Now that is what I call a Bond movie.
After the boring awfulness of Live and Let Die and the mostly-mediocre The Man with the Golden Gun, Roger Moore hit a home run with his third Bond film, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. TSWLM is classic Bond. Everything people associate with Bond movies is here: beautiful women, exotic locations, cool gadgets and vehicles, a villain with a diabolical plot for world domination…you name it, this one’s got it.
The movie is an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name in name only. The Spy Who Loved Me is unique among Fleming’s novels in that it is the only one written from a first-person perspective. And you would think that would be from Bond’s perspective, but it’s not. It’s from the perspective of a young woman named Vivienne Michel, and Bond doesn’t appear in the book until it’s about two-thirds over. It’s not generally regarded as one of Fleming’s best books but for whatever reason it’s one of my personal favorites and one I find myself coming back to most often.
Fleming was never entirely happy with the book and when he sold the film rights to his work he only gave the producers permission to use the title of The Spy Who Loved Me, and none of the book’s plot. It’s still a catchy title but it doesn’t have the same literal meaning as it does in Fleming’s novel. The film uses Fleming’s title but the plot is a creation of the filmmakers. This is not, as we shall see, a bad thing.
But let’s get to the movie. Its opening sequence is a classic. It begins with something mysterious happening to a British submarine. When M, Bond’s boss, is informed that a nuclear submarine has gone missing, he immediately puts Bond on the case. Meanwhile, in Moscow, M’s opposite number General Gogol is informed that a Russian nuclear submarine has also gone missing. He promises to put his best agent, codenamed Agent Triple X, on the case.
As it turns out, both agents are rather preoccupied when they receive their instructions from headquarters. Bond, of course, is shacking up with a beautiful young lady in a cabin in the mountains. When he receives M’s summons, he puts on his hideous bright-yellow ski suit and prepares to leave.
“But James, I need you!” his paramour protests.
“So does England,” James replies stoically, and departs.
Meanwhile, Bond’s Russian counterpart, Agent Triple X, is also in bed with a lover. There’s a clever bit of misdirection here when the viewer thinks that Agent Triple X is the male half of the canoodling couple, but it turns out that Agent Triple X is in fact a woman, and a badass woman at that. This is Major Anya Amasova, played by Barbara Bach, and she is one of the best Bond Girls. Her lover is also a Russian agent, and leaves on a mission of his own.
It turns out that his mission is to kill Bond, because shortly after Bond leaves his mountainside hideaway, he is beset by several armed skiers who pursue him down the mountain. Bond kills one of them with a weaponized ski pole (provided by Q Branch, no doubt) and the camera zooms in to reveal that Bond has unknowingly killed Agent Triple X’s lover. This will be problematic later. It’s a fun chase scene (despite Bond’s hideous Ronald McDonald-colored snowsuit) that ends with an iconic stunt, where Bond ski jumps off a mountain and opens his parachute, which is emblazoned with the Union Jack. The patriotic parachute segues into the opening credits, accompanied by the song “Nobody Does It Better,” performed by Carly Simon.
It’s a fantastic opening: it’s fun and exciting, it establishes the plot, and it sets up things that will be important later. The ski jump is also very impressive, considering that an actual stuntman named Rick Sylvester risked life and limb by jumping off a dang mountain, an action that most human beings would never dream of attempting. Sylvester was paid $30,000 for the stunt, and it was money well-spent.
Bond and Anya are instructed by their respective bosses to go to Egypt to retrieve microfilm plans for a highly advanced submarine tracking system. They inevitably encounter one another and sparks fly in more ways than one. The relationship between Bond and Anya is one of my favorite things about the movie. Anya is as much of a badass as Bond his, and when he pitches her grief, she pitches it right back. This is in stark contrast to female characters in previous Moore Bond movies, who were pretty one-note. There is also the looming question of what will happen once Anya inevitably discovers that Bond killed her boyfriend, which provides tension to the relationship.
Anya one-ups Bond and delivers the microfilm to her boss, and Bond discovers that the British and the Russians have temporarily decided to set aside their differences and join forces, since they have determined that neither is responsible for the missing submarines and they therefore share a common enemy. “We have entered a new era of Anglo-Soviet cooperation,” General Gogol says. Inspecting the microfilm leads Bond and Anya to a man named Karl Stromberg.
Stromberg is the film’s primary villain, and he has a whopper of an evil plan. He built a massive oil tanker in order to capture and house nuclear submarines. He then plans to use these submarines to launch missiles which will destroy New York City and Moscow, thus triggering nuclear war which Stromberg will survive in his evil lair, called (rather uncreatively) Atlantis, and subsequently establish a new civilization underwater.
Heck yes! All of that is thoroughly ludicrous, and I love it. Classic Bond villain stuff.
All of this is complicated once Bond and Anya start to, you know, hook up, and Anya discovers that Bond killed her boyfriend. She declares that she will kill Bond after they complete their mission. Bond defends himself by saying “When someone’s behind you on skis at 40 miles per hour trying to put a bullet in your back, you don’t always have time to remember a face. In our business, Anya, people get killed. We both know that. So did he. It was either him or me. The answer to the question is yes. I did kill him.”
That’s…actually pretty good writing. The Spy Who Loved Me does not repeat the mistakes made by Moore’s previous films, in that it doesn’t feel the need to undercut everything with crappy attempts at humor. The film’s plot may be far-fetched, but the relationship between Bond and Anya is complex and given room to develop. When Stromberg captures Anya later in the movie, Bond risks his life to rescue her even though he knows she might kill him for having killed her boyfriend.
But lest you think the film skimps when it comes to delivering the action set-pieces Bond films are known for, think again. The Spy Who Loved Me is full of slam-bang action sequences, some of the best of the Roger Moore era. Who can forget the moment Bond drives his car off a dock into the water to escape a pursuing helicopter, only for his car to transform into a submarine and shoot the helicopter with a missile? That’s awesome stuff. Bond’s submarine car is subsequently attacked by divers and mini-submarines, which Anya helps destroy by dropping mines. When Bond asks her how she knew how to do that, she informs him that she stole the blueprints for the car two years ago, which is a nice reminder of how badass she is.
This movie also has one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history. No, I’m not talking about Stromberg. I’m talking about JAWS, played by the late Richard Kiel.
Standing at more than seven feet tall and sporting a mouth full of deadly metal teeth, Jaws is a fearsome adversary. It’s telling that when he and Bond fight on a train, Bond actually looks kind of scared. 2015’s Spectre would later pay homage to this film’s train fight by having Bond engage in a massive brawl with a hefty henchman played by Dave “Drax the Destroyer” Bautista.
Jaws is also the source of the movie’s funniest running joke, in which something happens to him that would kill any normal man (part of a building falls on him, he gets thrown out of a train, he’s in a car that goes off a cliff), only for him to emerge from the wreckage unscathed, dust himself off, straighten his tie, and continue on his way. Jaws proved so popular that he returned for the next Bond movie, 1979’s Moonraker. Jaws kicks ass, and is one of the most instantly-recognizable cinematic villains of all time.
The Spy Who Loved Me is one of my favorite Bond films. It strikes the perfect balance between campy and serious. Its plot is over-the-top and ridiculous but it’s treated with gravity and it feels like there is a tangible threat that needs to be stopped. The central relationship between Bond and Anya is complex and intriguing. The humor actually works and the film doesn’t feel the need to undercut every cool thing that happens with a silly sound effect.
As a Bond nerd, there are also quite a few things that happen in this movie that rarely happen in Bond movies. Bond wears his full dress uniform. The British and the Russians work together. M is addressed by his first name (Miles). Q, the long-suffering gadget master, is called Major Boothroyd. M calls Bond by his first name. And there is even a mention of Bond’s late wife. These are all rare occurrences in Bond movies, and the fact that they’re all in this one movie is nothing short of remarkable.
It’s not perfect, of course. Barbara Bach as Anya is beautiful and badass, but her line readings are a bit flat. Main villain Stromberg is overshadowed by his henchman, Jaws. And the pacing can be a bit sluggish at times. But overall, the pros far outweigh the cons, and I think this is Roger Moore’s best Bond movie. If you haven’t seen it or if it’s been a while, skip Moore’s first two Bond movies and watch this one instead.
At the end of the movie, the end credits inform the viewer that “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only.” But this turned out not to be the case, since there was a little movie that also came out in 1977 that changed everything. It was a movie you might have heard of called Star Wars, and it led to the Bond producers sending Bond to space in Moonraker, one of the Bond series’ most outlandish entries. We’ll take a look at that one next time.