Surprisingly, it took Franchise Fred a long time before he delved into the James Bond franchise. Not even my first theatrical Bond in 1995’s Goldeneye made me go back through the whole series. It wasn’t until Tomorrow Never Dies (20 years ago this December) that I finally did it, and The Spy Who Loved Me was my favorite. It embodies everything the James Bond movies could be, at least until Daniel Craig showed how much more they can be with my current favorite Casino Royale.
I was aware of James Bond growing up and had tried to get into them with For Your Eyes Only or Licence to Kill when those were the latest. Perhaps I needed to be in my 20s to appreciate all the elements in between the action scenes. Once I did, The Spy Who Loved Me was the one I most wished I could have seen in a theater, although since I was born in November 1977, I technically was in a theater showing it when my parents went to see it. I finally got to see it on the big screen this year for the Roger Moore memorial screening. My greatest cinema regret remains that I never saw A View to a Kill at the Annapolis Mall in 1985. Instead, I saw The Goonies for the second or third time.
The Spy Who Loved Me had me at hello with the famous pre-title sequence culminating in the ski jump off the mountain. I have no problem with the mix of real stunts and Roger Moore inserts on a blue screen. In fact, that’s my preference. Let me see awesome skiers perform that sequence, and cut in Moore’s quips and reactions. It does not break the suspension of disbelief. The new way of CGIing an actor’s face on a stuntman breaks the illusion more because I still know the actor isn’t really doing it.
The Bond Girl of Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) is the perfect blend of ’70s feminist rising and Bond kitsch. I mean, look at her code name. There’s great one-upmanship between her and Bond, as she gets the better of him several times, and the tension between them is real. Bond killed her boyfriend in the ski sequence. Once the mission is over, she wants revenge. I think it resolves satisfyingly, considering how sorry are we really expected to feel for an evil Russian agent?
The gadgets are top of the line, with Bond’s ski pole gun, portable microfiche and a loaded car that can go underwater and become a submarine. Underwater has been a tradition of Bond movies since Thunderball, as skiing has since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and train fights since From Russia With Love. There’s one of those too.
The villain, Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), has an underwater lair. He’s not just holding the world hostage with a stolen nuke. He wants to set the nuke off and start his master race under the sea. The exact same plot would be recycled in the following film, Moonraker, only Drax (Michael Lonsdale) was starting a master race in space and planning to blast the Earth from orbit. It all Harkens back to Blofeld’s volcano lair in You Only Live Twice and it becomes fun to see how different Bond villains think THEIR plan is going to work, because this time it’s in space, as if the only mistake was trying to do it underwater.
An actor’s third Bond film tends to be where they emerge as their most comfortable version of the character. See Goldfinger and Skyfall. I can’t say for sure The World is Not Enough is Brosnan’s most comfortable but three Bonds is enough to call it a pattern. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Moore is both lighthearted and tough (he drops a henchman off a roof with no remorse). He shuts down a question about his late wife Tracy (Diana Rigg) so you can see the events of a previous actor’s film still weigh on him. I think you can believe he wins XXX over.
Jaws (Richard Kiel) is the only henchman to appear in more than one film. I’m sure they had plans for more, but he is a magnificent oaf. He’s deadly enough but so lumbering he often sabotages his own attacks. The scene where he tears apart a van with his bare hands is amazing.
And I loved the music. I had heard Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” before but had no idea it was a 007 song. It makes total sense. It’s the perfect smooth ballad for dancing silhouette girls and it is an ode to James Bond’s legend. Perhaps the versions of the song I’d heard omitted the line “Like heaven above me, the spy who loved me is keeping all my secrets safe tonight.” That would’ve given it away.
Even better was the ‘70s disco infused score by Marvin Hamlisch. I’m sure it made The Spy Who Loved Me very modern, but by the time I saw it, the score made it uniquely psychedelic (sort of the way Goldeneye’s techno makes it one of a kind, for better or worse. In Spy it’s for better.)
It was The Spy Who Loved Me that made Franchise Fred approve the James Bond series. Once I knew how great the action could be and how cool the romance and spycraft could be, I could even appreciate the silliest entries like Moonraker, A View to a Kill and Diamonds Are Forever.
That was one epic year of watching all 16 pre-Brosnan Bond movies. I also bought the soundtrack of then 30 years of Bond music. I’ve since gone deeper and gotten individual movie soundtracks with end title or mid-movie music too.
James Bond remains my favorite movie franchise. It has adjusted for various cinematic eras, remained consistent in quality yet periodically found new angles on the subject. Now that there are more than 20, even the bad ones are interesting failed experiments (cough Die Another Day cough). The Spy Who Loved Me is a good entry point to see a time when the resources for stunts achieved some of the most thrilling footage ever caught on film before it went overboard or got too gritty and serious.