Light Bondage: “The Spy Who Loved Me”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Let’s be clear right up front: I give Roger Moore a lot of crap, but this movie is actually pretty great. I say that because this is the one main series Bond movie I’m writing woefully out of order, due to a Netflix queue management mix up. I thought I was done with Roger Moore, and good riddance, ready to move from Dalton to Brosnan when this showed up in my queue as coming next. I was beside myself with disappointment, dreading having to suffer through another awful, dumb Bond from the Dark Times.

The Spy Who Loved Me begins with a British and a Russian nuclear submarine both going missing. Both countries governments panic, unsure quite how they were detected. This new, stealth-defeating technology finds its way on the black market, and Bond and Russian spy Anya Amasova (codename Triple X, played by Barbara Bach)  are sent by their respective governments to go and not only get the technology, but also to figure out what happened to the missing submarines. Of course, they quickly run afoul of each other, with the added complication that Anya’s lover was murdered by Bond during the pre-title action sequence.

What makes The Spy Who Loved Me work is the same sort of stuff that made From Russia With Love work so well: a focus on the low-key spy work of intrigue and feints and ambiguous motivations, jetsetting around the world to interesting and exotic locations, and an emphasis on the relationship between Bond and Anya. It’s not the flashiest Bond movie–a relief given the Moore period’s restless aspirations towards cartoon nonsense–and it’s certainly not the most nuanced. But given this series’ problems even constructing coherent narratives you care about, simple is fine so long as it works. And for the most part, The Spy Who Loved Me works quite well.

Bond versus recurring strong-man Jaws. Fan favorite or not, Jaws sucks. Sorry, it needs to be said.

Bond and Anya begin by dancing around one another, obviously knowing who the other is as two of the major spies on either side of the cold war. They play their game of cat and mouse trying to get the microfilm being put up for sale. Little do they know that the major villain of the movie, a rich crazy guy named Karl Stromberg (more on him later) didn’t want that information leaked, and sent metal-mouthed giant Jaws to murder everyone involved with it. So Bond and Anya end up forming an uneasy alliance to get the film from Jaws, who stalks them around Egyptian ruins in Cairo like something out of Lon Chaney horror film. There’s a particularly good scene where Bond comes across a tomb at night, lit in strange greens due to a show being put on nearby for the tourists, the announcer narrating a tale of mystery and death surrounding the structures over Bond fighting for his life.

Eventually they manage to outwit (and false kill, the guy ‘dies’ half a dozen times and keeps on surviving, an early precursor to the slasher villain archetype. Probably why he shows up again Moonraker, but we’ll save that for when it comes up. Either way, Bond discovers that the film is missing the key component of the technology only to have Anya knock him out and steal the film before he can tell her. Heading back to headquarters, he discovers Anya and the head of the KGB waiting for him, and thus begins a joint Russian/British operation to figure out who is stealing submarines and why.

Which brings us to the villain, which is probably the weakest part. He’s your typical super-rich madman, who wants to steal the submarines to make both countries attack each other and create nuclear war. I’m pretty sure this is the oldest plot in all spy fiction, showing up multiple times in Bond movies and hell, it’s basically also the motivation in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. The problem is, the reason he wants to do this is because he’s going to take the remnants of humanity to live in an underwater city using his giant water fortress sub. Part Rapture, part Legion of Doom, it’s full on stupid. I mean, that’s part for the course for these movies, I suppose, but it stands out in what is otherwise a fairly reasonable movie.

Villains getting really derivative in lair design.

Of other special note in this movie, before we break down the categories, is one of the most amazing car chase/chopper sequences in all of these Bond movies, as Bond and Anya race off in a car only to be chased by a car, a truck, and then a helicopter. It’s done almost all practically, and the way the helicopter rises up out of nowhere and races alongside the car as it drives down a cliff-side road is genuinely amazing. There’s an elegance to good aerial photography, and the stunts are grounded enough to feel utterly real and fully dangerous.

The Spy Who Loved Me isn’t exactly groundbreaking, and it’s probably not anybody’s favorite movie, but it’s a solid movie. And that’s saying a lot, considering how much I so automatically dislike Moore and this period of film. But hell, I’m glad to be wrong, because I enjoyed watching this one, and I’m happy it came at the end of the Moore viewing to send him off on a good note.

This gadget wins the award for useful function expressed in the dumbest way. LRN 2 TXT, BOND

The Theme Song/Opening Title:
“Nobody Does It Better” sung by Carly Simon. A bit of trivia, this is the first of what will become a trend of songs with different titles than the movie title. It’s also one of the ballads, which I usually hate but in this instance I think is fairly inoffensive. Unfortunately, the title sequence that goes along with it is relentlessly dull. Win some, lose some.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
The real winner here is Bond’s new car, a Lotus Esprit that Q drops off halfway through the movie. Not only is it a cool car, but it has an oil slick, and the capacity to turn into a goddamn submarine. Bond drives it straight into the ocean, shooting missiles and dropping mines, and drives it right back out. It’s certainly one of the most extravagant vehicles, but it manages to sell it by being cool.

Everything else in this movie aside, this car is awesome.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
Since I’ve talked so long about Barbara Bach and how great she is as Agent Triple X, I’m going to skip this one. This is maybe one of the only Bond movies where she gets as much and as good screen time as Bond does, even if in the last half hour Bond has to go rescue her from the bad guy. That sucks, but otherwise she’s pretty awesome.

Best Bondickery:
Bond is chasing after one of the goons to try to get information, over the rooftops of Cairo. It’s actually a fairly neat fight scene, not for the choreography but because Cairo is just a visually interesting place, weaving across rooftop lattices. At the end Bond gets him at a dead end, the guy standing on the edge of a roof. The bad guy grabs Bond’s tie in order to maintain his precarious position, and Bond finally is able to get the information out of him. Once he’s spilled his guts, Bond swats his hand away, the bad guy plunging to his death as Bond calmly walks away. Throwing men off buildings: no big thang.

JAMES BOND will return in MOONRAKER

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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