“Art from adversity” is a tired cliche at this point, casually bandied about by all manner of creative arts professionals and self-appointed self-help gurus. If those people every wanted a Bond movie to back them up, they could do a lot worse than The Spy Who Loved Me. Nothing went right with this and it still manages to be the best Bond film in eight long years…that must’ve seemed even longer the first time around. No one sacrificed any first born children or danced in circles until the rain came: they simply struck a balance. Spy gets a lot of fan points by following the Bond Formula more faithfully than either of its Moore Era predecessors…but it also racks up a lot of my points ignoring that Formula wherever it sees fit (until the end of course…but we’ll get there).
This is not so inconceivable as you’ve been led to believe. What else are Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but elaborate permutations of Dr. No? Those three films trace a clear trajectory, pulling the spy-fi genre from its Noir/Thriller roots towards the supervillain-stomping grounds usually occupied by comic book superheroes. The Spy Who Loved Me continues into territory broad enough for the new landscape of Big, Dumb Summer Movies already taking shape in the late 70s.
Spy is also a good version of You Only Live Twice since the two share a director and a basic plot outline. Once again a supervillain seeks to trigger World War III and, once again, he goes about it by stealing things from major world powers. Whereas Blofeld went after space capsules in his pre-credit sequence, Our Villain here commits Grand Theft Submarine, stealing British and Soviet ballistic missile boats right out of the water.
This lets the movie employ one of my favorite devices: parallelism. It’s unsubtile and in-your-face, but I don’t care. I still find the identical reactions of the UK and USSR “Intelligence” agencies inherently funny. Even with Soviet “Communism” dead and “Western Capitalism” slowly digesting itself, bureaucracy is bureaucracy, just like peoples is peoples. I also love how M’s KGB counterpart, General Gogol (Walter Gotell) has his own Moneypenny…whose name is Rubelvitch (Eva Reuber-Staier). Of course it’s “Rubelvitch”! What else would it be? Does this potentially break the fourth wall? Yes. Is it a bit of comic relief? Yes…but unlike Sheriff J. W. Pepper, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, never hanging around long enough to become Odious.
This also marks the return of set designer Ken Adam, who wanted something “crypt-like” for Gogol’s office…and by God, did he ever get it. Every set in this film is uniformly gorgeous (including the supertanker set – the largest ever constructed at the time – so large they built a new soundstage just to hold it – “The 007 Stage”) but in Gogol’s office and on Atlantis, Adam set a new Gold Standard for the rest of us. There isn’t a production designer in Hollywood who doesn’t owe something to this man and his supervillain offices. Gogol’s is an expressionist nightmare of empty space, harsh angles, and seemingly superfluousness columns. Atlantis is all portholes and sweeping, curved lines.
This is important because, with so many Bond films slavishly following The Formula, design details are all they really have to distinguish themselves from each other, nevermind the broader Action Genre they helped create. Whatever its story merits (and I’m going to list them, don’t worry) The Spy Who Loved Me is derivative as all hell, with plot points, and even whole scenes, lifted from previous Bond movies. We’ve already mentioned the main plot, while the subplot of Bond teaming up with a Russian agent formed the backbone of From Russia with Love. For the second time in three films, Bond fights a henchman on a train and wins by throwing the poor guy out a window. The Underwater Lair motif is right out of Dr. No, just embiggened and made better for the Stultifying Seventies. The opening ski chase is a condensation of that one from OHMSS…until stunt man Rick Sylvester (standing in for Bond) does his iconic jump off Mt. Asgard (yes, that’s actually its name… and it’s in Canada – I was as shocked as you).
Do you get what I’m saying? I’m saying, “This movie could’ve sucked eggs out of a xenomorph queen’s ovipositor, but it doesn’t! And that’s remarkable!” It’s a goddamn miracle given how things went after The Man with the Golden Gun “underperformed”…or however they put it in 1974. “Underperformed” is the term they use nowadays whenever a movie strikes out with critics and makes slightly less gigantic piles of money than producers originally hoped.
Such things, combined with some personal bad luck, forced series producer Harry Saltzman to sell his stake in the franchise. From this point on, the official Bond series became a private fiefdom of the Broccoli family, and years of watching movies have trained me to respect and fear creative consolidation…especially after the dissolution of such a long-standing partnership. Albert “Cubby” Broccoli (who looks kinda lonely “presenting” this film all by himself after so long sharing that credit) immediately put me on edge by rehiring You Only Live Twice’s director, Lewis Gilbert. Guy Hamilton saw a chance to make Superman and turned down this job to jump at it. (Wouldn’t you?) Cubby approached the director of Duel and 1941, but he was off making some killer shark movie everyone was sure would suck…after all, “nobody does it better” than James Bond…right?
I kid because I am my father’s son, in whom he is most pleased. And among many, many other things, he passed down to me his love of Carly Simon, and thus this song. And thus this credit sequence:
(Though, to be honest, its high silhouetted-boobs-to-guns ratio would’ve won my love without Carly’s help.)
After that, General Gogol tasks Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), KGB Agent Triple-X, with the Grand Theft Sub assignment, regretfully informing her of a death in Austria – her lover and fellow agent, Sergi (Michael Billington). We know who killed Sergi because Lewis Gilbert made sure to throw a close up his face at us during the pre-credit ski chase…but poor Anya. Goddamn. Barbara Bach may not have what you’d call “a military barring,” but she can sell heartbreak like it’s chocolate. And the “I’m trying real hard to kill you with my brain ” look she’ll give Bond a little later on is dead sexy.
On the surface, Amasova is damn near a revelation, easily the most capable female character we’ve seen since the Countess Tracy di Vicenzo Bond, stunt driver and heir to the Unione Corse. (Who gets a shout-out for the first time in the series – from Amasova no less.) In the whole of Western Cold War fiction, she’s a rarity: the Good Russian. Not a defector, not a disaffected shill – just a professional with a job to do who believes in her cause. She’s fully two dimensional, which is at least a step in the right direction after this series’ bout with Tiffany Case Syndrome. She’s also the first non-Bond, non-villainous spy to get a decent amount of screentime, showing us Bond really is the standard by which to judge spies in this universe.
This is where the double-edged swords being to slash at this movie’s ankles and narrative convenience starts to undermine drama. How convenient the KGB operates so much like MI6 that the directors of both agencies can sit down and agree to handle this whole “missing sub” mess together, like gentlemen. No time for the massive diplomatic SNAFUs necessary to arrange such a thing in our universe. There’s pyramids that need to be filmed! And how convenient Bond would kill the one agent Amasova happened to be sleeping with at the time. Of all the people he’s killed in all these films, it had to be poor, dead Sergei…who didn’t even live to see that awesome stunt jump.
There are those who feel the very existence of other competent secret agents inherently diminishes Bond, but I’ve always felt it humanized Bond in a way Bond’s not really capable of doing by himself. He’s certainly the best agent in MI6, but in his home universe, he’s still the same “stupid policeman” he was from the early 60s – not the superhuman paragon of righteous manliness he’d become in our world. The worst Bond films follow the later formula, undermining their own drama in the process. That’s why the Antaeian hitman Jaws (Richard Kiel) is such a great villain: he looks and acts like he could actually take Bond in a fight. Major Amasova is even better, getting one over on Bond without throwing Punch One, gassing him with a trick Tiger Tanaka showed off three films ago that Bond’s apparently since forgotten. I hear regeneration leaves holes in your brain, but Jay-zus.
We haven’t approached what I’ve come to call the Jinx Point yet…unless you’re one of the people who hates this movie. For me, Bach and Moore form the best on-screen chemical reaction the Third Bond’s enjoyed with anyone so far, and Anya’s competence gives Bond something he rarely has: a good reason to be attracted to his leading lady. I love the scene in the Max Calver’s club, where Triple-X and Double-O Seven rattle off each other’s dossiers. I love that she calls Q by his rank and last name, like he was her old favorite teacher at KGB Academy. I love how, when Bond and Amasova are in their submarine car (yeah – this is the one with the submarine car) fleeing the Inevitable Car Chase, Amasova casually mentions, “I stole the plans for this car last year.” It helps prop up the illusion this is a vibrant world where actions have consequences. A world where James Bond is necessary because every government employs some version of him. Some of them are even hot chicks with power levels that must easily exceed 9000.
Agent Triple-X also stands in for all the collateral damage Bond usually ignores in the course of his missions. This time he can’t since (a) she’s got lady-bits, and (b) both wind up snooping around Egypt for leads on their country’s missing subs. Both run afoul of Jaws and team up to escape him – if not defeat him, since I don’t think that’s within the realm of “possible.” Baron Samadi must’ve refused to dig his grave too.
From the point she meets Bond at the Calver Club to the point she gasses him with a trick cigarette, Anya’s my new favorite Bond Girl. She’s exactly the kind of revenge-driven, single-issue female protagonist Richard Maibaum loves to write about (see also the First Bond Girl, Honey Rider) but she’s at least as good at this as Bond…until they start working together. Then Tiffany Case Syndrome rears its ugly head once again. Time for Anya to get kidnapped by the Villain so she can be In Distress during the Climactic Battle (and Bond can rush to her rescue on a collapsible jet ski). Time for her to sleep with Bond before she learns of his complicity in Sergi’s death. Time for her to get floored by a single blow from Jaws that somehow manages to not leave a bruise. Maybe she makes up for lack of brute strength with a mutant healing factor. Maybe superpspies just get that at the Company clinic, mixed in with their tetanus booster and vaccinations against all the tropical/sexually transmitted diseases Bond never seems to contract, no matter where he goes or whom he does.
Eventually, Amasova figures Bond killed her last friend-with-benefits and swears to kill him once the mission’s complete. But the tension of this scene’s effectively sabotaged by the presence of nine other Bond films, at least two of which hinge on Bond converting women to his cause with the Schlong of Power. Spoiler Alert: formula dictates Bond wind up on a boat, necking with someone, and since Amasova’s the only girl in the film with a good speaking part, her Quest for Revenge is hobbled out of the gate. If this story had half the balls it pretends to have, she and Bond really would’ve killed each other at the end. I’d argue that they should have.
Instead, both set aside their differences to stop the first of several Not-Blofelds: the billionaire shipping magnate and marine life enthusiast Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens). I always wondered what the hell happened to Blofeld after Diamonds Are Forever, and why Bond’s supposed arch rival disappeared from the ass-end of the series in an unceremonious escape pod explosion. Turns out I have our old friend, Kevin McClory, co-conceiver of Thunderball, to thank for that. Blofeld actually was meant to be the Big Bad in this script. Then McClory slapped Bond’s production company with an injunction, basically reading “No Blofeld for you! And no SPECTRE, either!”
Which is fine, really. Despite sharing some aesthetic trappings with his SPECTRE forebears, Stromberg doesn’t give a good goddamn about counterintelligence, terrorism, revenge or extortion. My favorite scene comes after he Monologues his plan at Bond and Amasova (in front of the giant golden globe that would’ve given old Auric the vapors). Bond asks how much Stromberg wants to not start World War III and Jürgens gives him a look of bemused disdain I always laugh at, even today. He looks like a man proffering sympathy to the mentally ill.
Stromberg: You’re deluded Mr. Bond. I’m not interested in extortion. I intend to change the face of history!
Anya: By destroying the world?
Stromberg: By creating a world! A new a beautiful world beneath the sea. Major, it’s better down where it’s wetter. Take it from me! You’re a woman, you know what I’m talking about. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say-no-more.
For all their efforts, SPECTRE was as much an agent of the status quo as any other international criminal conspiracy. At least Stromberg wants to remake the world in his own image, irrespective of monetary or technological gain. He already has the cash to buy the diamonds to build the orbiting laser platform – hell, he already built the world’s largest oil tanker – he just don’t give a fuck. And neither did Jurgens, so his bored performance actually fits rather well.
But we know how this dance goes by now. Supervillain threatens world with nukes, Bond stops them, the end. In Major Amasova, this movie gave itself the perfect excuse to break with formula completely. What if Bond freed the prisoners before Stromberg could escape the supertanker (with Amasova in tow)? What if Anya killed Stromberg while Bond and the crews of those stolen subs mowed through his army of identically-dressed henchmen? What if the climax of this film came down to a battle between Agents Double-Oh Seven and Triple-X, with her doing all she can to put him down while Strombeg’s floating fortress explodes all around them? Some good, ol’ fashioned, cat-and-mouse spy games – like a good version of Man with the Golden Gun, without the funhouse, or the Dracula, or the Hervé Villechaize. The closest thing to another superspy Bond’s faced so far was From Russia with Love‘s Red Grant and Major Amasova’s easily the intellectual equal of our Once and Future Quint. What if she’d proved to be as physically capable, in her own, skinny way? You don’t get to be a Major in the Red Army without some serious fighting prowess. Or would the sight of Bond outright killing a woman (instead of just using one for a human shield, as he did in Thunderball) be too much for his audience’s delicate sensibilities?
Don’t answer that. I already know. Bond is The Designated Hero and I’m supposed to root for him against all odds. Because it falls back on the “start WWIII” plot and ignores even the possibility that Bond might be in the wrong (or, indeed, that any moral grays exist in his universe…even as it characterize them), The Spy Who Loved Me becomes less than the grand slam home run it easily could’ve been. But don’t get me wrong: it’s still a good movie, and the best Third Bond adventure to-date. I’d agree with Cubby Brocoli that it’s right up there with From Russia with Love…though he and I’d part company when it comes to putting this on par with Goldfinger. It’s close. No cigar…but it’s a hell of a lot closer than what we and Bond would see next time.