that word again – fun. Certainly not when on form like this.
As a byword for pure entertainment, ‘James Bond’ is the most potent name in pop culture. Cynicism aside, there’s a reason why I’m writing this, you’re reading it, and the impending release of Spectre is causing many people to lose their shit.
Anyway: the film. Two notable Big Fish make their debuts here.
Minister of Defence’s Frederick Grey and KGB overlord General Gogol both appear in the following five films, ultimately crossing from Moore to Dalton. While Grey is only ever irascible and wrong, Gogol is a charming presence, flitting between friendly antagonist and wary ally as the plots require. Actor Walter Gotell played SPECTRE thug Morzeny in From Russia With Love, last seen ablaze in a boat. My pet theory is Morzeny survived the conflagration and decided to pursue a significantly less fraught career in Soviet Intelligence, where, due to his impeccable experience, success was swiftly forthcoming. Naturally he recognises Bond but can’t betray his past, and he isn’t the type to hold grudges anyway. Makes sense, no?
The Spy Who Loved Me is the first truly globetrotting Bond: after the initial Austria sojourn, the action is split pretty evenly between Egypt, Sardinia, and the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt in Bond-land consists solely of the Sahara desert, the pyramids, and a lot of ancient ruins. It is by the pyramids we first encounter Jaws properly, in a thrillingly eerie sequence of trippy music and ghoulish green lighting.
For me, Jaws stalking Fekkesh through the tombs is one of the Great Moments of the whole series. Certainly I can think of no better introduction to a villain. The obvious resemblance is to Frankenstein’s monster yet, backlit by neon in a pale blue suit, I find something inescapably vampirish about Jaws – and this is before he starts sinking his teeth into people’s necks. Over the course of The Spy Who Loved Me Jaws is played increasingly for laughs; but amidst the pyramids he is terror incarnate.
The other great Jaws moment is his appearance in Anya’s wardrobe. This is pure Hammer Horror: the monster jumping out when you least expect it. And Jaws really is a monster, far more than he is a person. As well as the silence, and the metal teeth, his total inability to die is very horror. Like Dracula he just keeps on coming. His wardrobe appearance is beyond implausible – how long has Jaws been there? Imagine if he got the wrong train carriage? – but Jaws can pull it off, because being a monster you expect him to be hiding in your wardrobe, in so much as you expect Jaws to be anywhere. And I, for one, jumped. I bet ‘Checking for Jaws’ became a bedtime chore for the parents of 1977.
Like most monsters, the dramatic impact of Jaws is one of diminishing returns. Soon he is reaching for laughs, not chills. The final confrontation on Atlantis is less thrilling than perhaps it should be. Rather than battle an implacable opponent, Bond need only outwit an outsized buffoon. Cut Jaws from the car chase, and don’t drop a rock on his foot (the first foray into slapstick), and that final showdown instantly brings the awesome. Instead Jaws transitions from chilling bogeyman to the most beloved villain of the franchise. Even detractors must concede it isn’t a bad move.
If Jaws is the only henchman to rival Oddjob in fame, the Lotus Esprit defers only to the Aston. And, be honest, becoming a submarine is way cooler than a poxy ejector seat. Car chases are rarely as exciting as the filmmakers think they are – but the Lotus is an exception. The Lotus shows how to do it. Escalation, basically. And with tongue shoved firmly in cheek.
So we start with a motorbike, graduate to a car (and Jaws), then to a helicopter. Then we go underwater. Fire rocket at helicopter, killing the beautiful Naomi somewhat harshly. Oh look, divers! Continuously shuffling the cards prevents the audience tiring of the trick. Too many Bond films believe a good chase involves watching a car drive slightly faster than some other cars, until the other cars crash. This chase involves four different types of enemy, multiple weaponry, a leap from land to sea and Bond’s car turning into a submarine halfway through. That’s how you do it.
Although the plot is very You Only Live Twice, much of the film harks back to Goldfinger. Both boast classic cars, henchmen, and heroines yet the similarities run deeper still. They are the two best natured films of the franchise, deft of touch and pretention-free. A good time is their only agenda. And there is a shared sense of everything going right. A serendipitous clicking of components that would prove impossible to replicate. Neither Connery nor Moore surpassed their third adventure. At the peak you can only go down.
Henchman, car – girl? Anya Amasova comes the closest to eclipsing her Goldfinger counterpart. She is Bond’s equal; or at least only his marginal inferior, which is as good as anybody – male or female, ally or enemy – can ever realistically get. Their squabble over the microfilm powers the first act and, technically, Anya wins. (Okay, the microfilm is a dud, but those cigarettes are a knockout regardless.) The romance feels natural, not an act of convenience (Solitaire) or self-flagellation (Goodnight). Thus her discovery that Bond killed her lover hits both agents hard, and a notable tension descends.
Although the dead lover is a brilliant idea, this plot strand doesn’t really go anywhere. Being a true professional, Anya restricts herself to glowering at Bond on a helicopter. Her vow of post-mission vengeance never rings true. Now obviously it can’t, but to truly exploit the situation, one must feel Bond might have to kill her. While Bond films exist where Bond killing the girl feels a possibility, The Spy Who Loved Me is not one of them. I slightly, slightly wonder if this plotline would be better served in a tougher Bond with a tougher 007 of Brosnan or Craig ilk. Certainly the dead lover adds to the intrigue of the film; this is not criticism but idle musing. But surely an idea of such strength could have reached a more dramatic denouement than the shot cork of a Bollinger bottle?
Also: the film occurs three weeks after the boyfriend’s death. Three weeks to get over the death of the man you loved to the point you knowingly hook up with his killer. Pretty cold. I still mourn my cat – and Buster died two years ago.
It is ironic that Anya, the most proactive of Bond heroines, spends the entire finale tied to a chair. In fairness, it’s hard to circumvent this. Bond needs a reason to infiltrate Atlantis and Anya is the only logical one.
Still, one can make an interesting comparison with Domino: a largely passive character who ultimately kills the villain and saves Bond’s life. One is not necessarily better than the other; just different approaches to a permanently problematic archetype.
I love Bond slipping his arm around a sleeping Anya, and his well-I-tried expression when she glares at him. Moore at his finest. Nothing else to add.
Moore films can manage a great villain, a great heroine, occasionally neither but never both at once. Live And Let Die is probably the closest. So while Anya stands alongside Tracy and Pussy Galore, Stromberg is very much of the ‘C’ list. (In my arbitrary table: A = Goldfinger, Scaramanga, B = Largo, Le Chiffre, and onwards until F = Dominic Greene.)
Stromberg is a triumph of stylings over substances. He achieves top marks on henchman, diabolical scheme and lair. However, while helpful, such details should be embellishments, not cornerstones. And Stromberg himself is deeply uninteresting. Take away Oddjob/Operation Grand Slam/the laser and Goldfinger is still a wonderful character and worthy adversary. Take away Atlantis/Jaws/nuke everybody underwater and Stromberg is nothing but a deluded, dirty old man.
Blofeld really should sue. Stromberg’s plan is a watered down version of You Only Live Twice: trick America and Russia into nuclear war by eating their spaceships submarines with his bigger spaceship boat. Even the climatic battle looks suspiciously familiar – haven’t we seen those reinforced steel shutters somewhere before? However, kudos for the truly surreal twist of humanity then relocating under the sea, where we all would live under pineapples and recreate the worst bits of Thunderball.
Having mentioned the climatic battle… After a run of lacklustre finales, The Spy Who Loved Me tears the venue apart. Yes, the battle for the tanker is essentially identical to the volcano brawl in You Only Live Twice; but, as Shakespeare repeatedly proved, no harm in appropriation provided you trump the source material. Both volcano and tanker house a heavily fortified control room; but whereas the ‘impregnable’ former is swiftly breached, the latter holds firm until Bond daringly removes the detonation device from a nuclear warhead. As a straightforward approach is suicidal, Bond hangs from a mobile overhead camera to evade the gunfire. Only, with the bomb planted, the camera stalls…
The contrasting approach of the two films is the difference between inspiration and complacency, between audience satisfaction and going through the motions. Once Bond conjures the bomb from the warhead, that’s enough. A clever solution – now Bond sneaks up and plants it. But no, the film declares, this won’t do! Bond must use subterfuge and approach aerially. And that is enough… But no! The camera must stall! The escape route is compromised! It isn’t the greatest action sequence of the series, or perhaps even the film. But it demonstrates the ‘above and beyond’ mentality that everybody brought to the party.
And whereas You Only Live Twice helpfully supplied a big red self-destruct button, The Spy Who Loved Me raises the stakes with two – yep, two – nuclear submarines. So Bond reprograms each sub to fire on the other. Cue more drama when it appears the two missiles might collide mid-flight! At least it does on the giant globe in the control room. Actually I suspect this risk is minimal. The sky is a pretty big place.
While an elegant solution, it is a somewhat problematic one. You’ve just exploded two nuclear bombs at either end of the Pacific Ocean. Surely there will be environmental ramifications? That’s the end of marine life as we know it. Vast ecosystems wiped out. Goodbye to any boats within a hundred mile radius. Hello tsunamis. And what if sea winds blow the radiation inland? Was cancelling the launch ever a viable option? Maybe the whole plan is just a massive two fingers to Stromberg. You like your oceans so much? Well now we’re gonna nuke ‘em. Twice.
Still, this is what I define as ‘fun quibbling’ rather than ‘fundamental problem.’ In truth there are very few problems with The Spy Who Loved Me. It isn’t perfect. The villain lacks panache, Jaws’ menace slackens, a fascinating plotline tapers off. Yet solutions aren’t obvious. Attempted corrections only disturb further. Keep Anya vengeful or Jaws psychotic and a brilliantly balanced film tips into darkness. Flesh out Stromberg and the narrative sags. You can almost view it as cinematic Jenga. Remove a brick and the film is diminished, perhaps falls apart completely. Leave well alone and it towers.
Cinematically, The Spy Who Loved Me broke and breaks little new ground. The similarities with the two Connery outings are obvious and discussed above. But historically, The Spy Who Loved Me is a vital film. It replenished the critical and commercial stock of a franchise that appeared to be leaving the building with Elvis. And my God will that stock be required: the series is about to enter its leanest period. Five films that stumble between low-key and low-quality, with the sixth, Licence To Kill, the most polarising instalment to date. Remove The Spy Who Loved Me from the landscape and the outlook is bleak. Would the series have reached the mojo-restoring Goldeneye in 1995?
What matter. The film exists, the series continued. We live in an uncertain world of many certainties. Death, taxes, penalty shootout defeat, boybands, David Attenborough… To these and the unnamed others let us add one more. Somewhere in the world, on each and every Christmas afternoon, The Spy Who Loved Me is playing on television.
And people are watching.
And they are happy.
Best Bit: Jaws in the pyramids as a sequence, the stalling camera as a moment – just for the thrilling gratuity. Oh, and the parachute.
Worst Bit: Two weeks later when all the fish start growing tentacles and the Pacific turns bright yellow.
Final Thought: Blows me out of the water: