The Spy Who Loved Me is notable in the Bond series as Cubby Broccoli’s first outing as the sole producer. His long-time business partner, Harry Saltzman, had sold his shares in Danjaq (EON’s holding company) to United Artists, soon after The Man with the Golden Gun. This would have the knock-on effect that decision-making around Bond films became far more complicated, as UA was now a partner, not just a distributor. Down the line, when United Artists would fold into MGM, this would get even more fraught, as MGM would hit financial issues, and cease to be a distributor in its own right. In the modern era, decision making is now the joint purview of EON, MGM, and the distributor (for the 25th Bond film this is Annapurna in the US, and Universal in all other territories). With the series hitting double figures – the 1977 entry being the tenth James Bond film – and the previous outing having been both an anaemic performer at the worldwide box office, and a critical flop, it is fair to say that the pressure on this film was the greatest in recent series history.
A second reason The Spy Who Loved Me is notable is that it was the first Bond film to be released after the ten-year deal with Kevin McClory had expired (see the look back at Thunderball for more on this). This meant McClory could now look to mount his own James Bond film, or even a rival Bond series, though the breadth of what he could adapt was unclear. Legal consensus in the years that followed was that he could keep adapting the book Thunderball until his heart was content, but his overall rights regarding James Bond were somewhat more vague (and something we shall discuss in later entries). The most immediate effect on Roger Moore’s third outing – and overall tenure as Bond – however, was that with the ownership of the Ernst Stavro Blofeld character being now in dispute (having been created for what became Thunderball) plans to include SPECTRE and Blofeld in the film were scrapped, with neither appearing explicitly until the 2015 Daniel Craig entry, Spectre. As a consequence, Roger Moore would never appear against Blofeld where the latter is a named, lead villain.
Other changes were seen with You Only Live Twice‘s Lewis Gilbert returning to replace Guy Hamilton as director. Joining series stalwart Richard Maibaum on writing duties was the novelist Christopher Wood. These changes ensured a return to the flamboyant tone of Gilbert’s first effort, along with, it can be argued, a general improvement in the quality of the dialogue. Comedy lines were unashamed and tailor-made for Moore’s confident delivery. Supported by a budget that had been doubled – long past the time an increase had been needed – to $14 million, The Spy Who Loved Me was ready to take advantage of national pride in Silver Jubilee year, and deliver a series high.
In a plot very reminiscent of You Only Live Twice – where US and Soviet spacecraft were hijacked – The Spy Who Loved Me deals with the disappearance of British and Soviet nuclear submarines. James Bond (Roger Moore) is summoned to investigate, but before he can get there, he is attacked, in Austria, by a group of Soviet agents. In escaping this, Bond kills one of the agents – who will later prove to have been the lover of Soviet agent XXX, Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach). Clues point to Egypt, as a submarine tracking system has become available there. With the British and Soviet Governments working together, Bond and Amasova work together to identify shipping magnate Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens) as the person responsible for the thefts.
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In a story crossing Austria, London, Egypt, and Sardinia, James and Anya need to put aside their differences – as Anya promises to kill Bond in revenge at the end of the mission – and evade metal-toothed, super-strong henchman, Jaws (played in the first of two appearances by Richard Kiel). Learning that Stromberg’s plan is to destroy Moscow, and New York, thus causing a nuclear war, which he will survive in his underwater lair named Atlantis, the two agents have to prevent catastrophe and prevent the evil plot to repopulate a devastated earth with a new, underwater civilisation.
It is notable when summarising the plot of this film, that it is far from the strongest aspect of The Spy Who Loved Me. The villain is weak, with a plan that is poorly explained or justified to viewers: a similar story in the next film, Moonraker, is dealt with better – whatever the relative merits of the two films – and delivered by a far stronger villain. It feels like much of the heavy lifting hasn’t been done, probably because this was intended to be Blofeld. With audiences being familiar with the Head of SPECTRE, and that organisation’s general propensity to chaos and extortion, there would have been no need to have the new civilisation angle. In the event, it feels rushed and ill-thought through.
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It is also fair to say that, for all its positive reputation, and the fact that it is a film beloved by millions, The Spy Who Loved Me is one of the more tonally confused films in the series. It is remembered for the big pre-title stunt, as Bond skis off the end of a cliff, seeming to be falling to his death, before deploying a Union Flag parachute at the last minute (do spies tend to have the flag of their country on their mission paraphernalia?). It is rightly remembered for some really funny and suggestive lines (“tell him to pull out, immediately!”, “But James, I need you”, “So does England!”), and it’s known for the underwater car / submarine and the iconic Jaws. All of these fair and accurate; but it also flips from serious to silly so often as to be somewhat jarring. Jaws is a formidable and scary presence – until he drops a breeze block on his foot, completely shattering the illusion. The story is full of action and humour, until a final act that is overlong and glum to the point of being boring. The Spy Who Loved Me is a surprisingly schizophrenic viewing experience. As we shall see next time, even the much-maligned Moonraker is a more cohesive product.
It is, however, one of the Bond films. Roger Moore named it as his favourite of the films in which he starred. Future Bond director John Glen has referred to it on occasion as the best in the series, and it will always be the film with which this incarnation of Bond is most associated. Roger Moore probably had a couple of films left before he really started to look a little too old – though he will be slimmer and neater in his next entry. More than that though, this film is important both to the series and to Roger Moore: to the series, as it vindicated the increased budget, and Cubby’s solo tenure; to Moore, because it was the first film to feel like it had truly been written for him. The cruelty and misogyny of the late-era Connery impression he was encouraged to essay in his first two films have been replaced with a charming, confident, in-on-the-joke take that is associated with his version of Bond. His relationship with Anya, whilst still playing heavily on his sex drive, is more equal in footing, and marked by a kindness in tone – despite the plot pitching them as enemies – that wasn’t there with his previous female leads.
The Spy Who Loved Me took over $185 million at the worldwide box office; an $88 million improvement over The Man with the Golden Gun. As importantly, the film was well-received by both audiences and critics. Contrary to the Blaxploitation homages and Kung Fu sequences of the early-70s’ efforts, this film had walked its own path, confidently. A more bullish version of EON would have taken the lesson from this that Bond was its own thing, and did not need to look to box office perfomance elsewhere, or to copy trends. The new combination of EON and United Artists didn’t do this, however: rather they saw the success of Star Wars, and figured it was time to put James Bond in space! The series was about to bump up against the very limits of its ambition and of how far the James Bond character could be stretched.
The Road to Bond 25 will return with Moonraker (1979).